Let it be: Herakles and Athena


In contemporary times, fables are widely regarded as humorous, moralizing tales told for the benefit of children. In ancient times, however, fables were told for the benefit of adults, and in written form, they appear in a variety of different ancient sources including collections of proverbs and wisdom literature; philosophical discourses; rhetorical arguments; speeches in Greek tragic plays; histories; comic plays; poetry; and even scientific treatises. Ancient fables did not always feature animal characters gifted with speech.

The earliest written examples of fables from Sumer are at least four and a half thousand years old. Before that time, fables would have been circulated and retold as part of an oral tradition. The earliest extant Greek fable appears in the writing of Hesiod (the fable of the Hawk and the Nightingale). Many centuries later, Socrates is said to have spent his last days in prison versifying and devising fables of his own; Aristotle recommended that fables be used as examples in rhetorical reasoning; and Aristophanes refers to the practice of ‘revising’ or ‘going over’ Aesop’s fables. For the Greeks, fables were an intellectual and moral resource and it was a mark of learning to know the fables and to be able to recall them and to adapt a fable to suit a particular occasion. Fable is undoubtedly one of the most enduring and adaptable of narrative forms. They are deceptively simple stories that have an abiding capacity to captivate, entertain and instruct.

In the following fable, Herakles, the quintessential strong man and hero, learns a valuable lesson from Athena, the goddess of wisdom:

Herakles was making his way through a narrow pass. Seeing something that looked like an apple lying on the ground, he tried to crush it with his club. When he saw it swell to twice its size, he stepped on it and hit it even harder with his club, but it puffed up to such a size that it blocked the road. Herakles dropped his club and stood there in astonishment. Athena appeared to him and said, “Stop, brother. This thing you see is called Contentiousness and Strife. If a person leaves it alone, it will stay as it is, but in quarrels, it gets bigger, as you can see.” (1)

Herakles’ astonishment in this fable is so delightful. Herakles is accustomed to achieving great deeds through his incredible strength and unwavering determination. He is the epitome of might, resilience and fortitude. In the face of Strife however, his brute force and persistence are an irritant, not an antidote. A different approach is required: passivity, acceptance and non-resistance. This is contrary to Herakles’ natural instincts and it is a message so appropriately delivered by the goddess Athena, in all her glory and wisdom.

On an international and political level, I can see many parallels between this fable and how best to manage rogue states. At the domestic level, this fable reminds me of a large Ironbark gum tree growing in our backyard that has proven to be quite a nuisance! The more we prune it, the bigger it grows. I think we might name the tree Strife, in honour of this fable. On a personal level, I can see the value of letting it be. Quarreling is never productive: quite the opposite.

(1) Adapted from Lloyd W. Daly, Aesop Without Morals, Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1961, p. 211.

(2) Image from Lloyd W. Daly, Aesop Without Morals (illustrated by Grace Muscarella) Thomas Yoseloff, New York, 1961, p. 211.

Once a weasel, always a weasel: Aesop.


Here’s the scene. I was sitting in the café at the National Library not long ago when I overheard the following conversation between two women, let’s call them Pam and Sarah:

Pam: So you love him, don’t you? I mean what’s the problem?

Sarah: Yeah, of course I love him. I just wish he, you know, maybe read books or something.

Pam: How do you mean?

Sarah: I just can’t talk to him about books, and you know, it would be nice sometimes to talk about books.

Pam: Doesn’t he have other interests? I thought he played the guitar or something.

Sarah: Yeah, I know, but it would be nice to be able to talk to each other about literature or ideas or something.

Pam: So what are you going to do?

Sarah: I dunno. I do love him – I just…

Pam: Maybe you could, you know, try talking about books and see what he says?

Sarah: He just wants to, you know, hang out all the time.

Pam: Yeah, which is ok, just not all the time, and that jumper – it has to go!

Sarah: I’m working on that!

The conversation brought to mind a fable from Aesop called Aphrodite and the Weasel”:

A weasel once fell in love with a handsome young man and the blessed goddess Aphrodite, the mother of desire, allowed the weasel to change her shape, so that she appeared to be a beautiful woman whom any man would be glad to take as his wife. As soon as the young man laid eyes on her, he also fell in love and wanted to marry her. While the wedding feast was in progress, a mouse ran by. The bride leaped up from her richly decorated couch and began to run after the mouse, thus bringing an end to the wedding. After having played his little joke, Eros took his leave: Nature had proved stronger than Love. (1)

(1) Aesop’s Fables (Translated by Laura Gibbs) 2002 available at http://www.mythfolklore.net/aesopica/oxford/350.htm

Aesop’s fable teaches us that we cannot change a person’s essential nature. Once a weasel, always a weasel. If this is the case, then the situation is looking pretty dire for Sarah’s relationship. Try as she might to make her man read books and ditch that jumper, he will still be the same man. And she will be the same woman. I didn’t think that Pam or Sarah would appreciate me interrupting their conversation and sharing the fable with them so I decided to put it in my blog instead! (But I do hope that Eros is not toying with Sarah and that things work out).

In the meantime, I’m going to listen to this wonderful version of the song “There’ll be some changes made” by Chet Atkins and Mark Knopfler. Maybe you have heard it? We used to listen to this song late at night driving back from a weekend at the coast. The lyrics are right on point:


Image of National Library: http://www.panoramio.com/photo/10410185


A Woman’s Take on War: Aristophanes’ Lysistrata

Image result for lysistrata cartoon images


Ancient sources on war and warfare are, in large part, written by and about men. But every now and then, we catch glimpses of a different perspective on war from the ancient world. Aristophanes was an outrageous comic playwright from the fifth century B.C. His play Lysistrata (411B.C.) desperately sought an end to the Second Peloponnesian War. At the time of the performance, the war was already in its twentieth year and was destined to lead to the downfall of the Athenian empire.

The heroine Lysistrata has a hilarious plan: the women will force their husbands to make peace by holding a sex strike. Lysistrata reasons that if the women of Athens and Sparta refuse to satisfy their husbands, the men will be so crippled by perpetual desire that they will have to agree to a truce. She also plans to get hold of the Athenian finances by taking over the Parthenon! Aristophanes was a male playwright but he was certainly capable of switching gender viewpoints: the script that he gives to the heroine Lysistrata is so funny, compelling and powerful in its perspective. I recommend reading the whole play (it’s not very long). Here is an excerpt of some of Lysistrata’s more serious commentary on the subject of war (1):

“All the long years when the hopeless war dragged along we, unassuming,
forgotten in quiet,
Endured without question, endured in our loneliness all your incessant
child’s antics and riot.
Our lips we kept tied, though aching with silence, though well all the
while in our silence we knew
How wretchedly everything still was progressing by listening dumbly the
day long to you.
For always at home you continued discussing the war and its politics
loudly, and we
Sometimes would ask you, our hearts deep with sorrowing though we spoke
lightly, though happy to see,
“What’s to be inscribed on the side of the Treaty-stone
What, dear, was said in the Assembly today?”
“Mind your own business,” he’d answer me growlingly
“hold your tongue, woman, or else go away.”
And so I would hold it.

Well, so I did nothing but sit in the house, feeling dreary, and sigh,
While ever arrived some fresh tale of decisions more foolish by far and
presaging disaster.
Then I would say to him, “O my dear husband, why still do they rush on
destruction the faster?”
At which he would look at me sideways, exclaiming, “Keep for your web
and your shuttle your care,
Or for some hours hence your cheeks will be sore and hot; leave this
alone, war is Man’s sole affair!”

But when at the last in the streets we heard shouted (everywhere ringing
the ominous cry)
“Is there no one to help us, no saviour in Athens?” and, “No, there is
no one,” come back in reply.
At once a convention of all wives through Hellas here for a serious
purpose was held,
To determine how husbands might yet back to wisdom despite their
reluctance in time be compelled.
Why then delay any longer? It’s settled. For the future you’ll take
up our old occupation.
Now in turn you’re to hold tongue, as we did, and listen while we show
the way to recover the nation.”

Aristophanes presents this portrait of the silenced isolated wife so masterfully and vividly. The good Athenian woman stayed indoors, did her weaving, managed the household, and kept her nose out of politics and war. This is in stark contrast to the role that the heroine Lysistrata assumes in the play. She is the essence of the Greek female spirit – confident, outspoken, wily and wise. She uses all of her gifts (physical, emotional and intellectual) to make men pay attention to her cause. It is possible that women, along with men, attended the performance of this play. I wonder what impact the play might have had – both on them and their husbands?

(1) Aristophanes, Lysistrata (ed. Jack Lindsay), lines 486ff: text available online at


(2) Image from: http://coursesite.uhcl.edu/HSH/Whitec/texts/Tragedy/Lysistrata.htm


The Chatterbox by Theophrastus


Have you ever been stuck next to an incessant Chatterbox, on a bus, train or plane trip perhaps? They cripple you with their endless stream of random topics: no breaks, no relief, no escape. Well, you are definitely not alone in the experience. It seems that the Chatterbox has been pestering humanity for some time.

Theophrastus, a scientist and philosopher from the fourth century B.C. writes the following funny character sketch of the Chatterbox:

“The Chatterbox is the sort of person who sits next to a complete stranger and first sings his own wife’s praises, then recounts the dream he had last night, then describes in every detail what he had for dinner. Then, as things are going well, he continues to talk like this: people nowadays are far less well-behaved than in the old days; wheat is selling in the market at a bargain price; the city is full of foreigners; the festival of Dionysus heralds the start of the sailing season; more rain would be good for the crops; what land he will cultivate next year; life is hard; Damippus set up a very large torch at the mysteries; how many pillars there are in the Odeion; ‘I threw up yesterday’; what day of the month it is; the Mysteries are in September, the Apatouria in October, the Rural Dionysia in December. If you let him go on he will never stop.”(1)

What more can I say?

  1. Theophrastus, Characters (ed. and transl. by J. Diggle), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2004, p. 73.
  2. Image from: W. Anderson, Theophrastus: The Character Sketches, The Kent State University, 1970, p. 14 (reproduced from Francis Howell, The Characters of Theophrastus, London, 1824).

Keep Calm and Carry On: Socrates


I was just recently scheduled for an interview for a three-year academic position. It has taken eighteen years and four months to reach this point. There have been years of study, casual teaching, more study, a PhD, more casual teaching, other work, life and more teaching. It took three months to work on the job application in response to the specific selection criteria. It took another month to collate a teaching portfolio, prepare a sample of writing, and devise a course proposal.

Preparing for the interview felt a bit like preparing for an ancient battle – mapping the terrain, sharpening weapons, preparing strategies and defences. Of course I had no idea who the enemy (I mean the other applicants) were other than that there were a lot of them. I spent weeks working on every stage of the process: researching every aspect of the position; reading academic interview tips and tricks; spending many sleepless nights tossing and turning over answers to every possible interview question; and composing interview answers (even recording my answers and playing them back! Ugh).

Interview day was like entering the battlefield. It truly was an exercise in remaining calm and collected. I had read and reread over all of my materials. I had pestered loved ones for advice and shared my fears and anxieties. I had my outfit sorted, my survival plan for the day (venue for last-minute prep, meals, coffee and chocolate consumption timed for maximum impact, favourite on campus toilet mapped out plus emergency toothbrush). I’m ready. It’s just those few minutes before the big interview when the nerves really kick in and the adrenalin is running high.

The question is how to stay collected and composed enough to think clearly and survive the whole ordeal? Think. Breathe. Perhaps it helps also to think of Socrates. Why not? Our dear friend Socrates. Wise enough to know that he knew nothing, and that no one else really knows anything either. Now I’m thinking of Socrates, the great philosopher, when he was in the midst of war.

It was the battle of Delium in 424B.C. Socrates was a hoplite at the time. The Boeotian forces attacked the Athenians unexpectedly and outmanoeuvred them. The Athenian forces turned to flee. In the middle of this turmoil was Socrates. Alcibiades witnessed the scene and describes it as follows (1):

“In the first place I noticed that he [Socrates] was far cooler than Laches, and next, if I may borrow an expression from you, Aristophanes, that he was using just the same gait as he does in Athens, “strutting along with his head in the air and casting side-long glances”, quietly observing the movements of friend and foe, and making it perfectly plain even at a distance that he was prepared to put up a strong resistance to any attack. That is how both he and his companion got off safe; those who show a bold front in war are hardly ever molested; the attention of the pursuers is concentrated on those who are in headlong rout.”(2)

How much composure would it have taken for Socrates to stay so calm in the face of imminent death, a lost battle, fear and chaos? How much self-control to walk along the broken battle line as if he was strutting through the Athenian marketplace on an ordinary day? More than I needed for my interview to be sure, and that thought alone gave me the courage I needed. So I went in.

  1. Plato, Symposium, 219-222.
  2. Plato, The Symposium (transl. W. Hamilton), Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1951, pp. 109-110.
  3. Image courtesy of: Socrates. [Internet]. 2017. The Famous People website. Available from: //www.thefamouspeople.com/profiles/socrates-259.php [Accessed 19 May 2017].


Aesop: the hard road or the easy road?

Sometimes we are faced with a choice between a hard road and an easy road. Which one should we choose? Let’s see what Aesop has to say. First, a bit of context.

Aesop, the much-loved fable-teller, began life as a slave. Eventually, the people of Samos granted Aesop his freedom because they needed his help and wise counsel. A foreign king, Croesus of Lydia, was demanding tribute and taxes from the Samians and he was threatening war against them if they refused. Aesop was called on to give advice but he refused to do so. He told them the following fable instead:

“Once, at the command of Zeus, Prometheus described to men two ways, one the way of freedom, and the other that of slavery. The way of freedom he pictured as rough at the beginning, narrow, steep and waterless, full of brambles, and beset with perils everywhere, but finally a level plain amid parks, groves of fruit trees, and water courses where the struggle reaches its end in rest. The way of slavery he pictured as a level plain at the beginning, flowery and pleasant to look upon with much to delight but at its end narrow, hard, and like a cliff.” 1

The Samians listened to Aesop, understood his words, and told the king’s emissary that they would choose the hard road.

  1. Text from The Aesop Romance (translated by Lloyd W. Daly), as reprinted in W. Hansen (ed.), Anthology of Ancient Greek Popular Literature, Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1998, p. 149.

First blog post

Welcome to Aesop’s Fox! This blog offers fables, wisdom literature, philosophical musings, myths, and selections of Greek literature that are of direct relevance and interest to our lives today.

The cultures of ancient Greece and Rome stand at the very heart of Western civilization yet they are often viewed as strange and distant. This blog sets out to demonstrate how pertinent and fascinating the Classical world is for you and me in our contemporary and everyday lives.

This blog draws on a host of ancient authors of familiar and lesser known works. All of them offer material that is insightful, instructive, interesting and amusing. Through their writing, we catch glimpses of the real men and women of the ancient world: their daily lives, their values, their morality, their thoughts and feelings. By engaging with this ancient writing and culture, we come to realize that we can directly relate to, and learn from, these people from the past.

I hope you enjoy my blog and I look forward to your comments.

Dr Sonia Pertsinidis

BA(Hons) LLB (Hons) PhD Classics (ANU)