The Ass in the Lion's Skin

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The Ass in the Lion's Skin is one of Aesop's Fables, of which there are two distinct versions. There are also several Eastern variants, and the story's interpretation varies accordingly.

The Fable[edit]

Arthur Rackham illustration, 1912

Of the two Greek versions of this story, the one catalogued as 188 in the Perry Index concerns an Ass that puts on a lion's skin and amuses himself by terrifying all the foolish animals. At last coming upon a Fox, he tried to frighten him also, but the Fox no sooner heard the sound of his voice than he exclaimed, "I might possibly have been frightened myself, if I had not heard your bray." The moral of the story is often quoted as Clothes may disguise a fool, but his words will give him away.[1] It is this version which appears as Fable 56 in the collection by Babrius.[2]

The second version is listed as 358 in the Perry Index. In this the ass puts on the skin in order to be able to graze undisturbed in the fields but is given away by its ears and is chastised.[3] As well as Greek versions, there is a later 5th century Latin version by Avianus which was taken up by William Caxton. The moral here cautions against presumption. Literary allusions were frequent from Classical times[4] and into the Renaissance, when there were references to it in William Shakespeare's King John.[5] La Fontaine's Fable 5.21 (1668) also follows this version. The moral La Fontaine draws is not to trust to appearances and that clothes do not make the man.[6]

Folk motifs and proverbial use[edit]

In India the same situation appears in Buddhist scriptures as the Sihacamma Jataka. Here the ass's master puts the lion's skin over his beast and turns it loose to feed in the grain fields during his travels. The village watchman is usually too terrified to do anything but finally one of them raises the villagers; when they chase the ass, it begins to bray and betrays its true identity. The ass is then beaten to death. A neighbouring tale, the Sihakottukha Jataka, plays on the motif of being given away by one's voice. In this a lion has sired a son on a she-jackal that looks like his father but has a jackal's howl. He is therefore advised to stay silent in future.[7] A common European variant on this sentiment appears in the Sephardic proverb in Ladino, Asno callado, por sabio contado, a silent ass is considered wise.[8] Another English equivalent is 'A fool is not known until he opens his mouth'.

The story and its variants is alluded to idiomatically in various other languages. In Latin it was Leonis exuviae super asinum.[9][10] In Mandarin Chinese it is "羊質虎皮"(pronunciation:yang(2) zhi(4) hu(3) pi(2)), ‘a goat in a tiger’s skin’. In the Chinese story a goat assumes this disguise but continues to eat grass as usual. When it spies a wolf, instinct takes over and the goat takes to its heels.[11]

Later allusions[edit]

Thomas Nast's cartoon "Third Term Panic"

In American political culture, the ass in the lion's skin was one of several fables by Aesop that was put to use by cartoonist Thomas Nast when it was rumoured in 1874 that the Republican President Ulysses S. Grant would attempt to run for an unprecedented third term in two years' time. Around that time, there was also a false report that the animals had escaped from Central Park Zoo and were roaming the city. Nast combined the two items in a cartoon for the 7 November Harpers Weekly; titled "Third Term Panic", it depicts a donkey in a lion's skin (labelled Caesarism) scattering animals that stand for various interests.[12]

The fable was also put to literary use in the 20th century by C.S. Lewis. In The Last Battle, the final volume of The Chronicles of Narnia, a donkey named Puzzle is tricked into wearing a lion's skin, and then manipulated so as to deceive the simple-minded into believing that Aslan the lion has returned to Narnia. Kathryn Lindskoog identifies the Avianus version as the source of this episode.[13]


  1. ^ Aesopica
  2. ^ The Fables of Babrius, translated by Rev. John Davies, London 1860, P.178
  3. ^ Aesopica
  4. ^ Francisco Rodríguez Adrados, History of the Graeco-Latin Fable, Brill 2003 pp.259-62
  5. ^ Janet Clare, Shakespeare’s Stage Traffic, Cambridge 2014, p.33
  6. ^ "An English version is at Gutenberg". 2008-05-06. Retrieved 2012-08-22.
  7. ^ Tales 188-9, The Jataka, tr. by W.H.D. Rouse, Cambridge 1895, Vol. II pp.75-6; an online version
  8. ^ Concise dictionary of European proverbs, London 1998, proverb 146; available online
  9. ^ #407 in Laura Gibbs' Latin via Proverbs (2006)
  10. ^ Gibbs, Laura. "Latin Via Proverbs Errata". Latin Via Proverbs. Retrieved 2 May 2016.
  11. ^
  12. ^ "View online". Archived from the original on 2012-08-19. Retrieved 2012-08-22.
  13. ^ Kathryn Ann Lindskoog, Journey into Narnia (1998), p. 184.

External links[edit]

15th-20th century illustrations from books on flikr