Ancient Fables about Birds
Hesiod and Aesop tell stories which are superficially similar
but illustrate morals with diametrically opposite meanings. Both
concern a bird of prey tormenting a seemingly helpless victim, but
their endings reveal a fundamental difference in philosophy of the
In Hesiod's fable, a hawk seizes a nightingale. When it
complains, he answers with a speech that conveys the story's moral.
"Only a fool will match himself against a stronger party, for he'll
only lose, and be disgraced as well as beaten." In other words,
might makes right. Those in power have no responsibility to treat
The story illustrates Hesiod's pessimistic world view. In this
view, there is no higher authority than the local king, magistrate
or other bully. If one is treated badly by a stronger party, there
is no eventual justice to hope for. It is best to submit meekly and
hope that the bully will be inclined to let you live.
The Aesop fable uses a similar cast of characters to tell a
different message. An eagle and a vixen become friends, but the
eagle abuses her power of flight to eat the vixen's young and
escape. The vixen is as helpless as the nightingale was in Hesiod.
"All she could do was stand far off and curse her enemy--like any
weak and feeble creature." If the story ended now, it would teach
the same message as the Hesiod fable. The strong can abuse the weak
without fear of retaliation.
However, in the world of the Aesop fable, there is a higher
power than that of the strongest local creature. The world is ruled
by justice, which may be a natural phenomenon or dispensed by the
gods. For the eagle, which violated the "sanctity of friendship,"
is punished by suffering the same fate which she inflicted. A bit
or burning offal snatched by the eagle burns her nest, dropping her
young to the vixen, who eats them.
In Aesop's story, it is clear that good and bad acts are
rewarded or punished not by mortal beings, but by the power of the
gods or of natural justice. Aesop's is essentially an ordered and
moral word to Hesiod's chaotic and amoral one.
The morality of the Aesop story is one based on fear of
punishment. It shows the same "eye for an eye" justice as does the
Hebrew bible. The eagle who eats another's young has her own eaten,
and thus justice is served.
The different philosophies of the two storytellers may be
based on fundamental differences of personality. Hesiod considers
himself essentially rational. Although he believes in gods and in
the necessity of appeasing them, he thinks that the best way to
serve one's own interests is to take care of oneself, and to make
the best of a bad situation even if one is abused by a hawk or by
one's greedy brother. The storyteller of the Aesop fable believes
in a world where the best way to prosper is to be virtuous. Evil
actions may net short-term profit, but such profit is paid for by
suffering in the end.
Of course, there is another explanation for the existence of
two such opposite fables. It is clear that the hawk would prefer to
hear the first, while the nightingale would prefer the second.