Aesop's Fable of the Crow and the Pitcher

The Celebrated History of an Ingenious—and Thirsty—Bird

Aesop's Fable - The Crow and the Pitcher. Credit: http://www.amazon.com/

One of Aesop's most popular animal stories is this one, of a thirsty and ingenious crow. The text of the fable, from George Fyler Townsend, whose translation of Aesop's Fables has been the standard in English since the 19th Century, is this:

A Crow perishing with thirst saw a pitcher, and hoping to find water, flew to it with delight. When he reached it, he discovered to his grief that it contained so little water that he could not possibly get at it. He tried everything he could think of to reach the water, but all his efforts were in vain. At last he collected as many stones as he could carry and dropped them one by one with his beak into the pitcher, until he brought the water within his reach and thus saved his life.

Necessity is the mother of invention.

History of the Fable

Aesop, if he existed, was a slave in the seventh century Greece. According to Aristotle, he was born in Thrace. His fable of the Crow and the Pitcher was well known in Greece and in Rome, where mosaics have been found illustrating the crafty crow and the stoic pitcher. The fable was the subject of a poem by Bianor, an ancient Greek poet from Bithynia, who lived under the emperors Augustus and Tiberius in the First Century A.D. Avianus mentions the story 400 years later, and it continues to be cited throughout the Middle Ages.

Interpretations of the Fable

The "morals" of Aesop's fables have always been appended by translators. Townsend, above, interprets the story of the Crow and the Pitcher to mean that dire circumstance gives rise to innovation. Others have seen in the story the virtue of persistence: The crow must drop many rocks into the pitcher before he can drink.

Avianus took the fable as an advertisement for the suave sciences rather than force, writing: "This fable shows us that thoughtfulness is superior to brute strength."

The Crow and the Pitcher and Science

Again and again, historians have noted with wonder that such an ancient tale—already hundreds of years old in Roman times—should document actual crow behavior.

Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (77 A.D.) mentions a crow accomplishing the same feat as the one in Aesop's story. Experiments with rooks (fellow corvids) in 2009 showed that the birds, presented with the same dilemma as the crow in the fable, made use of the same solution. These findings established that tool use in birds was more common than had been supposed, also that the birds would have had to understand the nature of solids and liquids, and further, that some objects (stones, for example) sink while others float.

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Gill, N.S. "Aesop's Fable of the Crow and the Pitcher." ThoughtCo, Aug. 9, 2016, thoughtco.com/aesops-fable-crow-and-pitcher-118590. Gill, N.S. (2016, August 9). Aesop's Fable of the Crow and the Pitcher. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/aesops-fable-crow-and-pitcher-118590 Gill, N.S. "Aesop's Fable of the Crow and the Pitcher." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/aesops-fable-crow-and-pitcher-118590 (accessed January 20, 2018).