The fables attributed to Aesop were actually composed over the course of many centuries. Aesop is a semilegendary figure, about whom various stories have been told. All that can be known with any certainty about Aesop is that he was a Phrygian slave who was later freed by his Greek master because of the wit and charm of his stories. All other details about Aesop’s life appear to have been invented after his death. For example, it is said that Aesop served under two masters, Xanthus and Iadmon, on the island of Samos. After being freed by Iadmon, Aesop is reported to have traveled as far as the Lydian city of Sardis, where he became a favorite of King Croesus (c. 600-546 b.c.e.). Another legend reports that the citizens of Delphi were outraged by Aesop’s description of them as mere parasites, living off the wealth of others. To punish Aesop for this insult, the Delphians are said to have hidden a golden bowl among his possessions just before he left the city. When the bowl was discovered, Aesop was convicted of theft and executed by being thrown from a cliff. None of these incidents is likely to have occurred. While the historian Herodotus (c. 484-c. 425 b.c.e.) does describe Iadmon as Aesop’s master and says that the former slave was murdered by the Delphians, it must be remembered that Herodotus is not always reliable. In the fourth century b.c.e., the comic poet Alexis wrote a play, Aesop, now lost. Some of the episodes included in later biographical sketches of the author may actually have been derived from this comic work.
The stories told by the historical Aesop appear to have been a mix of legends, myths, and political parables. Even in antiquity, however, it was the fable—and, in particular, the animal fable—with which Aesop became most closely associated. More than a hundred animal stories are now attributed to him. Aesop himself was probably responsible for few of the tales that bear his name. He never wrote a book. His stories belonged to the oral tradition. Even as late as the Renaissance, numerous moral fables were still being attributed to Aesop. Many of the fables that later ages believed were written by Aesop were actually the work of Demetrius of Phalerum (c. 350 b.c.e.), Phaedrus (c. 15 b.c.e.-c. 50 c.e.), Babrius (second century c.e.), Avianus (c. 400 c.e.), and Jean de La Fontaine (1621-1695). Manuscripts of stories said to have been written by Aesop include legends that vary widely by date, are sometimes composed in Greek and sometimes in Latin, and are arranged not by subject but alphabetically by the first word in the story, hardly a likely categorization system for a storyteller.
In most examples of Aesop’s fables, each animal symbolizes a different human virtue or vice. The fox represents cunning, the ass stupidity, the lion ferocity, the ant industry, the grasshopper laziness, the crow vanity, and so on. By placing these creatures in different combinations, the fables comment upon the varieties of human nature and criticize common human foibles. For example, in “The Ass, the Fox, and the Lion,” a fox offers to betray his friend the ass to the lion, provided that the lion promises never to harm the fox. The lion agrees to this proposal, and the ass foolishly falls into the trap that the fox prepares. Once the ass is safely ensnared, however, the lion turns and attacks the fox, proving that those who act with treachery are themselves often betrayed.
In a similar tale, “The Lion, the Ass, and the Fox Go Hunting,” the same three animals agree to help one another by forming a hunting party. Since each contributes his own particular skills, they are very successful and, at the end of the day, there is a great heap of booty. The ass proceeds to divide the profits into...
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