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Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Blowing Hot and Cold ~ A Classic Fable Misunderstood?

(Post originally published April 9, 2015)

 
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"The Satyr and the Peasant" by Walter Crane (1887).

Illustration in Baby's Own Aesop, (London 1887).

Throughout the centuries the clever fables attributed to a freed slave named Aesop (c. 620?-560 BC?) who reputedly came from the island of Samos have entertained and instructed countless readers. Today we continue to remember stories such as the goose that laid the golden egg and its unfortunate end due to greed, also, the tale of the persevering crow that couldn’t reach the water at the end of a narrow pitcher until it raised up the water level by dropping pebbles in one by one showing that doing things little by little accomplishes the seemingly impossible. Then, we have the memorable example of the town mouse and the country mouse in which a quiet life is better and safer than a luxurious one filled with constant danger and dread. However, there is one fable and its associated lesson that puzzled me when I was child, and that is the story of ‘The Peasant and the Satyr’ from which the following moral seems to have originated: ‘Beware of those who blow hot and cold with the same breath’. In other words, be careful of those who are not steadfast and waver back and forth, the shallow flip-floppers if you will!


Of course, the fables were altered with the telling over the centuries and one often finds various versions of the same story. Sometimes the man is called a Peasant, in other accounts a Traveller. The following is one simple account I can recall that was entitled the ‘Man and the Satyr’ from my childhood reading: a Man and Satyr were very good friends until one cold windy day the Satyr noticed the Man was blowing on his hands. He asked him why he was doing that and the Man answered his breath kept his hands warm. That night the Satyr invited his friend over for dinner and couldn’t help but notice him puffing on the hot soup he had given him. He asked why he did that and the Man replied the soup was too hot, so he was cooling it down. The Satyr then parted ways with his friend saying he would have nothing to do with someone who could blow hot and cold with the same breath. To give another example of the same story, a more elaborate version was translated by a certain Mr. Joesph Jacobs for the ‘Harvard Classics’, Vol. 17, (Ed. Charles W. Elliot, P.F. Collier and Son, Corp., New York, 1963), p. 33:


“A Man had lost his way in a wood one bitter winter’s night. As he was roaming about, a Satyr came up to him, and finding that he had lost his way, promised to give him a lodging for the night, and guide him out of the forest in the morning. As he went along to the Satyr’s cell, the Man raised both his hands to his mouth and kept on blowing at them. ‘What do you do that for?’ said the Satyr. ‘My hands are numb with the cold,’ said the Man, ‘and my breath warms them.’ After this they arrived at the Satyr’s home, and soon the Satyr put a smoking dish of porridge before him. But when the Man raised his spoon to his mouth he began blowing upon it. ‘And what do you do that for?’ said the Satyr. ‘The porridge is too hot, and my breath will cool it.’ ‘Out you go,’ said the Satyr, ‘I will have nought to do with a man who can blow hot and cold with the same breath.’”

descriptionIllustration from The Fables of Aesop by Richard Heighway, (1894).



At first, the Man appears to be the villain in both versions this story, the inconstant flip-flopper of whom one must be wary, while the Satyr appears to be the wise character for parting ways with the double-dealing hypocrite. The fact that the clichéd line of ‘to blow hot and cold with the same breath’ originally coined by the Dutch Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536) in connection with this story has survived for so long seems to support this view. However, there was one observation that always stuck with me when reading this narrative when I was little: the Man’s breath was always the same, it was the external temperatures of the objects he blew upon that were different depending on the surrounding environment and could be cooled or heated depending on their temperature, not the Man’s actual breath. So the poor fellow was not an inconstant flip-flopper at all! Maybe the Satyr is the true symbolic scoundrel in the tale? I’ve come to conclude that this may actually be the case and that the moral associated with this fable, ‘blowing hot and cold’, was not the intended proverb of this particular story, or at least, only part of it. I’ve recently discovered that others also noticed the strange discrepancy in the story. The controversial thinker of the Age of Enlightenment, Voltaire (1694-1778), couldn’t help but notice the irrational logical of the foolish Satyr and praised the Man, while the German philosopher and dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) conjectured that it is only an allegory: the illogical inaccuracy of the story was possibly due to an attempt to invent a narrative around an already existing proverb, but the storyteller produced a clumsy and irrational tale as a result.


As for my own observations as to the true lesson of the story, let us consider the following. What was a satyr? An ancient Greek mythological creature that was generally depicted as a man with goat’s ears, legs and a tail ~ a motley half man, half goat being that was associated with the followers of the licentious god of wine Dionysus. The Romans also believed in these creatures, which they called ‘fawns’ and were associated with Dionysus’ Roman counterpart, the god Bacchus. Therefore, these strange creatures were considered lustful and drunken individuals, especially during the celebration of the wild ribald rites associated with their deity during the spring that were called the Bacchanalia. So in Aesop’s classic we have the image of an ‘inconstant’ grotesque hybrid creature that is neither man nor goat falsely criticising a full blooded Man for not being ‘constant’. It appears that the moral of the tale is not just a case of ‘blowing hot and cold’, but rather an example of people wrongfully accusing others of the shortcomings that they themselves possess—the pot calling the kettle black! We cannot help but observe a case study of double standards hidden under the guise of an entertaining fairy tale.

In the more elaborate version of the tale presented above, we also see a few more character flaws peeking out in the Satyr. Since we could safely venture a logical guess that the Satyr’s breath is the same temperature as the Man’s, the Satyr was trying to find some pretext or ‘valid’ fault in his guest in order to excuse himself from carrying out the sacred duty of hospitality he promised, for he booted the poor Man out into the dark of night and left him wandering lost in the forest without a second thought, which is a very dishonourable thing to do to a guest. We also note that contrary to the orgiastic liberality associated with the satyrs, he provided his guest with a miserable meal, a bowl of porridge. We suspect the Satyr in this case is a miserly host grudgingly giving the bare minimum required rather than provide the best from his larder for his unexpected visitor. Maybe that’s all the Satyr had to offer it could be argued, but somehow that doesn’t seem to add up in connection with a creature not known for self control that indulged in great feasting and drinking parties. 



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Bacchic Scene (c.1627) by Nicolas Poussin, featuring a Satyr giving a Bacchante a wild time.

 It would be interesting if some form of the longer rendition featuring the Man lost at night in the woods and receiving a stingy reception as an unexpected guest in need did exist in the days of the ancient Greeks and Romans for we might discern a telling criticism of certain cults. For instance, the Satyr could be representative of the Bacchantes, the followers of the Dionysian orgiastic rites as viewed by the more conservative ancient Greeks and Romans who were critical of the drunken cult. It is very probable that the Bacchantes were deemed by them to be hypocrites using piety to cover their ribald feasting. Considering that Aesop’s fables may have been one effective way to veil personal opinions when indulging in free speech was dangerous during the rule of the ancient Greek tyrants, this tale could have been one way to quietly ridicule the adherents of Dionysus when speaking against any of the cults was considered a rash thing to do. The Bacchantes were particularly adamant in defending their rites, declaring that devastation and madness would befall anyone who criticised the cult of their god. Perhaps the droll story of the ‘Man and the Satyr’ was used by the conservative element in the populace to display that the Bacchantes were not so pious as they pretended to be but were rowdy devotees using religious zeal to cover their own immoderate purposes, indulging in their feasting ceremonies and sparing no expense to do so when it suited them, yet resorted to any ridiculous pretext to escape complying with other virtuous and honourable rites, refusing to help their fellow men when it put them out of pocket or was considered inconvenient.


Of course, the proverb of the fable ‘blowing hot and cold’ will always endure, however, it is hoped that in the future the reputation of being a hypocritical flip-flopper with double standards will be credited to the character of the miserly Satyr and not the Man as previously assumed. This is one exception where I agree with Voltaire and praise the Man for cooling his food and warming his fingers ~ even fictitious characters have a right to their good name and are entitled to a defence!

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