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Zeus and the Tortoise

One of Aesop’s most popular fables was that of Zeus and the Tortoise, which imparted a moral lesson that still rings true today.

The fable of Zeus and the Tortoise is commonly attributed to Aesop. The character of Aesop is almost certainly apocryphal, but his short educational stories were popular in the Greek world.

First written in the 3rd century BC, Aesop’s fables continue to be repeated today. Many have entered English as parables and sayings that resonate with modern audiences as well as they did to the people of classical Greece.

One of the stories that has remained popular is the fable of Zeus and the Tortoise. Just a few sentences long, it tells the story of how the tortoise came to carry its home on its back.

The fable was never meant to be a literal explanation of the animal’s form, however. Instead, it imparts a social lesson about humility that is still repeated today.

How the Tortoise Got Its Shell

The story of Zeus and the Tortoise is one of Aesop’s fables, numbered 106 in the modern classification of the stories.

The fables were not written until the 3rd century BC, although they had passed through oral tradition for several centuries before that. The Greeks claimed that Aesop had been a slave who lived around the turn of the 6th century BC.

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It is unlikely that Aesop was a real character in history. Instead, the name was given to a number of collected stories with a moral or social lesson.

The fables were not considered to be a part of mythology. While the people of Greece and Rome generally believed the established myths to be the stories of true events, the fables were understood to have been invented to impart a lesson rather than recount a fact.

One philosopher described them as “fictions that point to a truth.” The simple stories were not believed to have happened, but the lessons they taught were more honest than the exaggerated language of the poets.

The story of Zeus and the tortoise begins with the god’s wedding to Hera. In the fable, all the animals were invited to the wedding feast.

The tortoise, however, failed to come to the celebration. Zeus took offense at this and went to ask the tortoise why she had not heeded his invitation.

The tortoise replied quite simply that she preferred the comfort of her own home, even if it was more humble than the god’s palace.

Zeus punished the tortoise by placing her home permanently on her back. Because she had preferred to stay at home rather than go to his grand palace, she had to carry her home with her wherever she went.

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The lesson, as explained at the end of the short story, was that some people found it preferable to live modestly in their own home rather than lavishly in someone else’s.

A later retelling of the story from Rome claimed that the tortoise had originally been a nymph. When she ignored the invitation to Zeus’s wedding feast for the same reason, he sent Hermes to throw her and her home into a river, transforming her into the home-bound animal.

My Modern Interpretation

Aesop’s fable of Zeus and the Tortoise has many of the common features of such stories. The main character is an animal, Zeus is noted for his temper, and the social lesson given is meant to understand the human world rather than being the actual origin of the creature discussed.

This is not the only mention of the tortoise in Aesop’s fables. One of the most famous of the stories, The Tortoise and the Hare, includes the animal after it has been given its shell.

In both of these stories, the tortoise is characterized as a simple and humble animal who is unconcerned with what others may think.

Aesop’s fables often use their animal characters in such a symbolic way, characterizations that have often extended into our own modern way of thinking. Ants are industrious, the fox is cunning, and the tortoise is humble.

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In the story, Zeus punishes the tortoise for liking her own home more than his own, but the story itself does not pass the same judgement. Zeus is often shown as an angry figure in the fables, and the tortoise’s preference for her own home is shown as a sight of modesty and humility rather than an offense.

Aesop’s fables generally promoted a more humble and simple approach to life, unlike the myths that exalted powerful and wealthy kings. In the context of the fables, the tortoise was a laudable character even though her actions had offended the king of the gods.

The tortoise in this myth was so well-regarded that her words to Zeus became a commonly-used proverb in the ancient world.

In Greek, the tortoise replied with the words oikos philos, oikos aristos. This is translated as “home is dear, home is best.”

In later translations, this simple Greek phrase was made to flow better in the English language. The most commonly used translation today is still a well-known proverb: There’s no place like home.

The lesson imparted by Aesop’s tortoise continues to be a common one today. The translation of “there’s no place like home,” also gave rise to the shorter, “home, sweet home,” saying.

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The story of Zeus and the Tortoise remains one of the most popular and often-repeated of Aesop’s fables. Although just a few sentences long, it imparted a lesson that resonated with people far beyond the original intended audience.

In Summary

The story of Zeus and the Tortoise is one of Aesop’s fables, stories commonly attributed to a Greek moralist of the 6th century BC.

Aesop was almost certainly not a real figure, but the stories attributed to him are still collected under his name. Zeus and the Tortoise is one that uses an animal to teach a lesson about human behavior.

When Zeus invited the animals to his wedding, only the tortoise failed to attend. When asked why, she said that she preferred her own home.

Zeus made the tortoise carry its home on its back as a punishment for the slight. While the animal was punished in the story, its values were celebrated as an example of humility and modesty.

The tortoise’s response to Zeus gave rise to a common proverb in Greece that is still used today to invoke the simple comforts of a modest home. The phrase “there’s no place like home,” comes directly from modern interpretations of the Greek tortoise’s words.

My name is Mike and for as long as I can remember (too long!) I have been in love with all things related to Mythology. I am the owner and chief researcher at this site. My work has also been published on Buzzfeed and most recently in Time magazine. Please like and share this article if you found it useful.

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