Aesop (Writer)


(ca. 620-565 b.c.) storyteller, fabulist, orator

Aesop was born in Phrygia, an ancient country in the center of what is now Turkey. He may have been taken prisoner by one of his homeland’s many conquering invaders; it is known he was enslaved and eventually sold to a man called Iadmon. On Samos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea where the prosperous landowner took him, Aesop established a reputation as a masterful storyteller and fabulist (maker of fables). Aesop so impressed Iad-mon with his gifts that his master freed him so he might tell his humorous animal tales throughout Greece. Aesop was later retained by King Croesus of Lydia as a diplomat and ambassador.

Aesop successfully represented his various employers in legal matters and other negotiations by telling instructive, lively stories featuring animals with very human traits. The great Greek philosopher aristotle tells the following story of Aesop in Rhetoric, a treatise on the art of persuasion: While defending a popular political leader of Samos who had swindled the public, Aesop recounted “The Vixen and the Hedgehog.” In this story, Aristotle explains, a fox who becomes trapped in a gully and tormented by fleas is offered help by a passing hedgehog. The fox declines the offer, explaining that the fleas clinging to her skin had had their fill of her, but if the fleas were taken away they would be replaced by another set of parasites that would drain the rest of her blood.

“So, men of Samos,” Aesop concluded, according to Aristotle, “my client will do you no further harm; he is wealthy already. But if you put him to death,” he explained, other ambitious politicians will assume the position the man has vacated, “and their peculations will empty your treasury completely.”

Aesop died while on a diplomatic mission to the sacred site of Delphi, where he found the residents to be not holy, but arrogant and greedy. Fearful that Aesop would use his powers of oratory to discredit them, the Delphians enacted a conspiracy to frame him with theft. In his defense, the already legendary fabulist told of “The Rat and the Frog” and “The Eagle and the Beetle,” tales cautioning that oppressors of the innocent will be subjected to divine vengeance. Notwithstanding his warnings, Aesop was found guilty and executed by being flung from the cliffs at Delphi.

There are hundreds of fables attributed to Aesop, but it is uncertain how many he actually composed, if any. He did not write any down, and some of the stories in the body of work known as “Aesop’s Fables” are known to have originated well before his birth or after his death. He may merely have been a brilliant raconteur of oft-told tales that were then recited in the “Aesopic” manner. They were written down for the first time around 300 b.c., probably by storytellers and other fabulists.

Critical Analysis

In Aesop’s Fables, talking moles, swallows, monkeys, and a host of other animals demonstrate all-too-human flaws, virtues, and desires. Accordingly, they are taught lessons that humans might do well to mind. Like all fables, those attributed to Aesop are both brief—sometimes as short as two sentences—and fanciful, and are designed to teach a lesson about such themes as modesty, honesty, and industriousness.

Perhaps the best-known tale is “The Hare and the Tortoise,” in which the speedy hare challenges the sluggish tortoise to a race. The confident hare, thinking he has all the time in the world, takes a nap, while the tortoise trudges laboriously to the finish line, teaching that slow and steady wins the race.

In “The Fox and the Grapes,” another popular favorite, a ravenous fox spies a bunch of the fruit hanging from a trellis. Unable to reach them, he tells himself they weren’t ripe, anyway, giving rise to the term sour grapes.

Aesop also relates the story of a shepherd boy who falsely “cries wolf” so often that when a real wolf appears and threatens the herd, nobody heeds his pleas for help; and of a mule who boasts of his racehorse mother but is compelled to acknowledge that his father is a jackass (“There are two sides to every story”). Another narrative tells of a fox happening upon a lion for the very first time and nearly dying of fright. The fox becomes bolder upon each encounter until one day he strolls up to the lion with a cheeky greeting, because “familiarity breeds contempt.”

In “The Dairy Maid and Her Milk Can,” a milkmaid is carrying a pail of milk on her head daydreaming about what she will do with the money she will earn from selling it. She imagines increasing her stock of eggs, which will produce a certain number of chicks that she will sell at a certain price. She’ll have enough money for a new gown, and her beauty will attract many suitors, but she will just toss her head at the lot of them. At that, she tosses her head and the pail of milk crashes to the ground—along with her fantasy. The moral: Do not count your chickens before they hatch.

The greedy owner of “The Goose with the Golden Eggs” squanders an even greater windfall than that of the milkmaid. He cuts the goose open, hoping to find a large gold nugget inside. Thus, when referring to people whose impatience for great riches causes them to lose what little they do have, we may say they “killed the goose that laid the golden egg.”

Another familiar expression comes from “The Fishes and the Frying Pan.” Some live fish are placed in a skillet over a flame to cook. As the pan heats up, the fish find the high temperature intolerable, so they leap from the pan, landing in the flames. Today, we use the expression “out of the frying pan and into the fire” to mean a choice that exchanges one unpleasant situation for one that is worse.

Our very language owes a debt to Aesop’s fantastical universe, insofar as everyday speech is populated with animals who have the human traits Aesop ascribed to them. We speak of wily foxes, wolves in sheep’s clothing, vain peacocks, rapacious vultures, and hardworking ants.

The lessons Aesop’s fables teach are very much in evidence in contemporary expressions, too, and in the way civic and ethical matters are framed and judged in modern society. “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse” is an exceptionally popular fable that is no less relevant today than in ancient times, and it aptly illustrates the benefits and drawbacks of rural and urban living. As the Country Mouse sums up: “You can dine in this way and grow fat, if you like; jolly good luck to you if you can enjoy feasting sumptuously in the midst of danger. For my part, I shall not abandon my frugal home under ground, where I can eat coarse food in safety.”

Aesop is generally credited with introducing the fantastical animals who made the tales and their characters so beloved, keeping the tales simple and providing a “moral of the story” tagline that made them so unforgettable. The fables have been translated and augmented many times over, perhaps most famously by the 17th century French poet Jean de La Fontaine, and they have retained their straightforward appeal for more than 2,000 years.

In many ways, it is irrelevant whether Aesop was, in fact, the author of the fables. He was the storyteller who brought them to vivid life and made them, and himself, universal and timeless. See also phaedrus.

English Versions of Works by Aesop

Aesop: The Complete Fables. Translated by Olivia and Robert Temple. New York: Penguin, 1998.

Aesop’s Fables: With a Life of Aesop. Edited by John Esten Keller. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.

Works about Aesop

Bader, Barbara. Aesop and Company: With Scenes from His Legendary Life. New York: Houghton Mif-flin/Walter Lorraine, 1999.

Lewis, Jayne Elizabeth. English Fable: Aesop and Literary Culture, 1651-1740. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

Wheatley, Edward. Mastering Aesop: Medieval Education, Chaucer, and His Followers. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2000.

Next post:

Previous post: