The Mouse and the Oyster

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The cautionary tale of The Mouse and the Oyster is rarely mentioned in Classical literature but is counted as one of Aesop's Fables and numbered 454 in the Perry Index.[1] It has been variously interpreted, either as a warning against gluttony or as a caution against unwary behaviour.

A warning to the unwary[edit]

Auguste Delierre's copperplate of the La Fontaine fable, 1883

The earliest mention of the fable is in a Greek Anthology poem of the 1st century CE by Antiphilus of Byzantium.[2] A house-mouse comes across an oyster and tries eating it, only for the shell to snap shut, bringing him at once both death and a tomb. In the following century, the orator Aelius Aristides gives the story a political interpretation as a warning to avoid entrapment in dangerous situations.[3]

A flowery Latin version of the Greek poem was made by Andrea Alciato for his book of emblems(1531), where it figures as a picture of greed.[4] He was followed in this interpretation by the English emblematist Geoffrey Whitney, who turns it into a health warning:

The Gluttons fatte, that daintie fare devoure,
And seeke about, to satisfie theire taste:
And what they like, into theire bellies poure,
This justlie blames, for surfettes come in haste:
And biddes them feare, their sweete, and dulcet meates,
For oftentimes, the same are deadlie baites.[5]

The Frome physician Samuel Bowden reads the same lesson into it in his mock-heroic poem 'occasion'd by a Mouse caught in an Oyster-Shell' (1736) that concludes with the lines

Instructed thus — let Epicures beware,
Warn'd of their fate — nor seek luxurious fare.[6]

Bowden's poem was a popular one and anthologised for a century afterwards. By that time, however, translations of La Fontaine's Fables were offering an alternative moral. The French author's mouse is a naive creature who knows the world only from books and comes to grief not simply through greed but for lack of experience.[7] In this lively poem, one of La Fontaine's images recalls Alciato's emblem. Arriving at the sea, where 'The tide had left the oysters bare/ He thought these shells the ships must be'. In some of the illustrations to Alciato's work there is indeed a similarity between the pattern on the shell that has closed on the mouse and the boat under sail on the sea.[8]


  1. ^ Aesopica site
  2. ^ IX.86
  3. ^ Mary Ellen Snodgrass, Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire, New York 2010, p.7
  4. ^ Emblem 95
  5. ^ A Choice of Emblemes, 1586, Emblem 128
  6. ^ Reely's Audio Poems
  7. ^ VIII.9
  8. ^ Alciato at Glasgow site

External links[edit]