Once upon a time, in ancient Greece, a man known for his sharp wit and clever storytelling abilities rose to fame through his timeless tales featuring animals as characters. His name was Aesop, and his fables have been passed down through the centuries, inspiring generations of readers with their simple yet powerful moral lessons.
From “The Ant and the Grasshopper” to “The Fox and the Grapes,” Aesop’s fables remain a beloved part of world literature, captivating readers of all ages and cultures with their engaging storytelling and universal themes. Their lessons, couched in storytelling tropes of wise or foolish animals, resonate down the centuries
But the man behind the stories is shrouded in myth and legend. Did he really exist? And where did these fables come from?
Who was Aesop?
To say that he’s one of ancient history’s most famous storytellers, the answer to this question is surprisingly complicated. We have no real idea who Aesop was or whether he ever actually existed. Many modern historians believe that Aesop was no more than a name created so that ancient historians and writers could ascribe fables to him.
Different ancient historians gave Aesop different origin stories. In the 5th century BC, Herodotus claimed that Aesop had been born in the 6th century BC in Samos and was a slave. Aristotle agreed that Aesop was born a slave but had him born in Mesembria (a Greek colony) in 620 BC.
Plutarch, on the other hand, wrote in the 1st century AD that Aesop was not a slave, but rather had been an advisor to Croesus, a Lydian King from the 6th century BC. Modern historians have discounted Plutarch’s testimony since the timelines of when Plutarch claimed Aesop died, and Croesus’ reign don’t really match up.
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Much of what we think we know about Aesop comes from the Aesop Romance, a highly fictionalized account of his life. As a piece of anonymous Greek popular literature, many different versions of the story exist although they tend to hit similar story beats.
According to most versions of the Aesop Romance, Aesop was an extremely ugly slave of Phrygian origin who lived on the island of Samos. At the beginning of the story, he is mute, but after winning the favor of a priestess of Isis, the goddess gives him the gift of clever storytelling.
He uses his newfound skill to run circles around his owner, Xanthos. He humiliates the man in front of his students and even sleeps with his wife. Through his clever tricks, he wins his freedom and becomes an emissary between the Samians and King Croesus. The story ends with Aesop traveling to Delphi where his fables anger the locals, and he is sentenced to death.
The Aesop Romance is in no way shape or form a reliable source. Several parts of the story take place in fictional locations where Aesop meets famous fictional characters from other Greek stories. This being said, it’s clear that its myriad writers took cues from the theories of the Greek historians who wrote about Aesop when writing it.
Why Did Aesop Become Famous for His Fables?
Aesop’s fables became famous because they were masterfully crafted stories that used animal characters to convey important moral lessons in a way that was both entertaining and educational and could be understood by both the young and old, educated, and uneducated. The fables also tend to be short and simple, making them easy to remember and pass on.
They also have universal appeal, dealing with timeless themes and human nature. This means they remained relevant throughout the centuries and could be understood by people from any era or culture. “The Tortoise and the Hare” and its moral about perseverance is as relevant today as it was over two thousand years ago.
Whether or not a man called Aesop actually wrote them all himself seems unlikely. The first collection of written fables attributed to Aesop was written over a century after his supposed death.
Throughout the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd centuries AD, several writers including Demetrius of Phalerum, the Roman Phaedrus, and Babrius (whom we know little else about) wrote down collections of Aesop’s fables. Unfortunately, most of these early manuscripts have been lost and we must rely on the works of later writers.
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The origins of the fables themselves aren’t clear. It seems most likely that the tales were passed down through oral tradition for centuries before being recorded in writing and then being attributed to the legendary Aesop. Some scholars believe many of the tales originated in India or the Middle East where similar moral tales using animals had been told for centuries.
Most historians agree that no one person invented all the tales attributed to Aesop. Instead, it’s believed these tales were collected and adapted over time and had their own twists and moral lessons added. Furthermore, Aesop’s fables were influenced by various cultural traditions and sources, including ancient Greek mythology and folklore.
What Happened to Aesop?
Much like his life, Aesop’s death is shrouded in mystery. We don’t even know for sure that he ever actually existed, let alone how he died.
That being said, most stories that cover his death have him dying in Delphi in around 564 BC. Both Plutarch and the Aesop Romance describe Aesop traveling to Delphi on a diplomatic mission from King Croesus of Lydia.
The stories then have Aesop insulting the Delphians with his razor-sharp wit. He is then sentenced to death on trumped-up charges of theft.
The exact manner of Aesop’s death then varies depending on the source. In most versions, he is forced to jump to his death from a cliff (cursing the people of Delphi the whole way down) or he’s stoned to death. Other versions have him being forced to drink a poisonous hemlock brew.
Aesop’s fables have stood the test of time and continue to captivate readers of all ages and cultures. Whether Aesop was a real person or a mythical figure, his legacy lives on through his timeless tales featuring animals as characters that convey important moral lessons in a simple and memorable way.
Aesop’s fables have been passed down through the centuries, inspiring countless adaptations, and interpretations, and remain an important part of world literature. From “The Tortoise and the Hare” to “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” Aesop’s stories continue to remind us of the universal values that connect us as human beings and serve as a testament to the enduring power of storytelling.
Top Image: Aesop tells one of his stories to a group of passers-by. Source: Julian Russell Story / Public Domain.