Sunday, August 9, 2009

Aesop's Crow in the News

Here's a special edition of Bestiaria Latina in honor of Aesop's fabled crow which has been very much in the news all over the world! For the past few days, my email inbox has been bursting with people sending me copies of the news report about some now very famous rooks. At last count, GoogleNews listed 198 online news articles about these remarkable birds. Here's the YouTube video for those of you who have not seen it:

The intelligent rooks. Scientists created a kind of intelligence test for these rooks: in order to get food out of a narrow-mouthed beaker containing both food and water, the rooks had to drop stones into the beaker to raise the water level, allowing them to reach the food. Not only did the rooks figure out that they needed to drop stones into the beaker, they even figured out that dropping in larger stones would help them accomplish the task faster. You can read a more detailed account in the New York Times online.

The Aesop's fable. In the traditional Aesop's fable the crow is thirsty, rather than hungry, and is dropping stones into a jar in order to take a drink by raising the water level. The story is well-represented in the long-lived Latin tradition of Aesop's fables thanks to the fact that the story was included by Avianus in his verse collection of fables. You can find links to about a dozen different Latin versions of the fable here; a version of the story appears as Fable #5 in my recent book of Aesop's fables in Latin.

The natural history tradition. The story is an unusual Aesop's fable, in that the crow does not speak. Instead, she seems to behave like a real crow, very much like the rooks in the experiment. Usually the animals in Aesop's fables are highly anthropomorphic creatures, but this fable has the feel of a natural history anecdote. In fact, the story of crows performing such a feat shows up in the natural history writings of Plutarch (De Sollertia Animalium X), Aelian (De Natura Animal. II.48) and Pliny (Nat. Hist. X.125: tradendum putavere memoriae quidam [corvus], visum per sitim lapides congerentem in situlam monimenti, in qua pluvia aqua durabat, sed quae attingi non posset; ita descendere paventem expressisse tali congerie quantum poturo sufficeret). So, while we cannot be certain, it seems most likely that the story began as a natural history anecdote, based on observation of an actual bird, and it then changed over time into a fable.

From natural history to fable. So, what makes the story we find in Aesop's fables something that deserves to be called a fable? Here is the crucial detail: the fable emphasizes the fact that the bird initially makes a MISTAKE, which is the hallmark of an Aesop's fable (whenever you read an Aesop's fable, a good question to ask yourself is just which character in the story has made a foolish mistake; the moral almost always hinges on that mistake and its correction or its punishment). So, at first, the crow thinks, mistakenly, that she can get to the water by using force. Only after she fails to accomplish the task by force does she use her intelligence instead. Hence the moral of the story: Intelligence succeeds where brute force fails. The bird makes a mistake, learns from her mistake, and finally gets the drink of water, thanks to her intelligence and persistence.

Read the story in simple Latin. Below you will find a very simple version of the story in Latin, in the form of an illustrated slideshow. If you are reading this via email, you probably cannot see the slideshow, so just click on this link to the full-screen version of the slideshow online. This slideshow is taken from a Tar Heel Reader, and you can see other versions of the story at Tar Heel Reader, including a bilingual Latin-English version. Enjoy!

A version of the story in English. For a version in English, here's a lovely limerick from Baby's Own Aesop (1887), illustrated by none other than Walter Crane!

How the cunning old Crow got his drink
When 'twas low in the pitcher, just think!
Don't say that he spilled it!
With pebbles he filled it,
Till the water rose up to the brink.


Notice that here the story of the wise crow is paired with the story of a foolish crow, who makes the mistake of trying to imitate an eagle! (larger view of the image)


Kristi said...

Most interesting and instructive, thanks.

Laura Gibbs said...

Thanks, Kristi! There is a small but very intriguing set of Aesop's fables which are natural history anecdotes like this one. At some point, I need to go through and pull together a collection of them... although probably none of them will ever end up being the center of a research experiment like these great crows! If you're interested in this kind of cross-over between fables and natural history, the best ancient collection of stories is Aeslian's History of Animals. It is a wild and wonderful book full of animal stories, some of which are natural history and some of which are extravagant mythology! :-)