Thursday, January 07, 2010


Aesop conversing with a Dog

Aesop was the semi-legendary teller of fables attributed to him which go by the name of Aesop’s Fables. Lots of children have read those fables as children but in antiquity they were commonly quoted and used by everyone and have since then merged into the collective memory of all mankind.

I mentioned above that Aesop is semi-legendary. I do this because, although it appears that Aesop really did exist much of what passes for his biography and what fables are attributed to him seems to be complete legend.

For example the only surviving “Life” of Aesop from antiquity is an amusing but highly dubious collection of stories called The Life of Aesop.1

Thus the life describes Aesop has:

Aesop (according to Planudes, Cameraius and others) was by Birth, of Ammorius, a Town in the greater Phrygia; (though some will have him to be a Thracian, others a Samian) of a mean Con-dition, and his Person deformed, to the highest degree: Flat-nos'd,hunch-back'd, blobber-lipp'd; a long mishapen Head; his Bodycrooked all over, big-belly'd, badger-legg'd, and his Complexion so swarthy, that he took his very Name from't; for Aesop is the same with Aethiop. And he was not only unhappy in the most scandalous Figure of a Man, that ever was heard of; but he was in a manner Tongue-ty'd too, by such an Impediment in his Speech, that People could very hardly understand what he said.2

According to the tale Aesop by his kindness was healed by the prayers of certain Priests so that he could speak. By his wits he saved some of his fellow slaves from punishment and also pissed off his master so he was sold in Ephesus to the Philosopher Xanthus and taken to live in Samos.3

The account then describes how Aesop by various means outwitted his master and mistress and eventually obtained his freedom. He then proceeded to tour various parts of the Middle East meeting the famous and telling his fables. He adopted a ungrateful young man named Ennus as his son and finally met his death at the hands of the inhabitants of Delphi who unjustly accused him of sacrilege.4 Afterwards the Delphians were punished:

The Delphians soon after this, were visited with Famine and Pestilence, to such a degree, that they went to consult the Oracle of Apollo to know what Wickedness it was had brought these Calamities upon them. The Oracle gave them this Answer, that they were to expiate for the Death of Aesop. In the Conscience of their Barbarity, they erected a Pyramid to his Honour, and it is upon Tradition, that a great many of the most eminent Men among the Greeks of the tragical End of Aesop, to learn the Truth of the History; and found upon Enquiry, that the principal of the Conspirators had laid violent Hands upon themselves.5

How much of this is to be taken seriously? Not very much.

For example although the most common view in antiquity was that Aesop was a Phrygian According to the Greek Philosopher Aristotle and the historian Herodotus he was actually a Thracian from the town of Mesembria. He seems to have lived in the late 7th and first half of the 6th century B.C.E., and may have died c. 564 B.C.E. He does seem to have spent much of his life in Samos and was also probably a slave for some time before being freed. Aesop was also likely misshapen to some extent although the accounts we have likely exaggerate.6

Herodotus mentions that Aesop, probably captured in war, was a slave of a man named Iadmon, not Xanthus, who also owned the notorious courtesan and fellow Thracian Rhodopis. Herodotus also mentions the story of the Delphians killing Aesop.7

It is virtually certain that the story of Aesop’s death given above is an invention and bottom line is we have no idea when and how Aesop died.8

It appears that in life Aesop acted as a clerk / Secretary for his master and negotiated on his behalf, further that he was in the habit of making his points by telling short fables. The wit and cleverness of these tales soon gave Aesop a reputation for intelligence.9

In fact it appears that after he was freed Aesop seems to have been a respected figure in Samos. Aristotle preserves the story that Aesop was called upon to defend a local politician accused of corruption and on trial for his life Aesop told the following story:

Aesop was defending a demagogue at Samos who was on trial for his life when he told this story: ‘A Fox was crossing a river but she got swept by the current into a gully. A long time passed and she couldn’t get out. Meanwhile, there were ticks swarming all over the fox’s body, making her quite miserable. A hedgehog wandered by and happened to see the fox. He took pity on her and asked if he should remove the ticks, but the fox refused. The hedgehop asked the reason why, and the fox replied, “These ticks have taken their fill of me and are barely sucking my blood at this point, but if you take these ticks away, others will come and those hungry new ticks will drink all the blood I have left!” And the same is true for you, people of Samos: this man will do you no harm since he is already wealthy, but if you condemn him to death, others will come who do not have any money, and they will rob you blind!’10

The Politician was spared.

Now it does appear that after Aesop death all sorts of tales and saying were attributed to Aesop. This includes tales from Egypt, Iraq, Asia Minor, India and of course Greece and Italy.11

Now we know from Herodotus and from Aristophanes that knowledge of Aesop’s fables was pretty widespread by the end of the 5th century before Christ in fact Aristophanes mentions Aesop a couple of times in his plays including this section of his play The Birds:

Peisthetaerus: Oh, how I grieve for you birds: once you were kings!
Chorus Leader: Kings? Of what?
Peisthetaerus: Of all creation. Of me, of him, of Zeus himself. Before Kronos and the Titans, before Earth itself, you existed.
Chorus Leader: Before Earth itself?
Peisthetaerus: Yes, indeed.
Chorus Leader: That’s news to me.
Peisthetaerus: Then you must be very unobservant, or very uneducated: you don’t know your Aesop. According to him, surely, the Lark was the first of all the birds to be born, and this was before Earth existed: so when her father took sick and died, what was the poor creature to do, with no Earth to bury him in? He lay in state for four days and then she buried him in her own head.
Euelpides: What a Lark!12

It appears by then that collections of Aesop’s fables were circulating, probably in very small collections of a few fables attributed to him written up.13

The first large collection of Aesop’s Fables was put together in the late 4th century B.C.E., by a Demetrius of Phalerum who wrote a book called the Aisopeia. Although it as not survived it appears to have been the main source for the many anonymous collections of fables that circulated.14

Later Greco-Roman writers like Phaedrus, Babrius, Aphthonius, Avianus compiled collections of Aesop’s Fables. An 11th century C.E. writer called Syntipas also preserved a collection of fables attributed to Aesop.15

The fables themselves in their original form are coarse, full of mockery, derision and gloating over the misfortunes of others. In other words they are frequently very cruel. As one book states:

The underlying ethos of the world of Aesop is ‘you’re on your own, and if you meet people who are unfortunate, kick them while they are down’.16

Another fact to remember is that the moral that appears at the end of most of Aesop’s Fables were added later on and did not exist in any of the original stories.17

A few examples of less familiar Aesop’s Fables:

The Dog and the Hare

A hunting hound seized a hare and attempted both to bite it and lick its chops at the same time. The hare tired of this and said: ‘Hey you, either bite me or kiss me, so that I can know whether you are enemy or friend.’18

The Shepherds, the Lambs, and the Wolf

This is one of Aesop’s fables. A wolf saw some shepherds eating a lamb in their tent. He approached the shepherds and said, ‘Why, what a great uproar there would be if I were to do the same thing!’19

The Bees and Zeus

Begrudging the honey they gave to men, the bees went to Zeus to ask him to give them the power to kill with their stings anyone approaching their honeycombs. Indignant at their envy, Zeus condemned the bees to lose their sting-barbs every time they stung someone, and to die as a result.20

Prometheus and the Tears

This is also something that Aesop said. The clay which Prometheus used when he fashioned man was not mixed with water but with tears. Therefore, one should not try to dispense entirely with tears since they are inevitable.21

It would be of interest to know what sort of tales the real Aesop told, but we are unlikely to know what if any of the tales attributed to him he in fact ever told. Still it is an achievement to be associated with a very large collection of interesting and edifying stories and jokes. I frankly suspect the real Aesop would have been pleased.22

1. A copy of The Life of Aesop can be found Here.

2. IBID, Ch. 1.

3. IBID, Ch. 4.

4. IBID, Ch. 5-19.

5. IBID, Ch. 19.

6. Aesop, Aesop: The Complete Fables, Penguin Books, London, 1998, pp. ix-xi, hereafter called Aesop 1, Aesop, Aesop’s Fables, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2002, pp. ix-xi, hereafter called Aesop 2, Herodotus, The Histories, Anchor Books, New York, 2007, Book 2, s. 134.

7. IBID, Herodotus.

8. IBID, Note 2.134.4a, See also Aesop 1, Aesop 2, ix-x.

9. IBID, Aesop 1.

10. Aesop 2, Fable 29, pp. 18-19, from Aristotle, Rhetoric, Book 2, s. 20.

11. Aesop 1, pp. xix-xxiii, Aesop 2, xx-xxix, xxxvi-xxxix.

12. Aristophanes, Aristophanes: The Knights / Peace / The Birds / The Assemblywomen / Wealth, Penguin Books, London, 1978, Lines 471-483, pp. 170-171.

13. Aesop 2, pp. x-xi. claims there was no written collections at this time. I find this unlikely I suspect though no large collection of such tales existed only a few collections of a few of the fables, but no large comprehensive collection.

14. Aesop 2, pp. xx-xxi.

15. IBID, pp. xxi-xxv.

16. Aesop 1, pp. xvii.

17. Aesop 2, xiii-xiv.

18. Aesop 1, Fable 182, p. 134. I have decided to exclude the moral and let the tales stand on their own.

19. Aesop 2, Fable 392, p. 183.

20. Aesop 1, Fable 234, p. 173.

21. Aesop 2, Fable 516, p. 238.

22. The two best recent readily available collections of Aesop’s fables are Aesop 1, (358 fables) and Aesop 2, (600 fables). See also Aesopica, Here, and Aesop’s Fables, Here.

Pierre Cloutier

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