Little is known about the ancient Greek writer Aesop (c. 620 B.C.E.–c. 560 B.C.E.), whose stories of clever animals and foolish humans are considered Western civilization's first morality tales. He was said to have been a slave who earned his freedom through his storytelling and went on to serve as advisor to a king. Both his name and the animist tone of his tales have led some scholars to believe he may have been Ethiopian in origin.
Freed from Slavery
Aesop never wrote down any of the tales himself; he merely recited them orally. The first recorded mention of his life came about a hundred years after he died, in a work by the eminent Greek historian Herodotus, who noted that he was a slave of one Iadmon of Samos and died at Delphi. In the first century C.E., Plutarch, another Greek historian, also speculated on Aesop's origins and life. Plutarch placed Aesop at the court of immensely weighty Croesus, the king of Lydia (now northwestern Turkey). A source from Egypt dating back to this same century also described Aesop as a slave from the Aegean island of Samos, near the Turkish mainland. The source claims that after he was released from bondage he went to Babylon. Aesop has also been referred to as Phrygian, pointing to origins in central Turkey settled by Balkan tribes around 1200 B.C.E. They spoke an Indo-European language and their communities were regularly raided for slaves to serve in Greece.
The name "Aesop" is a variant of "Acthiop," which is a reference to Ethiopia in ancient Greek. This and the trickster nature of some of his stories, where humans are regularly outwitted by a cleverer animal figure, has led some scholars to speculate that Aesop may have been from Africa. The link was discussed in a Spectator essay from 1932 by the critic J. H. Driberg. There are two tales from Aesop in which a man tries to come to the aid of a serpent, and Driberg noted that such acts mirror "the habitual kindness shown to snakes by many tribes: for snakes are the repositories of the souls of ancestors and they are cherished therefore and invited to live in the houses of men by daily gifts of milk."
Tales Reflected Human Folly
Anthropomorphism, or animals with human capabilities, is the common thread throughout Aesop's fables. The most famous among them are "The Tortoise and the Hare," in which the plodding turtle and the energetic rabbit hold a race. The arrogant hare is so confident that he rests and falls asleep halfway; the wiser tortoise plods past and wins. "Slow but steady wins the race," the fable concludes. These and other Aesop fables, wrote Peter Jones in the Spectator in 2002, often pit "the rich and powerful against the poor and weak. They stress either the folly of taking on a stronger power, or the cunning which the weaker must deploy if he is to stand any chance of success; and they often warn that nature never changes."
Several phrases are traced back to the fables of Aesop, such as "don't count your chickens before they are hatched," which concludes the tale of the greedy "Milkmaid and Her Pail." In "The Fox and the Grapes," a fox ambles through the forest and spies a bunch of grapes. Thirsty, he tries in vain to reach them but finally gives up and walks off muttering that they were likely sour anyway. From this comes the term "sour grapes."
Thrown from Cliff
According to myth, Aesop won such fame throughout Greece for his tales that he became the target of resentment and perhaps even a political witch-hunt. He was accused of stealing a gold cup from Delphi temple to the god Apollo and was supposedly tossed from the cliffs at Delphi as punishment for the theft. His tales told of human folly and the abuses of power, and he lived during a period of tyrannical rule in Greece. His defense, it is said, was the fable "The Eagle and the Beetle," in which a hare, being preyed upon by an eagle, asks the beetle for protection. The small insect agrees, but the eagle fails to see it and strikes the hare, killing it. From then on, the beetle watched the eagle's nest and shook it when there were eggs inside, which then fell to the ground. Worried about her inability to reproduce, the eagle asks a god for help, and the deity offers to store the eggs in its lap. The beetle learns of this and puts a ball of dirt there among the eggs, and the god—in some accounts Zeus, in others Jupiter—rises, startled, and the eggs fall out. For this reason, it is said, eagles never lay their eggs during the season when beetles flourish. "No matter how powerful one's position may be, there is nothing that can protect the oppressor from the vengeance of the oppressed" is the moral associated with this particular fable.
The first written compilation of Aesop's tales came from Demetrius of Phaleron around 320 B.C.E., Assemblies of Aesopic Tales, but it disappeared in the ninth century. The first extant version of the fables is thought to be from Phaedrus, a former slave from Macedonia who translated the tales into Latin in the first century C.E. in what became known as the Romulus collection. Valerius Babrius, a Greek living in Rome, translated these and other fables of the day into Greek in the first half of the 200s C.E. Forty-two of those, in turn, were translated into Latin by Avianus around 400 C.E. There is also a link between Aesop and Islam. The prophet Mohamed mentioned "Lokman," said to be the wisest man in the east, in the 31st sura of the Koran. In Arab folklore, Lokman supposedly lived around 1100 B.C.E. and was an Ethiopian. His father, it was said, was descended from the biblical figure Job. Some of his tales may have been adapted by Aesop some five centuries after his death.
Censored for Children's Sake
The Latin translation of Aesop's fables helped them survive the ages. Their enduring appeal, wrote English poet and critic G. K. Chesterton in an introduction to a 1912 Doubleday edition, might lead back to a primeval allure. "These ancient and universal tales are all of animals; as the latest discoveries in the oldest prehistoric caverns are all of animals," Chesterton wrote. "Man, in his simpler states, always felt that he himself was something too mysterious to be drawn. But the legend he carved under these cruder symbols was everywhere the same; and whether fables began with Æsop or began with Adam … the upshot is everywhere essentially the same: that superiority is always insolent, because it is always accidental; that pride goes before a fall; and that there is such a thing as being too clever by half."
Aesop's tales were known in medieval Europe, and a German edition brought back to England by William Caxton, along with the first printing press in England, was translated by Caxton and became one of the first books ever printed in the English language. A 1692 version from English pamphleteer Roger L'Estrange A Hundred Fables of Aesop was popular for a number of years, and the Aesop fables began to be promoted as ideal for teaching children to read. A discovery by contemporary scholar Robert Temple and his wife Olivia, a translator, resulted in a 1998 Penguin edition that contained some ribald original tales they found in a 1927 Greek-language text. As David Lister explained in an article for London's Independent newspaper, "many of the never before translated fables were coarse and brutal. And even some of the most famous ones had been mistranslated to give them a more comforting and more moral tone. What the Temples began to realise was that the Victorians had simply suppressed the fables which shocked them and effectively changed others."
Chesterton, G.K., in an introduction to Aesop Fables, translated by V.S. Verson Jones, Doubleday & Co., 1912, reprinted in Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vol 24.
Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults, 2nd ed., 8 vols. Gale Group, 2002.
Richardson, Samuel, in a preface to Aesop Fables, 1740, edited by Samuel Richardson, Garland Publishing, Inc., 1975, reprinted in Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vol 24.
Independent (London, England), January 15, 1998.
Spectator, June 18, 1932; March 16, 2002.