Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010


Aesop (ca. 620-560 B.c.) Greek fabulist The Thracian slave Aesop of Mesembria, a mystic figure during a period of Greek conquest and colonizing, created a prototype for astute ethical tales that dominated the FABLE genre in Western literature. Allegedly, following the Homeric period, Aesop accepted a commission by the Delphic god Apollo to equip humankind with illustrative axioms. Rather than ponderous, violence-prone epics, however, the storyteller chose 350 brief nuggets of truth.

Prototypes of fables existed in Eastern Mediterranean oral lore, including the admonitory tale of “The Rich Man and the Poor Man's Lamb” (ca. 950 B.c.), which the Israelite priest Nathan used to humble King David for wife stealing. A fable by the Greek moralist and mythog- rapher Hesiod, “The Hawk and the Nightingale” from Works and Days (ca. 700 B.c.), took a pragmatic stance concerning the vulnerable in the talons of the mighty, who can easily subdue the weak. According to the surviving lines of “The Fox and Hedgehog” (650 B.c.), the soldier-poet Archilochus of Paros turned similar advice about power mongering into verse fable: “The fox knows many things, the hedgehog one great thing” (Archilochus 1992, 202).

These focused pairings—rich man/poor man, hawk/nightingale, fox/hedgehog—foretokened Aesop's motifs, but not his rhetorical gift. Proclaimed the father of the Western fable, he earned the respect of the historian HERODOTUS, who identified Aesop as a story maker rather than a story collector. In 1711, Joseph Addison, an essayist for the neoclassic age London newspaper the Spectator, wrote that Aesop was the world's first wit and a literary touchstone to more civilized ages.

The famed eastern Mediterranean storyteller created a model for one of the most enduring literary genres. Drawing on oral narrative for his style, he effectively created the model for the apologue, a refined animal or beast fable that serves as a brain teaser, like the Buddhist KOAN, or a source of agon, or competition story, like those of the Spanish scholar TOMAS DE IRIARTE. Succinct and insightful, each of Aesop's fables concludes with a quippy, nature-based epimythium, or self-evident moral. His most finely honed include “Look before you leap,” “Deceit and wisdom can be stronger than force,” “One trickster may trick another,” “No act of kindness is ever wasted,” and “No one can serve two masters.” For visual impact, he created emblematic fables about animals stereotyped by their behavior, such as the strength of the ox, the mindless chatter of the magpie, and the vainglory of the lion.

Advice to Rulers

After his second master, Xanthus of Samos, freed Aesop, the fabulist appears to have counseled the Lydian king Croesus and served as an emissary to courts at Corinth, Egypt, and Sardis. At a difficult pass in Athenian politics, he urged restraint against the tyrant Peisistratus with the story “The Frogs Who Desired a King.” The moral warns peasants not to venture into kingmaking lest they create a monster. Of the uneven distribution of blessings, Aesop provided salient counsel: “There is always somebody worse off than you,” “Don't dismiss the ordinary,” and “The coveter loses all.” Of the overdressed social climber, he remarked, “Fine feathers don't make fine birds.” To the would-be conqueror, he warned, “Pride precedes a fall” and “Danger comes from where you least expect it.” To dictators, Aesop hinted, “Evil will not last forever”; he also spoke of “Strength in numbers,” a veiled reference to the massing of the weak to overthrow suppressors. He may have met his death at Delphi for telling saucy stories with indiscreet morals. According to the fable “The Eagle and the Beetle” in The Birds (414 B.c.) by comic playwright Aristophanes, the Delphians seized Aesop from the shrine of the Muses and murdered him.

Aesop's original stories influenced fabulists in subsequent eras, notably Socrates in his prison cell at the base of the Acropolis in Athens. According to Plato's Phaedo (ca. 345 B.c.), the doomed philosopher translated into poetry the Aesopian fables that he had memorized in prose. The translations, which occurred on Socrates's last days in 399 B.c., during the short-term rise of Sparta to empire status, relieved him of thoughts of suicide. He imagined Aesop allying abstract pleasure with pain in an allegory “about God trying to reconcile their strife, and when he could not, he fastened their heads together” (Plato 1875, 48). While Socrates awaited a state executioner bearing a cup of poison hemlock, his sentence for the crime of impiety, the fables helped the philosopher interpret troubling dreams and engaged his intellect in shaping the curt closing lines for which Aesop was famous.

Other admirers and emulators of Aesop's fables include subsequent fabulists, such as the Greek philosopher Aristotle, who warned of catastrophes in two pourquoi (“why”) stories: “Aesop at the Shipyards,” a segment of Meteorologica (ca. 335 B.c.), and “The Lions and the Hares” in Politica (ca. 335 B.c.). In the next millennium, Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah of Jerusalem narrated Aesop's “The Crane and Lion” (ca. A.D. 120) during a heated exchange between Jews and the agents of the Emperor Hadrian, who refused to restore Jerusalem's temple after its destruction by Roman soldiers. Some three decades later, the orator Aelius Aristides of Hadriani, Mysia (present-day Turkey), honed the two-animal confrontation in “The Mouse and the Oyster” (150 B.c.), a cautionary tale warning of political situations that entrap or slaughter the unwary caught between dangerous allies. Later fabulists imitated Aesop's succinct wit, including the Middle Eastern poet Valerius Babrius, a Greco-Roman author living in Christianized Syria around A.D. 235.

Aesop imitators tended to be scholars and polemists. At the height of classicism in medieval Japan, court councilor Minamoto Takakuni emulated Aesop with his collection Konjaku Monogatari (Tales, ancient and modern, 1075). In “The Monkey's Gratitude,” a complex two-stage animal tale, Minamoto describes the battle of two dissimilar beasts when a monkey kidnaps a baby to protect it from the talons of an eagle. In Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey) around 1290 during the Byzantine Empire, the Greek monk and editor Maximus Planudes published critical revisions of original Aesopic fables. Western Europeans read Aesopic stories by the Anglo-Norman poet MARIE DE FRANCE; by the Parisian fabulist JEAN DE LA FONTAINE; and, during the 18th century, by the ethicist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing of Saxony and JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE, who predicted the rise of Napoleon I in the bestiary Reineke Fuchs (Reynard the Fox; 1794). The Senegalese storyteller BIRAGO DIOP produced his own Aesopic twists in riddles, adages, and beast fables from West Africa.


Aesop. Aesop’s Fables with a Life of Aesop. Translated by

John E. Keller and L. Clark Keating. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1993.

Archilochus. “The Fox and the Hedgehog.” In Early Greek Poetry, translated by David D. Mulroy, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1992.

Babrius. Babrius and Phaedrus. Translated by Ben Edwin Perry. Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, 1990.

Plato. Plato’s Phaedo. Translated by E. M. Cope. Cambridge, U.K.: University Press, 1875.