Aḥiqar: The Wolf And The Snake

Among the fables I’m looking at is the fable of the wolf and the snake in the story of Aḥiqar. Aḥiqar was one of the most widely known stories in antiquity. Before modern times it was translated and paraphrased into a dozen or so languages. It became a paradigm narrative of the life of a sage and as such was used to narrate the life of Aesop. The fable of the wolf and the snake is preserved in at least three versions of the story.
A. S. Lewis, 773, translates the Arabic version (VII:35-37),

0 my son! thou hast been like the serpent riding on a thorn-bush when he was in the midst of a river, and a wolf saw them and said, “Mischief upon mischief, and let him who is more mischievous than they direct both of them.”
And the serpent said to the wolf, “The lambs and the goats and the sheep which thou hast eaten all thy life, wilt thou return them to their fathers and to their parents or no?”
Said the wolf, “No.” And the serpent said to him, “I think that after myself thou art the worst of us.”

This fable with considerable variation is reflected in the Syriac (8:27) and Armenian versions. Both the Syriac and the Armenian versions are shorter than the Arabic version with the Armenian version considerably so.
J. R. Harris, 773, translates the Syriac,

My son, thou hast been to me like a serpent that was mounted on a thorn-bush and thrown into a river; and a wolf saw them and said to them: “Bad rides on bad, and worse than either caries them off.” The serpent said to him, “If thou shouldst have paid the reckoning for the she-goats and their young ones.”

F. C. Conybreare, 773, translates the Armenian,

Son, thou hast been to me as a snake that wound itself round a bramble and fell into a river. A wolf saw it and said, “Lo, the evil is mounted on the evil, and evil is that which drives them along.”

According to Lindenberger, 5 and fig. I, all three of these version stem from a no longer extant Early Syriac version which itself come from an also no longer extant “Elaborate” Aramaic version. He argues that this “Elaborate” version, the late 5th century BCE Aramaic version from the Elephantine papyri and the hypothesized “Tobit” version all originated from a further hypothesized “Combined” Aramaic version. Based on his linguistic analysis of the Elephantine version, he argues that the predecessor version combined the basic story of Aḥiqar with a collection of proverbs that once existed separately. Be this as it may, this fable of the serpent and the wolf does not appear in the Elephantine Aḥiqar papyri. But the papyri are badly broken and major portions are certainly missing. There is really no way of knowing exactly when the serpent and the wolf fable entered the tradition. I do wonder if the continuing dialog between serpent and the wolf in the Arabic is secondary or from some other tradition. In fact the first reply of the serpent in both the Arabic and Syriac versions seems a bit of a non sequitur. The “reception history” of this story and its accompanying proverbs, whatever their origins, is surely complex. It is possible that some portions of our fable go back to the earliest strata of the Aḥiqar tradition while other portions had their origin in medieval times.
The Elephantine Aramaic version does preserve several abnormally interesting fables. I follow Lindenberger’s enumeration system.

  • Ass and lion (saying 28)
  • Leopard and goat (saying 35)
  • Bear and lambs (saying 36)
  • The Bramble and the pomegranate! (saying 73)
  • Wild ass and man (saying 106)

I may have some more to say about the wild ass and the man later.
All this for a footnote or maybe two footnotes!
Reference:

Conybreare, F. C. translation of the Armenian version of Aḥiqar in R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English: with introductions and critical and explanatory notes to the several books (2 vols.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), II, 724-76.
Harris, J. R., translation of the Syriac version of Aḥiqar in R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English: with introductions and critical and explanatory notes to the several books (2 vols.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), II, 724-76.
Lewis, A. S., translation of the Arabic version of Aḥiqar in R. H. Charles, The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English: with introductions and critical and explanatory notes to the several books (2 vols.; Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968), II, 724-76.
Lindenberger, James, M., The Aramaic proverbs of Ahiqar (Johns Hopkins Near Eastern Studies; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983)