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In Search of Aesop - Historical Figure or Myth?
Portrait of Aesop
Writer of Fables
Aesop, writer of fables, was supposedly born in 619 BCE and died in 559 BCE. He is best known as "The Fabulist", credited with "The Tortoise and the Hare". It is uncertain as to where his birthplace was and some scholars debate if he really existed. Was Aesop really a historical figure or a myth?
There are no writings by Aesop that survived. Numerous fables were, however, attributed to him. In the centuries since Aesop's death -- these attributions have been gathered and set in writing by many scholars as a collection of Aesop's Fables.
In the folk book titled The Aesop Romance, it is written that Aesop wrote down his fables and deposited them in the library of King Croesus -- yet, the book is considered a fiction by an unknown writer, embellished over the years by other scholars or writers. From 560 to 547 BC, Croesus was the king of Lydia. Scholars speculate whether or not Aesop actually wrote the fables. Yet by the time of Classical Greece, the fables were widely known and still attributed to Aesop. The works of Aesop's Fables was transcribed by several writers in both Greek and Latin. Over time many authors made collections of the fables, but they have all been lost.
The Tortoise and the Hare
Aristotle (384 BCE - 322 BCE) and other early Greek sources indicate that Aesop was born around 620 BCE in Thrace at a site on the Black Sea coast. Later sources from the Roman imperial period claim Aesop was born in Phrygia, a kingdom in the west central part of Anatolia, in what is now modern-day Turkey. Callimachus (310 BCE - 240 BCE) a poet, called the famed writer "Aesop of Sardis". Maximus of Tyre (late 2nd century AD), a Greek rhetorician and philosopher, referred to Aesop as "the sage of Lydia".
Either Aesop travelled a lot, or there was much confusion and speculation about his true life. Aristotle and Herodotus claimed Aesop was a slave in Samos, a Greek island in the eastern Aegean Sea. In the time when Aesop lived, Samos was a particularly rich and powerful city-state.
Aesop reportedly was very intelligent and highly respected by the people who personally knew him, for both Aristotle and Herodotus told of how Aesop must eventually have been freed from his bondage when he argued as an advocate for a wealthy Samian. Plutarchus (46 - 150 CE), a Greek historian, biographer, and essayist, claimed that Aesop was sent to Delphi on a diplomatic mission by King Croesus of Lydia. Also, according to Plutarchus, Aesop dined with the Seven Sages of Greece, as he sat beside his friend, Solon, who was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet. Aesop, obviously traveled with well known, intelligent, and wealthy people.
Herodotus (484 -425 BCE), the Greek historian known as the "Father of History", was known to have referred to Aesop as the "fable writer".
Throughout Greek and Roman history, Aesop was often mentioned and accredited with a plethora of fables. In modern times, scholars still have no proof that a real Aesop ever existed. Martin Litchfield West, a British Professor known as "the most brilliant and productive Greek scholar of his generation." (source: British Academy: Medals and Prizes, Kenyon Medal), wrote:
The name of Aesop is as widely known as any that has come down from Graeco-Roman antiquity (yet) it is far from certain whether a historical Aesop ever existed ... in the latter part of the fifth century something like a coherent Aesop legend appears, and Samos seems to be its home.— Martin Litchfield West
The Fox and the Crane
Fables Built With Truths
Fables are fiction, originally told orally. Over the centuries since Aesop lived, the fables have been told with variations, depending on the individual storyteller's own interpretations.
However, the fable will always be built upon truths. Even though Aesop fables are usually told with animal characters, such as The Beaver, or The Lion and the Mouse, they contain truths for humans to take note of and learn. In the Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14, by Lucius Flavius Philostratus (c. 170/172 - 247/250) an ancient Greek philosopher, credited Apollonius of Tyana (c. 15 CE - c. 100 CE), another ancient Greek philosopher, with saying about Aesop:
" ... like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events."
Fables have been used for centuries by parents and other elders as lessons for children. 'The Boy Who Cried Wolf' is a perfect example to teach children not to lie, especially when it comes to danger. The boy, probably from boredom, intended to play a joke on the village folks by shouting in a scared voice that the wolf was attacking the sheep. He thought it quite funny to see the villagers come running to save him and the sheep and repeated the joke a few times, each time laughing at his trick. When the wolf really did come to attack, the villagers did not believe his cry for help was real, so did not come to help. Therein lies the moral: do not joke around and lie about danger or you will not be helped when danger is really about to happen.
Another example for children, and adults as well, is the story of the 'Ant and the Chrysalis', which teaches that appearances are often deceptive. The ant feels that the ugly chrysalis is pitiful and makes fun of its appearance and inability to travel as the ant does. A few days later, the ant sees that the shell is empty and notices that the chrysalis had become a beautiful butterfly. The butterfly gracefully floats away in the summer breeze, never to be seen again by the ant. The ant did not see the beauty within the chrysalis and therefore lost sight of it forever.
This is much like the disdain and laughter Aesop received from others because of his appearance. They did not look beyond the appearance to see the beauty within, which was a clever and creative mind that could tell interesting stories with a lesson to be learned.
The Boy Who Cried Wolf
Depictions of Aesop
Many drawings of Aesop show a man of stubby physique, with short legs,a humpback, an enlarged head and over-sized upper torso, with a concave chest. His face is distorted and ugly, with a protruding lower lip. He is shown with a mass of thick curls covering his head. Artistic depictions of him were not kind to Aesop. There is one portrait by Diego Velazquez (1599 - 1660) of Aesop that shows a kindly face and a more normal physique, showing no physical deformities.
This description of the lost painting portrays Aesop as well-loved and honored by his fable characters. Many early scholars, such as Himerius, a 4th century Greek sophist, who said that Aesop was laughed at "not because of his tales, but on account of his looks ..."
It is probable that the artist of the lost painting could see Aesop as the animals did, rather than laugh at him as people did.
Maximus Planudes (c. 1260 - c. 1305), a Greek monk and scholar, wrote a biography of Aesop in which he states that Aesop's complexion "was black, from which dark Tincture he contracted his Name (Aesopus being the same with Aethiops)". Later scholars, Gert-Jan van Dijk and Frank Snowden refute the account that Aesop was a black African from Ethiopia. It is interesting that the biography written by Panudes was based on The Aesop Romance, which is known to be a fiction.
Portrait of Aesop
If you could paint a portrait of Aesop, what would he look like?
Philostratus the Elder (c. 190 – c. 230), a sophist (a teacher who used philosophy and rhetoric as teaching tools) of the Roman imperial period described a lost painting of Aesop:
"The Fables are gathering about Aesop, being fond of him because he devotes himself to them. For... he checks greed and rebukes insolence and deceit, and in all this some animal is his mouthpiece — a lion or a fox or a horse... and not even the tortoise is dumb — that through them children may learn the business of life. So the Fables, honoured because of Aesop, gather at the doors of the wise man to bind fillets about his head and to crown him with a victor’s crown of wild olive."
A Woodcut of Aesop
The Aesop Romance
The Aesop Romance is a work of fiction by an anonymous Greek author. It was composed sometime around the second century AD. or possibly in the first century AD. (source: Leslie Kurke, "Aesop and the Contestation of Delphic Authority", in The Cultures Within Ancient Greek Culture: Contact, Conflict, Collaboration, ed. Carol Dougherty and Leslie Kurke, p. 77.).
Over the centuries different writers added to it or changed the original to such a degree that it became contradictory long before it was put in writing.
In the romantic fiction, the beautiful Rhodope is in love with the the slave Aesop. An engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi (based on a painting by Angelica Kauffman) symbolically depicts the two lovers as complete opposites: beautiful and common, light and dark, graceful and awkward. Rhodope reaches to Aesop with her open palm up while Aesop gestures with his palm down to the caged doves. The doves are white, a sign of love and peace. A raven below them is dark, a sign of mystery or ill omen. Aesop, gesturing to the caged doves may be reminding Rhodope that he, too, is caged because he is a slave. Aesop is all in dark, Rhodope all in white.
Eventually, the two lovers part and Rhodope becomes the wife of an Egyptian Pharaoh.
Aesop and Rhodope
Aesop and Priests
Sadly, Aesop came to a tragic end. Around 564 BCE, when on his diplomatic mission from King Croesus, Aesop met with a violent death. Plutarchus said that Aesop insulted the Delphians in some manner. A trumped-up charge falsely accused him of stealing from a temple. Aesop was sentenced to death and thrown from a cliff. In retribution from an unknown source, the Delphians then suffered a pestilence and famine.
Aesop's fables are famous world wide. His short tales portrayed human nature and life's truths. A fable is a short story with a moral -- often using animals or inanimate objects as characters. The moral is to make the distinction between the right way and the wrong way of doing things.
If Aesop did in fact exist, it is easy to imagine why he wrote fables about the truths in life and learning right from wrong. Aesop was not only a slave, but, of abnormal stature and appearance. He was depicted in sculpture, paintings and woodcuts as a dwarfish hunchback with deformed facial features and disproportionate limbs and body. How he was treated in life may have influenced his writings.
If he really had been a dwarfish hunchback with deformed features and still treated with respect and honour, then this could very well have been an inspiration for writing tales of right and wrong and how one should be treated kindly by others.
Statue of Aesop
Aesop - Historical Figure or Myth?
There has not been any concrete evidence of proof that Aesop really existed. Scholars are still debating and researching today to find the truth. Yet, Aesop has been discussed, painted, sculpted, written about by so many well known ancient and modern sources for over 2500 years.
Were all the fables simply a collection of the oral stories from unknown people? If so, it is understandable that a man, a fable himself, would have been created by someone to add purpose and depth to the moralistic fables. Who better than a gentle man who loved nature and sought to teach, in a delightful way, right from wrong?
It would be difficult for many, the world over, to say Aesop was not a real person. Regardless of the many different depictions and conflicting stories of his life, Aesop is a well-loved writer of fables.
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© 2014 Phyllis Doyle Burns