Several hundred fables have been associated with the ancient Greek storyteller Aesop. It is difficult to determine with certainty the number of fables composed by him (the estimate stands at about 231), because little is known of the legendary fabulist himself. The fifth century b.c.e. historian Herodotus writes that Aesop was a slave who belonged to Iadmon, a man who lived on the Greek island of Samos. Impressed by Aesop’s stories, Iadmon apparently freed him. Herodotus also notes that Aesop lived during the reign of the Egyptian pharoah Amasis; that is, during the mid-sixth century b.c.e. Tradition holds that Aesop was murdered at the Greek city of Delphi in a dispute with the inhabitants. Still later, colorful tales were added about his life; most notable was the rumor that he was disfigured, ugly, and mute.
The absence of an established text presents another difficulty in determining which fables were originally composed by Aesop. It is not likely that he wrote down his stories himself. The task of recording the fables was undertaken by later writers, notably the first century c.e. Latin writer Phaedrus and the second century c.e. Greek writer Babrius. This act of preservation provided ample opportunity to add new stories, a practice that continued throughout the centuries and that further increased the difficulty of identifying Aesop’s own work.
Generally, the fables are short stories that offer a moral or some worldly advice. The meaning of the tale is understood within the story itself, but later commentators on the fables thought it necessary to add a short statement or proverb for further explanation. This custom may have been especially common for the Christian writers who inherited the fables from the Greco-Roman world. The protagonists of these stories are usually animals, and often two or more of them are engaged in some contest. The animals represent human behavior in a most candid way.
Most of the stories occur in natural settings or open places, often in the ancient world or in a timeless locale. Certain fables concern the heroes and gods from Greek and Roman mythology; Zeus, Hermes, and Hercules are particular favorites who often whimsically involve themselves in the creation and affairs of humankind.
Other stories (attributed to Aesop but certainly not his own) involve the Roman imperial world and its relation with everyday folk. Perhaps the best example is the fable of “The Lion and the Shepherd,” in which a shepherd who shows generosity to a lion suffering with a thorn in its paw is rewarded a thousandfold. This fable formed the basis of the later story of Androcles, the good Christian thrown to the lions for the emperor’s amusement. Still other stories represent people whose livelihood depends on nature (such as farmers, fishermen, and hunters) or who are craftsmen and the experience that they gain from their mistakes and struggles throughout life.
Earthly settings. Tales in Aesop’s Fables rely on diverse settings to frame the ethical conflicts that lead to the point of each fable—a moral lesson illustrated by the actions and comments of both humans and animals with humanlike qualities. Specific geographical references are sparse, but some tales contain allusions to places, such as a tale concerning an Arab and a camel, a tale set in the fields near Rome, a tale about a man in the East, and one involving a vat of blue dye that could only be made in the East. Allusions such as these were familiar to audiences of antiquity, as well as to those of the era when the tales were...
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first translated into English. Setting the fables among images evoking predictable responses made them more likely to achieve their goal of moral instruction.
Reflecting and reinforcing the moral consequences of good and evil actions, dualities frame more than one fable and can be found both in place and title, including town and country, sky and moon, and wind and sun. Familiar and timeless, these elements too, and the animals and human characters who speak from them, are comfortable constructs for the preservation and communication of social values. The pairing of dichotomies echoes the moral choices faced by characters in the fables and simplifies most life choices to an either/or dilemma, a comfortable logic for children’s tales. Important too, as is reflected in these settings, is the suspension of disbelief that fables, by their nature, require. Rooted in superstition and early pagan and mythical belief systems, speech among animals and elements of the sky is presented as a naturally occurring event in the times and places where the tales are set.
Celestial and exotic settings
Celestial and exotic settings. At least one fable betrays its Greek classical origins because it is set in Olympus, the mythical land of the gods. Some of the other more exotic settings involve encounters with lions, leopards, apes, and monkeys. While these are not the most common scenes, these atypical frameworks provide a vivid contrast to the scenes of domestic drudgery and serve to reinforce the notion that lessons may be learned from animals of all sorts. In addition, although these junglelike settings may not have been part of the everyday life of ordinary people during the time of the English translation, in that period, as well as in the period of antiquity from which these tales originate, lions and leopards and the like would have inspired awe among the stories’ largely untravelled listeners.
Domestic settings. To appeal to audiences of largely uneducated children and adults, most of the fables take place in simple domestic settings drawn from the everyday lives of ancient agrarian people. Such settings include the tiled roof of a house, a butcher’s shop, a well, a rim of a pot of jam, a jar containing nuts and figs, a manger, a farmyard, a straw yard, a heath, a cornfield, a meadow, and the outskirts of a village. This use of common, familiar images creates homelike settings that would appeal to peasant farmer families, who for centuries constituted the bulk of the fables’ audiences. The domestic world is, after all, where people make many of their ethical choices. Thus, it is a practical matter to set most of the lessons in that timeless environment.
References to time appear in several fables, but they are as general as most of the settings, expressed in phrases such as “many years ago,” “before your great-great grandparents were born,” and “in days of old.” Such phrasings resemble those of oral tradition in conveying a sense of universality of experience that includes and involves the audience in the tales and permits a broad identification of the setting in time. The individual fables are brief; to suit their audiences and to stress their moral points, they tended to compress time.
Hazardous settings. Perils of travel in ancient and medieval times are typically reflected in settings such as forests, thick woods, and high roads. Harsh weather also occasionally provides a challenging element to both domestic and travel tales. One fable, for example, is set amid a severe winter, another is set on a farm in a cold part of the world, while still another tale occurs on a hot day in June. Realistic and frightening natural events, such as powerful winds or rain, snowstorms, and particularly dark nights, represent the sort of conditions that might have created tension and suspense in the lives of early peoples, and which served, no doubt, to add excitement to the tales.
Aesop. Aesopica. Edited by Ben Edward Perry. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 1952. The most thorough and scholarly collection of Aesopic texts. Contains the fables themselves and texts relating to the life of Aesop. The best place to begin for those who wish to undertake advanced study of the Aesopic canon.
Babrius and Phaedrus. Babrius and Phaedrus. Edited by Ben Edwin Perry. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1975. Original texts and English translations of all Aesopic fables by the authors Babrius and Phaedrus. Includes a valuable historical introduction and a comprehensive survey of all Greek and Latin fables in the Aesopic tradition.
Blackham, Harold John. The Fable as Literature. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover, 1985. Blackham does not confine himself to Aesop, but this is the best introductory study to the literary use of fable. Includes an index and a bibliography.
Halliday, William Reginald. Indo-European Folk-Tales and Greek Legend. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1933. Although somewhat dated, Halliday’s discussion of Greek legend and its origin in Indo-European folklore is still a valuable survey of the origins of myth, saga, and fable.
Keidel, George Charles. A Manual of Aesopic Fable Literature. Geneva, Switzerland: Slatkine Reprints, 1974. Useful reference on the sources of Aesopic animal fable from antiquity to 1500.
Patterson, Annabel M. Fables of Power: Aesopian Writing and Political History. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. An extensive and highly readable study of Aesop’s influence and of the imitations of his fables in English literature during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Discusses the continuing role that Aesop’s fables have played in European society.