I Cannot Tell a Lie But I Can Tell a Fable: Aesop’s Fables and the Cherry Tree Tale

If you’ve been to Historic Kenmore, you’ve likely been awestruck at the beauty of the plaster ceilings throughout the first floor. Although the identity of “The Stucco Man” is lost to history, he left behind a lesson above the fireplace in the Dining Room. The plaster work inlay there depicts several stories from Aesop’s fables, easiest to recognize is “The Fox and The Crow.”

Aesop's Fox and Crow in Dining Room

Plaster inlay depicting the Aesop’s Fable “The Fox and The Crow” above the fireplace in Kenmore’s Dining Room.

Fables are as old as time itself. A type of story passed down in folklore, the fable appears all over the world and is often the stuff of myth, legend, or flat out falsehood. When exactly people began telling fables can’t be pinpointed. They appear in ancient Egypt, India, Rome, Greece, and many other early civilizations.

Fables appear across religious boundaries too. They are prevalent in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. These stories lend themselves to religious teachings because throughout history, fables were used to teach lessons and morals to children by pointing to a flaw or weakness in human behavior. These stories usually have characters who are not human; mainly animals that speak and behave like humans.

Aesop, one of the most famous authors of fables, came from Ancient Greece and his fables have become so widely published that the man himself has become sort of legend. Aesop lived sometime around the 6th century BCE. There are over 700 stories accredited to him today, but we can’t truly be sure if he actually wrote any of them.

Aesop has become a sort of fable himself. What little information about Aesop we have comes from an episodic called The Aesop Romance. According to this work of fiction, he was a Greek slave who was very clever. People like Aristotle wrote about Aesop’s cleverness being so great that he was able to overcome his enslavement and position himself in the company of kings.

The stories known as Aesop’s Fables have changed a lot over the centuries.  They have been published countless times, each version a bit different than the last. Many editions have a completely different set of stories. This is because, again, no one is really sure what is or isn’t an Aesop’s fable.

That has not stopped his stories from being used by almost every generation since to teach children moral lessons. In fact, a lot of familiar phrases come from the morals of Aesop’s fables. Anyone who has listened to the soundtrack from the Broadway musical Hamilton might recognize the line “I swear your pride will be the death of us all. Beware, it goeth before the fall.” This is the lesson from “The Eagle and the Cockerels,” a fable about two roosters who fought constantly. When it looked as though one had finally beaten the other, he crowed to tell the world of his victory, but an Eagle swooped down and took him. The once defeated rooster was now the king of the farm.  There are also stories that we all have learned that are attributed to Aesop that you may not realize, like: “The Tortoise and the Hare”; “The Ants and the Grasshopper”; and “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing.”

Aesop’s fables were used during George Washington life to teach children as well. In fact, Aesop’s Fables by Sir Roger L’Estrange appears in two different inventories of Washington’s books, once in 1759, and again in 1764. Moreover, when doing the inventory in 1759, the book is listed twice meaning that George Washington owned a copy as did his step-son John “Jacky” Parke Custis.

When inventory was done again in 1783, both copies are gone. Jacky’s copy was probably at his own estate, Abingdon, which was destroyed but would have rested on the property of Reagan National Airport today. Jacky died in 1781 from a camp disease he contracted at Yorktown and his probate inventory lists his copy of the fables, showing it was still part of his library at his death. Conversely, we do not know where George Washington’s copy went.

While George learned much of his genteel behavior from his famous penmanship exercise of The Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior, we can also guess the lessons of Aesop’s fables impacted his life. Certainly, these fables were read and taught throughout his childhood in school and at home. The Rules of Civility focused more on proper physical behavior whereas the fables focused on moral behavior.

Later in his life, as Washington grew from boy to man to legend, he too became inspiration for myths and parables that would teach lessons to others. The most famous of these stories was created by Parson Mason Weems about young George cutting down a cherry tree.  Even today visitors to Ferry Farm are sometimes surprised to hear this story is a made up tale to teach children not to lie.

Parson Weems' Fable

“Parson Weems’ Fable” (1939) by Grant Wood. Credit: Amon Carter Museum of American Art / Wikipedia

Interestingly, an Aesop’s fable entitled “Mercury and the Woodman” has the same lesson. In this story, a woodman loses his axe in a pool of water. The Greek god Mercury comes and pulls a golden axe from the water, but the Woodman tells the god that it is not his axe. Mercury then pulls a silver axe from the water; again the Woodman denies owning such an axe. Finally, Mercury pulls the ordinary axe from the water and the Woodman takes the axe as his own. Mercury is impressed with the Woodman’s honesty and lack of greed, so as a reward; he gives the Woodman the gold and silver axes.

The Woodman’s story spreads through town and several others attempt to summon Mercury by losing their axes. When they all greedily claim the golden axe, Mercury hits them over their heads and refuses to give any of them their own axes back.  As you can see, not only does this fable have the same moral (honesty is the best policy) as the cherry tree myth, Weems even used the same hand tool! Perhaps, this Aesop’s fable was the real muse for writing the cherry tree tale?

Elizabeth Hosier
Manager of Interpretation and Visitor Services

 

References and Further Reading:

“19 Everyday Expressions That Came from Aesop.” Mental Floss. September 03, 2014. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58530/19-everyday-expressions-came-aesop.

An Ornate, 1551 Edition of Aesop’s Fables. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://wlu.edu/office-of-lifelong-learning/online-programs/from-the-collections/aesops-fables.

Carlson, Greg. “Fables.” Creighton University. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.creighton.edu/aesop/.

Clayton, Edward W. “Aesop’s Fables.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.iep.utm.edu/aesop/.

“Custis, John Parke of Fairfax, VA 2/20/1782 — Elite.” GUNSTON HALL PLANTATION PROBATE INVENTORY DATABASE. Accessed January 18, 2019. http://www.gunstonhall.org/library/probate/wbvaxxtl.htm

“Founders Online: Appendix D. Inventory of the Books in the Estate, C.1759.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-06-02-0164-0026#GEWN-02-06-02-0164-0026-fn-0002

“Founders Online: List of Books at Mount Vernon, 1764.” National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/02-07-02-0216#GEWN-02-07-02-0216-fn-0008.

“Search Results for Aesop.” Library of Congress. Accessed January 18, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/search/?in=&q=Aesop&new=true&st=

Weems, Mason Locke, and Peter S. Onuf. The Life of Washington. Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1996.

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Tallio! Fox Hunting at Christmas

Although Fielding Lewis certainly built a home capable of hosting the elaborate Christmas celebrations popular in 18th century Virginia, Historic Kenmore probably never saw occasions on such a lavish scale, with the possible exception of the family’s first Christmas in the house in December 1775.  If the family hosted the traditional Christmas celebration, Fielding and Betty would have welcomed lots of friends and family, serving them fancy dinners and entertaining them with dancing and music. They and their guests might have enjoyed fox hunts as well.

Virginians regularly included fox hunts as part of their Christmas celebrations.[1]  In an era long before environmental conservation, colonial Virginians viewed foxes as pests that endangered livestock, which is why they hunted them so relentlessly.[2]  Additionally, during hunts, gentry men like George Washington could show off their hunting dogs and their skill at horseback riding while chasing foxes through the countryside.

George Washington loved fox hunting. In the year 1768, for example, he went on fox hunts 40 different times.  These hunts often lasted hours.  On a March day in 1768, he caught “a fox with a bobd Tail & cut Ears, after 7 hours chase.

George owned numerous hunting dogs and “helped develop the breed known as the American Foxhound.”  These hounds chased the fox and hunters on horseback chased the hounds.  The chase required galloping horses to jump over streams, bushes, and fences and riders to duck under low-hanging tree limbs.  Fox hunting allowed wealthy Virginians to show-off their horse riding skills and George was widely considered an excellent horseman.

Hunters also wore special clothes.  George went hunting in “a blue riding frock and scarlet waistcoat threaded with gold lace and topped by a black velvet cap.  He wore high boots and carried a . . . riding crop.”[2]    He wore cuff links that said “tallio” on them – that’s what hunters would shout when they found a fox.  These cufflinks were unearthed by archaeologists at George Washington’s Ferry Farm and their discovery hint at George’s interest in fox hunting even in his younger years.  He also hung paintings of fox hunts on the walls of his home at Mount Vernon.

TallioCufflinks

Cufflinks discovered in the parlor root cellar and yard of the Washington House at Ferry Farm show a fox running across grassy rolling hills with the word “tallio” engraved above. This is a popular 18th century motif.

Like the George’s paintings at Mount Vernon, Fielding Lewis included foxes in the decor of his home. At Kenmore, the Lewis children were always reminded of the sneaky ways of foxes when they looked at a picture above the Dining Room fireplace.  The plaster image illustrates the Aesop’s fable known as “The Fox and the Crow.”

Fox Crow Overmantle (1)

This plaster over-mantle in Historic Kenmore’s dining room depicts the Aesop’s Fable known as “The Fox and the Crow.”

One day a fox saw a crow flying with a piece of cheese in its beak and settle on a branch of a tree.  “That’s for me!’ said Master Fox, and he walked up to the foot of the tree.

“Good-day, Mistress Crow,” he cried, “How well you are looking today; how shiny your feathers; how bright your eyes.  Your voice must be more beautiful than that of other birds.  Won’t you, please, sing me a song that I may know you are the Queen of Birds?

The crow, quite happy to hear such praise, began to sing her best – “Caw, Caw, Caw”, but when she opened her beak, the piece of cheese dropped to the ground and was snapped up by Master Fox.

Fox Crow Overmantle (2)

A close-up view of the over-mantle shows Mistress Crow dropping her cheese to be scooped up by Master Fox.

“Aha, Mistress Crow,” said he.  “That was what I wanted.  In exchange for your cheese I will give you some advice for the future: “Beware of false flattery.”

This Christmas, some sneaky foxes have found their way into Kenmore.

Fox in Kemore 2

A sneaky fox hiding somewhere inside Kenmore.

During the holiday season, younger visitors can help us look for them in a special scavenger hunt and learn about the colonial Christmas custom of fox hunting.

Zac Cunningham
Manager of Educational Programs

[1] Philip Vickers Fithian, Journal & Letters of Philip Vickers Fithian, 1773-1774: A Plantation Tutor of the Old Dominion, ed Hunter Dickinson Farish (Williamsburg, Va., 1943), entry for Dec. 18, 1773: 44

[2] Jane Carson, Colonial Virginians at Play, Williamsburg, VA: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1998: 62-64

[3] Ron Chernow, Washington: A Life, New York: Penguin Press, 2010: 124-5.