One of the less popular of Aesop's Fables, Hercules and the Wagoner is a simple tale with a simple moral.

George Fyler Townsend's version, as published in 1919, goes as follows: 

 


 

A Farmer was driving his wagon along a miry country road after a heavy rain. The horses could hardly drag the load through the deep mud, and at last came to a standstill when one of the wheels sank to the hub in a rut.

The farmer climbed down from his seat and stood beside the wagon looking at it but without making the least effort to get it out of the rut. All he did was to curse his bad luck and call loudly on Hercules to come to his aid. Then, it is said, Hercules really did appear, saying:

"Put your shoulder to the wheel, man, and urge on your horses. Do you think you can move the wagon by simply looking at it and whining about it? Hercules will not help unless you make some effort to help yourself."

And when the farmer put his shoulder to the wheel and urged on the horses, the wagon moved very readily, and soon the Farmer was riding along in great content and with a good lesson learned.

Self help is the best help.

Heaven helps those who help themselves.


As you can no doubt guess, this is the origin of the proverb "God helps those who helps themselves" (though not the actual epistomological origin of that idea, we'll get to that momentarily). It also represents the groundwork for the modern idea that a good citizen is one who earns his or her success by "pulling themselves up by their bootstraps". That saying, of course, is and was intentionally ironic. No person has ever achieved greater altitude by attempting to self-elevate their footwear. Only in present usage has it, through ignorance or purposeful subversion, become synonymous with the old "God helps those..." saying.

Now, it should be noted that I am not a particular fan of the Hercules and the Wagoner story. It's all well and good for Hercules, a demi-human who inheirited all his strength from his divine father, to pop in on some peasant and lecture him about hard work. It's quite another thing to be the actual peasant soaked to the bone by the rain with your livelihood stuck deep in the mud on the side of the road. 

There is, thankfully, a far superior version of this story recorded in the very earliest of Aesop's Fables, as collected by Ben Edwin Perry. This version, upon which Hercules and the Wagoner was later based, is called "The Shipwrecked Man" and deals with the story of a man adrift at sea who calls upon Athena, the Greek god of wisdom. Athena hears his prayer and duly descends from the Heavens to bestow her glib advice- he had better start swimming before he drowns. This story is meant, supposedly, to reflect an ancient Greek version of the "God helps those..." saying, of which no official rendition survives, but which may best be summed up by Euripedes in his his play Hippolytus:

"Try first thyself, and after call in God; For to the worker God himself lends aid."

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