Aesopica: the horse and the stag

The Fables of Aesop reach us through many derivative collections, such as those of Phaedrus and Babrius.  To edit a collection of them is no doubt a serious business.  But the fables are not lacking in contemporary relevance.

In Britain the Exclusive Brethren church is being attacked by the Charities Commission, which seems to want to set itself up as arbiter of “allowed” and “not allowed” churches.  The Exclusive Brethren are a reclusive lot, not without some suspicion of being cult-like, and ex-members feel quite a bit of antipathy towards them.  Some of the stories that one may read online are hair-raising.  In consequence there are ex-members who are wildly cheering on the Commission, without considering whether this is in their own interests.  

I do wish that these people — who may well have legitimate grievances — would look at the larger picture.  Their grievances will not be addressed by this method.

I do not believe that this is about the Exclusive Brethren, and still less about those who may have been injured by it.  The Charities Commission does not give a damn about either of them.  All of them, to a London-based organisation, are nobodies.  The Commission does not care whether the Exclusive Brethren is a cult. 

I suspect — I am not alone in so suspecting — that the Commssion chose the organisation, in order to create a precedent, to create case-law.   This precedent would give it very considerable powers, to decide which religious groups would, and would not be allowed to operate without crushing financial penalties.  So it chose a small, not very popular, little known group as the object of its attack.  It may well have hoped that the Brethren would just take it, or be unable to afford lawyers.   

The question we all need to ask here is not whether we like the Brethren.  Rather it is this.  Is it a good idea to create a Soviet-style “Commission for Religious Cults”, with whom churches must register, and who can apply financial penalties if it chooses?  Few of us would think so.  That is the issue before us.

This all reminded me of a fable, which, after some hunting around I found.  Interestingly there is a retelling of it by Isaac Asimov, which I will give first.

 A horse having a wolf as a powerful and dangerous enemy lived in constant fear of his life. Being driven to desperation, it occured to him to seek a strong ally. Whereupon he approached a man, and offered an alliance, pointing out that the wolf was likewise an enemy of the man. The man accepted the partnership at once and offered to kill the wolf immediately, if his new partner would only co-operate by placing his greater speed at the man’s disposal. The horse ws willing, and allowed the man to place bridle and saddle upon him. The man mounted, hunted down the wolf, and killed him.

The horse, joyful and relieved, thanked the man, and said: ‘Now that our enemy is dead, remove your bridle and saddle and restore my freedom.’

Whereupon the man laughed loudly and replied, ‘The hell you say. Giddy-ap, Dobbin,’ and applied the spurs with a will.[1]

The ex-members are the horse; the wolf is the Brethren; and the man is the Charities Commission.

Searching for this, I came across a website dedicated to the Aesopica, run by Laura Gibbs who published a translation.  It’s rather wonderful!  It includes the Greek and Latin.  Here is Gibb’s translation of the original:

47. THE STAG, THE HORSE AND THE MAN

Perry 269 (Aristotle, Rhetoric 1393b)

There was a horse who was the sole owner of a meadow. Then a stag came and wreaked havoc in the meadow. The horse wanted to get revenge, so he asked a certain man if he would help him carry out a vendetta against the stag. The man agreed, provided that the horse took the bit in his mouth so that the man could ride him, wielding his javelin. The horse consented, and the man climbed on his back but instead of getting his revenge, the horse simply became a slave to the man.

Note: In some versions of this story, it is a boar, not a stag, who provokes the horse’s reckless anger (e.g., Phaedrus 4.4). There is an interesting version of this story in a fragment of the Greek historian Conon (cited in van Dijk 7T3), and the fable is also found in Horace, Epistles 1.10.34 ff.[2]

 The Greek text of Chambray’s edition is also online here.  Gibbs adds:

Chambry published a multivolume edition of the fables for the Belles Lettres series in 1925/6 (Paris). He later revised this into a single volume, omitting hundreds of the fable variants. In addition, the numeration between these two volumes is not consistent. The texts here are taken from the 1925/6 edition, but the numeration follows the stanard single volume edition.

Like most people, I have only a hazy idea of the transmission of the Fables.  But how very, very useful to have a reliable source online!

UPDATE: The Chambry text seems to be entitled Fabulae recensuit Aemilius Chambry.

  1. [1] Isaac Asimov, The Foundation Trilogy, part III, chapter 8.
  2. [2] Aesop’s Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World’s Classics): Oxford, 2002. http://www.mythfolklore.net/aesopica/oxford/47.htm

2 Responses to “Aesopica: the horse and the stag”


  1. Marcel

    The weak point is attacked first. The new US healthcare law infringes on the religious liberties of Catholics by mandating the provision of contraceptives. The Catholic Bishops’ teaching on contraception is unpopular and widely ignored. It’s an easy target, and so it’s the first target; but it will not be the last.

    Good to know about the Aesopica website – I look forward to reading several things there.

  2. Roger Pearse

    Agree entirely.



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