Aesop's Fables

Week 4: Ancient Greece - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

Background Reading

Was there really somebody in ancient Greece named Aesop who told the stories that you are reading this week? While it is impossible to prove that such a person did not exist, there is also no concrete historical evidence that he did exist. Because the legends about Aesop are very old, they predate any of our written sources and thus we cannot be sure if the legends are not themselves the source for the "history."

The one surviving reference to Aesop that claims to be historical is in the writer Herodotus, who lived from appx. 485 BCE to 425 BCE. In his History (read the passage online), Herodotus claims that Aesop was a slave from the island of Samos and that he was killed by the people of Delphi. But the story of Aesop and the Delphians was already an old legend before Herodotus was even born. So when Herodotus repeats this story as "history," there is no reason to believe that it is anything other than legend.

So the legend - true or not - about Aesop is that he was a slave, from the island of Samos. He was supposed to have been very ugly and to have been mute from birth. As the result of his kindness to some priests, he was miraculously given the power of speech. Aesop used his power of speech both to mock and impress his owners. He was finally sold to a philosopher named Xanthus, and Xanthus eventually gave Aesop his freedom. In the comic novel the Life of Aesop, after he wins his freedom, Aesop goes on to become an advisor to the last king of Egypt, Nectanebo (and the last native Egyptian pharaoh was, in fact, named Nectanebo II, who was driven from his throne by the Persians in 342 BCE). After Aesop insults the people of Delphi, they plot against him and finally toss him from a cliff, despite the many fables he tells them trying to save his life.

The most references to Aesop in any classical Greek source can be found in the comic plays of Aristophanes, who lived from 448 BCE to 388 BCE. Aristophanes makes it clear that Aesop was an extremely popular character in ancient Greece - everybody already knew who he was, everybody already knew the fables of Aesop. And they knew the fables of Aesop not because they had read the fables of Aesop in a book, but because they had heard the stories. In much the same way that the epics attributed to "Homer" were an oral performance tradition that was later committed to writing, the fables of Aesop were a centuries-old tradition in Greece before they were eventually written down. People in Greece (and Rome) knew the story of the tortoise and the hare - along with the story of the beetle and the eagle, the fox and the raven, the lion and the mouse, and on and on.

An important thing to realize, however, is that these were not stories for children in ancient Greece. Children's literature, as we understand it today, is a very modern invention. Aesop was like a stand-up comedian, and he told stories for adults (and some with very adult themes, blatantly sexual). It is also not the case that all of the fables are about animals; many of the fables have human protagonists, and a number of the fables are about the adventures of the gods.

And when were these fables first written down? The first collection of fables probably belonged to the Hellenistic period of Greek history, which centered on the library at Alexandria (the Egyptian city founded by Alexander the Great in 332 BCE). It appears that Demetrius of Phalerum, who died in 280 BCE, put together a collection of Aesopic fables, but no copy of it has survived.

The oldest collection of fables that has survived was written by a Roman named Phaedrus sometime in the early first century CE. Phaedrus had been a slave in the household of the Emperor Caesar Augustus, and it appears from the fables that Phaedrus was not on good terms with Sejanus, an agent of Caesar Tiberius, who was Augustus's successor. Phaedrus's fables are written in verse, but not all of them survive - we have slightly over a hundred fables written by Phaedrus, and there is no way of knowing how many of them were lost.

The next major collection of fables is in Greek verse, but we know even less about this author, who is named Babrius (or perhaps Gabrius - we are not sure sure about his name!). Although Babrius wrote in Greek, he may have been a Roman living in the eastern provinces. Like the fables of Phaedrus, the fables of Babrius did not survive intact. The collection was alphabetized based on the first letter of the first work of each fable, and the fables that we have go up through the letter "o". There are approximately 150 fables in this ancient collection.

In addition to the fables in verse by Phaedrus and Babrius, there are some important anonymous collections of Greek fables written in prose. Very often the same fables are found in Phaedrus and in Babrius and in the anonymous prose collections, but there are also some fables that appear only in a single source. When you add them all up, it looks like about 600 fables have survived from ancient Greece and Rome, passed down either in Latin or in Greek, in poetry or in prose.

And if 600 fables survive in writing, who can imagine how many thousands of fables were actually told, circulating oral from person toperson to person in the ancient world! But still we are lucky to have 600 fables that have survived, and we can get a clear sense of what Aesop's fables were like as a "genre", or "type", of story. The majority of fables are about some stupid mistake, a mistake that someone (human, animal, or god) has made and for which they suffer some kind of punishment: physical violence, loss of something valuable, or verbal abuse. Over and over again the fables provide a negative exemplum, an example of what not to do. A few of the fables are positive exempla, providing positive role models - but this is the exception rather than the rule.

The moral of the fable was then added by some editors of the fable books in order to explain the fable in simple terms. The moral functions something like the sermon that preachers might tack on at the end of some story or anecdote that they might be telling as part of the sermon - it is not essential to the story, and each preacher might add a different kind of interpretation to the same story. So, as you read the stories this week, take a look at the morals: do you agree with the way that the moral provides an interpretation of the story? Each time someone collected or translated the fables, they provided their own morals, so you can ask yourself if there are some fables where you would have added a completely different moral. The world of Aesop's fables is very open-ended: you will probably find a number of stories this week for which you would choose a different moral entirely! It is that flexibility and variability that allowed the fables to thrive not only in ancient Greece and Rome, but also in the European Middle Ages, and right on down to the present day.

The fables you will be reading this week come from several different English translations. The first pages of fables are from a translation that I published in English (you can find the whole translation online). Then, towards the end of the reading selections, you will be reading the "same" fable in different translations - my translations, along with translations by William Caxton and Sir Roger L'Estrange:

Because the fables you will be reading come from both Greek and Latin sources, you need to be prepared to meet the gods and goddesses with both their Latin names and their Greek names, so make sure you are aware of these equivalences:

Modern Languages/ Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM