Book: On the Migration of Fables
Author: F. Max Muller

On the Migration of Fables By F. Max Muller

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 50
Publication Date: 1881

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This monograph by F. Max Muller is a classic study of East to West migration of folk stories. He sets it up with a detailed study of the fable known to us as the Milkmaid and the Spilt Milk. This is the same theme expressed by the proverb 'Do not count your chickens before they are hatched.' He traces this all the way back to the Panchatantra, complete with a detailed historical flowchart. Müller then gives a second example: the fable of Barlaam and Josaphat. Barlaam was a (possibly legendary) dark-ages saint. Müller demonstrates that this tale matches the narrative of the Birth Story of the Buddha, as found in the Lalita Vistara.

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"Count not your chickens before they be hatched," is a well-known proverb in English, and most people, if asked what was its origin, would probably appeal to La Fontaine's delightful fable, La Laitière et le Pot au Lait. We all know Perrette, lightly stepping along from her village to the town, carrying the milk-pail on her head, and in her day-dreams selling her milk for a good sum, then buying a hundred eggs, then selling the chickens, then buying a pig, fattening it, selling it again, and buying a cow with a calf. The calf frolics about, and kicks up his legs—so does Perrette, and, alas! the pail falls down, the milk is spilt, her riches gone, and she only hopes when she comes home that she may escape a flogging from her husband.

Did La Fontaine invent this fable? or did he merely follow the example of Sokrates, who, as we know from the Phædon, occupied himself in prison, during the last days of his life, with turning into verse some of the fables, or, as he calls them, the myths of Æsop.

La Fontaine published the first six books of his fables in 1668, and it is well known that the subjects of most of these early fables were taken from Æsop, Phædrus, Horace, and other classical fabulists, if we may adopt this word "fabuliste," which La Fontaine was the first to introduce into French.

In 1678 a second edition of these six books was published, enriched by five books of new fables, and in 1694 a new edition appeared, containing one additional book, thus completing the collection of his charming poems.

The fable of Perrette stands in the seventh book, and was published, therefore, for the first time in the edition of 1678. In the preface to that edition La Fontaine says: "It is not necessary that I should say whence I have taken the subjects of these new fables. I shall only say, from a sense of gratitude, the largest portion of them to Pilpay the Indian sage."

If, then, La Fontaine tells us himself that he borrowed the subjects of most of his new fables from Pilpay, the Indian sage, we have clearly a right to look to India in order to see whether, in the ancient literature of that country, any traces can be discovered of Perrette with the milk-pail.

Sanskrit literature is very rich in fables and stories; no other literature can vie with it in that respect; nay, it is extremely likely that fables, in particular animal fables, had their principal source in India. In the sacred literature of the Buddhists, fables held a most prominent place. The Buddhist preachers, addressing themselves chiefly to the people, to the untaught, the uncared for, the outcast, spoke to them, as we still speak to children, in fables, in proverbs and parables. Many of these fables and parables must have existed before the rise of the Buddhist religion; others, no doubt, were added on the spur of the moment, just as Sokrates would invent a myth or fable whenever that form of argument seemed to him most likely to impress and convince his hearers. But Buddhism gave a new and permanent sanction to this whole branch of moral mythology, and in the sacred canon, as it was settled in the third century before Christ, many a fable received, and holds to the present day, its recognized place. After the fall of Buddhism in India, and even during its decline, the Brahmans claimed the inheritance of their enemies, and used their popular fables for educational purposes. The best known of these collections of fables in Sanskrit is the Pañkatantra, literally the Pentateuch, or Pentamerone. From it and from other sources another collection was made, well known to all Sanskrit scholars by the name of Hitopadesa, i.e., Salutary Advice. Both these books have been published in England and Germany, and there are translations of them in English, German, French, and other languages.

The first question which we have to answer refers to the date of these collections, and dates in the history of Sanskrit literature are always difficult points. Fortunately, as we shall see, we can in this case fix the date of the Pañkatantra at least, by means of a translation into ancient Persian, which was made about 550 years after Christ, though even then we can only prove that a collection somewhat like the Pañkatantra must have existed at that time; but we cannot refer the book, in exactly that form in which we now possess it, to that distant period.

If we look for La Fontaine's fable in the Sanskrit stories of the Pañkatantra, we do not find, indeed, the milkmaid counting her chickens before they are hatched, but we meet with the following story:—

"There lived in a certain place a Brâhman, whose name was Svabhâvakripana, which means 'a born miser.' He had collected a quantity of rice by begging (this reminds us somewhat of the Buddhist mendicants), and after having dined off it, he filled a pot with what was left over. He hung the pot on a peg on the wall, placed his couch beneath, and looking intently at it all the night, he thought, 'Ah, that pot is indeed brimful of rice. Now, if there should be a famine, I should certainly make a hundred rupees by it. With this I shall buy a couple of goats. They will have young ones every six months, and thus I shall have a whole herd of goats. Then, with the goats, I shall buy cows. As soon as they have calved, I shall sell the calves. Then, with the cows, I shall buy buffaloes; with the buffaloes, mares.