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The lion’s share is an expression that has come to mean the larger of two amounts, or more often, the largest of several amounts. The saying derives from one of Aesop‘s fables of which there are several versions, but is also found in the ancient Indian Jataka tales and in Rumi‘s Mathnavi.Illustration of the fable from Steinhowel‘s Aesop, 1501
The early Latin version of Phaedrus begins with the reflection that “Partnership with the mighty is never trustworthy”. It then relates how a cow and a goat and a sheep go hunting together with a lion. When it comes to dividing the spoil, the lion says:
- “I take the first portion because of my title, since I am addressed as king; the second portion you will assign to me, since I’m your partner; then because I am the stronger, the third will follow me; and an accident will happen to anyone who touches the fourth”.
In the Greek version of Babrius it is a wild donkey and a lion who go hunting. The lion divides their take into three, awarding himself the first because he is king of the beasts, the second because they are ‘equal’ partners, and suggesting that the ass runs away quickly before daring to touch the third. The moral Babrius draws is “Measure yourself! Do not engage in any business or partnership with a man more powerful!”
The earliest Aesopica version is more cynical still. A fox joins the lion and donkey in hunting. When the donkey divides their catch into three equal portions, the angry lion kills the donkey and eats him. Then the fox put everything into one pile, leaving just a tiny bit for herself, and told the lion to choose. When the lion asked her how she learned to share things this way, the fox replied: “From the donkey’s misfortune.”
The Indian equivalent of this story is first told as the Dabbhapuppha Jataka about the former life of the Buddha. Here a jackal offers to arbitrate between two otters who are quarrelling over the division of a fish they have co-operated in bringing to land. The jackal awards them the head and tail and runs off with the bulk of their catch. The moral drawn, as well as being a condemnation of the greed that leads to contention, is a political one (as in Aesop):
- Just as when strife arises among men,
- They seek an arbiter: he’s leader then,
- Their wealth decays and the king’s coffers gain.
The story is also close to another of Aesop’s fables. In The Lion, the Bear and the Fox, the first two animals simultaneously attack a kid and then fight over their spoil. When they are both too exhausted to move, a fox steals their prey and leaves them to reflect “How much better it would have been to have shared in a friendly spirit.”
- “Melt away your existence, as copper in the elixir, in the being of Him who fosters existence.
- You have fastened both your hands tight on ‘I’ and ‘we’: all this ruin is caused by dualism.”
In his telling of the story it is a lion, a wolf, and a fox who go hunting together. The lion orders the wolf to divide the catch and when it does so into three parts, tears off the wolf’s head, just as the lion tore the donkey to pieces in Aesop’s fable. Rumi’s speciality, however, is always to offer an explanation of his actors’ motives. In this case the lion explains that it is an act of grace for him to do so since the wolf did not recognise superiority when he saw it.
When the fox is tested in the same way, he does not even retain a morsel for himself, explaining (as in the Greek version) that he has learned wisdom from the wolf’s fate and thanking the lion for giving him the privilege of going second. This allows Rumi to conclude that we are lucky to be living now, with the examples of past generations to guide us. Rumi’s fox then worships at the feet of the lion, addressing him with the words “O king of the world” and is duly rewarded for this devotion with everything that he had resigned to the divine king.
Much the same interpretation was given to this tale by the contemporary English author Odo of Cheriton in the Latin work known as Parabolae. For him too the lion is a symbol of God and his actions are interpreted as an expression of divine justice. Odo explains that the lion punished the wolf, just as God did Adam, for the sin of disobedience. The moral of the story is to learn from this example to show reverence to God, just as the fox learned from the wolf’s punishment. This reading of the fable therefore gained currency in Western Europe too, both via the preachers who used Odo’s book as a source of stories for their sermons and through translations of it into French, Spanish and Welsh.