Aesop’s fables are generally considered to be children’s stories these days. Yet this is a quite modern phenomenon. For most of the past three thousand years, Aesop’s fables were not considered to be children’s literature, but were instead regarded as wisdom literature. In this article, I will present an example of the use of Aesop’s fables in the wisdom literature of Islam, specifically in the great thirteenth-century Persian poet, Rumi, one of the greatest exponents of Sufi thought in the Muslim tradition.
By the time Rumi was composing his massive poem, the Mathnawi, Aesop’s fables had already been circulating throughout the Mediterranean world for two thousand years. The fables were not seen as distinctively Greek, but had been adopted wholeheartedly by Arabic and Persian storytellers, such as Rumi. Like other Sufi teachers, Rumi made use of these secular stories side by side with religious parables and legends in order to reveal esoteric doctrines to his followers.
To give you an example of how Rumi appropriates an Aesop’s fable for mystical religious teaching, let us take Rumi’s version of the famous fable of the “lion’s share.” First, let’s start with a traditional Greek version of the fable, which features a lion who goes hunting with a donkey and a fox:
A lion and a donkey and a fox joined as partners, promising to go hunting together. They made a big catch, and the lion ordered the donkey to divide it among them. Making three equal portions, the donkey asked him to choose, but the lion was infuriated, feasted upon the donkey and then ordered the fox to make the division. The fox put everything into one pile, leaving just a tiny bit for herself, and told the lion to choose. When the lion asked her how she learned to apportion things in this way, the fox replied: “From the donkey’s misfortune.” (Chambry #209)
This Greek story is a typical Aesop’s fable: witty, vicious, and wise. It certainly does not seem to contain profound revelations about the right relations of God and man, but this is precisely what Rumi discovers in the story. As soon as Rumi identifies the lion not with secular authority but with absolute divine authority, the way to a mystical understanding of the fable becomes clear.
Here is how Rumi begins his version: “Melt away your existence, as copper in the elixir, in the being of Him who fosters existence. You have fastened both your hands tight on ‘I’ and ‘we’: all this ruin is caused by dualism.” In the Aesopic tradition, you often find a moralizing preface to the telling of a fable, so it is not unusual to find a moral stated at the beginning of a fable like this. What is unusual is the profoundly religious theme that Rumi wants to illustrate with this fable: somehow the story of the lion and his hunting companions is going to turn into a lesson about the annihilation of dualism and unity with God.
Just as in Aesop, the three animals — in Rumi’s version, a lion, a wolf, and a fox — go hunting together, and when it is time to divide the spoils, the wolf and the fox foolishly expect that the lion will share with them, not realizing just whom they are dealing with. There they are, in the presence of God, and they do not even recognize him. The lion, in fact, finds it a bit embarrassing to consort with these limited beings: “A moon like this is disgraced by the stars: it is amongst the stars for generosity’s sake,” as Rumi explains. “The spirit has now become the body’s fellow-traveller.” For Rumi, the animals’ hunting expedition is a metaphor for the human condition itself, in which the spirit (the lion) is shackled to the body, trapped in this corporeal partnership.
The lion then orders the wolf to divide the spoils. The wolf divides the spoils into three parts, one for each of the partners in the hunt. Outraged, the lion tears off the wolf’s head, just as the lion tore the donkey to pieces in the Aesop’s fable. Yet, unlike the lion in Aesop who simply munches on the donkey in silence, the lion offers an explanation of his actions: “Since the sight of me did not transport thee out of thyself, a spirit like this must needs die miserably.” To die thus at the claws of the lion is actually a blessing for the wolf: “Since thou wert not passing away from thyself in my presence, ’twas an act of grace to behead thee.”
Then, just as in the Aesop’s fable, the lion turns to the fox and orders him to divide up the spoil. The fox does not save even a morsel for himself in this version of the story; he gives everything to the lion. Again as in Aesop, the lion asks the fox where he learned to divide the spoils in this way, and the fox replies: “O king of the world, I learned it from the fate of the wolf.”
But this is not the end of the story. In Rumi’s version, the lion then gives the whole of the spoils to the fox, and speaks these words of blessing: “Inasmuch as thou hast become pledge to love of me, pick up all of it and take it and depart. O fox, since thou hast become entirely mine, how should I hurt thee when thou hast become myself?” The fox then thanks the lion for giving him the privilege of having gone second, after the wolf; otherwise, he would surely have met the same fate as the wolf. This allows Rumi to conclude that we are lucky to be living now, with the examples of past generations to guide us: “So that we have heard of the chastisements which God inflicted upon the past generations in the preceding time, that we, like the fox may keep better watch over ourselves from considering the fate of those ancient wolves.”
Rumi has thus taken a traditional Aesop’s fable and turned it into a meditation on oneness with God and obedience to divine authority. This approach exemplifies what Randy has called the “religious theme” in myths and legends about the confrontation between the human and the divine. Rumi’s fox worships at the feet of the lion, addressing him with the words “O king of the world,” and is duly rewarded for this devotion. In Aesop, on the other hand, there is a much more strongly humanistic theme: after seeing what happened to the would-be rebel who defied the lion, the fox concedes the lion’s share, but the words she speaks are not words of worship. Instead, the fox uses her wit to provide a sly critique of the lion, even if she cannot challenge his authority directly. If you were to use just one word to characterize the attitude of Aesop’s fox, it would have to be “cynical.” In my next article, I’ll consider the archetypal Cynic philosopher, Diogenes of Sinope, and the famous legend of “Diogenes and his lamp.” This, too, is a story that shows up both in Aesop’s fables and in the mystical poetry of Rumi, providing us with another opportunity to consider the shifting fortunes of the religious and humanistic themes in the Greek and Muslim traditions.
- Chambry, Emile (editor). Fables / Esope. 1926. (The full Greek text of this fable is available online, along with an English version, at Aesopica.net.)
- Nicholson, Reynold A. (editor and translator). The Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi. 1926 (reprinted 1990); The Mathnawi of Jalaluddin Rumi: Commentary. 1937 (reprinted 1985). The fable of the lion is found in Book I, beginning at line 3009.