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.

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