Most of you have probably heard the classic tale of “The Tortoise and the Hare” but do you know where the story came from and that there are more pithy anecdotes where that came from?
The Tortoise and the Hare is actually one of more than three hundred short stories compiled under the title “Aesop’s Fables“.
Not all fables attributed to the ancient-world storyteller were actually written or compiled by him. The collection includes obvious anachronisms such as The Spanish Cavalier, The Fly in St. Paul’s Cupola, and The Mockingbird (which takes place in America!). But the oral tradition that produced these anachronisms are also what brought us the fables in the first place. It’s been slyly remarked that any fable without a traceable source is attributed to Aesop by default.
“Aesop was such a strong personality that his contemporaries credited him with every fable ever before heard, and his successors with every fable ever told since.” -Willis L. Parker
Yet iconic as he is, solid facts about Aesop are scarce, the shadow he left dwarfing the man himself. Aesop lived in approximately 620-560 BC and was a slave to two masters, the second whom freed him out of appreciation for his rare wit and intelligence. As a freedman, Aesop is reported to have traveled far and wide telling stories as he went, eventually gaining the favor of King Croesus of Lydia who housed and appointed him to stand in his royal court.
But on a journey for the king, delivering gold to the people of Delphi in Greece there arose a misunderstanding that cost him his life. The people misinterpreted Aesop’s actions, framed him, and successfully charged him guilty.
Lloyd W. Daly writes “Apprehensive of his spreading [a] low opinion of them on his travels, the Delphians lay a trap for Aesop. By stealth they [stashed] a golden bowl from [their] temple in his baggage; then as he starts off through Phocis, they overtake him, search his baggage, and find the bowl. Haled back to Delhi, Aesop is found guilty of sacrilege against Apollo for the theft of the bowl and is condemned to death by being hurled off a cliff.” (Daly, 20.)
And yet, the stories he told live on—or at least his reputation for telling them does. It is impossible to determine and verify which fables were actually told by Aesop.
“The popularity of Aesop is also shown by the fact that Plato records that Socrates decided to versify some of his fables while he was in jail awaiting execution.” -Robert Temple
“They were among the first printed works in the vernacular European languages, and writers and thinkers throughout history have perpetuated them to such an extent that they are embraced as among the essential truths about human beings and their ways.” -D.L. Ashliman
Fables contain kernels of wisdom, allegorizing universal truths, and are oftentimes just the thing you need to win an argument, make a point or perhaps, make a decision. Children love to hear the often humorous tales, making them excellent tools for their instruction. The uses are wide and endless.
Mutato nomine, de te fabula narratur—Change but the name, to you the tale belongs.
Apollonius of Tyana, a 1st-century AD philosopher, is recorded to have said of Aesop:
… like those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.
—Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14
My favorite edition of Aesop’s Fables is Barnes and Noble’s Leatherbound classic: a beautiful, gilded, leather binding that nestles beautiful illustrations and the JBR Collection translation which I find to be the most lyrical and melodic of all the translations.
Over the next two months I am going to highlight 4 tales from Aesop’s Fables and discuss the pithy truths they each unearth.
Join me for the adventure!