Thursday, March 17, 2011

Luther on Aesop's Fables

The animal fables of Aesop (ca. 550 B.C.) were one of the testimonies to secular wisdom most treasured by Luther.  They were also used in instruction in the Wittenberg schools.  Since about 1480 there had been a German translation by Heinrich Steinhoewel, but crude stories that were not always suitable for children's ears had been added to it.  This was why Luther wanted to prepare his own translation,  which could be used by families,, around the table in the evenings.  However, the work was not finished.  Only the preface and about a dozen of the translations were completed.  It was not published until after Luther's death, but then it enjoyed a wide circulation in the terse and precise linguistic form Luther employed.  Among the selections were such familiar stories as "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse"  and the story of the dog with a bone in his mouth who snaps at his mirror image in the river and thus loses what he has.  According to Luther, the fables could teach one how to act in domestic and political life, "so that you can live wisely and peacefully among wicked people in the treacherous, evil world."  In fact, the fables and the "morals"  appended to them served quite prosaically to destroy illusions about the way people dealt with one another.  One must learn that the rules of the game are unfair.  What they emphasized was not the improvement of the world, but the proper evaluation of the world.  The otherness of the "carnival game" of animal fables could help in getting children to understand the world.  

(Brecht, Luther:  Shaping and Defining the Reformation, p. 380)

The reasons Luther liked the fables are interesting to me because Aesops Fables and many proverbs were taught to us as children.  Our grandparents were also always pouring forth proverbs.  I don't think the young people of this time, know many of them.

At times, I thought about the fable to do with the ant and the grasshopper.  I remember having to translate it once from Latin for a test.  The ant collects and has enough for the winter.  The grasshopper sits around and plays music and goes hungry.  The ant won't give him any saying:  "Why did you not do any work while you could?  It's your fault."

This one used to come to my mind when also on the other hand, Jesus instructed us not to worry about material possessions. The messages seemed contradictory to me growing up.  But it is good to keep both ideas in balance.  Work while you can.  Trust the Lord and do not worry.  Share especially with those who are needy and not those who are lazy.

These are all good things for young people to consider.  Many nowadays would know neither what Jesus said, nor what the fable said.

Perhaps people can learn some of these things from all the movies and drama they consume, but then Hollywood is generally not too realistic.  The good guy never dies;  the promiscuous never get pregnant or catch an STD;  money equals happiness, the ultimate goal...  While our media shows us all kinds of graphic images, destroys our innocence, it furthers naivite, rather than wisdom.

One might need to praise here some of the reality shows.  When they are not allowed to become too vulgar, quite a bit of the truth leaks out in those.  Also our stage comedians speak a lot of truth, though they too are often too vulgar.  My sister loves to watch comedians on CBC television and find she receives a lot of counsel from them.  --  It does happen.  She loves comedy.  Actually, I have had many memorable laughs, too.   Some of these people are brilliant, indeed.

Wisdom literature is something the ancients were known for.  "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom" we hear from Solomon.   This is true.  Even ancients of other cultures had some faith in something above them.  Without  God you can be smart, cunning, successful, but not at the same time innocent as doves as well as wise.

The devil is about, also, seeking whom he may devour.  He is a liar and a murderer, and also, by the way, an adulterer.  (Luther explained in the books on  war against the Turk's aggression, see last post, that Islam exhibits all the marks of the devil in his religion:  lying about God, murdering in politics, dissolute about marriage disregarding women and children.  Though, what shall we say about ourselves?  Maybe those going around with placards saying that we are doomed because of our behavior, are doing the right thing.  But it must be remembered that it is not Jesus who teaches these things.)

This is kind of what we view in our movies, too.  Lies about God, murder and more murder, and adultery and fornication as a constant and very visual diet.

This is what we put into our heads.  It is not wise.


Steve Martin said...


Would we let these people in our living rooms?

Well, we are. We let them come into our heads through the t.v. screens or theatre screens.

Not good.

Myrtle said...

Bruno Bettelheim has a fascinating book entitled "The Uses of Enchantment." One of them is that they allow children to externalize interior processes, Rumpelstiltskin being a prime example.

However, the folktales of today are a very, very distant cousin to those of yesteryear. The original tales were rife with violence and brutality. The girl who put on the dancing shoes had her feet cut off.

They were broadly banned in the Victorian era for parents believed them to be harmful. Funny that the things oft banned are those that help us understand the human existence.

Interesting to learn that Luther liked them!

Brigitte said...

Thanks for comments, both. There were also the Grimm's fairly tales which we heard in the original as children--quite gruesome. But I don't remember them bothering me. They were viewed as fantasy, so in that sense they were safe. In this sense "enchantment" teaches this externalizing without actually causing a real fear, perhaps a temporary, thrilling fear, not an anxiety of life.

Pastor Praetorius said...

Thanks for the wonderful post. I was wondering, do you knew where in Luther's writings one could find Luther's published preface and, if we are so lucky to have them in English, any of his translations of the fables he did get to before our Lord called him home? Thanks much.

Under the Mercy,
Pastor Schuldheisz

Brigitte said...

Hello Pastor, thanks for kind words. I am afraid what I have is just this from the Martin Brecht.

You might check with "Father Hollywood". He has a number of links on the fables on his sidebar.

Blessings, Brigitte.