The cautionary advice “Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing” is a colourful and well-known one but where does it come from? It is usually thought of as having its origin in the Bible and the English version certainly does. The Gospel of Matthew in the King James Version reads; “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves.” But if we go back further, at least 500 years before the New Testament, we have a story about a wolf disguising itself in a fleece in the fables of the Greek storyteller Aesop. The best-known version of Aesop’s Fables is George Townsend’s translation published in 1867. Townsend gives the Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing fable like this. “Once upon a time a wolf resolved to disguise his appearance in order to secure food more easily. Encased in the skin of a sheep, he pastured with the flock deceiving the shepherd by his costume. In the evening he was shut up by the shepherd in the fold; the gate was closed, and the entrance made thoroughly secure. But the shepherd, returning to the fold during the night to obtain meat for the next day, mistakenly caught up the wolf instead of a sheep, and killed him instantly.” However, at about the same time as Aesop but far away from both Greece and Palestine, another version of the story about a wicked wolf disguising itself as a sheep was in circulation. In the Mahabodhi Jataka (No. 528) we find these two verses;
Once a wolf in the form of a ram
Went confidently amongst a flock of goats
Killing rams and goats,
And having terrified them he went on his way.
Similarly, some monks and brahmans disguise themselves
And deceive people by fasting, lying on the ground,
Covered with dirt, squatting, begging and holding their breaths.
They claim to be enlightened while actually doing evil.
In this version of the idea the wolf is described as being “in the form of a ram” (urabbharupena), a male sheep, and his victims are a flock of goats and sheep. That he has covered himself with a skin to fool the flock is suggested by the word “disguise” (chadana). Unlike Aesop’s story but similar to the Bible simile, these Jataka verses equate the wolf with religious frauds. In the Bible they are “false prophets” while in the Jataka they are ascetics who use austerities to give the impression of holiness.
Interestingly, both Aesop and the Jataka share another story about one animal disguised in the skin of another. In Aesop an ass puts on a lion skin and amuses itself by frightening other animals who think it is a lion. Eventually it encounters a fox who fails to be deceived because he recognizes the ass’s voice. In the Sihacamma Jataka (No. 189) a peddler is in the habit of throwing a lion skin over his donkey and letting it graze in the rice or barley fields while he is doing business in the village, the field-watchers being too frightened to scare the ‘lion’ away. One day the donkey brays, the field-watchers realize the deception, and club the donkey to death. Both stories are similar in that their key character is an ass in Aesop and a donkey (gadrabha) in the Jataka, that it wears a lion skin, and that it is its voice that gives the game away. Aesop’s ass takes the initiative to disguise itself while the Jataka’s donkey is an innocent victim of its owner’s craftiness.