Aesop’s Fables are so deeply embedded into our culture that references to them are common parts of the language – “sour grapes”, “crying wolf” and so on. But we don’t often think about who Aesop was, where these stories originated or what the point of them is – or at least, I certainly didn’t! Discussing Aesop and the fables attributed to him on In Our Time were Pavlos Avlamis (Trinity College, University of Oxford), Simon Goldhill (University of Cambridge), and Lucy Grig (University of Edinburgh).
Aesop almost certainly didn’t really exist. He’s a myth or archetype in a similar fashion to Robin Hood – there’s a general shape to the myth but the other details often vary. What Aesop has in common across all references is that he’s ugly, he’s a slave, he’s clever and he speaks truth to power. Even the earliest mentions of Aesop say he’s been dead for a century – he’s a mythic figure from the past whenever you are. One of the most complete stories about Aesop himself that we have is a story from the 1st Century AD called the Romance of Aesop. In this narrative Aesop is an ugly slave whose master is a philosopher – but he frequently outwits his master. For instance his master goes to the baths, and asks Aesop to bring the oil flask. When Aesop does, his master asks why there’s no oil in it … and Aesop replies that he wasn’t asked to bring any oil! This sort of quickwitted trickery is the reverse of audience expectations for the story – after all, isn’t the master a philosopher who should be both clever and quick thinking? And outward appearances were expected to mirror the internal qualities of a man – so who would expect an ugly man to be clever? It’s also pretty subversive – lots of acts of petty rebellion which make the master’s life a misery.
Given that Aesop is probably a mythic character it’s unlikely that he actually wrote the fables he’s credited as the author of! They are most likely an oral tradition dating back to at least the 5th Century BC in Greece. It’s possible that they originated in Mesopotamia before that and if there was a historical Aesop then he was perhaps a slave from that region who told their fables to Greeks. The fables were written down later, but the repertoire changes over the centuries so there’s still an oral tradition running alongside the written one. During antiquity the fables spread from Greece to the Roman world and throughout the Roman controlled territories. They even got as far as the edge of China – there’s a version known that was written down in a Turkic language from Chinese controlled territory. In the Renaissance Aesop’s Fables were rediscovered and translated into many European languges, where they’ve remained current since. This rediscovery wasn’t limited to Europe – the new translations of the Fables spread to Japan as well.
Fables are a specific genre of stories – they are short, generally told with animal or stock characters with a moral attached. The moral doesn’t necessarily come at the end, it can be at the beginning or even in the middle. Different tellings of the same story can have different morals attached. And interestingly the moral doesn’t necessarily have to match the scenario in the story – the cognitive dissonance this causes can be part of what makes the fable memorable and/or useful. You do find the stories from fables turning up without morals, in joke compilations, but I think the experts were saying they don’t count as fables then. So what’s the point of these fables? They’re not just entertainment (although obviously that’s part of the point) – in modern times they’re children’s stories and that was always part of their use. They teach lessons about how the world works, in bite-sized and amusing chunks. The stories and morals are often about power relationships, approached from a bottom up perspective (and the Romance of Aesop is a sort of meta-fable fitting into this category). So they teach children (and adults) how to navigate a hierarchial society like the Roman one. In antiquity they might also be used by adults as a subtler and politer way of getting a point across to someone more powerful than oneself.
The programme finished up by considering the wider connections of fables – mostly this section was about how there are interesting similarities between Aesop & his fables and Jesus’s parables. The stories themselves are not the same, but they’re the same genre – short tales, with a moral, about power and told with a bottom up perspective. While I was writing up this blog post I also wondered if Br’er Rabbit fits into this genre – I can’t remember enough of any Br’er Rabbit story to be sure it fits the genre, tho.