In focus: Aesop and his fables

He is credited with having penned a series of fables that are today some of the most enduringly popular works of Ancient Greek literature. But did Aesop – a supposedly ugly slave who was dumb until granted the power of speech by the goddess Isis – even exist?

Aesop, 1493. (Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty Images)

In tomorrow's episode of In Our Time on Radio 4, Dr Lucy Grig from the University of Edinburgh will be one of three experts discussing Aesop and his fables.

Along with Pavlos Avlamis from Trinity College, Oxford, and Simon Goldhill from the University of Cambridge, Grig will explore how the body of work gives us a rare glimpse of the popular culture of the ancient world.

Here, writing for History Extra, Grig looks at the history of the fables, and explains why they continue to fascinate...

Aesop’s fables are part of the cultural currency that many of us grow up with and are sufficiently well-known to form some of our best-known figures of speech (‘the lion’s share’, ’sour grapes’ and so on). We tend to associate them with children’s literature; however, if we look a little deeper into these famous tales we can find some revealing new insights into the ancient past. In fact, it transpires that fables might help us access communities that our classical sources usually ignore.

Fables go back thousands of years: they appear in archaic Greek literature as early as the 8th century BC. They are not a Greek invention, but were also an important part of Near Eastern culture.

The association of fables with Aesop, meanwhile, can be traced back at least as far as the 5th century BC, when he is mentioned by a whole host of Greek authors including the historian Herodotus and the playwright Aristophanes; the philosopher Socrates had something of a penchant for Aesop, at least according to Plato. It quickly becomes clear that fables in the ancient world were not just seen as stories suitable for children, but rather as an established and useful part of culture.

Aesop himself, however, cuts a particularly striking and unusual figure, seemingly deliberately at odds with what might be considered the classical Greek ideal. He is persistently depicted as a slave, as someone from the furthest fringes of the Greek world – hence as a barbarian - and as so ugly as to be deformed. Despite these unprepossessing attributes he appears as the titular hero of a novel, The Life of Aesop, dated to the first or second centuries AD. It is a unique text to come down to us from classical antiquity, as it gives rare insights into the slave’s perspective, albeit through fiction.

In this account Aesop is a hideously ugly slave who suffers the disability of dumbness before he is given the gift of speech by the goddess Isis. He immediately demonstrates his wily intelligence and his new gift of the gab. The first part of the story follows Aesop’s adventures as the slave of a philosopher called Xanthus on the island of Samos; Aesop wages a battle of wills with his master (and his mistress), in which he consistently triumphs; Aesop eventually wins his freedom.

The journey takes a new turn as Aesop is appointed advisor to the king of Babylon. These courtly adventures represent a clear borrowing from the eastern adventures of Ahiqar, demonstrating the cross-cultural fertilisation between the classical and near-eastern worlds.

Now a celebrity, Aesop makes an ill-advised visit to the famous shrine at Delphi where he angers the local citizens who wrongly accuse him of sacrilege and then throw him off a cliff. This would seem to be an ignominious end but who gets the last laugh? The polymath Plutarch tells us that the gods punished the people of Delphi by cursing their crops and bringing disease. Aesop, meanwhile went on to win eternal fame.

What of the fables associated with Aesop, both in the ancient world and today? Hundreds have come down to us from ancient collections, written in both Greek and Latin, in poetry and prose. Fables are nicely described by the ancient rhetorician Aelius Theon as “a fictitious story picturing a truth”.

We might tend to talk about the stories as having a 'moral', sometimes explicitly given at the end or the beginning of the story, or sometimes recounted by one of the main characters of the tale. However, this is not to say that the 'moral' of the tale is necessarily of the pious kind. Aesop’s fables can be earthy, cynical, funny, even obscene, and the moral of the tale is not necessarily one fit for a children’s edition.

The role played by animals in these stories lends a good deal of their endless fascination. The stories feature certain stereotyped animal behaviours (for instance foxes are wily; monkeys are clever). However, on occasion scholars have been fascinated to make a link between real observed animal behaviour and that of Aesop’s animals: scientists in Cambridge recently demonstrated that rooks were able to use pebbles to raise the water level to their liking, just like Aesop’s crow.

But can Aesop’s fables tell us anything more profound about ancient society? The Roman poet Phaedrus who set Aesop’s fables to verse claims that slaves used animal fables when talking among themselves so as to conceal their true meaning.

A striking number of fables do focus on the relationship between masters (humans) and slaves (often donkeys or dogs), as well as between rulers (often lions) and the ruled (sheep, amongst others). They often paint a bleak picture of life for the underdog, although not without black humour.

Aesop was the slave who spoke truth through fictions: we might conclude that his fables give us a glimpse of ancient life viewed from a perspective all too rarely seen – that of the oppressed.
 

In Our Time will air on Thursday 20 November at 9am. To find out more, click here.

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