“A cat and a monkey were sitting one day in the chimney corner watching some chestnuts which their master had laid down to roast in the ashes.
|one of earliest known illustrations of the fable, 1578|
The cat was greatly flattered by this speech, and reached forward for the tempting chestnuts, but scarcely had he touched the hot ashes than he drew back with a cry, for he had burnt his paw; but he tried again, and managed to pull one chestnut out; then he pulled another, and a third, though each time he singed the hair on his paws.
When he could pull no more out he turned about and found that the monkey had taken the time to crack the chestnuts and eat them.”
(Fables from Aesop)
It didn’t originate with Aesop, though.
The earliest text dates back to 1564, and the cat in this version was swapped for a sleeping puppy: “Not long ago in Berga (a small town by the sea where the road to fat Zeeland begins) a small monkey gave us an example noteworthy and amusing for its cunning. For, when he saw the chestnuts buried in the hearth, he began to brush the ash aside, but, afraid of the burning coals, he suddenly seized the foot of a sleeping puppy and stole it out.” (Johannes Sambucus, Emblemata, 1564)
It seems, though, that oral history predates them all.
There’s an oblique reference to the fable in the French book Proverbes written in 1456, where author Jean Mielot comments “it’s a cat and monkey game” in a way that suggests the fable was common knowledge.
In the end, we agree with website Word Detective: “although cats in mythology and folklore are generally portrayed as wily, clever, resourceful and sophisticated, the story behind "cat's paw" is an exception to the rule, and not one that any self-respecting cat would want on his resume”!
sources: Fairy Tales 4 U, Wikipedia, Word Detective, Google books, Glasgow University