Fox and Jackal: The Individual against the Collective

Arti Mehta, Howard University
Everyone knows the story of the ant and the grasshopper, or the one about the fox walking away from the “sour” grapes. As children, we read, or had read to us, these tales of animals, and even plants, that speak. Everyone agrees that fables, as stories about animals and plants engaged in life, teach us how the world of human beings works. Stories about foxes, grasshoppers, and ants, and other such, were already in circulation in the ancient world. Everyone loves a good story: stories deliver action. Patterns of actions then reveal the choices and values of the story-tellers and their societies. This idea of repeating real life in the actions of stories is the principle behind folklore studies. Stories begin in language, and as Professor Nagy has said, Greek and Indic languages are cognates. The languages express the cultures of the ancient societies of Greece and India. Comparing fables from Greece and India can inform and enlighten us, the modern audience, to the methods and values of each.
The fables I will discuss first were written by the authors Babrius and Viṣṇu Śarma. Here I juxtapose their biographical information. Babrius, a Syrian who spoke Greek, composed two books of poetry starring animals during the first century of the Common Era. Viṣṇu Śarma, a scholar invited to the court of King Amara Śakti in the southern Indian city of Mahilāropya, wrote five books of fables in a combination of prose and poetry, around 300 C.E. Babrius addressed Book One of his fables to his student, a boy named Branchus. Book Two he addessed to another student, a son of Alexander. That is, a minor king Alexander, not the Great one. Viṣṇu Śarma took on the task of teaching the three recalcitrant sons of King Amara Śakti, named Vasu, Ugra and Ananta. Babrius lived in a Mediterranean world ruled by Rome but asserted that the Assyrians invented the fable genre. Thus, the two writers, who lived some 200 years and 2500 miles apart, take on the role of teacher to royal children.
Now I delve into the introductory front-end matter of the fables. Babrius’ collection is titled, Muthiamboi Aisōpeioi, [1] or “Aesopic Fables in Iambic Verse”. Babrius introduces the figure of Aesop, a wise old man who told us stories inspired by his “free muse” (I. Prologue, lines 15-16). [2] Babrius asserts that Aesop is his source for the stories that he is now versifying: Aesop, a wise old man, explained things to us in his ‘tales’—the Greek is muthous, or ‘utterances’. Preceding this revelation in Babrius’ Prologue is a chronicle of the Ages of Man. The Golden Age supplies a setting appropriate for fables, a world where animals spoke, not simply to each other, but to human beings as well. After the Golden Age, humans devolved through the eras of Silver and Bronze, finally landing in the Iron Age, now unable to communicate with animals. This commonplace of the Ages of Man places Babrius in the epic tradition, following such notable works as Hesiod’s Works and Days and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Babrius thus offers his readers a brief glimpse into similar texts and tropes.
Viṣṇu Śarma, on the other hand, leads his readers in another direction. His collection is titled simply, “The Five Books”, or Panćatantra. [3] The titles of the books are: The Estrangement of Friends, The Acquisition of Friends, Of Crows and Owls, Loss of Gains, and Rash Deeds. These five books collectively represent the topics princes may need to know, about interacting with their peers, counselors and dependents while maintaining their own fortunes and status. Viṣṇu Śarma conveys the offer to educate the princes in the field of nīti-śāstra, or the principles of management and good governance, with confidence and a strong sense of his commitment to the cause. Indeed, Viṣṇu Śarma boasts that he could complete the education of King Amara Śakti‘s three sons in political theory within a period of six months. His reputation may be enhanced by his ability to fulfill his promise; as for any good teacher, his fame rests in the quality and achievements of his students. In fact, he offers to pay a penalty if he fails. The penalty he offers to pay is to be exposed to the king’s bare bottom (Preamble, line 15).
Viṣṇu Śarma is, in colloquial language, known as a brahmin (brāhmaṇa in Sanskrit). That is, he is a wise man of the priest class of Hindu society. Thus his promise to educate the princes to master the rules of polity, risking humiliation and even ridicule, is no idle guarantee. Since Viṣṇu Śarma is a brahmin, his quest to “awaken” the minds of the young princes may be considered to be a spiritual quest. Three Sanskrit words in lines 15 to 18 of the Preamble to the Panćatantra emphasize Viṣṇu Śarma’s need to challenge their young brains. The first, buddhi-prabodhanam, means the ‘awakening or comprehension of the intellect’. The second phrase, avabodhana-artham, means the ‘advantage in the purpose of stirring the intellect’. Third, the word buddhi means ‘the power of forming conceptions’. If we focus our own brains perhaps the part of the word that stands out in these phrases is: budh, for the verb meaning “to be awake”. This word is perhaps best known as the stem of Buddha, the Awakened One, the title assigned to Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, after he reached enlightenment.
Viṣṇu Śarma seems to be claiming that he will entertain the princes with animal stories; as they hear and engage with these tales, the young royals will be awakened to the responsibilities and challenges of ruling. The difference between being awakened to a new spiritual state and being awakened to contemplation of one’s role in life is the difference between dharma (line 17) and artha. Here, I am incorporating the Hindu idea of puruṣa-artham, or the four facets of human life. They are dharma, artha, mokṣa (colloquially, moksha), and kāma—righteousness, acquisition, liberation, and desire. All four are considered legitimate ways of engaging the world in Hindu culture. For the purpose of the comparison, I isolate dharma and artha as a natural pair (a dvandva in Sanskrit). At least, mokṣa and kāma do not immediately seem to apply to the pedagogical goals Viṣṇu Śarma promises for the princes in this text.
It is possible to further refine the relevance of artha over dharma to Viṣṇu Śarma’s nīti-śāstra and its training in applied, real-world intelligence. Dharma represents spiritual strength, a certain idealism, and moral intrepitude. Artha, as seen in the Panćatantra, represents a mundane, worldly attitude of doing what is necessary to survive and thrive. The fables of the Panćatantra convey lessons towards this second goal, so following the path of artha also requires “character” or strength of purpose. But, perhaps, it is more a case of the princes acquiring moral fiber or a sense of decency in their decision-making than a matter of obedience to an absolute moral imperative. If we visualize dharma and artha as a pair of balancing scales, then the Panćatantra clearly tips towards the side of artha. Although Viṣṇu Śarma does not emphasize the role of dharma, the presence of the brahmin must still lend weight to the spiritual side of the scale. On the other hand, Karl Potter specifies that artha is “the attitude and capability to make a living”. [4] Viṣṇu Śarma’s method must succeed if the princes are to fulfill their future responsibilities and flourish as rulers. Yet, even if the goal of a text is to awaken the mental capacities of the ruling class, how would the fables suffice as folklore, as stories of the people? The author of the Panćatantra does not explicitly mention the human subjects of King Amara Śakti’s kingdom.
The tenets of artha and of fables, however, both refer to the activities of people’s daily lives. Jerry Toner in his book on ancient popular culture explains the existence of three universal needs in human society: sustenance, shelter, and marriage. [5] These three categories of basic human needs relate to the study of ancient fables. Through the animal and plant characters, the fables of the Panćatantra—and of Babrius—reveal common people’s attempts to fulfill these basic needs, and thus to survive.

The Quintessential Fox Fable

One fable about the search for sustenance that must have been conducted every day is the story of “The Fox and the Grapes”, in Book One, Fable Nineteen, of Babrius’ collection.
Βότρυς μελαίνης ἀμπέλου παρωρείῃ
ἀπεκρέμαντο. τοὺς δὲ ποικίλη πλήρεις
ἰδοῦσα κερδὼ πολλάκις μὲν ὡρμήθη
πηδῶσα ποσσὶν πορφυρῆς θιγεῖν ὥρης·
ἦν γὰρ πέπειρος κεὶς τρυγητὸν ἀκμαίη.
κάμνουσα δ’ἄλλως, οὐ γὰρ ἴσχυε ψαύειν,
παρῆλθεν οὕτω βουκολοῦσα τὴν λύπην·
«ὄμφαξ ὁ βότρυς, οὐ πέπειρος, ὡς ᾤμην.»
A bunch of grapes was hanging from a dark vine on a hillside. A wily fox, when she saw they were full, began leaping many times on her feet to reach the seasonal purple fruit. For it was ripe and ready for the harvest. She became tired in vain, for she was not able to touch them. She passed on, cheating her grief thus: ‘The grapes are sour, not ripe as I supposed.’
Babrius paints a picture of a fox able to find an advantage in the situation—to see the grapes as she passes by. Greek has two words for ‘fox’, alōpēks and kerdō. In this fable, Babrius uses the word kerdō. In Greek, the word kerdō is always feminine, always referring to a female fox or vixen. The noun kerdō is related to another noun, kerdos, meaning ‘profit’ or ‘benefit’. The name thus emphasizes the behavior of the animal, one who seeks profit or benefit for herself. As seen in Babrius’ story, the animal takes the name of its most outstanding trait, being perceptive enough to spot a potential source of food.
Babrius further shows how the vixen’s alertness works in tandem with her actions in the search for food. The descriptors Babrius applies to his vixen are also of interest: poikilē and boukolousa. The adjective poikilē means ‘many-colored’. The descriptor applies to the fox, as ‘colorful’ or ‘changeful’. The description may refer to the fox’s appearance, to its fur coat, but also it may refer to her actions and thoughts. Babrius gives the image of the fox leaping repeatedly, actions that change her position in space. The fox’s thoughts also change in the course of the story: her initial gastronomic interest gives way to recalibration, to a revisionist perspective: the grapes are not ripe after all, leave them. The word, boukolousa, shows the fox making another type of change. The Greek verbal adjective derives from bous, cow or oxen. boukolousa means ‘tending cattle’, or ‘serving’. The fox changes her manner of “serving” herself by “cheating” her own initial impression of the hanging grapes. In order for her to move on, the inaccessible grapes must be unworthy of her interest. Again, the animal’s intelligence stirs her to keep “grazing” for her daily sustenance. Thought and action function together within the animal’s daily adventures.

The Animal Behind the Tale

In Indic cultures, the character of the jackal most closely resembles Babrius’ fox. The Sanskrit words for ‘jackal’ fall into three categories: the onomatopoeic, ‘cow’ words, and words describing its craftiness. Fables are drawn from oral culture, even fables written into ornamentalized forms such as the Panćatantra collection. Onomatopoeic words repeat the sounds jackals make, as heard by the ears of Sanskrit speakers. The sounds uttered by jackals are howls (ghora-rāsanaḥ), cries (kroṣṭu), laughs (jas-bukaḥ), and even exclamations of grief. One term, go-māyuḥ, refers to the jackal ‘making sounds like cattle’. The word go is cognate to English ‘cow’, and so the term also describes a jackal as ‘possessing a cow’. Inevitably, the words defining the jackal mean ‘deceitful’, as in bhūri-māyuḥ, having many arts—perhaps from the many sounds the animal voices.
The visual image of a scavenger employed in his daily activities is also seen in the term vañcakaḥ, meaning ‘one who moves to and fro’. As vañcakaḥ derives from the root vak, the jackal may move crookedly or be crooked by moving secretly or by wavering. One can imagine a jackal moving back and forth as he forages for food, much as Babrius’ fox was ‘grazing’ for food. A similar term, based on a pattern of movement, is kṛṣyā, or ‘pulled to and fro’ as a plow. The adventuresome jackals, and their counterpart, the foxes, thus travel widely in their quest for sustenance.
In Book Two of the Panćatantra, Viṣṇu Śarma tells the tale of “The Blue Jackal”. This picaresque jackal, in the course of his wanderings, enters a city neighborhood. This jackal, named “Heated-crier”, is running away from dogs, and enters the house of a dyer. There he falls into a vat of blue dye. Once the dogs have moved on, abandoning their prey, the jackal emerges. His new appearance renders him unrecognizable and frightening. Recognizing the advantage of his new appearance, the jackal, incognito, convinces the forest animals to declare him their king. As ruler, he assigns the members of his court to their respective duties, barring only the other jackals from attending him. Time passed as “Heated-Crier” continued to reign, living off the efforts of the other animals. One day, a group of jackals were howling nearby. “Heated-Crier” revealed his true nature and joined them. Once betrayed, he attempted to escape but was eaten by a tiger.
This jackal seeks shelter from the dangers encountered during his wanderings, one of the universal needs of all people. The dye camouflages his outer appearance and allows him to rise socially and politically. He lives in luxury as all his needs are met while he sits and waits. Still, he cannot hide his sense of community when he hears the call of his group. The sound of his howling has the opposite effect from his unusual appearance: whereas the animals once were frightened of him, the howling reveals his identity as a jackal and thus removes the cause of their concern. The jackal’s actions, of running from danger and finding refuge in the craftsman’s house, were interrupted by the time he spent in disguise and indulgence. In this instance, therefore, the jackal’s actions and utterances are at odds with his ability to maintain his livelihood.

Lessons and Characters

Aristotle, writing in the fourth century B.C.E., tells the fable of “The Fox and the Hedgehog” in Book Two, Chapter Twenty of his Rhetorica. [6]
Αἴσωπος δὲ ἐν Σάμῳ δημηγορῶν κρινομένου δημαγωγοῦ περὶ θανάτου ἔφη ἀλώπεκα διαβαίνουσαν ποταμὸν ἀπωσθῆναι εἰς φάραγγα, οὐ δυναμένην δὲ ἐκβῆναι πολὺν χρόνον κακοπαθεῖν καὶ κυνοραιστὰς πολλοὺς ἔχεσθαι αὐτῆς, ἐχῖνον δὲ πλανώμενον, ὡς εἶδεν αὐτήν, κατοικτείραντα ἐρωτᾶν εἰ ἀφέλοι αὐτῆς τοὺς κυνοραιστάς, τὴν δὲ οὐκ ἐᾶν: ἐρομένου δὲ διὰ τί, «ὅτι οὗτοι μὲν» φάναι «ἤδη μου πλήρεις εἰσὶ καὶ ὀλίγον ἕλκουσιν αἷμα, ἐὰν δὲ τούτους ἀφέλητε, ἕτεροι ἐλθόντες πεινῶντες ἐκπιοῦνταί μου τὸ λοιπὸν αἷμα». «ἀτὰρ καὶ ὑμᾶς, ἄνδρες Σάμιοι, οὗτος μὲν οὐδὲν ἔτι βλάψει (πλούσιος γάρ ἐστιν), ἐὰν δὲ τοῦτον ἀποκτείνητε, ἕτεροι ἥκουσι πένητες, οἳ ὑμᾶς ἀναλώσουσι τὰ λοιπὰ κλέπτοντες.»
Aesop, on the other hand, while pleading in defense of a demagogue on trial for his life at Samos, said that a fox while crossing a river was thrust aside into a crevice. Not being able to get out, she suffered badly for a long time and many fleas were clinging on her. A wandering hedgehog, when he saw her, was moved by pity and asked if he should take the fleas off her. But she would not let him. When he asked why, she said, ‘Because these are already full of my blood, and take a small amount. But if you take them away, then others, having come hungry, will drink what remains of my blood.’ Aesop said, “And too, O men of Samos, this man will not harm you further, for he is rich. But if you put him to death, others will come who are poor, who will deprive you by stealing what remains.”
The Rhetoric is Aristotle’s treatise on the art of public-speaking. In Book Two, he instructs his readers to understand human character and emotion in order to persuade their audiences. For Aristotle, fables such as “The Fox and the Hedgehog” serve as useful examples or paradeigmata for public-speakers. Aesop uses this story to explain why a corrupt leader is worth keeping in power. Fortunately for the readers of the Rhetoric, Aristotle is morally more sound than the story-teller Aesop: where Aesop attempts to save the life of the public servant, Aristotle reports that the demagogue was indeed put to death. Despite Aesop’s defense of his client—or maybe because of it—Aristotle says that fables are tales suitable for telling before the assemblies of the people, they are logoi dēmokratikoi. To the general assembly, Aristotle via Aesop’s fox actually makes a good point: disposing of one problem can leave space for other, more serious problems to crop up. After all, affairs of state, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Aristotle, therefore, includes the fox fable as an example because the lesson contains a certain truthfulness. Even if the insight supporting the status quo did not help Aesop’s politician, the tenet may still be reliably applied to other circumstances.
The crises faced by the blue jackal and Aesop’s fox appear similar: both are isolated and temporarily stagnant. That is, the jackal escapes his pursuers by hiding in the vat of blue dye and the fox is trapped in a crevice. Instead of having the ability to “graze” for another day’s sustenance, the two animals face depleted resources in their static locations. The jackal’s liberation from the vat allows him to become the leader of a community, albeit temporarily. The fox, on the other hand, refuses the compassion of the hedgehog and has only the dog-fleas for company. The liveliness of both seems to depend on their capacity to make use of the community while maintaining a sense of individuality and independence. The jackal who rose above his station in life managed to fend off the pangs of hunger, but could not survive the breaking of that illusory moment of his rule. The final destiny of Aesop’s fox remains unknown, but Babrius’ vixen goes hungry despite her alertness. Beneath the charms of the story-teller’s art exist the realities of these restless spirits, their dissatisfactions reflecting life’s uncertainties: a disappointed fox and a jackal deposed and disposed of. In summary, fables are didactic stories, intended to teach life lessons not merely to royal children, but to anyone whose own crisis may be seen replicated in the lives of animals. Fables, unlike the myths of epic poetry, speak to common culture and daily life. Myths contain cosmic events, they are grand and noble. Fables, on the other hand, are trivial and mundane, but nonetheless provide miniature windows into the everyday so one may live to fight another day.


[ back ] 1. Perry, B. E., ed. 1965. Babrius and Phaedrus. Loeb Classical Library. Cambridge (MA).
[ back ] 2. μάθοις ἂν οὕτω ταῦτ’ ἔχοντα καὶ γνοίης/ ἐκ τοῦ σοφοῦ γέροντος ἧμιν Αἰσώπου/ μύθους φράσοντος τῆς ἐλευθέρης μούσης· “You may learn and, in this way considering these things, understand from wise old Aesop who told us stories in the free manner of prose.” (I. Prologue. 14-16)
[ back ] 3. Hertel, J., ed. 1908. The Panchatantra: A Collection of Ancient Hindu Tales. Harvard Oriental Series Volume 11. Cambridge (MA).
[ back ] 4. Potter, K. H. 1963. Presuppositions of India’s Philosophies. New Delhi.
[ back ] 5. Toner, J. 2009. Popular Culture in Ancient Rome. Cambridge (U.K.).
[ back ] 6. Ross, W. D., ed. 1959. Aristotelis Ars Rhetorica. Oxford.