A Lion, a Heifer, a Goat, and a Sheep once agreed to share whatever each might catch in hunting. A fine fat stag fell into a snare set by the Goat, who thereupon called the rest together. The Lion divided the stag into four parts. Taking the best piece for himself, he said, “This is mine of course, as I am the Lion;” taking another portion, he added, “This too is mine by right—the right, if you must know, of the strongest.” Further, putting aside the third piece, “That’s for the most valiant,” said he; “and as for the remaining part, touch it if you dare.”1
by William C. Michael
In this fable, we read of an agreement made between a number of animals–a lion, a heifer, a goat and a sheep. (In case you don’t know, a “heifer” is a young cow.) This is a strange group of animals and they make a strange agreement. They agree that they will share whatever each might catch in hunting. However, heifers, goats and sheep don’t hunt! They are plant-eating animals (herbivores), not meat-eating animals (carnivores). The lion alone possesses the powers needed to kill and eat another animal.
Nevertheless, Aesop tells us that in this strange group, it is the goat who actually makes the catch. He does not to do by attacking and killing an animal, but by deception, catching a stag (male deer) in a snare, or trap. It’s important for us to note the details of the fable: the animal was caught by the goat, by means of a bloodless snare.
The goat, then, calls the other animals together, honoring the agreement made between then. Now, to go along with the fable, we may assume that there was some value in the catch for all of the animals because, perhaps, the heifer, goat and sheep could sell the animal they caught and split the money. Let’s assume that’s the point of this agreement.
When the animals gather, however, the lion interprets their agreement in an unexpected way. He begins by taking the portion of the catch that is his–“This is mine, as I am the lion.”. Then, he appoints the second part of the catch to that member of the group who is the strongest–which happens to be him. He then appoints the third part of the catch to the group member who is the most valiant–which it appears none of the other animals will claim. By this time, his intention is clear, all of the group members see what he has done, and he dares any of them to try and touch any piece of the catch.
What is the moral of this fable?
The moral of this fable is complex, and we can draw different morals from it by looking at the events from the perspectives of the different characters. If we think of the goat, he was successful in trapping a stag and honorable in fulfilling his agreement with the other animals. Yet, in the end, he was betrayed by the lion and left with nothing. Worse, he could not do anything about the lion’s behavior (at the time) because the lion was stronger than him and could tear him to pieces. The moral of the fable, for the goat, is that one should avoid making agreements with any whose strength we could not oppose if they were to break the terms of the agreement.
Likewise, from the perspective of all of the offended animals, we could argue that care must be given to make sure that the intent of the agreement is made clear when an agreement is made. The lion keeps the agreement–but does so by his own cunning interpretation, for his own benefit. The agreement said that the catch would be divided among them, but it did not make it clear how the catch was to be divided. This lack of detail left room for the lion to step in and divide the catch in his own way, for his own benefit. This could have been avoided if the agreement included the details of how the catch was to be divided. When laws or contracts are not made clear, room is left for trouble.
Yet, even in the lions’ interpretation of the agreement, he plays some logical tricks on the other animals. He interprets the agreement in a simple, literal way when he appoints the first piece of the catch to himself. However, when it’s time to share the second part of the catch, he changes things. Suddenly, the agreement is no longer to be understood literally and simply, but in a different way. Yes, the catch will be divided, but according to some characteristic–and one that happens to favor the lion. The third piece, also, is appointed not to the third member of the group, but according to another quality. The lion could argue that it’s just a coincidence that all of the qualities happen to favor him–he’s just lucky. The moral of the fable, in this point, may be to beware of men who interpret laws or writings of any kind in inconsistent ways, for their own benefit.
We can draw out many other moral lessons from this fable, but these will suffice for this lesson.
Why has Aesop chosen these characters?
As mentioned in the exposition above, Aesop teaches us of a group of animals that make an agreement that is very strange indeed. The heifer, goat and sheep agree to share what they catch by hunting with a lion. The three animals are not natural hunters, and have no means of enforcing the terms of their agreement if the lion is to break them. This is what Aesop intends to show by the characters of the fable.