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,...
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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 three equal parts and asks the lion which share he would prefer as his own. Instead of answering, the lion simply attacks the ass and gobbles him up. Then the fox proceeds to divide the booty, claiming only a tiny morsel for himself and granting his comrade the “lion’s share.” “Why did you divide our goods in that way?” the lion asks. “I’m no fool,” the fox replies. “I needed no other lesson than the ass’s fate.”
Frequently, the fox is depicted as using his cleverness to the detriment of others. In “The Fox and the Crow,” for example, a crow steals a piece of cheese that she holds in her beak high in the branches of a tree. The fox sees her and begins to flatter her great beauty. “What a pity,” the fox concludes, “that a creature with such a beautiful beak and feathers does not have an equally lovely voice!” The crow, out of vanity, wishes to prove the fox wrong and, opening her beak to sing, drops the piece of cheese. The fox leaps on the cheese at once, proving both the shallowness of false flattery and the foolishness of conceit.
At times, however, even cunning is not enough to win the fox what he wants. In “The Fox and the Grapes,” for instance, a fox sees a bunch of grapes ripening in the sun high up on a vine. Despite his repeated efforts, the fox is unable to leap high enough to reach the grapes. “Never mind,” the fox mutters as he walks away, “the grapes are probably sour anyway.” From this story comes the expression “sour grapes,” a phrase used to describe a person’s denigrating something that the person wants but cannot have. In a similar story, “The Fox and the Bramble,” the fox is about to fall from a hedge when he catches hold of a bramble for support. The thorns of the bramble wound the fox severely, and he accuses the bramble of being inhospitable to those in need. “You were foolish,” the bramble replies, “to cling to one who usually clings to others.” The moral of the story is that no one should expect aid from those who usually seek it.
In the fable of “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” a grasshopper is hungry during the winter and begs an ant for a share of the food that it has in its store. “Why did you not do what I did and spend the summer storing up grain?” the ant asks. “Because I preferred to sing all summer,” the grasshopper replies. “Well,” the ant says as it walks away, “if, instead of working, you sang all summer, then you must dance hungry all winter.” The moral of the story is that the person who works hard will be rewarded while the person who wastes time in idleness will suffer when times are lean.
Not all of the stories attributed to Aesop are animal fables. “Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, and Momus” is a traditional Greek myth with the Olympian gods as central characters. Zeus, Poseidon, and Athena decide to have a contest to see which of them can produce the perfect creation. Zeus makes a man, Athena makes a house, and Poseidon makes a bull. The god Momus, who personifies fault-finding and is never happy with anything, is then appointed by the gods to choose the winner of their contest. Momus, however, refuses to award the prize to any of the participants: The man is poorly made, Momus says, because the man does not have a window in his breast so that all can see what is hidden in his heart; the house is poorly made because it has no wheels to roll it away from unpleasant neighbors; and the bull is poorly made because he must lower his eyes when he charges. In frustration at this reply, Zeus drives Momus from Mount Olympus forever, accusing him of being one of those critics who can only find flaws but never create useful things themselves. Other stories by Aesop also deal with other gods from Greek mythology, including Hermes and Heracles.
Even inanimate objects occasionally appear as the subjects of Aesop’s fables. In “The Two Pots,” for example, a bronze pot and an earthenware pot are carried off by a stream. The bronze pot urges the earthenware pot to remain close to him so that his strength can protect the weakness of the clay pot. “That is just what I am afraid of,” the earthenware pot replies. “If I keep my distance from you, we may both be safe. If I get too close to you, your very strength may do me damage.” This story suggests that humble people should not associate too closely with the mighty since, when trouble comes, the weak will suffer from having risen above their place.
The typical Aesop’s fable seeks, therefore, to make its point through a homely and easily understood parable. Few of the legends attributed to Aesop are much longer than a paragraph. They teach a lesson simply and not through elaborate detail. The author draws character by introducing broad types of personalities rather than by creating highly differentiated individuals. According to tradition, the historical Aesop told stories to comment upon political events of his day. For example, he is said to have created the fable “The Frogs Who Wanted a King” because he wanted to suggest to the Athenians that they were better off under the tyrant Peisistratus (d. 527 b.c.e.) than they would be under a ruler whose faults they did not yet know. The majority of the tales that survive bearing Aesop’s name are not political in nature. They deal with general personality types and draw broad conclusions that relate to all people.