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Musée Jean de La Fontaine

The Treasures of the Orient

  • The Panchatantra
  • Kalīlah wa Dimnah

Beast fables have been told or written since the dawn of times and in various societies. The same is true of beast epics, that may be called Beast fables. Ironically, colonialism, one of the darker moments  in the history of mankind, led to the discovery of some of the world’s most fundamental texts. Many of these were discovered during the British Raj and many were beast fables, such as the Panchatantra and the Hitopadesha. Scholars learned Sanskrit and translated the masterpieces of India. The Bahgavad Gita, which is not a beast fable, was translated into English by Sir Charles Wilkins. It was Mahatma Ghandi‘s “spiritual dictionary.” (See Bahgavad Gita, Wikipedia.)

However, beast literature begins with Vishnu Sharma‘s Sanskrit Panchatantra. Recent scholarship has situated the creation of the Panchatantra between 1,200 BCE and the 3rd century BCE. Given that the Panchatantra is probably rooted in an extremely old oral tradition, I doubt that it was written before the 3rd century BCE. The Panchatantra‘s sage is Bidpai or Pilpay and the purpose of the Panchatantra is the education of the prince, or worldly wisdom. These books are referred to as mirrors for princes. Seventeenth-century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine used eleven tales Panchatantra tales were used by 17th-century French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine.

The best-known Arabic analog of the Panchatantra is the work of Persian scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa’. His translation and adaptation of the Panchatantra (meaning: five books) is entitled Kalīlah wa Dimnah, dated 750 CE. Other earlier translations or analogs were published, one of which is Borzūya‘s Middle Persian (PahlaviKalīlah wa Dimnah, dated 570 CE. That translation is lost. Vishnu Sharma’s Panchatantra also inspired the Hitopadesha, a text where beasts and animals interact. It was translated into English by Charles Wilkins. The sage in the Panchatantra and Kalīlah wa Dimnah is Bidpai, or Pilpay. French Orientalist G. Gaulmin‘s Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des roys was published in 1644, several years after The Morall Philosophie of Doni (English, 1570). Both books were the Fables of Pidpai. (See Panchatantra and Anton Francesco Doni, Wikipedia.)[1]

La Fontaine’s source, however, was 17th-century French Orientalist Gilbert Gaulmin, the author of the Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des roys (The Book of Lights or the Conduct of Kings). (See Panchatantra, Wikipedia.) La Fontaine’s first collection of fables reflects Æsop. But his second collection (books 7 to 11), published in 1778, was influenced by Orientalist Gilbert Gaulmin’s 1644 Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des roys. La Fontaine acknowledges indebtness to Pilpay:  “Seulement, je dirai par reconnaissance que j’en dois la plus grande partie à Pilpay, sage Indien” (Only, out to gratitude, I will say that I owe most of my fables to Pilpay, an Indian sage” (Avertissement. II.7).

The Oral and the Learned Tradition

  • Phædrus
  • Babrius

I wrote about the “oral tradition” elsewhere and mentioned it above. Æsop’s fables were transmitted orally from generation to generation, as would be the case with the Sanskrit Panchatantra. Æsop’s fables did not enter literature until Latin author Phædrus, who lived in the 1st century CE, published a written collection of Æsop’s fables, as did the Greek-speaking author Babrius (2nd century CE). Once Æsop’s fables were in written form, they had entered a “learned” tradition, but could nevertheless be retold, just as fairy tales could be retold.

La Fontaine’s sources

Several collections of Æsop’s Fables were based on either Phaedrus or Babrius or both. Jean de La Fontaine used a 1610 Latin collection of Æsop‘s Fables, entitled Mythologia Æsopica, put together by Isaac Nicolas Nevelet. However, before publishing his second collection of fables, in 1678, which contains L’Ours et l’amateur des jardins (The Bear and the Gardener), La Fontaine had become familiar with Gilbert Gaulmin 1644 Le Livre des lumières, ou la Conduite des roys, a collection of Bidpai’s fables (Pilpay) can be read it is entirety by clicking on the link (Gallica BnF). Bidpai is a sage whose fables were learned by future kings. He is the sage in the Sanskrit Panchatantra and Persian (Arabic) Kalīlah wa Dimna. His wisdom is worldly wisdom, as noted above.


The Panchatantra. An illustration from a Syrian edition dated 1354. The rabbit fools the elephant king by showing him the reflection of the moon (Caption and photo credit: Wikipedia)


  • Æsop, Æsopic & Æsopian
  • Æsopic, Lybistic & Sybaritic

In recent years, much has been written about fables and beast epics. As a result, scholars now point to differences between Æsop’s fables. The term Æsopian refers to an oblique language. It was first used by Russian satirist Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin (27 January  1826 – 10 May 1889). As for Æsopic, it may refer to Æsop’s fables. One can speak of Æsopic fables.

Æsopic however has another meaning. It refers to fables that feature animals only. Fables that mix animals and human beings, such as La Fontaine’s L’Ours et l’amateur des jardins, and Æsop’s “The Bald Man and the Fly,” are called Libystic. In ancient Greece, if a fable’s dramatis personae were humans only, the fable was called Sybaritic.[2]

Isidore of Seville

Isidore of Seville (c. 560 – 4 April 636), an eminent  Father of the Church and the author of Etymologiae (origins), divided fables into Æsopic (animals) and Libystic (beasts and human beings). Isidore’s Etymologiae could be considered an aetiological text consistent with the teachings of the Church.

Fables are either Æsopic or Libystic. Æsopic fables are those in which dumb animals are imagined to have spoken with each other, or in which the speakers are things which have no soul, as cities, trees, mountains, rocks, and rivers. In contrast, Libystic fables are those in which there is verbal interchange of men with animals with men.
(Etymologiae 1.40.2) [3]

The consensus, however, is that fables are inhabited mainly by talking animals whose words may be dismissed, but have nevertheless been heard. The Church took an interest in the origins of animals. There had to be a Christian account of the creation of animals, so members of the clergy were at times naturalists. All animals had been put aboard Noah’s Ark but, in children’s literature, the Hebrew/Christian Unicorn missed the boat.

Animals belonging to the Medieval Bestiary are allegorical. They are not talking animals, except  “en son langage.”  They are allegorical rather than anthropomorphic animals.


Physiologus, Adam nomme les animaux (Adam names the animals)
Cambrai, vers 1270-1275
Douai, Bibliothèque municipale, ms. 711, fol. 17 (Photo credit: BnF) (click)

The Components of a Fable

The fable is a story, an exemplum, and the moral is the distinguishing element of fables. The moral may be an epimythium and follow the example, or story. It may also precede the story, in which case it is called the promythium. However, some fables do not have a moral, except the exemplum itself. Finally, one can give a fable a moral other than the moral ascribed by the fabulist.

Love to everyone

[1]  See a review of Sir Charles North‘s The Morall Philosophy of Doni (Project Muse, University of Toronto.) 

[2] Jan M. Ziolkowski, Talking Animals: Latin Beast Poetry, 750 – 1150 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993), pp. 18-19.

[3] Loc. cit.


Isidore of Seville (Pinterest)

© Micheline Walker
10 March 2017