What’s the Story Behind the Boy Who Cried Wolf?

(Last Updated On: July 31, 2022)

Everyone knows that one person who cries wolf. You know, ringing all the alarm bells, only for everyone to run over thinking there’s a crisis to the sound of absolutely nothing being wrong in the first place. Or you live in a frustrating apartment building where the fire alarm goes off for no reason on the regular. Eventually you’re going to be conditioned to not buy the alarm bells–which might present a problem if there’s an actual issue. So, we all know the boy who cried wolf. But what’s the story behind the boy who cried wolf?

Getting Written Down

There are many versions of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” and the story was first recorded in Greek antiquity. The fable is among Aesop’s Fables, which are a series of stories attributed to a guy named Aesop. He’s believed to have kicked around in ancient Greece from 620-564 BCE. These fables all belong to oral tradition, and were just passed from person to person for a really long time–and it wasn’t until centuries after Aesop died that his fables were even collected. 

The moral of the old Greek version follows the same strokes as the story you probably thought of when you first remembered there was a boy who cried wolf. In The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, Diogenes Laërtius attributes the following to Aristotle: when asked what liars will gain the answer is as follows: “that when they speak the truth they are not believed.” 

Eating Sheep, But in English

Because “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” has been through the translational ringer, there are many variations of the story. Like we mentioned with the moral of the story (if you lie people won’t believe you when you tell the truth), many of the broad strokes of the narrative remain constant. A boy in charge of sheep repeatedly trickers his village into thinking a wolf has attacked the flock. One day, a wolf actually shows up and eats all the sheep.

Oops.

“The Boy Who Cried Wolf” made its way to Latin in the 15th century, by the 1470s a guy named Heinrich Steinhöwel gave the story notoriety throughout Europe. Steinhöwel’s claim to fame is his biography of Aesop, as well as a Latin-German translation of Aesop’s fables. When the story made the rounds throughout Europe, there were many variations for its name. These variations ranged from “A Boy and False Alarms” and more simply “The Boy Who Lied.”

Anyway you’re probably more interested in some of the story’s variants.

Aesop’s Fables didn’t make their way into English until 1484 by a guy named William Caxton. Caxton actually wasn’t known for being good at translating anything, but because he was under pressure to publish things quickly he played a large role in the printing of English works. He’s often credited with pushing the English language towards a standard.

Caxton’s version of the story is named “Of the Child Whiche Kepte the Sheep,” which would later spawn poetic versions of the tale–in which the boy is eaten. 

In the vast majority of versions, the boy is effectively ostracized from his community.


Speaking of wolves, see if you know which states have them here.

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About Kyler 728 Articles
Kyler is a content writer at Sporcle living in Seattle, and is currently studying at the University of Washington School of Law. He's been writing for Sporcle since 2019; sometimes the blog is an excellent platform to answer random personal questions he has about the world. Most of his free time is spent drinking black coffee like water.