A couple weeks ago, when I was in Pomacocha, I was exchanging fables with one of the women there. The local fables were surprisingly harsh on the fox in particular. The fox is always outwitted by other animals, even by the humble (in my opinion, anyway) frog. And the result of being outwitted is usually a harsh beating and/or death. The surprising thing was that the fox never did anything wrong to justify such retribution. For example, in one story, a rabbit kept stealing vegetables from a farmer. The farmer became very angry so she set up a trap for whomever was stealing his vegetables. The rabbit got wise and told the fox, “Fox, the farmer has a beautiful daughter whom she wants to marry off. She picked you as the betrothed. You just need to accept the offer by ‘wearing’ the bracelet you see over there.” So the fox goes and entraps himself, waiting anxiously to be married off. The next morning, the farmer checks the trap to find the fox there, looking happy and expectant. Then the farmer starts to beat the fox, and the fox starts crying out, “But I’m to marry your daughter! Where’s your daughter?” The farmer replied, “What nonsense! You thief! I’m going to kill you!” And thus the fox died. The other stories were variations of this, of how other animals always outwit the fox and not to any original sin of the fox.
This is very different from what we are used to in the West and also in China. Growing up in China, I loved listening to fables. The fox always outwitted other animals. For example, a crow in a tree had a piece of tasty meat in his beak. A fox passed by and took notice of this piece of meat. He concocted a plan. He started flattering the crow and telling the crow what a beautiful voice he has, and if he could only sing a few verses, the fox would be extremely honored. The crow bought into the flattery and started to sing, dropping the piece of meat for the fox to snatch.
At first I didn’t think too much of this fundamental difference in the way we characterize the human attributes of the fox, but tonight, while going through Max Uhle’s field notes, I noticed this:
“There are told among the Indians many stories and fables some of which I collected in the original language. Those which treat of adventures of animals like foxes, mice, condors, etc. are the most interesting as they must date back to the pre-Spanish time. Curious enough the fox which counts as the cleverest of the animals among us, in these tales is generally outwitted by the others.” I guess this story tradition had a lot more time depth and spatial distribution than I thought! I’m not quite sure what the anthropological significance is, other than it seems a lot of the fables I hear in the Andes do not have happy endings. Justice is rarely served. The fables have a very different character than Aesop’s fables, which always have some kind of moralizing message. I’ve been thinking a lot about fables recently, especially about the widespread stories about mermaids in fast moving parts of rivers, ravines, and waterfalls, all dangerous places. I’ve been mulling over an 18th century document drawing the connection between obrajes and mermaids (actually, the word they used was mermen of the lake) and some other documents describing the ghastly conditions inside an obraje. I begin to wonder about the relationship between debt slavery and the enchantment of the Andean mermaids….