The lion's share is an idiomatic expression which refers to the larger part - or most - of something. The phrase derives from the plot of a number of fables ascribed to Aesop and is now used as their generic title, although they exist in several different versions. Other fables featuring the same basic situation of an animal dividing up a prey in such a way that it gains the greater part, or even all, exist in the East.
The early Latin version of Phaedrus begins with the reflection that "Partnership with the mighty is never trustworthy". It then relates how a cow, a goat and a sheep go hunting together with a lion. When it comes to dividing the spoil, the lion says, "I take the first portion because of my title, since I am addressed as king; the second portion you will assign to me, since I’m your partner; then because I am the stronger, the third will follow me; and an accident will happen to anyone who touches the fourth".
In the Greek version of Babrius it is a wild donkey and a lion who go hunting. The lion divides their take into three, awarding himself the first because he is king of the beasts, the second because they are 'equal' partners, and suggesting that the ass runs away quickly before daring to touch the third. The moral Babrius draws is, "Measure yourself! Do not engage in any business or partnership with a man more powerful!" These related variants are numbered 339 in the Perry Index.
Another version that first appears in the Middle Ages is more cynical still. A fox joins the lion and donkey in hunting. When the donkey divides their catch into three equal portions, the angry lion kills the donkey and eats him. Then the fox put everything into one pile, leaving just a tiny bit for herself, and told the lion to choose. When the lion asked her how she learned to share things this way, the fox replied, "From the donkey’s misfortune." This variation is given a separate number (149) in the Perry Index and is the one followed by such Renaissance writers as Gabriele Faerno, Hieronymus Osius and Geoffrey Whitney.
That the number of variations circulating at the time was found puzzling by Mediaeval authors is suggested by the fact that Marie de France includes two versions in her 12th century Ysopet. Both appear under the title "The Lion Goes Hunting" (De Leone Venante). On one occasion, she recounts, the lion is joined by officers of his court, a wild ox and a wolf, who divide the catch into three and invite their lord to apportion it. Then on another occasion, when the lion is accompanied by a goat and a sheep, the deer they take is divided into four. In both cases the lion begins by claiming portions as a legal right and retains the others with threats. In La Fontaine's Fables there is a fourfold division between a heifer, a goat and a sheep (Fables I.6). These the lion retains by right of kingship, because he is the strongest, the bravest, and will kill any who touches the fourth part.
A Latin reference to Aesop's fable is found at the start of the Common Era, where the phrase societas leonina (a leonine company) was used by one Roman lawyer to describe the kind of unequal business partnership described by Aesop. The early 19th century writer Jefferys Taylor also retold the fable in terms of a commercial enterprise in his poem "The Beasts in Partnership":
- This firm once existed, I'd have you to know,
- Messrs Lion, Wolf, Tiger, Fox, Leopard & Co;
- These in business were join'd, and of course 'twas implied,
- They their stocks should unite, and the profits divide.
The alternative version of the fable is given a different reading by the 13th century Persian poet, Rumi in his Masnavi. He begins by orienting the reader to interpret the fable in a spiritual sense:
- "Melt away your existence, as copper in the elixir, in the being of Him who fosters existence.
- You have fastened both your hands tight on 'I' and 'we': all this ruin is caused by dualism."
In Rumi's telling, the lion has a wolf and a fox as hunting companions. The lion orders the wolf to divide the catch and when it does so into three parts, tears off the wolf’s head, just as the lion tore the donkey to pieces in Aesop’s fable. Rumi's speciality, however, is always to offer an explanation of his actors' motives. In this case the lion explains that it is an act of grace for him to do so since the wolf did not recognise superiority when he saw it.
When the fox is tested in the same way, he does not even retain a morsel for himself, explaining (as in the Greek version) that he has learned wisdom from the wolf's fate and thanking the lion for giving him the privilege of going second. This allows Rumi to conclude that we are lucky to be living now, with the examples of past generations to guide us. Rumi’s fox then worships at the feet of the lion, addressing him with the words "O king of the world" and is duly rewarded for this devotion with everything that he had resigned to the divine king.
Much the same interpretation was given to this tale by Rumi's English contemporary, Odo of Cheriton, in the Latin work known as Parabolae. For him too the lion is a symbol of God and his actions are interpreted as an expression of divine justice. Odo explains that the lion punished the wolf, as God did Adam, for the sin of disobedience. The moral of the story is to learn from this example to show reverence to God, just as the fox learned from the wolf’s punishment. This reading of the fable therefore gained currency in Western Europe too, both via the preachers who used Odo's book as a source of stories for their sermons and through translations of it into French, Spanish and Welsh.
There is a close family resemblance between fables where the lion takes all because he can and fables where an arbitrator takes advantage of his powerful position, and indeed both are type 51 in the Aarne–Thompson classification system. The 10th century CE Arabic Encyclopedia of the Brethren of Purity tells one such arbitration fable, said there to be of Indian origin. Here a group of foxes are sharing a dead camel. They cannot decide how to divide it among themselves and persuade a passing wolf to make a just division. At first the wolf begins to do this, but on further consideration he decides to keep the rest for himself, as he is, after all, more powerful. (In this case, however, the foxes appeal to the lion who decides in their favour and kills the wolf and returns the camel to them.)
This fable shades into an Indian variant of the story, first told as the Dabbhapuppha Jataka, which features different animals but has at its centre the same situation of an animal making an unequal division. Here a jackal offers to arbitrate between two otters who are quarrelling over a fish they have co-operated in bringing to land. The jackal awards them the head and tail and runs off with the bulk of their catch. As well as being a condemnation of the greed that leads to strife, the tale takes a sceptical view of how the powerful frame the law to suit themselves, concluding with the satirical verse,
- Just as, when strife arises among men,
- They seek an arbiter: he's leader then;
- Their wealth decays and the king's coffers gain.
In that the tale deals with outside arbitration, however, it has certain points in common with another of Aesop's fables, The Lion, the Bear and the Fox, in which the first two beasts simultaneously attack a kid and then fight over their spoil. When they are both too exhausted to move, a fox steals their prey and leaves them to reflect, "How much better it would have been to have shared in a friendly spirit."
- Fabula I.5
- Mythiambi I.67
- Fabulae Centum (1564), fable 3, p.9
- Fabulae Aesopi (1564), fable 78
- Choice of Emblemes (1586), p.154
- The Fables of Marie de France, ed. Mary Lou Martin, Birmingham AL, pp.56-8; see the limited preview in Google Books
- Elizur Wright's translation
- The differences in interpretation between the three versions is discussed in the article Societas Leonina or the lion's share, Brian Møller Jensen, in Eranos: Acta philologica Suecana Vol. CII (2004), pp.97-104; a PDF version is available online at the Researchgate site
- Aesop in Rhyme, London, 1828, pp.76-7
- There is a translation by John C. Jacobs: The Fables of Odo of Cheriton, New York, 1985; and a limited preview on Google Books
- El-Shamy, Hasan M. (2004). Types of the folktale in the Arab world : a demographically oriented tale-type index. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press. p. 996. ISBN 978-0-253-34447-2.
- Netton, Ian Richard (2002). Muslim neoplatonists : an introduction to the thought of the Brethren of Purity (Ikhwān al-Ṣafāʼ). London [u.a.]: RoutledgeCurzon. p. 93. ISBN 978-0-7007-1466-7.
- The Jataka or stories of the Buddha's former births, ed. E.B. Cowell, Cambridge University Press, 1895, pp.205-7, archive.org
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