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The Arts

10 Of The Strangest Fables From The Ancient World

Michael Van Duisen


Stories have been told for millennia, often with the intent of teaching people lessons. Many such fables are relatively short, as only a few sentences are needed to get the point across. Here are some strange ones that are all but lost to modern culture.

10‘Chonguita The Monkey Wife’
Don’t Judge By Appearances

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A king commands his three sons to leave his kingdom and seek their fortunes. The youngest, Juan, ends up at a palace, where he meets a monkey whose daughter Chonguita is available for marriage. They marry, and Juan meets back up with his brothers, who each married beautiful human women.

When the three brothers return home, the king accepts his youngest son’s situation. However, he later feels it dishonors the family, and he arranges a series of tests for all three brides, hoping to get Chonguita killed. In the end, the monkey wife is the most skilled of the three wives, and she wins her husband the throne.

Later, at a large party honoring the new king, Juan gets angry when Chonguita tries to dance with him, and he throws her against the wall. She transforms into a beautiful woman. The story ends there—somewhat prematurely. Perhaps this was before the invention of the “happily ever after” ending.


9‘Of Chastity’
God Is Good; Resist Temptation

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“Of Chastity” is a short story from a collection known as the Gesta Romanorum (“The History of Rome”), most likely compiled at the beginning of the 14th century. An extremely popular book, it was a huge influence on Western literature, especially on the works of Chaucer and Shakespeare. More a teaching tool than a history book, the Gesta Romanorum has many stories with morals attached to them, often with a Christian bent designed to aid preachers.

“Of Chastity” takes place during the reign of the Roman emperor Gallus and tells of an especially skilled carpenter building him a palace. The carpenter gets married, and his new mother-in-law gives him a magical shirt that will stay clean as long as he and his new wife are faithful to each other.

A soldier resolves to get the carpenter’s wife to cheat on him and cause the shirt to get dirty. The wife escapes the soldier by locking him in a room. Two more men try the same thing, and she traps each of them in rooms as well.

When the carpenter returns home, she praises God that the shirt is still clean and tells her husband what happened. The soldiers are freed, their lives changed for the better.

8‘The Historic Fart’
A Single Act May Define Your Entire Life

This story is taken from the classic Arabian book “One Thousand and One Nights.” The framework of the collection is still well known. A king marries a new virgin each day, killing the previous day’s wife. Then his latest wife Scheherazade begins to tell him stories, and he leaves off killing her so he can hear how they end. After one thousand tales, he’s in love with her. He spares her life and makes her his queen.

“The Historic Fart” tells the story of Abu Hassan, a wealthy merchant who gets married. During his wedding celebration, after gorging on food and wine, he lets out a fart. This embarrasses him so much that he flees into exile for several years.

Desperate to see his wife once more, he disguises himself and returns to his village. Just as he’s getting to the outskirts of the city, Hassan hears a young girl talking to her mother. The girl wants to know when she was born, and her mother answers, “You were born on the very night of Abu Hassan’s fart.”

Realizing he’ll never escape that day, Abu Hassan flees back into exile, remaining there until his death.



7‘The Expulsion Of The Jews From Prussia’
Jews Are Inherently Evil

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Perhaps not as well known as the anti-Semitic folktales popularized by the Brothers Grimm, this German tale of unknown origins gives a concrete reason that Jews were not allowed in Prussia. Many anti-Semitic stories of the time were used as propaganda to make Jews seem evil or subhuman. This particular tale portrays Jews not only as liars but as anti-Christian.

A poor fisherman is having trouble catching fish. A Jewish man comes up to him and tells him that he can catch as many fish as he can carry by using sacred bread from the Eucharist as bait. A year later, the Jewish man is arrested for something else and confesses what he told the fisherman. The fisherman escapes punishment, but the Jew is killed, and all other Jews are forced out of Prussia.

6‘How Saint Peter Lost His Hair’
Don’t Be Greedy (And Don’t Lie To Jesus)

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A sort of biblical Abbott and Costello, St. Peter and Jesus often feature together in Christian folklore, with Jesus playing the straight man opposite the comical, bumbling St. Peter. Traditionally, St. Peter was depicted as a bald man, with only a single lock of hair protruding from the front of his head. This old German folktale tries to explain the reasoning behind that.

St. Peter and Jesus are walking, and they come upon a farmhouse. Since they’re both hungry, St. Peter enters and begs the woman inside for some food. She obliges, giving him three freshly made pancakes. He hides one underneath his hat, and when Jesus asks how many there are, St. Peter says “two,” giving Jesus just one pancake.

The hot pancake burns his head, and St. Peter removes his hat, only to find that all his hair has fallen out. Only the lock protruding from underneath his hat remains.

5‘How The Wicked Sons Were Duped’
Don’t Give Away Your Money Too Early

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An ancient Indian folktale, “How the Wicked Sons Were Duped,” tells a story common to civilizations that revere the elderly. In the beginning of the tale, an old man on his deathbed divides his wealth among his three sons. Miraculously, he survives, but he’s left penniless, and his sons refuse to care for him because he has nothing left to give them.

Distraught, the man goes to a friend and tells his sad tale. His friend fills up a few bags with gravel, telling the old man to pretend he was just repaid on an imaginary loan. He further instructs the old man to tell his sons they can’t have the bags until he actually dies.

When the three sons find out about the alleged wealth, they treat their father well every day until his death. Upon opening the bags, the sons realize they have been tricked.



4‘The Frogs Desiring A King’
Better No Rule Than Cruel Rule

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The Greek author Aesop was more than likely an invented person, much like Homer. Nevertheless, his persona has persisted throughout the years as one of the earliest authors to provide morals with his stories. While stories like “The Tortoise and the Hare” or “The Ant and the Grasshopper” are more well known, each of his fables is worth a read.

“The Frogs Desiring a King” tells of a group of frogs who live happily in a swamp, free of any cares. One day, a few of them decide they want a proper leader and plead with Jove, their god, to send them a king. He laughs and sends them a rather large log.

Terrified at first, the frogs don’t know what to do, until the strongest of them jumps on the log and mocks it. Soon, the rest join in, and they complain to Jove that they wanted a strong ruler, not a weak one. Jove listens and sends them a stork, which promptly gobbles them up.

3‘Filippo Balducci And His Son’
You Can’t Fight Your Nature

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Giovanni Boccaccio was a 13th-century Italian author and poet, perhaps best known for a collection of novellas called The Decameron. One of the lesser-known stories in that book,“Filippo Balducci and His Son,” presents the early life of Balducci’s son. Boccaccio prefaces the story by stating five different allegations lobbed at him, chief among them that he likes women too much. The following “half a story” aims to answer that criticism.

Balducci’s wife dies before the story begins, and he is forced to bring up his only son by himself. Intending to get his son to devote his life to God, Balducci moves into the mountains and raises him there. Eventually, he gets too old to trek to the city for supplies alone, so he takes his son, who is now 18.

Every time they pass by something on the road, the son asks what it is. When they pass a group of attractive women, Balducci tells his son that they’re geese. His son replies, “We’ll take one home and, I’ll give it something to peck.” Distraught, Balducci replies, “I won’t allow it, for you do not know from where they peck!”

But it’s no use. Balducci realizes his intellect is no match for nature.

2‘The Mosquito And The Carpenter’
A Senseless Friend Is Worse Than An Enemy

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Written as early as the fourth century B.C., the Jataka tales are loosely organized stories centered on the Buddha and his past lives. Some of the Jataka tales can also be found, nearly word for word, in other great works.

The Buddha, in one story, walks by a village and notices a carpenter with his son. A mosquito lands on the bald head of the carpenter, who asks his son to get it off. The son searches for something to swat it with it (apparently forgetting he has hands). The closest thing to the pair is an axe.

The son grabs it and swings at his father’s head, killing him on the spot.

1‘The Broken Pot’
Excessive Planning Can Be Your Downfall

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Photo credit: Junho Jung

Like the Greeks, the people of India had their own moralistic writer, Pandit Vishnu Sharma. The sage from the third century B.C. allegedly authored a collection of tales known as the Panchatantra. Though the original version is lost to history, the current form stays true to spirit and was likely compiled sometime between the fourth and sixth centuries.

The simple story “The Broken Pot” follows a Brahman beggar known throughout the community for his seemingly endless run of bad luck. One day, he receives a full pot of rice gruel from helpful strangers. After he eats his fill, he still has a full pot left. Seeing the full pot at the end of his bed, the Brahman’s mind wanders.

He thinks about what might happen if a famine came to the land. He could sell the rice gruel and then buy a mating pair of goats. The goats would soon give him a whole herd. He’d be rich enough to start a family. He’d get children, but these kids might be disobedient. So he’d have to kick them . . . 

Lost in his fantasy, he kicks his foot out and breaks the pot. The rice gruel, as well as his dreams, spills onto the floor below.

+‘Death’s Messengers’
Death Is Inevitable

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Brothers Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm published their first collection of fairy tales in 1812. Some of the stories were derived (or even ripped off) from earlier authors, but many of them were traditional village tales. As most know, their earliest versions were violent and less than appropriate for children, which led the brothers to sanitize later versions.

“Death’s Messengers” starts off with Death trying to claim a giant whose time on Earth is up. After a long battle, Death is unable to defeat the giant and is left dying himself.

Just before he shuffles off the mortal coil, a stranger walks up to Death and helps him up. Death wants to reward the stranger but can’t spare him his inevitable fate, so he makes a compromise: He’ll warn the man when his death is coming by sending his messengers.

Years later, when the stranger is old and shriveled, a hand taps him on the shoulder. It’s Death. The stranger is upset, claiming Death didn’t warn him. Death disagrees, saying he had sent his messengers: illness, old age, and sleep. The man realizes the truth and allows Death to take him.