Aesopic Fables are short didactic tales, often with animal characters. Other definitions include “an animal tale with a moral,” and a popular Greek definition, “a fictitious story picturing a truth.” For the most part these stories depict human failings, particularly in regard to pride, arrogance, greed, and folly. Although not all fables include animals, most do, and they are often in pairs: the mouse and the lion, the tortoise and the birds, and so on. Over 350 such fables have been ascribed to Aesop, a Thracian slave who lived in the sixth century b.c.e. Whether Aesop actually lived is still debated by some scholars, though he is mentioned in the works of Herodotus, Aristophanes, and Plato. He is believed to have been the slave of a man named Iadmon. Tradition says he was a hunchback, born dumb but given the gift of speech by the goddess Isis for his great devotion to her cult. His ability to tell tales or fables won him his freedom, and according to various accounts, he became counselor to Solon and Croesus.
His good fortune, however, was short-lived. He was falsely accused and convicted of theft by the citizens of Delphi, who as punishment threw him over a cliff to his death. A plague immediately swept over the city. The citizens, realizing their guilt, offered “blood money” to atone for the murder. Herodotus, in his History of the Persian Wars (book 2), says that Iadmon, grandson of the former Iadmon, “received the compensation. Aesop therefore must certainly have been the former Iadmon’s slave.”
However, the fame of Aesop continued. Tradition says he returned to life to fight at the battle of Thermopylae. A statue was erected to him in Athens some 200 years after his death. It was placed before the statues of the Seven Sages. One Attic vase from about 450 b.c.e. portrays the fabulist listening to a fox. One of the most interesting legends in the life of Aesop concerns his telling of the fable The Frogs Desiring a King to a mob that was threatening to kill the tyrant Pisistratus, the moral of the fable being “Let well enough alone!”
The populace knew the evils of Pisistratus but did not know how evil his successor would be. The fable is typical in that one of the main ingredients of many fables is their conservative nature. Often the moral is one of leaving well enough alone or supporting the status quo. This is somewhat ironic because in early times the fable was used to castigate ruling authorities.
About 300 b.c.e. Demetrius Phalereus collected all of the fables he could find under the title of Assemblies of Aesopic Tales. This collection, running to about 200 fables, was used as the basis for a version in Latin verse by Phaedrus or Phaeder in the first century c.e. Like Aesop, Phaedrus also was a slave, freed during the reign of Augustus or Tiberius. Under Tiberius he published two books of his fables. His style was ironic, ridiculing the emperor and his minister, Sejanus.
After the death of Sejanus, Phaedrus published a third book of fables, and a fourth and fifth were added in his later years. Phaedrus added many fables of his own to the Aesopic collection, as well as others collected from various sources. Babrius, believed to have lived in the second century c.e., wrote ten books in Greek called Aesop’s Fables in Verse. They were lost, however, until 1842, when 123 of the fables were discovered in the monastery at Mount Athos. An additional 95 were added in 1857, though scholars have debated how genuine the fables actually were.
The Latin version of Phaedrus, therefore, was the one that was popular during the Middle Ages, although it was not credited to Phaedrus, but to a fictional person named Romulus. By the time Romulus’ Aesop was in circulation, many tales from various sources, such as those from the East, had come to be credited to Aesop. The power of the fables to hold the attention of audiences throughout the ages attests to their universal appeal. They are simple, direct, and well told.
These characteristics have made them particularly popular with illustrators. The first English edition of Aesop, translated by Caxton from a French version, was published in 1484. By the end of the 15th century there were more than 20 different illustrated editions in Europe. Among the most famous are those of Mondovi, Ulm, and Verona, all published between 1476 and 1479. Among the best known later illustrators are Thomas Bewick (1784), Gustave Doré (1868), Walter Crane (1886), Richard Heighway (1894), Arthur Rackham (1916), Alexander Calder (1931), Antonio Frasconi (1953), and Joseph Low (1963).
Although the fables would seem to be ideal for dramatic musical settings, very few composers have attempted to deal with them. John Whitaker wrote music for English versions of Aesop’s fables, and another English composer, W. H. Reed, wrote an orchestral work, Aesop’s Fables. In 1931 the German composer Werner Egk composed Der Löwe und die Maus (The Lion and the Mouse) for narrator, chorus, and orchestra.
It was written especially for radio. Egk also wrote Moralities, using three Aesop fables, with a text by W. H. Auden. James Thurber’s Fables for Our Times (1940) and George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945) are modern adaptations of fables. In 1990 Jim Weiss produced Animal Tales, a tape featuring many of Aesop’s fables. Boris Karloff has also performed fables on audiocassette, and Mary Carter Smith has performed, recorded, and published collections of the fables.
American oral tradition has converted many of the fables into proverbial expressions, including sour grapes, the goose that laid the golden egg, the lion’s share, and don’t count your chickens before they hatch.
Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante