Aesop's Fables

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


Reading time: 4 minutes. Word count: 800 words.

You have now got a good sense of the most common form of the Aesopic fable: a short little story in which some character usually makes a foolish mistake and suffers either verbal or physical punishment (or both!) as a result. Yet "Aesop's fables" was a term used very loosely in the ancient world: there are not absolutely strict rules that determined what kinds of stories got included in the ancient fable collections. So in addition to the stories of foolish mistakes, there are also a considerable number of "aetiological" stories. Aetiology is the study of the origins of things: how did the world come to be the way that it is? There are aetiological stories in Aesop about why the animals are the way that they are, and also stories about the origins of different human behaviors and customs.


The bat, the booby and the bramble bush made a corporation and went into business together. The bat got some gold on credit, the booby some copper and the bramble bush some clothing. They loaded the goods on a ship and immediately set sail. All of a sudden the sea began to surge and a squall blew up, churning the waters into an immense wave which broke the ship into pieces and sent everything on board down to the bottom of the sea.
Ever since that time, the bat has flapped in headlong flight from her creditors, hiding herself away and venturing out only at night; the booby spends his time on the sea, looking for the copper, and the bramble bush grabs hold of every wayfarer's cloak, hoping to find the missing clothes.
This fable shows that after some risky business has come to an end, everyone must stay attentive so that they don't fall into the same misfortune once again.  


Zeus invited all the animals to his wedding. The tortoise alone was absent, and Zeus did not know why, so he asked the tortoise her reason for not having come to the feast. The tortoise said, 'Be it ever so humble, there's no place like home.'
Zeus got angry at the tortoise and ordered her to carry her house with her wherever she went.
The fable shows that people often prefer to live simply at home than to live lavishly at someone else's house.


A story about kites and swans, exhorting us not to imitate things that are inappropriate to us.
Nature originally supplied the kites with a voice equal to that of the swans. But when the kites heard the sound of horses neighing, they were enchanted and tried to imitate it. In the course of their studies, the kites lost what voice they had: they did not learn how to neigh, and they forgot how to sing.
By imitating something inappropriate, you can lose what you had to begin with.


The donkeys were tired of being burdened with burdens and labouring all the days of their lives, so they sent ambassadors to Zeus, asking him to release them from their toil. Zeus, wanting to show them that they had asked for something impossible, said that their suffering would come to an end on the day when they pissed a river. The donkeys took him seriously and to this day whenever donkeys see where another donkey has pissed, they come to a halt and piss in the same place.
The fable shows that a person cannot escape his allotted fate.  


A horse, an ox, and a dog were suffering from the cold and came to the house of a man. The man opened his door to the animals and led them inside. He warmed them by the hearth which was blazing with fire and placed before them whatever there was to eat. To the horse he gave barley, to the labouring ox he gave peas, while the dog took his place beside the man at the table as his dinner companion.
In exchange for this hospitality, the animals surrendered to the man some of the years of life that had been allotted to them. The horse went first, which is why each of us is inclined to exult in our youth; the ox went next, which is why man toils away during his middle years, devoted to his work and accumulating wealth. It was the dog who bestowed on man his final years, at least according to the story. This is why everyone becomes cranky in his old age, only wagging his tail for the person who feeds him while barking incessantly and snarling at strangers. 


After Zeus had fashioned the human race, he ordered Hermes to give them intelligence. Hermes divided intelligence into equal portions and then applied it to each person. The result was that short people became wise, since they were more completely suffused with the standard dose of intelligence, while the tall people turned out stupid, since the portion that was poured into their bodies did not even reach as high as their knees.
This fable is suitable for a man who is physically large but whose mind is lacking in reason.

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • why does the bat only come out at night?
  • why does the tortoise carry its shell on its back?
  • why does the kite not know how to sing?
  • why do donkeys stop and piss where other donkeys have pissed?
  • why are old men so irritable?
  • why are tall people not very intelligent?

Source: Laura Gibbs, translator. Aesop's Fables (2003). Weblink.

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