Memories of Childhood: Aesop’s Fables are as Relevant Today as They Were 2,600 Years Ago
The Frog and the Mouse, The Fox and the Stork, The Boy Who Cried Wolf – these, and many other wonderful fables were a big part of childhood for many of us. But now that childhood is gone, did we stop to think about the man who wrote them and the deeper, important messages that they convey?
Well, here at Ancient Origins we always remember to touch up on history’s richest subjects and today we are uncovering the centuries of storytelling and the mysterious identity of the figure who wrote it all – Aesop.
Educational, witty, and inspirational, these short fables always had a ‘moral of the story’ – important small lessons that can be a big part of growing up. But we never realized that even in the 20th century, we were listening to the same tales as children from Classical Antiquity. And that is exactly what makes these fables so important – they are immortal.
Who is the Man Behind Aesop’s Fables?
Before we focus on the fables themselves, we need to acquaint ourselves with the figure who wrote them – and the ongoing enigma of his actual existence.
Aesop - Αἴσωπος in Greek – was born roughly in the 6th century BC and his name and origins are widely attested by several iconic historians from Greece; like Aristotle, Callimachus, Maximus Tyrius, Plutarch, and Herodotus, each one giving a slightly different account. There are several facts in all these biographies that match, giving us a few basic aspects of Aesop’s life.
Most writers mention the fact that Aesop was born a strikingly ugly slave who eventually gained his freedom with the help of his wit. His birthplace varies and places a big shadow over the actual existence of Aesop. Most writers mention a different birthplace – Samos, Lydia, Thrace, Phrygia, or Sardis.
The slave Aesop serving two priests - Aesop as depicted by Francis Barlowin the 1687 edition of ‘Aesop's Fables with His Life’. (Stevensaylor / Public Domain)
From the earliest re-telling of these popular fables, they have always been ascribed to Aesop, but whether he wrote them, or whether he even lived, is still a matter of much debate. We can all agree that with such frequent mentioning of his name throughout antiquity, he probably did exist – but any other detail about him is now a matter of guessing.
But whatever the story of Aesop’s life is, one fact remains uncontested – his legacy is monumental. With around 725 fables ascribed to him, the immensity of his work cannot be denied.
Wit and Wonder: The Immortal Tales
Many of us have come across Aesop’s fables, also known as the Aesopica, in our childhood and enjoyed the wittiness and the morals, even if we didn’t realize them at the time. Immortalized in oral tradition, books, cartoons, and everyday life, the fables of Aesop touch upon every crucial aspect of human nature and they found their place in almost every culture across the world.
Since their collection almost two and a half millennia ago, these fables taught us important lessons about life’s simplest decisions – and their lasting effects.
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A Greek manuscript of Aesop’s fables by Babrius, several centuries after Aesop. (Mzilikazi1939 / Public Domain)
But ultimately, it’s the deeper, philosophical aspect of these fables that makes them so significant and loved worldwide. Theon of Alexandria perfectly describes the fables as “truth described with false discourses” – a set of witty, hypothetical situations that reflect much more profound themes from our lives. They are the perfect way to get the common populace closer to deeper concepts.
By focusing mostly on animals as protagonists of the fables, Aesop managed to partially hide the human element, but still portray wholly human themes – creating an entertaining combination that the common populace of the past appreciated. And with this crafty combination, he created a legacy whose importance is unmatched – he gave world lessons that would influence society on a whole new level.
From Gods to Animals: The Universal Themes
But what was in these fables that every reader or listener could connect to? It was the simple, everyday occurrences, their witty portrayal, and moral lessons that everyone could experience in their lives.
The fables were made from the same fabric as daily life, exploring themes such as ambition, greed, humility, strength, weakness, deceit, honesty, love, hate, and poverty. By simplifying these crucial and large themes, the populace of the Classical Times was introduced to a higher step in the ladder of a civilized world.
But some themes of Aesop’s fables also give us an insight into the life of common peoples in Classical Greece. Fables such as The Thief and His Mother, The Miser and His Gold, Hercules and the Wagoner, The Satyr and the Traveller, Horkos, the God of Oaths – and many others – reflect in some sense, the social norms of that time, with obvious emphasis on morality. Honesty, humility, and wit were held in high regard by the Greeks and these fables confirm it.
Aesop’s fables used animals as the characters in the story. (Archivist / Adobe Stock)
The fables also reflect on Greek mythology and are often centered on either Gods or mythical heroes and creatures. Notable mentions include Hercules, Zeus, Momus, Venus, or Hermes. But with these characters being a notable minority in Aesop’s fables, we can understand the importance of animals in the Greek society, as they were the biggest part of their lives.
Animals were used for food, clothing, commerce, transportation, battle, and most importantly, as perfect metaphors for human strengths and weaknesses. This is why the biggest characters in these fables are animals – almost every society in antiquity could easily relate to the metaphoric display of right and wrong.
The Most Popular Examples of Aesop’s Fables
It’s surprising that a lot of common populace today, even if they know these fables by heart, would never think to connect them to Aesop. The significance of the stories survived, but the name of the man who wrote them lost its importance to the everyday person. But it’s no secret that every one of us came into contact with Aesop’s fables, and that their simple messages found their way to many aspects of 21st century entertainment.
Perhaps the most popular fable attributed to Aesop is The Boy Who Cried Wolf. A fable related to honesty, it tells the tale of a shepherd boy who keeps tricking people, lying that his flock was being attacked by wolves. When wolves actually did attack him, the people ignored the shepherd’s pleas, believing that they are false once more.
Illustration of Aesop’s fable, ‘The Boy Who Cried Wolf’. (Tagishsimon / Public Domain)
Aesop himself states the moral of the story: “This is how liars are rewarded: Even when they tell the truth, no one will believe them”. This simple fable holds so much weight, teaching both young and old that honesty is morally right.
Another classic fable relates to over-ambition and economic divides. The Frog and the Ox tells us of an ambitious frog seeing a nearby ox, it desired to be just as large. It swelled itself more and more in the attempt, but eventually it burst. It teaches us to be content with who we are, and that being overly ambitious can often lead us to more trouble.
Charles H. Bennett's class-conscious interpretation of the Aesop’s fable, ‘The Frog and the Ox’. (Mzilikazi1939 / Public Domain)
A favorite of many, The Fox and the Stork is a cleverly written fable that teaches us the popular proverb: “Do to others what you would wish for yourself”. In the fable, the fox invites the stork for a meal and proceeds to present it in a shallow bowl. The fox eats with ease, but the stork’s long beak makes it impossible for her to eat.
To repay this trickery, the stork returns the favor by presenting the fox with a meal in a long pitcher. The stork eats with its beak, but the fox is left hungry. This fable is a great example of how a seemingly simple story with animal protagonists can hold a lot of weight.
A Single Story in a Thousand Languages
In the many centuries following the supposed life of Aesop, his fables spread continuously through the world, getting translated and re-translated, adapted to certain cultures, and used in numerous socio-political circumstances. This is proof that no matter what background are you from or what type of culture you’re in – Aesop’s fables will still resonate.
For a while, the fables were simply retold and re-written, becoming a stable part of oral tradition in Classical Greece. The first official compilation of Aesop’s work was done by Demetrius of Phalerum, in the 4th century BC. This was compiled to be used by orators who would narrate them to the people.
It wasn’t until the 1st century BC that this compilation was fully translated into Latin. Some fables had been translated previously by the legendary Roman poet Horace, but never fully.
A version of this compilation that dates from the 10th century AD, compiled by a certain Romulus, was the primary source for the spread and adaptation of the fables in medieval Europe. This and subsequent versions became a highly influential written material in the Middle Ages. Each subsequent compilation was expanded, adapted, and sometimes changed.
For most of the Middle Ages, Aesop’s fables were written exclusively in Latin. It wasn’t until the 12th century that the first Old French version appeared and not until 1370 that the version in German appeared. In the 15th century, John Lydgate wrote the Isopes Fabules in Middle English rhyme. With these other translations the stories spread across Europe.
In Asia the fables arrived somewhat later. Japan was introduced to Aesop with the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in the 16th century, and the earliest Japanese language version dates to 1593. Following Japan, China was next, with the earliest translations dated to the early 17th century. These were brought to China by a Jesuit missionary Nicolas Trigault.
A Japanese woodblock print illustrating the moral of Hercules and the Wagoner, one of Aesop’s fables. (Mzilikazi1939 / Public Domain)
But no matter the language, Aesop’s fables were immediately well-received and subsequently popularized. And that is because each nation recognized the messages conveyed in these stories, saw the moral importance, and quickly adapted them to their own myths and viewpoints. And it is this adaptability that makes Aesop’s fables so timeless.
Man or Myth: Who was Aesop?
Several very interesting facts that are encountered in every recollection of Aesop’s life are worth mentioning and could help us reconstruct the possible origins of Aesop – the man who is shrouded in a lot of enigma.
Almost every source describes Aesop as a (former) slave and an incredibly ugly person. Some even go so far to name him a monstrosity – a man who was bandy legged, swarthy, fat and dwarfish, malformed, and with squinty eyes. For a long time, the scholars tried to find a meaning to this portrayal of Aesop as an ugly man and whether it held some metaphorical importance.
Another popular fact is the growing insinuation that Aesop was of African origins –a black man born in Ethiopia. In modern Greek the word Aesop means Ethiopian or black man – a word cognate with Aethiops – Ethiopia. The first scholar to propose this theory was Planudes, a Byzantine man who wrote a biography of Aesop in the 13th century. But with only the etymology of his name to go on, this theory is largely debated even today.
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Hellenistic statue depicting Aesop. (Shakko / CC BY-SA 3.0)
But one thing remains for certain – whether black or not, whether ugly or pretty, slave or scholar – it makes no matter. The magnitude of Aesop’s work erases every human aspect, establishing him as a cultural hero of every nation.
Final Thoughts About Aesop’s Fables
Even from the earliest times, from the very beginnings of society, we can see that the written word, as well as the oral traditions – played a significant role in every nation. You know that a story or a fable carries so much influence when it is repeatedly shared through generations – father to son – for centuries. And when every child and every elder alike are able to draw a life-changing moral lesson out of it, you can be sure that such significance is timeless.
So…? What’s the moral of the story here? The moral of the story today is that even in simple, short fables we can find immensity of importance and that morality will never go out of fashion.
Top image: Fairytale scene from a book. Credit: CRimages / Adobe Stock