About Aesop and His Fables

Aesop’s Fables or Aesopica refers to a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a slave and story-teller who lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BC. His fables are some of the most well known in the world. The fables remain a popular choice for moral education of children today. Many stories included in Aesop’s Fables, such as The Fox and the Grapes (from which the idiom “sour grapes” derives), The Tortoise and the Hare, The North Wind and the Sun, The Boy Who Cried Wolf and The Ant and the Grasshopper are well-known throughout the world.

Apollonius of Tyana, a 1st century AD philosopher, is recorded as having said about 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)

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the fables were written by a slave named Aesop, who lived in Ancient Greece during the 5th century BC. Aesop is also mentioned in several other Ancient Greek works – Aristophanes, in his comedy The Wasps, represented the protagonist Philocleon as having learnt the “absurdities” of Aesop from conversation at banquets; Plato wrote in Phaedo that Socrates whiled away his jail time turning some of Aesop’s fables “which he knew” into verses.

Nonetheless, for two main reasons –[1] because

  1. numerous morals within Aesop’s attributed fables contradict each other, and
  2. ancient accounts of Aesop’s life contradict each other,

– the modern view is that Aesop probably did not solely compose all those fables attributed to him, if he even existed at all.[1] Modern scholarship reveals fables and proverbs of “Aesopic” form existing in both ancient Sumer and Akkad, as early as the third millennium BCE.[2] Therefore, at their most ancient roots, the fables of Aesop are composed in a literary format that appears first not in Ancient Greece, Ancient India,, or Ancient Egypt, but in ancient Sumer and Akkad.[2]

Aesop’s fables and the Indian Panchatantra share about a dozen tales and there is some debate over whether the Greeks learned these fables from Indian storytellers or the other way, or if the influences were mutual. Ben E. Perry argued for the second possibility in his book Babrius and Phaedrus, making the extreme statement:[3]

“In the entire Greek tradition there is not, so far as I can see, a single fable that can be said to come either directly or indirectly from an Indian source; but many fables or fable-motifs that first appear in Greek or Near Eastern literature are found later in the Panchatantra and other Indian story-books, including the Buddhist Jatakas“.

Translation and transmission

When and how the fables travelled to ancient Greece remains a mystery. Some cannot be dated any earlier than Babrius and Phaedrus, several centuries after Aesop, and yet others even later. The earliest mentioned collection was by Demetrius of Phalerum, an Athenian orator and statesman of the 4th century BCE, who compiled the fables into a set of ten books for the use of orators. A follower of Aristotle, he simply catalogued all the fables that earlier Greek writers had used in isolation as exempla, putting them into prose. At least it was evidence of what was attributed to Aesop by others; but this may have included any ascription to him from the oral tradition in the way of animal fables, fictitious anecdotes, aetiological or satirical myths, possibly even any proverb or joke, that these writers transmitted. It is more a proof of the power of Aesop’s name to attract such stories to it than evidence of his actual authorship. In any case, although the work of Demetrius was mentioned frequently for the next twelve centuries, and was considered the official Aesop, no copy now survives.

Present day collections evolved from the later Greek version of Babrius, of which we have an incomplete manuscript of some 160 fabes in choliambic verse. Current opinion is that he lived in the 1st century CE. In the eleventh century appear the fables of ‘Syntipas’, now thought to be the work of the Greek scholar Michael Andreopulos. These are translations of a Syriac version, itself translated from a much earlier Greek collection and contain some fables unrecorded before. The version of fifty-five fables in choliambic tetrameters by the 9th century Ignatius the Deacon is also worth mentioning for its early inclusion of stories from Oriental sources.[4]

Some light is thrown on the entry of stories from Oriental sources into the Aesopic canon by their appearance in Jewish commentaries on the Talmud and in Midrashic literature from the first century CE. Some thirty fables appear there,[5] of which twelve resemble those that are common to both Greek and Indian sources, six are parallel to those only in Indian sources, and six others in Greek only. Where similar fables exist in Greece, India, and in the Talmud, the Talmudic form approaches more nearly the Indian. Thus, the fable of The Wolf and the Crane is told in India of a lion and another bird. When Joshua ben Hananiah told that fable to the Jews, to prevent their rebelling against Rome and once more putting their heads into the lion’s jaws (Gen. R. lxiv.), he shows familiarity with some form derived from India.

12th century pillar, cloister of the Collegiata di Sant’Orso, Aosta: the Fox and the Stork

The first extensive translation of Aesop into Latin iambic trimeters was done by Phaedrus, a freedman of Caesar Augustus in the 1st century CE, although at least one fable had already been translated by the poet Ennius two centuries before and others are referred to in the work of Horace. The rhetorician Aphthonius of Antioch, wrote a treatise on, and converted into Latin prose, some forty of these fables in 315. This translation is notable as illustrating contemporary usage, both in these and in later times. The rhetoricians and philosophers were accustomed to give the Fables of Aesop as an exercise to their scholars, not only inviting them to discuss the moral of the tale, but also to practice and to perfect themselves thereby in style and rules of grammar by making new versions of their own. A little later the poet Ausonius handed down some of these fables in verse, which Julianus Titianus, a contemporary writer of no great name, translated into prose, and in the early 5th century Avienus put 42 of these fables into Latin elegiacs.

The largest, oldest known and most influential of the prose versions of Phaedrus is that which bears the name of an otherwise unknown fabulist named Romulus. It contains eighty-three fables, is as old as the 10th century and seems to have been based on a still earlier prose version which, under the name of “Aesop,” and addressed to one Rufus, may have been made in the Carolingian period or even earlier. The collection became the source from which, during the second half of the Middle Ages, almost all the collections of Latin fables in prose and verse were wholly or partially drawn. A version of the first three books of Romulus in elegiac verse, possibly made in around the 12th century, was one of the most highly influential texts in medieval Europe. Referred to variously (among other titles) as the verse Romulus or elegaic Romulus, it was a common teaching text for Latin and enjoyed a wide popularity well into the Renaissance. Another version of Romulus in Latin elegiacs was made by Alexander Neckam, born at St Albans in 1157.

Interpretive “translations” of the elegaic Romulus were very common in Europe in the Middle Ages. Among the earliest was one in the 11th century by Ademar of Chabannes, which includes some new material. This was followed by a prose collection of parables by the Cistercian monk Odo of Cheriton round about 1200 where the fables (many of which are not Aesopic) are given a strong medieval and clerical tinge. This interpretive tendency, and the inclusion of yet more non-Aesopic material, was to grow as versions in the various European vernaculars began to appear in the following centuries.

The first printed version of Aesop’s Fables in English was published on March 26, 1484 by William Caxton. Many others, in prose and verse, followed over the centuries. In the 20th century Ben E. Perry edited the Aesopic fables of Babrius and Phaedrus for the Loeb Classical Library and compiled a numbered index by type in 1952. Olivia and Robert Temple‘s Penguin edition is titled The Complete Fables by Aesop (1998) but in fact many from Babrius, Phaedrus and other major ancient sources have been omitted. More recently, in 2002 a translation by Laura Gibbs titled Aesop’s Fables was published by Oxford World’s Classics. This book includes 359 and has selections from all the major Greek and Latin sources.

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Posted by on August 11, 2010 in Uncategorized


The Wolf and the Lamb

The Wolf and the Lamb is a well known fable of Aesop referring to tyrannical injustice.

A wolf comes upon a lamb and, in order to justify taking its life, accuses it of various misdemeanors, all of which the lamb proves to be impossible. Losing patience, it says the offenses must have been committed by someone else in the family and that it does not propose to delay its meal by inquiring any further about the matter. The morals drawn are that the tyrant can always find an excuse for his tyranny and that the unjust will not listen to the reasoning of the innocent.[1]

The fable also has Eastern analogues. One of these is the Buddhist Dipi Jataka in which the protagonists are a panther and a goat. The goat has strayed into the presence of a panther and tries to avert its fate by greeting the predator politely. It is accused of treading on his tail and then of scaring off his prey, for which crime it is made to substitute.[2] A similar story involving birds is found among Bidpai‘s Persian fables as “The Partridge and the Hawk”.[3] The unjust accusation there is that the partridge is taking up all the shade, leaving the hawk out in the hot sun. When the partridge points out that it is midnight, it is killed by the hawk for contradicting.

Moral applications

Down the centuries the various interpreters of the fable have applied it to the injustices of their time. In the extended treatment by the 15th century Scottish poet Robert Henryson in his Moral Fables a picture of widespread social breakdown is depicted. The Lamb appeals to natural law, to scripture, and to statutory law, and is answered with perversions of all these by the Wolf. Then Henryson enters in his own person and comments that there are three kinds of contemporary wolf who oppress the poor. The first are dishonest lawyers, the second are landowners intent on extending their estates, and the third are aristocrats who exploit their tenants.[4]

A political application of the fable to international relations is the 1893 Punch cartoon published at the time Britain and France were both considering extending their colonial influence into Thailand and looking for excuses. A wolf dressed in the uniform of the French army is shown eyeing the Thai lamb across the Mekong river. More recently the fable has been applied to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.[5]

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Posted by on August 10, 2010 in Uncategorized


List of some fables by Aesop

A detail of the Fontana Maggiore (Main Fountain) in Perugia, sculpted after 1275 by Nicola Pisano and Giovanni Pisano, showing tales The Wolf and the Crane and The Wolf and the Lamb

Russian sculpture of the crow in “The Fox and the Crow” fable

Aesop’s most famous fables include:

See also these links:

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Posted by on August 10, 2010 in Uncategorized