‘The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs’ is a well-known phrase, derived from one of the classical writer Aesop’s best-known fables. A fable, of course, is a short story with a moral, and the story usually involves animals. ‘The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs’ fits all of these criteria. But what is the moral of this fable, and what does the phrase mean, exactly?
Before we proceed to offer an analysis of this story, it might be worth briefly recapping the fable.
‘The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs’: summary
A man and his wife owned a goose which laid a golden egg every day. They considered themselves very lucky to possess such a rare bird, and they began to wonder just how much gold the goose must have inside it.
So they cut open the goose, killing it. However, to their disappointment, they discovered that the inside of the bird was like any other goose and was not made of gold. In killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, they had deprived themselves of a regular source of gold.
‘The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs’: analysis
The moral of ‘The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs’ is fairly obviously that greed is bad: if the man and his wife had not been motivated by avarice, or greed for more gold, they would not have cut open the goose and thus they would not have deprived themselves of a smaller, though regular and steady and reliable, source of income from their special bird. The ‘I want it all and I want it now’ attitude which leads them to kill the goose, in the hope of discovering even greater riches inside it, is their undoing.
Indeed, we might couple this animal-themed expression with another: ‘don’t look a gift-horse in the mouth’. If the man and his wife had been satisfied with their daily golden egg, they would not have killed the source of these. But they refused to be satisfied with the gifts the bird gave them: they wanted more. In doing so, they were – as figures so often are in Aesop’s fables – ‘hoist with their own petard’, or undone by their own scheme.
Although we know the fable as ‘The Goose That Laid the Golden Eggs’, in some versions of the fable it’s a hen rather than a goose. What’s more, Aesop isn’t the only person linked to this fable: similar tales have been found in other works of literature, including a number of works from Asia.
For instance, the Suvannahamsa Jataka, a Buddhist text, tells of how the father of a poor family is reborn as a swan with golden feathers. The swan lets his family pluck and sell a single feather from his wings to use as money, as and when they need it. But his widow, in her greed, plucks all of his feathers in one go, only to see the precious golden feathers transform into ordinary white swan’s feathers. And with that, the swan becomes an ordinary swan, with no gold feathers remaining at all. Clearly this magic bird with the ability to dispense gold is an analogue of the goose (or hen) that laid the golden eggs, although whether the Buddhist story was influenced by Aesop’s fable is difficult to ascertain.
Meanwhile, the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata contains a story of wild birds which can spit gold; these birds are strangled by a man who is greedy to get hold of the gold inside them. Again, depriving the bird of life renders their gold-giving properties null and void.
As a phrase, ‘the goose that laid the golden eggs’ has sometimes been used not to refer to the twist in the fable (which focuses on the sin of greed) but to the valuable properties of the geese themselves. Winston Churchill famously referred to the staff of Bletchley Park, those codebreakers working to intercept and decipher German messages, as ‘the geese that laid the golden eggs and never cackled’: a reference not only to the codebreakers’ silence (their story only came out decades after the end of the Second World War) but to their ability to continue to work steadily and successfully in their mission. Indeed, it is thought that the actions of those cryptographers at Bletchley Park helped to shorten the War by several years.
Aesop wasn’t the first person to write animal fables. Several centuries earlier, Hesiod had written one about a hawk and a nightingale, while a poet named Archilochus penned several, including one about an eagle and a vixen, and one about a fox and a monkey. But Aesop would turn the fable into a popular form. William Caxton printed the first English translation of the Fables in 1484, enabling such phrases as ‘sour grapes’ and ‘to cry wolf’ to enter the language.
As with Homer, we can’t be sure an ‘Aesop’ ever actually existed. If he did, it was probably in around the sixth century BCE, several centuries after Homer, if Homer himself ever existed. Aesop’s Fables may have been the work of many hands, part of an oral tradition that gradually accumulated. Nevertheless, legends grew up around the storyteller. One commentator claimed that Aesop fought at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE, but since by then he had been dead for nearly a century one can’t imagine he was much help.
Indeed, if a man named Aesop did exist in the first place, he is thought to have been a disabled black slave. The idea that he was of African descent – possibly from Ethiopia – dates back some time. The presence of such animals as camels and elephants in Aesop’s fables, not to mention the tale ‘Washing the Ethiopian White’, support this theory that he was of African origin.
Image: by Noodle snacks via Wikimedia Commons.