In my first article in this series, titled God and Man: Two Western Themes, I introduced two contrary themes that describe the ends of a spectrum concerning man’s response to the divine found in a variety of Western myths:
- “Religious”: Man must submit to God as the absolute authority. God is good, and His actions are beyond human scrutiny.
- “Humanistic”: Man should judge whether God’s actions are good or wicked. If man determines that God is wicked, he should rebel against him.
I have previously looked at two myths involving characters disobeying divine commands: Satan in Paradise Lost and Iblis in the Qur’an. For each of these stories, we have seen two main lines of interpretation — one approving the disobedient character’s actions and one disapproving them — and explored how these interpretations reflect those two themes. I will now conclude this series by looking at another such story of disobedience, the Aesopic fable of Zeus and the turtle.
This fable exists in many different versions spanning hundreds of years, but the basic plot in each is the same. Zeus invites the animals to his wedding. All the animals attend except the turtle, who either skips the wedding altogether or shows up incredibly late. When Zeus later asks the turtle why she did not attend, she replies with some proverbial expression similar to the English, “There’s no place like home.” Zeus gets angry at the turtle and makes her carry her home with her wherever she goes. This type of fable is called “aetiological” (from Greek aition, “cause”) because it explains the origin or cause of something — in this case, how the turtle got her shell.
Aesopic fables have not received the same volume of literary criticism or commentary as Paradise Lost and the Qur’an. To find interpretations of this fable, I will look at a variety of sources: the morals attached to different versions of the fable, an essay from the seventeenth century, and recent work in Aesopic scholarship.
The oldest written version of the fable exists in a collection most likely dating from the second or third century CE. The author of this collection interprets the fable in a single-sentence moral following the story:
The fable shows that people often prefer to live simply at home than to live lavishly at someone else’s house. (Gibbs 235)
In this interpretation, the turtle is not criticized for judging the divine command and then choosing to disobey it. The moral does not explicitly praise the turtle’s actions, but the lack of criticism reflects in part what I am calling the “humanistic theme.” The turtle confined to her shell could be seen as somewhat analogous to Prometheus unjustly chained to the rocky crags, whom I mentioned in the first article in this series.
This interpretation appears in the oldest written version of the fable, but Aesopic fables existed in oral form for at least five hundred years before this. The aetiological fables originally worked like folktales to explain the world, and morals were most likely attached to them at a later time (Rodríguez Adrados 162). The Latin grammarian Servius, writing near the end of the fourth century CE, tells a version of the fable without a moral. (This comes in his grammatical commentary on Virgil’s Aeneid , referring to line I.505 that contains a form of the word testudo, Latin for “turtle.”) In this version, the turtle begins as a nymph named Khelônê (Greek for “turtle”). She says nothing about the value of her own house but simply mocks the wedding from afar. When Mercury (Jupiter’s wedding coordinator in this version) discovers her absence, he punishes her by turning her into an animal and throwing her house on top of her.
An important difference between this fable and the stories of Satan and Iblis is the lack of a religious context. Zeus’s invitation is not exactly a command, it relates to a social function and not to any form of worship, and the turtle’s punishment does not seem to be a spiritual one. Many interpreters allegorize Aesopic fables with gods to place them in a more secular context. Ancient Greek society was governed by relationships of reciprocity, and some interpreters in antiquity would most likely have understood this fable as a criticism of the turtle for neglecting her social responsibilities (Zafiropoulos 105). Though it does not appear in any surviving ancient texts, this interpretation does appear in a version published in 1604 by Candidus Pantaleon. The turtle arrives at the wedding late, espousing her proverbial expression to Jupiter there. Pantaleon criticizes the turtle on three points in his moral:
 There are some who are accustomed to have practically preferred paltry things to the great splendors of palaces.  You should be afraid to provoke nobles by delaying. [ ]  You should be quick to placate your wrong actions with speech. (105)
Though these interpretations can hardly be said to reflect the religious theme in full — Zeus is not portrayed as transcendent good beyond all human scrutiny — they do reflect it in part. The turtle has an obligation to respect and obey Zeus; she is criticized for disobeying his command and for doing what she incorrectly thought was right.
Sir Roger L’Estrange collected and translated a large number of fables into English in 1692, attaching to each fable a short essay inspired by it. In the fable of Zeus and the turtle, he recognizes both interpretations:
We are to learn from hence (says the old Moral) that  there’s no trifling, dallying, or delaying with Men in Power: And that  Contentment in a mean Condition at Home, is beyond all the luxurious Treats in the World. (198)
L’Estrange prefers the second interpretation, and his essay proceeds to praise the turtle for his sensibility and common sense and to criticize the vanity, pomp, over-indulgence, and wickedness represented by Jupiter and his palace. L’Estrange’s interpretation reflects fully what I have been calling the “humanistic theme,” in which the disobedient character is praised for scrutinizing and disobeying the divine command. Ironically, however, L’Estrange concludes his essay by placing this interpretation in a religious context by introducing Providence over and above Jupiter:
What was the Punishment? [Jupiter] sent [the Tortoise] Home again. That is to say, [Jupiter] remanded [the Tortoise] to [ ] his [own] Choice. [ ] Providence turns the very Punishment of a good Man, into an Equivalence to a Reward, by improving that to his Advantage, which was intended for his Ruin. (199)
These two themes summarize well the range of insights found in Western myths concerning man’s relationship to the divine. These myths of disobedience against a divine command, along with their contrary interpretations, demonstrate the importance of these two themes in the Western tradition. Furthermore, these differing interpretations should caution us against presuming that individual myths have “meanings” in any absolute sense. Even stories like Paradise Lost that appear to be overtly religious can inspire in readers a secular or humanistic sentiment. We should not dismiss any of these interpretations as “incorrect” but should seek instead to understand the personal, cultural, and universal human factors that have led to these various interpretations.
- Gibbs, Laura. Aesop’s Fables. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
- Rodríguez Adrados, Francisco. A History of the Graeco-Latin Fable. Trans. Leslie A. Ray. New York: Brill, 1999.
- Maurus Servius Honoratus. Commentary on the Aeneid of Vergil. (Latin text available online.)
- Zafiropoulos, Christos A. Ethics in Aesop’s Fables: The Augustana Collection. New York: Brill, 2001.
- Candidus Pantaleon. Centum et Quinquaginta Fabulae. 1604. Unpublished translation by Laura Gibbs. (Latin text available online.)