“Wisdom is a better defense for the wise than ten princes in the city.”
— Ecclesiastes 7:19

One day an old bull was following a trail through the mountains when he came to a narrow swinging bridge made of wooden slats. He paused, then tested the strength of the first boards with a bit of his massive weight. Timidly at first, then with greater confidence as he went along, he crossed the creaking old footbridge till he reached the other side, whereupon a gnat which had been sitting on tip of his horn exclaimed, “We sure made that one shake, didn’t we?”

The above story alighted upon my consciousness when I woke this morning. Believing it to be one of Aesop’s fables, I decided to look it up online so as to conclude the anecdote with a pithy moral. What I found instead were fifty websites with an alternate tale titled The Gnat and the Bull.

Here is one version:

A gnat that had been buzzing around the head of a Bull, at length settling himself down upon his horn, begged his pardon for inconveniencing him; “ but if,” says he, “my weight at all inconveniences you, pray say so, and I will be off in a moment.”

“Oh, never trouble your head about that,” says the Bull, “for ’tis all one to me whether you go or stay; and, to say the truth, I did not know you were there.”

Moral: The smaller the mind, the greater the conceit.

Like the telling and re-telling of a story in the telephone game, here is a variant with additional embellishments:

A Gnat alighted on one of the horns of a Bull, and remained sitting there for a considerable time. When it had rested sufficiently and was about to fly away, it said to the Bull, “Do you mind if I go now?” The Bull merely raised his eyes and remarked, without interest, “It’s all one to me; I didn’t notice when you came, and I shan’t know when you go away.”

Moral: We may often be of more consequence in our own eyes than in the eyes of our neighbors.

The above stories make fun of the gnat for his conceit, but reading further I found this fable with a pointed poke at the bull, and a lesson for each of us:

When a gnat had challenged a bull to see who was the stronger of the two, all the people came to watch the show. Then the little gnat said to the bull, “It’s enough for me that you have accepted my challenge. This makes me your equal: you yourself have admitted as much!” The gnat then rose into the air on his light wings and sported for the crowd, ignoring the threats of the bull.

If the bull had been mindful of his own mighty bulk, he would have dismissed this opponent as beneath contempt and the impertinent creature would not have had anything to boast about.

Moral: People who enter into contests with unworthy opponents lower their own reputation.

When I shared these stories in 2011, my brother-in-law who lives in Southeast Asia added the following tale.

There’s an Asian story about a water buffalo and a red fire ant. The water buffalo insulted the ant by saying it was insignificant. The ant crawled inside the buffalo’s ear and started biting until the buffalo apologized. Even after the buffalo apologized, the ant bit a couple of more times as a warning.

Clearly there’s a moral here about underestimating one’s foes. I think here, too, of the Lion and the Mouse… but that’s a whole new set of stories.

We had a book of Aesop’s Fables that I loved to read when I was growing up. I had no idea at that time how many more there were that had not been included in that collection. If you’re interested in a bit of diversion laced with wisdom, Google Aesop’s Fables and enrich your day.

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

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