Readings in Nonviolence: Aesop’s Fable – The Wolf and the Lamb

l See for Jean-Baptiste Oudry’s pictorial take on ‘The wolf and the lamb’

Story and analysis by Gearóid Ó Dubhthaigh

There are many versions of this disturbing fable; here is my presentation of it.

One morning a hungry wolf, who was out hunting stopped to drinking at a brook. A short distance downstream he caught sight of a young unsuspecting, vulnerable lamb – a farm animal – that had become separated from his flock.

The wolf set his eyes upon the lamb and thought to himself: “There’s my dinner, delivered to me on a plate!”

Because the lamb looked particularly helpless and innocent, the wolf felt he ought to pick some quarrel to excuse his intention to seize the lamb.

So, drawing near he accused the lamb, saying: “How dare you muddy the water I’m drinking?”

The lamb, frightened at this threatening charge, said, in a tone as mild as possible, and trying to not exacerbate the wolf’s feelings: “Don’t get angry with me! It couldn’t possibly be me who is muddying the water you are drinking as the stream flows from you towards me.”

Very well,” said the wolf; “but I know you spoke ill of me a year ago.” “I couldn’t have done so; I wasn’t born until this year.” bleated the trembling lamb.

Well, then it must have been your brother,” growled the wolf.

It cannot have been so, for I never had any,” answered the Lamb.

The wolf, finding it impossible to come up with a plausible pretext, rejoined “’Tis all the same to me, if it wasn’t you, it was one of your lot. Fortune has conveniently brought us together so I can avenge the wrong done to me.”

At this he leaped upon the distraught lamb, and ate him on the spot.


Let us begin by looking at the story itself.

Who is involved?

Do animals speak to each other like they do in this story? No.

And we all know that in real life wolves must eat other animals to survive.

So, this story is not about animals, it is about people. Aesop used animals and birds as characters through whom he could gently and memorably present moral lessons, about people: human nature, us, what we see around us – we may see ourselves in the characters.

In this fable we have one who is very powerful and is intent upon depriving a weaker one of something that is his by right (his life). There is a clash between what a powerful one wants (having his way, his will, his desire), and (doing) what is just.

Let’s examine the story of the Wolf and the Lamb, and see what lessons we can gain from it. You may draw many other thoughts from it

1. “The wolf set his eyes upon the lamb and thought to himself”, and we might say that he thought only of himself.

(i) Somebody who is hungry or full of fear will find it difficult or impossible to hear the concerns of another. People who are dying of hunger are known to become like mad men, doing things that they could never otherwise conceive of doing.

(ii) The same can be true of those deprived of sleep or are under the influence of mind-altering substances such as alcohol and drugs; their judgement and self-control is impaired.

(iii) Similarly, emotions can blot out reason. Someone who over a period of time – in a similar manner to how we Adore and Worship God – can become fixated (obsessed, full of lust, infatuated, terrified, paranoid, full of vengeance, envy, etc.). In this state they can become overpowered by their emotions concerning wanting this very thing that they don’t have, and merge the importance of having it with their ego. They become blind to reality and will not be open to listening to reason, nor will they be capable of giving consideration of what is Just; they will pursue their objective regardless.

2. Why might the wolf want to vindicate, to justify, to excuse his intention to seize the lamb?

(i) Perhaps other wolves might think less of him for seizing such an easy prey – they might hold a wolf who hunted for his food in much higher regard.

(ii) More importantly there could be repercussions for this wolf if it became known to the farmer that a wolf was lurking in the vicinity of his flock liable to attack any one of them.

(iii) Furthermore, as the wolf was too lazy to go out and hunt for his food, rather than poaching lambs, there could be repercussions for other wolves; as the farmer would not know which wolf had done this, and so he might kill any or all of them. The other wolves in his pack might feel their lives were unnecessarily endangered and force this deviant, careless wolf out of the district.

3. … he accused the lamb …

– What do you think of the wolf’s excuses; were they based upon reality or were they exactly that, excuses; the skin of a lie?

– Did he use them to distract from reality?

– Can we learn anything about the wolf by looking at the accusations he makes?

(i) The wolf had seen that the lamb looked particularly helpless and innocent. By making an allegation, he placed an emotional barrier between him and the lamb; in effect he was labelling the lamb a deviant, an enemy. He was refocusing the encounter with the lamb, making it less likely that his intentions would become stymied by empathy.

(ii) Often, we will present ourselves as victims of injustice – some hurt inflicted by another – in order to justify an attack upon somebody.

Much of Scripture can be summarised by saying:

Do not use the sins of another to justify your own wrong-doing.

(iii) Often the accusations we make concerning others are more applicable to ourselves; they tell our own story.

The wolf’s allegation that the lamb was muddying the water maybe a subconscious recognition of his ploy to muddying the situation, so that the thinking become “muddied”, in other words we are distracted from the truth of the situation, reality.

The allegation that someone spoke ill of him, may reveal his true fears; he may be looking for an excuse so as to prevent others from speaking ill of him, for doing such a cruel and imprudent thing.

4. Those who are intent upon doing something wrong will come up with any excuse, no matter how improbable. Even so those with overwhelming power seems to have a need to justify their disregard for right order, with a fake appeal to reason and conscience. Yet their cover for their arbitrary cruelty and tyrannical use of power, can be an extraordinary flimsy excuse, having little connection with reality. It may merely serve as a distraction from reality. Perhaps we perceive ourselves as in some way dependent upon the compliance and even complicity of those around us (our reference group) so that we must justify our actions, less they become alarmed and think we might do the same to them, and so if they have the means and the audacity, they may turn upon us.

The first accusations were easily disproven as the details were evidently not true. The final justification presented by the wolf was guilt by association, where it was not almost impossible to prove or disprove the validity of the injury the wolf claimed he suffered. In any case the alleged offences were clearly irrelevant; the wolf was determined to make a meal of the lamb.

They say that the first casualty of war is the truth.

Violence cannot (continue to) exist without lies, and lies can’t exist without (being backed up by) violence (or the threat of violence).

Jesus Christ said to His Disciples:

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. (Mt.10:16)

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