Aesop's Fables

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

About Aesop

Reading time: 6 minutes. Word count: 1200 words.

Aesop also appears as a character in some of the fables - and you will see that he is a grumpy kind of guy! Yet Aesop is also a kind of preacher, using his fables to make a point much as Jesus used parables. Like the parables of Jesus, the fables of Aesop were stories that had a double meaning. The fable is a story which you can tell for its own sake - but you can also tell the fable in order to make a point that your audience is supposed to "get" and apply to another situation, adapting the message of the fable to the story of their own lives.


When Aesop saw crowds of people thronging to the wedding party of his neighbour, a thief, he immediately told them the following story:
'Once upon a time, the Sun wanted to get married but the frogs raised a cry of protest up to the heavens. Jupiter, disturbed by their shouting, asked the reason for their complaint, and one of the swamp's inhabitants explained, "Already one Sun is enough to burn up all the ponds, condemning us to a miserable death in our parched abode. What is going to happen to us when he will have sons of his own?"'

Note: In this case, English offers a pun -- sun/son -- that is not possible in Latin or Greek.


A slave who was running away from his cruel master happened to meet Aesop, who knew him as a neighbour. 'What's got you so excited?' asked Aesop. 'Father Aesop -- a name you well deserve since you are like a father to me -- I'm going to be perfectly frank, since you can be safely trusted with my troubles. There's plenty of whipping and not enough food. I'm constantly sent on errands out to the farm without any provisions for the journey. If the master dines at home, I have to wait on him all night long; if he is invited somewhere else, I have to lie outside in the gutter until dawn. I should have earned my freedom by now, but my hairs have gone gray and I'm still slaving away. If I had done anything to deserve this, I would stop complaining and suffer my fate in silence. But the fact is that I never get enough to eat and my cruel master is always after me. For these reasons, along with others that it would take too long to tell you, I've decided to go wherever my feet will lead me.'
'Well,' said Aesop, 'listen to what I say: if you must endure such hardship without having done anything wrong, as you say, then what is going to happen to you now that you really are guilty of something?' With these words of advice, Aesop scared the slave into giving up his plans of escape.


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 hedgehog 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 up 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!'


Success has been the ruin of many a man.
There was a hooligan who struck Aesop with a stone. Aesop said, 'Well done!' and he even gave the boy a coin. Then he added, 'Confound it, that's all the cash I've got, but I'll show you more where that came from. Look, the man coming this way is a wealthy and important person; if you can hit him with a stone the same way you hit me, you'll get the reward you deserve.' The hooligan was convinced and did as Aesop told him, but his hope for a reward brought his reckless daring to ruin: he was arrested and paid the price for his crime on the cross.

Note: Crucifixion was a form of punishment regularly used by the Romans.


People consider someone with real life experience to be more reliable than a soothsayer, but they cannot say why: my little fable will be the first to provide an explanation.
There was a farmer who had a flock of sheep, and those sheep gave birth to lambs with human heads. Alarmed by this omen the farmer hurried off, deeply upset, to consult the soothsayers. One soothsayer told him that the birth of lambs with human heads indicated a matter of life and death for him as the 'head' of the household, and a sacrifice would be required to ward off the danger. Another soothsayer insisted that this was instead a sign that the man's wife had been unfaithful to him, and that she had passed off other men's sons as his own; this evil omen could only be averted by an even greater sacrifice. To make a long story short, the soothsayers argued about their interpretations with one another, heightening the man's anxiety with more and more causes for alarm.
Aesop also happened to be there, that old man who was nobody's fool: there was no way that nature could play tricks on him! 'If you want to expiate this omen,' said Aesop, 'I suggest you supply your shepherds with wives!'


When a certain man of Athens saw Aesop playing with marbles amidst a crowd of boys, he stood there and laughed at Aesop as if Aesop were crazy. As soon as he realized what was going on, Aesop -- who was an old man far more inclined to laugh at others than to be laughed at himself -- took an unstrung bow and placed it in the middle of the road. 'Okay, you know-it-all,' he said, 'explain the meaning of what I just did.' All the people gathered round. The man racked his brains for a long time but he could not manage to answer Aesop's question. Eventually he gave up. Having won this battle of wits, Aesop then explained, 'If you keep your bow tightly strung at all times, it will quickly break, but if you let it rest, it will be ready to use whenever you need it.'
In the same way the mind must be given some amusement from time to time, so that you will find yourself able to think more clearly afterwards.


Aesop the storyteller had nothing in particular to do, so he strolled into the workshop of some shipbuilders. The workers began to taunt Aesop, provoking him to speak, so Aesop replied with this old story.
'Once upon a time,' said Aesop, 'there was only Chaos and Water. God then wanted to make a new element emerge, Gaia, the Earth. So he ordered the Earth to swallow the sea in three gulps. Earth did as she was ordered: the first gulp caused the mountains to appear, and the second gulp caused the plains to be revealed. And if she decides to take a third gulp,' said Aesop, 'that will be the end of all you shipbuilders and your entire profession!'
This story shows that people are asking for trouble if they make fun of someone who is better than they are.

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

  • what advice did Aesop give to a slave who wanted to run away?
  • what advice did Aesop give to the people who wanted to go to the thief's wedding party?
  • what advice did Aesop give to the people of Samos when they were being oppressed by a greedy politician?
  • how did Aesop get back at the hooligan who threw a rock at him?
  • how did Aesop explain the birth of the sheep with human heads?
  • what point did Aesop make with the "riddle of the bow"?
  • what story did Aesop tell to get back at the shipbuilders who made fun of him?

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