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The Story Behind Aesop and His Fables

Updated on January 30, 2016
TolovajWordsmith profile image

Tolovaj is a small publishing house specializing in literature for children. The theory of fairytales is one of our passions.

The Fox and Sour Grapes illustrated by John Tenniel
The Fox and Sour Grapes illustrated by John Tenniel

The most famous collection of fables ever

Aesop supposedly wrote the most known collection of short stories in the world. It seems every country in the world knows these simple and effective stories with emphasized educational notes.

But if we try to answer some relatively easy questions, we'll quickly find ourselves in trouble. How many fables are in Aesopica? Who wrote them? When was he born? Was he an author or just a collector? Truly we can hardly claim the man with this name really exists!

While the answers are too evasive for a short article, we can safely presume the collection of fables must be unique if it managed to stand the test of time. After all, these centuries stories are still fresh and useful to present the truth in an amusing and humorous way.

(Intro image credit: John Tenniel, all images in this lens are Public Domain)

My goals are:

- finding who was Esop,

- checking what he wrote,

- exploring the influence of Esop's work on other artists.

Everything with facts and examples!

A nice companion for your Kindle

All the popular tales with animals featuring human weaknesses are here. The greatest beauty of these old fables which stood the test of time, is simple fact they are all in public domain, so everybody can enjoy them anytime, anywhere.

Aesop's Fables
Aesop's Fables

Classic tales with morals!

 
Aesop's Fables: A Pop-Up Book of Classic Tales
Aesop's Fables: A Pop-Up Book of Classic Tales

Aesop's Fables - enjoy these timeless stories with a more kid friendly approach.

 

Who was Aesop?

Man with impressive but unconvincing biography

There are many documents about Aesop, his astonishing gift of storytelling, anecdotes and quotes from his life and legendary death.

Some of these documents are pretty unreliable, mostly on the fact they were written many centuries after he died. (If he lived at all!) Others are pure fiction with illogical sequences of events and fictional characters.

Although Esop is mentioned in writings of famous Greek historians and his fables are translated to practically all languages of the world, we will never know for sure if the man with this name ever lived.

So we should read on with at least a pinch of salt.

Right time, right place

Aesop was living in Ancient Greece just a few centuries before it reached its peak of development. None of the civilizations before or after made such progress in philosophy, science and politics with so lasting effects.

Diego Velasquez's imaginary portrait of Esop
Diego Velasquez's imaginary portrait of Esop

Ancient Greek for sure, but ...

Esop was a story teller in Greece around 6 the century before Christ. If we can trust Aristotle, he was born 620 BC in Thrace on the coast of Black Sea (area of today's Bulgaria).

He was a slave in island Samos (today's Greece). He apparently had two masters: Xanthus and Iadmon who freed Aesop for some unknown reason.

Some sources claim he was born in Samos, not in Thrace, and some locate his birth in Phrygia (today's Turkey) or Sardis (also Turkey, but more to the west).

While we have to stay within healthy scepticism (there is no proof he lived), it is very likely somebody (or, even more, people) with influential storytelling power actually existed, so it is understandable many wanted to proclaim him as the man from their country.

Where was Aesop born?
Where was Aesop born?
Another candidate for Esop's birthplace
Another candidate for Esop's birthplace

Did he have a dark skin?

There is also a strong theory based on his name. Aesopus supposed to be the variation of Aethiop, what means 'from Ethiopia'. This incorrect explanation persisted for many centuries.

He was widely portrayed as a Black African from Ethiopia (or maybe Nubia) and this image was supported with a fable titled "Washing the Ethiopian White" also known as "Washing the Blackamoor White". This fable, known only from Greek sources is a source of known proverb depicting an impossible task.

There was even a popular TV show where his character was played by Bill Cosby. Etymologists later proved the words Aesop and Aethiop have nothing in common, but the image of his dark skin will probably stay around for many centuries...

Your turn!

Aesop was born in today's:

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Image of Aesop by Barlow
Image of Aesop by Barlow

Product of imagination

The man who can be credited for Aesopus's dark complexion of the skin and description of physical appearance was Maximus Planudes, monk, translator and scholar from Constantinople who lived in 13th century, therefore about two thousand years after Esop.

He was maybe the best translator between Greek and Latin of his time. He wrote numerous works and "Aesop's Life" was only one (of minor importance) of them.

However, his knowledge of history wasn't as brilliant as his linguistics. He related the famous Greek fabulist to events which happened hundreds of years after he died (if he really lived) and to historical persons who never existed.

Nobody knows why he described Aesopus as a man of unseen ugliness, as a lame and hunchback with extremely unpleasant voice.

The reason for this graphic description was probably desire to creating as many contrasts as possible because extremes are always in bigger favors than dull facts.

(in the image from 17th century above we can see Francis Barlow's depiction of famous fabulist)

Angelica Kauffman's picture of Aesop and Rhodope
Angelica Kauffman's picture of Aesop and Rhodope

An affair with Rhodopis

A perfect example of contrast can be seen on this Francesco Bartollozzi's engraving of Angelica Kaufman picture.

Aesop is not only of dark skin, he is also in dark clothes. His supposed mistress, Rhodopis, one of the possible models for the first story of Cinderella, has pale skin and white clothes. Positions of their bodies also suggest how different are they and the worlds they belong to.

Scene with Croesus and Aesopus on pottery
Scene with Croesus and Aesopus on pottery

The truth about Esop

Esop was mentioned so many times, a person with this name probably really lived. The date of his birth is probably around 620 B.C and death around 564 B.C. He was born as a slave and died as a free man.

His life is connected with two masters and one of them gave him freedom. We don't know why but the reason probably had something to do with his tremendous rhetoric power.

He supposed to be an adviser to king Croesus (image on the right) of Lydia (the one who was so rich he became the model for the sayings "As rich as Croesus" or "Richer than Croesus") for some time and he traveled a lot to help the king on his affairs. One of Aesop's missions failed, he was falsely accused of theft and thrown off the cleft in Delphi. So Esop died around 560 B.C. in Delphi.

After his death plague, famine and warfare affected Delphi and the saying "The blood of Aesop" comes from this events.

We can't say all these are facts but we can say this is the data we can put at least some trust at.

The story of Aesopus and Rhodopis, courtesan from Thracia, who is sometimes also called the Egyptian Cinderella, is much less supported with reliable documentation, so we should probably put it in a special section with fiction stories.

Scene from the story of wolf and the lamb
Scene from the story of wolf and the lamb

Why Fables?

Aesop was living in Ancient Greece just a few centuries before it reached its peak of development. None of the civilizations before or after made such progress in philosophy, science, and politics with so lasting effects.

Ancient Greece was free spirited and adventurous. Democracy and freedom of speech were only two of its daring inventions. Aesop lived in a time where freedom of speech was already given to every free person. He as born slave who later became freedman certainly appreciated this value.

The problem was a lack of democracy. In his times, rulers were tyrants and most of them didn't like to hear any critics on their account. If somebody wanted to criticize the established political system and conditions in society, he should do that very carefully.

Talking through allegories and fables was a perfect way to spread ideas which could be dangerous for their authors.

One beautiful example is a fable titled The Lamb and the Wolf (image above, illustrated by Harrison Weir). It tells said and ugly truth the stronger will always be right even he is wrong. This can be understood as critics of social order or mere observation of universal truth in living and nonliving nature.

The Original text

With thousands of variations of collections with the same title, we can't say which fables were told by Aesop (Esop).

But we can say something else for sure: Aesop didn't write any of them. He was a storyteller, not a writer.

So who wrote them?

Who Wrote First Edition of Aesop's Fables?

The collection of animal fables connected with his name was in the form most similar to the today's written in days of early Christianity.

We even know the man who collected stories from many different sources and rewrites them to get a uniform style. So if somebody wants to amuse his friends with a simple trick question, he can always ask: Who wrote Aesop's Fables?

The answer is Demetrius of Phaleron, more known simply as Phaedrus.

And we will never know how much of Indian collection of animal fables by Vishnu Sarma is only a rewriting of Esop's Fables or vice versa...

Was he one of seven wise men?

Seven wise men suppose to be a group of statesmen and philosophers famous by their wisdom. It is not clear what they did and it is also not clear who belonged to this group.

Aesop was one of the candidates, but in the list of seventeen possible members, he is not in one of the top seven positions. So this is another data with no real value.

Morals

One of most important features of fables is moral at the end of the story. It can be specifically written or not.

Some people claim this unnecessary and redundant. If fable is written well, the moral should be obvious.

Others claim it is a bonus to well-written fables. It is short, a condensed summary of the story, it can be written in interesting and easy to remember form as verse or proverb, and as such it can emphasize the power of the story.

Fox And The Grapes

Moral: It is very easy to despise something you can't get.

Fox saw some grapes hanging from the vines. She tried to reach it but they were too high. So she said: "They are sour anyway!" and walked away.

Hare and the Tortoise

Hare and Tortoise by Arthur Rackham
Hare and Tortoise by Arthur Rackham | Source

Note: Slow and steady wins at the end.


A hare mocked up a tortoise because of her slowness. They started a race and a hare, confident of his win got a nap. When he wakes up, the tortoise already crossed the finished line.

(This moral is obviously problematic because it puts the tortoise as the main character. But we should probably understand this fable as hare's loss not as tortoise's win. If you want to win anything, you should use what you got - in hare's case speed - not to be slow and steady.)

Tortoise and the Hare with a twist

This fable inspired many fabulists to make their own interpretations. My favorite is the one with a twist.

It was written by Lord Dunsany, who continued the well-known Aesop's fable with a fire in the forest. The fire was not seen from far and animals needed to send a messenger to warn all living creatures in the woods.

Animals send a tortoise and most of the beasts died ...

Town Mouse and the Country Mouse

Town and Country mouse by Charles Robinson
Town and Country mouse by Charles Robinson

A Fox And A Crow

Moral: Do not trust flatterers!

A crow eats cheese in the tree. A fox comes by and asks if she could hear crow's sweet voice. Crow tries to sing and cheese drops down to the fox.

Better to have little in the piece than plenty in fear.

A mouse from town visited a mouse in the country. They enjoyed a modest meal and town mouse invited the country mouse in town. There the meal is much more abundant but it is non-stop interrupted with different sorts of dangers. The country mouse concludes it is better to go home.

Did you know?

The fable of the Fox and the crow is one of most known Aesop's fables.

It can be found in different versions all over the world, it was illustrated on vases at least two thousand years ago and it was one of 39 classic fables who served as an inspiration for a Labyrinth in Versailles.

Scenes in this famous park were actually designed after Fables by La Fontaine, which of course are only Esop's retold.

Ant and the Grasshopper

The Ant and the Grasshopper by Charles Bennett
The Ant and the Grasshopper by Charles Bennett

Note: In good times you should prepare for bad times.

Short summary:

In the summer ant (in some versions ants) worked hard, but grasshopper (in some version cricket or dung beetle) just enjoyed herself. When winter came ant had plenty of food and grasshopper none. So grasshopper asked for some help and the ant said she should be thinking of winter before it came.

(The problem of this fable is the character of ant. Although it teaches how important is hard work and planning in advance, she should show some mercy to the poor and apparently not a too smart grasshopper. There is even an old fable, also of Aesopic origin, where the ant is portrayed as a man who was always working and jealous of his neighbors crop, stealing from his land by night. Gods punished him by turning him into an ant, but he still steals other's products.)

This story inspired many artistic works

Many writers, including William Somerset Maugham (in a short story with the same title), James Joyce ( an episode in Finnegans Wake) and John Updike (in short story Brother Grasshopper), used the motif from the fable of the ant and the grasshopper (cricket) in their books.

It was also used in numerous musical works (Charles Lecocq, Jacques Offenbach, Camile Saint-Saens...), paintings, theater, TV and film.

The majority of artists didn't approve ant's cruelty and offered alternative endings.

Lion and the Mouse

Moral of the story: Even a littlest friend can be your best friend.

Mouse one day encountered the lion and the beast opened his jaws to eat her. Mouse asked him for mercy because some day she could be of help to him. Although lion couldn't imagine how somebody so small could help him, spared her life and later, when hunters caught him, mouse really gnawed his ropes and saved his life.

Fox saw some grapes hanging from the vines. She tried to reach it but they were too high. So she said: "They are sour anyway!" and walked away.

The fable of the Fox and the crow is one of most known Aesop's fables.

It can be found in different versions all over the world, it was illustrated on vases more than two thousand years ago and it was one of 39 classic fables who served as an inspiration for a Labyrinth in Versailles. Scenes in this famous park were actually designed after Fables by La Fontaine, which of course are only Esop's retold.

Many writers, including William Somerst Maugham (in short story with the same title), James Joyce (episode in Finnegans Wake) and John Updike (in short story Brother Grasshopper), used the motif from the fable of the ant and the grasshopper (cricket) in their books.

It was also used in numerous musical works (Charles Lecocq, Jacques Offenbach, Camile Saint-Saens...), paintings, theater, TV and film.

Majority of artists didn't approve ant's cruelty and offered alternative endings.

What do you think?

Are fables better than fairy tales?

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Do you read Aesop's Fables to your kids?

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    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 months ago from Ljubljana

      Yes, with proper usage they can be invaluable. Thanks, Donka Stoyanova!

    • profile image

      Donka Stoyanova 11 months ago

      Yes, they are very good for chilfren`s education.

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