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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