Aesop's Fables: The Tales Behind the Jewelry
Have you ever seen a piece of jewelry with two or more different animals on it, and wondered what the significance was? Maybe you've seen a snake and a lion fighting, or a fox and a bird facing each other, and wondered why they've been paired together in that way. Well, there's a good possibility that the jewelry you've seen is depicting a scene from one of Aesop's fables.
A tortoise-shell box with a silver relief scene of 'The Fox and the Crow' from Aesop's Fables. Classical ruins are shown in the background, and there is a border of fruit and shell motifs entwined with snakes. © The Trustees of the British Museum
What are Aesop's Fables?
Aesop's Fables are a collection of moral stories credited to Aesop, a slave and storyteller - or 'fabulist' - living in Ancient Greece between 620 and 564 BCE. Aesop's Fables were stories supposedly told by Aesop and passed on by storytellers after his death. They weren't collected in written form until roughly 300 years later.
If you've ever heard the story of 'The Hare and the Tortoise' then you know at least one of Aesop's Fables already. Maybe you've also heard of 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf', or 'The Lion and the Mouse'? Aesop's Fables have been told, read, and taught for thousands of years. They have been in print in England since the first English publisher produced an English translation in 1484.
Aesop by Diego Velázquez, c.1638. Via Museo Del Prado
New fables, translations, and illustrations are being added all the time to Aesop's collection. It's estimated that there are up to 725 of them, and there could be more still, though it's hard to know if Aesop is the origin of all of these. In fact, it was fairly common practice to attribute any old fables with no known literary source to Aesop.
In the mid-late 1600s, Jean de la Fontaine collected fables from the global West and East, including many of Aesop's, translating them into French free verse. Rhyming, poetic translations of Aesop's fables like this were not uncommon, but La Fontaine's were considered so great that he became the most famous French 'fabulist' of the 17th century.
Aesop's Fables became particularly popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. At this time, Aesop's Fables were not only moral tales for adults but also illustrated children's stories read in nurseries and schools. The fables became popular amongst all age groups, and the Victorians in particular cultivated a love for their wisdom and proverbs, making many buttons, plates, and jewelry featuring subjects from the fables. At a time where the symbolism of animals was a particularly enticing concept in artwork and jewelry, having added layers of moral meanings and maxims had the power to take such symbolism to the next level.
Antique 18kt gold and hardstone cameo necklace depicting scenes from Aesop's Fables. The central cameo shows 'The Fox and the Stork', the suspended drop on the left shows 'The Fox and the Crow', and the one on the right shows 'The Wolf and the Lamb'. Via SkinnerInc.com
Identifying Aesop's Fables Jewelry
It can be very hard to identify pieces showing scenes from Aesop's Fables, particularly where animals are featured alone. Often the difference between a piece of antique fox jewelry and an antique piece depicting the fox from one of Aesop's fables lies in the borderwork or in the suggestions of accompanying scenery, such as a bird or a bunch of grapes. This means the true meaning of many Aesop jewelry pieces may not be known, carrying their symbolism silently through the ages.
The easiest pieces to identify are pieces that depict two or three different animals together in one piece, likely interacting with each other, or one or more animals interacting with some other significant object in some way. In this blog, we want to provide a list of some of the most popular fables, to help you identify pieces of Aesop inspired jewelry.
Most Popular Animal Fables
THE HARE AND THE TORTOISE
This is by far the most well-known of Aesop's many fables and is still taught in schools today. In this fable, a hare boasts about his swiftness and agrees to a race with a tortoise. In some versions of the tale, a fox acts as their judge. The hare is so confident he will win, that he decides to run ahead of the tortoise and take a nap until the tortoise catches up. While the hare is napping, the tortoise keeps going, slowly but surely. When the hare eventually wakes up, he realizes he has overslept and the tortoise is now ahead of him, near the finish line. He runs as fast as he can to catch up, but it's not fast enough.
The story has several moral lessons; one of these is often condensed into the maxim, 'slow and steady wins the race'. Other associated sentiments include, 'never give up' and 'perseverance always prevails'. The story and the symbol of the hare serve as a reminder to avoid hubris - i.e arrogance and overconfidence - relating to the biblical proverb 'pride goeth before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall'.
A Late Victorian gold brooch depicting the tortoise and the hare from Aesop's fables with natural pearl accents. Converted into a pair of earrings on fine 18carat chain that thread through the ear. Antique Animal Jewelry
Victorian 15ct pair of brooches depicting 'The Hare and the Tortoise', both set with precious stones and held together with a chain dotted with seed pearls. Via potteriesauctions.com
Victorian paste-set silver 'the tortoise and the hare' pendant brooch. The running hare and tortoise are set with round paste stones, and the tortoise has cabochon ruby eyes.
Via The Saleroom
Silver and paste Tortoise and Hare brooch, c.1900 Via Cobra and Bellamy Jewellery
Antique silver and paste brooch, England, c.1910. Both creatures are set with white, faceted paste with red paste for eyes. There is a pin on the back of the hare, and the hare and tortoise are linked by a short chain.
Via Ruby Lane
Two rings made from 19th-century wax seals. Diamonds are set at crucial points: the center of the heart-shaped padlock, and at the tortoise and the hare's finish line. Made by @jeanjeanvintage. Via @ericaweiner on Instagram
THE FOX AND THE GRAPES
The story of this fable goes: One day a fox saw a beautiful bunch of grapes hanging just out of reach. The fox tried and tried to reach for them, but couldn't. He went away in disgust, scornfully saying that they were probably sour anyway and not worth having. This tale bears the reminder: 'It is easy to pretend to despise what you cannot obtain'.
Victorian-era gold and enamel pendant earrings depicting Aesop's 'The Fox and the Grapes', France, c.1860. Via 1stdibs.com
Late Victorian 9ct gold fox brooch with 9ct gold vine leaves and seed pearls depicting grapes
Via Selling Antiques
Antique sterling silver 'Fox and Grapes' scissors
Via @bee_vintage_41 on Instagram
Antique pictorial figural depicting Aesop's fable of 'The Fox and the Grapes'
From Pinterest via Ebay
Antique clothing button depicting Aesop's 'The Fox and the Grapes' with an embossed, brass, open-work front and a tin backing, c.1800s. Via Ebay
Heart charm of Aesop's 'The Fox and the Grapes' in crisp relief, accentuated by a rich patina, c.1940s. Via Ruby Lane
Gold brooch set with a glass micro mosaic of the 'Fox and Grapes', inlaid into a black glass background, c.1830-1850. Unlike in Aesop's fable, the fox here has secured the grapes. © The Trustees of the British Museum
THE FOX AND THE STORK
This fable tells of a fox who, seeking to play a trick on the stork (a.k.a the crane), invites the stork to dinner. For dinner, the fox serves soup in a very shallow dish, which the stork cannot drink, his beak being too long. The fox has no trouble, however, and makes a great show of enjoying the soup. The stork stays calm, and not long afterward returns the invitation, asking the fox to dinner. He serves the fox a delicious fish meal in a vase with a long, narrow neck, so that the fox can do nothing but smell it and lick the outside of the vase while the stork enjoys his meal. The fox flies into the rage and the stork says, 'do not play tricks on your neighbors unless you can stand the same treatment yourself'. This illustrates the biblical teaching, 'do to others what you would have them do to you'.
Antique silver 19th-century watch key featuring Aesop’s Fable, 'The Fox and the Stork'. The watch key has the message of the fable in German on the reverse.
Jasperware medallion, possibly of French origin, depicting the Aesop fable of 'The Fox and the Stork' set in dark patinated brass or bronze with a bright rhinestone border, mid-19th century.
Via Ruby Lane
Aesop's Fable of 'The Fox and the Stork' Perfume Bottle
From The Three Graces via Pinterest
Victorian-era French 18k yellow gold and silver depiction of Aesop's stork. Silver body, gold outlined wings, crest, claws, and tail, and an amphora crafted from a natural saltwater pearl with a gold rim and a seed pearl in the gold bottom. The eyes are cabochon onyx and turquoise, c.1850-1870. Via ADIN
Antique button depicting a scene from Aesop's 'The Fox and the Stork' From Ruby Lane via Pinterest
Antique button depicting the fox watching in dismay as the stork eats a delicious fish dinner from a narrow-necked goblet, from Aesop's 'The Fox and the Stork'. Embossed, open-work, painted/plated brass front, a brass outer rim, and a tin backing. Via Ebay
Three color gold brooch with a stylized central motif of a stork standing in water in bulrushes, possibly inspired by Aesop's fables, c. 1910. Via Selling Antiques
THE LION AND THE SNAKE
This fable is about a lordly lion who is hunting for prey and finds nothing but a snake. Disappointed, he brushes aside the snake with his paw, but the enraged snake turns on him, delivering a deadly bite. The snake shouts, 'Die, imperious tyrant! Let thy example show that no strength or power is sufficient at all times to screen a despot from destruction, but that even reptiles, when provoked, may be the cause of his annihilation.' In essence, it is unwise to insult any person, no matter how beneath you you might believe them to be, as there will be consequences.
Images via fablesofaesop.com
This story is harder to identify in pieces of jewelry. The serpent and the lion are both considered amongst the most powerful and deadly creatures of the world, so they were popularly depicted fighting together - especially in Art Nouveau jewelry - so it's uncertain how much influence can be traced to the Aesop fable.
19th-century Italian bracelet made from 18-carat gold, enamel, diamonds, topaz, rubies, emeralds, and a sapphire crown. Lion vs. snake, possibly inspired by the Aesop fable.
Art Nouveau locket depicting a lion fighting a snake, rendered in remarkably fine detail with intricate engraving, a ruby for the eye of the snake, and a diamond for the lion's eye, c.1890-1900s
Via Erie Basin
THE LION AND THE MOUSE
In this fable, a mouse is running up and down and annoying a nearby lion who, getting fed-up, decides to eat the mouse. The mouse begs the lion not to, saying that if the lion saves his life now, the mouse may be able to do the lion a favor in the future. Later, the lion finds himself caught in a trap. The mouse, happening to be passing by at the time, gnaws at the ropes and frees the lion. This fable gives us the message that patience, gratitude, and generosity are all good values that may be repaid in kind.
Wax seal necklace with Aesop's 'The Lion and The Mouse' and caption 'Patience'. The wax seal used in this charm dates back to the 1840s, an authentic antique wax seal from the Napoleon III of France era.
Sterling Silver 'Lion and Mouse' wax seal ring, made using an 1820’s French wax seal
Sterling silver 'Lion and Mouse' cuff bracelet made using an 1820's French wax seal Via Plum and Posey
THE DOG AND HIS REFLECTION
In this tale, a dog is carrying some food across a bridge. Looking down into the river below, the dog spies his reflection. Thinking it is another dog and wanting that dog's food as well as his own, he snaps at the other food, dropping his own into the water. The message - covet more and you may lose everything.
Onyx cameo depicting Aesop's Fable, The Dog and the Shadow
THE GRASSHOPPER AND THE ANT
There are several fables connected with the hardworking ant, but the most popular of these is 'The Ant and the Grasshopper'. The story goes: a grasshopper spends his time frolicking around while an ant works hard to store food for the winter. When the winter comes, the ant is comfortable and has plenty to eat, while the grasshopper does not. The message - prepare for the future.
An antique, Roman intaglio ring in carnelian depicting the ant from Aesop's 'The Grasshopper and the Ant' fable, carrying an ear of wheat. The carnelian was originally part of a bracelet, c.1800
Other very popular Aesop Fables include: 'The Crow and the Pitcher', 'The Bell and the Cat', 'The Gnat, the Ant, and the Bull', 'The Hart and the Hunter', 'The Lion, the Ass, and the Fox', 'The Wolf and the Sheep', 'The Lion and the Hare', 'The Lioness and the Vixen', and 'The Serpent and the Eagle'
Other Fables Found in Jewelry
THE EAGLE AND THE FOX
In this story, an eagle and fox befriend each other. However, not long after the eagle, hungry and needing to feed her young, steals a fox cub to feed on. The fox mourns the loss of the cub. Later, the eagle tries to seize a piece of goat from a sacrificial burning in the village. Not realizing she has also picked up a cinder along with the piece of goat, the eagle takes it back to her nest, and her young die in the ensuing flames. The moral - God is the ultimate judge.
Georgian 'Fox and Eagle' Aesop cameo ring modeled in 18 and 22-carat gold Antique Animal Jewelry
THE FOX AND THE CROW
In this fable, a crow is sitting in a tree with a piece of cheese. A fox comes by and, wanting the cheese, begins to flatter the crow. The fox calls the crow beautiful and asks if it has a lovely voice to match. Opening her beak wide, the crow dropped her cheese straight into the waiting fox's open mouth. The message of this fable is never to succumb to the charms of flattery.
However, Christian circles who read La Fontaine's translation of the tale were offended by the fox's lack of punishment for theft, so a sequel was written in the form of a song. In it, the fox's funeral is described, and the crow says, 'I’m not at all sorry, now that he’s dead, he took my cheese and ate it in my stead, he’s punished by fate - God, you’ve avenged me'.
Antique French jewelry chest with a finely cast decoration of the 'Fables de la Fontaine', c.1870-1880. Decorated with three scenes, each from a fable: On the top the 'The fox and the crow' (Le corbeau et le renard), on the front 'The Lion and the Mouse' (Le lion et le rat), on the back 'The lion and the gnat' (Le lion et le moucheron). Via lot-art.com
Hopefully, this blog will help you to identify pieces of antique animal jewelry in the future that may otherwise have eluded your understanding. Happy fable hunting!
For a more exhaustive list of Aesop's fables, see the Perry Index on fablesofaesop.com