Aesop's Fables

Who is Aesop?

Some may say that Aesop is infamous for the life he led over 2000 years ago and mostly for the hundreds of fables that have been attributed to his name since. Aesop’s fables have reached countless generations since he is reported to have been alive, and they continue to be a part of the lives of many. Not every fable, however, that has been linked to Aesop is his own original material. In actuality, there are many fables attributed to Aesop that, for a variety of reasons, couldn’t possibly be his own. In many ways the unclear authorship of the fables is at the fault of the storytelling tradition, many details are naturally lost and/or altered. However the storytelling tradition is also responsible for the survival of the Aesop Fables—if story telling didn’t exist, neither Aesop nor his fables would have survived.

"They were among the first printed works in the vernacular European languages, and writers and thinkers throughout history have perpetuated them to such an extent that they are embraced as among the essential truths about human beings and their ways."
-D.L. Ashliman

“Aesop was such a strong personality that his contemporaries credited him with every fable ever before heard, and his successors with every fable ever told since.”
-Willis L. Parker

The legend tells it that Aesop lived during the sixth century BC, scholars have narrowed down his birthplace to a few different places but no one knows for sure. He was born a slave, and in his lifetime two different masters owned him before being granted his freedom. The slave masters were named, Xanthus and Iadmon, the latter gave him his freedom as a reward for his wit and intelligence. As a freedman he supposedly became involved in public affairs and traveled a lot—telling his fables along the way. King Croesus of Lydia was so impressed with Aesop that he offered him residency and a job at his court.

“The popularity of Aesop is also shown by the fact that Plato records that Socrates decided to versify some of his fables while he was in jail awaiting execution.”
-Robert Temple

While on a mission for King Croesus to distribute a certain amount of gold to the people of Delphi in Greece, there was a misunderstanding about how much gold each person was supposed to receive. Aesop became discouraged because the Delphians did not seem appreciative enough of the gift from the King so Aesop decided to take it all back to King Croesus. On his journey back the people of Delhi, who thought he was actively cheating them and giving them a bad reputation, tracked him down. Lloyd W. Daly writes “Apprehensive of his spreading this low opinion of them on his travels, the Delphians lay a trap for Aesop. By stealth they [stashed] a golden bowl from [their] temple in his baggage; then as he starts off through Phocis, they overtake him, search his baggage, and find the bowl. Haled back to Delhi, Aesop is found guilty of sacrilege against Apollo for the theft of the bowl and is condemned to death by being hurled off a cliff.” (Daly, 20.)

Works Cited
Daly, Lloyd W. Aesop Without Morals. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961.
Handford, S.A. Aesop’s Fables. England: Puffin, 1954.
Parker, Willis L. The Fables of Aesop. New York: Illustrated editions, 1931.
Stade, George, ed. Aesop’s Fables. New York: Barnes and Nobles Classics, 2003.
Temple, Olivia and Robert. Aesop: The Complete Fables. New York: Penguin Classics, 1998.

University of Massachusetts Amherst