Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Wolves In Sheep's Clothing

The cautionary advice “Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing” is a colourful and well-known one but where does it come from? It is usually thought of as having its origin in the Bible and the English phrase certainly does. Matthew 7:15 in the King James Version reads; “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” But if we go back further, at least five hundred years before the New Testament, we have a story about a wolf disguising itself in a fleece in the fables of the Greek storyteller Aesop. The best-known version of Aesop’s Fables is George Townsend’s translation published in 1867. Townsend gives the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing fable like this. “Once upon a time a wolf resolved to disguise his appearance in order to secure food more easily. Encased in the skin of a sheep, he pastured with the flock deceiving the shepherd by his costume. In the evening he was shut up by the shepherd in the fold; the gate was closed, and the entrance made thoroughly secure. But the shepherd, returning to the fold during the night to obtain meat for the next day, mistakenly caught up the wolf instead of a sheep, and killed him instantly.” However, at about the same time as Aesop but far away from both Greece and Palestine there is another mention of a wicked wolf disguising itself as a sheep. In the Mahabodhi Jataka (No. 528) we find these two verses;

Once a wolf in the form of a ram
Went confidently amongst a flock of goats
Killing rams and goats,
And having terrified them he went on his way.
Similarly, some monks and brahmins disguise themselves
And deceive people by fasting, lying on the ground,
Covered with dirt, squatting, begging and holding their breaths.
They claim to be enlightened while actually doing evil.

In this version of the idea the wolf is described as being ‘in the form of a ram’ (urabbharupena) and his victims are a flock of goats and sheep. That he has covered himself with a skin to fool the flock is suggested by the word ‘disguise’ (chadana). Unlike Aesop’s story but similar to the Bible simile, these Jataka verses equate the wolf with religious frauds. In the Bible they are ‘false prophets’ while in the Jataka they are ascetics who use austerities to give the impression of holiness.

Interestingly, both Aesop and the Jataka share another story about one animal disguised in the skin of another. In Aesop an ass puts on a lion skin and amuses itself by frightening other animals who think it is a lion. Eventually it encounters a fox who fails to be deceived because he recognizes the ass’s voice. In the Sihacamma Jataka (No. 189) a peddler is in the habit of throwing a lion skin over his donkey and letting it graze in the rice or barley fields while he is doing business in the village, the field-watchers being too frightened to scare the ‘lion’ away. One day the donkey brays, the field-watchers realize the deception, and club the donkey to death. Both stories are similar in that their key character is an ass in Aesop and a donkey (gadrabha) in the Jataka, that it wears a lion skin, and that it is its voice that gives the game away. Aesop’s ass takes the initiative to disguise itself while the Jataka’s donkey is an innocent victim of its owner’s craftiness.


j d said...

False teachers abound today. Pretending to be enlightened. Writing books and holding satsangs and not being shy to ask for large donations. Please give us all a discriminating mind and save us from the deceitful and glib.

Anonymous said...

It seems the wolf is most popular as the archetypal villain in fables from everywhere. Perhaps the most universally known is the cautionary tale about talking to strangers: Little Red Riding Hood.

peace said...

hi Bhante, Thanks for sharing the stories. I am not sure if there are wilds wolves in India (pardon my ignorance) but I certainly think it is interesting to note the similarities of these stories. I do also wonder if it is linked to the migration of the Aryans from Europe to India in the ancient times or the influence of Alexander's battles eastwards from Europe.


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Peace,
The Indian wolf (Canis cowa) was a common animal in India until well into the 19th century when it went into drastic decline due to extermination campaigns and habitat loss. Just looking at my ‘Gaya Old Records’ it mentions that 57 travellers and children were killed by wolves around Gaya in 1853.

peace said...

Thank you Bhante for the info. Learned something new (again!). I need to read more to expand my knowledge base. Much appreciate it!

Ananda See施性国 said...

Thank you Bhante for an unusual and interesting article. According to Wikipedia article ‘The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing’ this story did not appear in any version
of Aesop’s fables until the Middle Ages. So perhaps it’s possible that the Bible was influences by the Jataka rather than by the Greek story.

RevCJ said...

I found this interesting because we always refer to those that blindly follow as "sheep" and those that are open to different viewpoints as "wolves," because most of us grew up Christian and to them we are heathens because we follow a different belief structure. Countless times I have suggested that my friends "don their sheep's clothing," as to not offend others by speaking or acting overtly around those with closed minds strictly as a means to emit non-violence.The little red riding hood story was told to children that strayed from the path of Christianity and ventured into the sector the church calls "pagan." Knowing that another faith considers your faith as evil or unclean, you have two options really. Follow suit and create more discomfort between you, or realize that its a wide road with many lanes and navigate it without causing offense (don the sheep's clothing). Rev. Luke Johnston - One World Smiling

massimiliano a. polichetti said...

... and not to mention that the wolf is in the roman tradition one of the most sacred in between the holy symbols! :-)

Anonymous said...

Very interesting. Well, its the first time I have read about and know about wolves' sacred secret. Thanks for this very informative post.

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Pilgrim1411 said...

You're in prelest (spiritual delusion). There is no reincarnation. This belief about yourself is rooted in pride and self-love.