best and worst


Between heaven and earth there flies a red bird that is always wet. Can you tell me what it is?
There are 32 white stools ranged around the long red room where this old gossip lives.

Hugh Lupton’s  riddle book has a great Cuban tale in it that he heard from Mimi Barhélemey, called The Best and the Worst in All the World. I was pleased to discover that it is a descendant of a much older story told about Aesop:

Aesop, a slave to Xanthus on the island of Samos, was ordered one day to arrange the meal for a large banquet. He was to provide the choicest dainties that money could buy.
When the guests arrived they were treated to a starter of tongue, served with a variety of excellent sauces. The guests of course made a few jokes about this. But when the next course was tongue too, they were puzzled. And when the third and fourth courses turned out to be tongue too puzzlement turned to perplexity. Xanthus was embarrassed and turning to Aesop angrily demanded an explanation.
‘Didn’t I tell you to provide the best meat you could find?’
‘What could be better than the tongue?’ said Aesop. ‘It is the tongue that teaches and enlightens, the tongue that praises and entertains, it is the tongue that strikes bargains and makes promises.’
The guests liked what Aesop said and good feeling was restored to the meal.
Xanthus spoke up: ‘Well, perhaps all of you could do me the favour of coming again for another meal tomorrow?’ And turning to Aesop he added, ‘This time could you arrange a meal with the worst meat you can find?’
The guests liked the idea and returned the following evening. And, to their confusion, nothing but tongue was served again.
Xanthus seemed angry. ‘How,’ he said, ‘can you serve up tongue as the best possible meat one day, and then the worst meat the next?’
‘What,’ replied Aesop, ‘can be worse than the tongue? What evil is it not involved in? Violence, injustice and fraud are all debated and resolved upon and communicated by the tongue. It is the ruin of empires, cities and friendships.’
The guests were pleased by what Aesop had said, and pleaded with Xanthus to appreciate the wisdom of his slave.

I like the Aesop story, even though there is a slight feel of a sermon about it.
The characters in the Mimi Barthélemy version are crocodiles. It is spiced with riddles like the ones above. And it is, as the real Aesop of course was, more lyrical:

“It is the tongue – that can lull a baby to sleep, that can fill the ears and the heart with love and delight, that can make peace between two warring armies and can lead the world into truth. Truly it is the best thing of all.”



  1. vixen said

    The tongue has no bones and bones it can smash.
    (Greek proverb)

  2. Simon G said

    In the playground at school we used to say, when someone was calling us bad names, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me!”
    Your proverb is more true though!

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