The Golden Axe
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“The Golden Axe” is a fable told in The Fourth Book of Rabelais‘s Gargantua and Pantagruel. The story, alternately known as “The Honest Woodcutter,” is based on one of Aesop’s Fables, and it later inspired the French fabulist Jean de La Fontaine and his “Mercury and the Woodcutters.”
In contrast to the carnivalesque that pervades Rabelais’s novel, the fable is a somewhat gruesome cautionary tale of the virtue of moderation. As the woodcutters and nobles toss their swords and axes into the water, they are emasculated and lose their means of production, only to make the wrong choice and be killed.
Once, a woodsman (in Rabelais’ version, Couillatris) lost his axe in a pond. Night and day he cried up to Heaven: “Zeus, my Axe!” The god became incensed. “Here I am trying to rule Heaven and Earth and this woodsman is constantly bothering me about his axe! Hermes, find and take him back his axe – but first show him a golden axe. If he greedily chooses that one instead, chop off his head!” Hermes dutifully obeyed. The honest woodsman refused the golden tool and chose his real axe. Hermes did not want to carry the heavy golden one back up to Olympus, so as a reward, Hermes gave the woodsman the golden axe as well.
The happy woodsman told his fellow villagers of how he had lost his axe and how the gods had restored it and a golden axe to him. Soon, every able-bodied man in the village had bought an axe and lost it in the woods. They began lifting up loud cries up to the heavens. But the woodsman had not mentioned his honesty, or perhaps he was disregarded; the other men each chose the golden axe, and Hermes cut their heads off with it. In La Fontaine’s version, they were just knocked in the head with the axe and spared, but they did not receive their old axes.
In the older version, attributed to Aesop, only one fellow woodcutter tries to repeat the honest woodcutter’s act, and his axe is merely left in the pond. In variations, the axe is returned to the woodcutter by a mermaid or an angel sent from God.