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Aesop and his Fables

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Story-telling is an art that many aspire to and few achieve well. Of the few that do achieve greatness in this field, some achieve it just once, with a magnum opus standing high above and overshadowing the rest of their work, sometimes against their will, such as Bram Stoker. Then there are others who consistently give/gave stories to the world, each a masterpiece on its own, an example being Victor Hugo. There are also those whose creations were added to by others over the centuries until one person received credit for the work of many. Homer would be the most obvious example of this, although many have undoubtedly gone undetected.

Many classic stories were compiled and collected by the second type of person. For Sleeping Beauty, Rupunzel, Hansel and Gretel and of course Snow White we have the brothers Grimm to thank. For The Mermaid, The Tinder Box and the Ugly Duckling  Hans Christian Andersen takes full credit. The unknown author of the Arabian Nights gave the world Aladdin and Ali Babar and the Forty Thieves.

While all these authors penned more than one recognisable tale, one person stands clearly above the rest of the field. For many of his tales all that is needed is the title and instant recognition is assured. This author is Aesop.

Who Was He?

Very little is known about Aesop, primarily because he lived so long ago and, in his time, was considered to be of little importance. It is commonly accepted he lived in the 6th Century BC, but the exact dates of his life are inexact. He was a Greek slave, and according to legend he was freed at some point, living the rest of his life at liberty. As Greek tradition dictated, he told his stories orally, as did Homer and all other story-tellers. They were passed down through the generations until eventually they were written down and preserved.

His life may not have been full of drama, but Aesop's death made up for that. At the time he lived, the gods played a big part in Greek society. The twelve great gods1, that is those who sat at Mount Olympus, were, along with Hades and Hestia, the most important of all. Even within these gods there was a hierarchy, with Zeus at the top and lesser known gods like Hestia at the bottom. Seated very near the top in importance was Apollo, son of Zeus and God with the Silver Bow. Apollo had an oracle at Delphi. Her name was Pythia and when she chewed laurel leaves Apollo is reputed to have spoken through her, so she was always obeyed. The oracle had an unfortunate habit of ordering murders, a trait in line with Apollo who was often arrogant and petty, destroying his rivals and enemies with great panache. If the oracle pronounced that someone was to be killed they were always murdered with one particular weapon - the Delphi cutlass. Many unfortunates met their end there, not least Aesop, one of the more famous victims of the cutlass.

What Did He Do?

Aesop is famous for his fables. These stories were short, full of hidden meanings and normally contained a moral at the end. The sheer volume of his work that is still much-loved today makes him remarkable among his peers. Everyone has their favourites, but some of the more popular ones are summarised below, complete with summarised moral

  • The Goose that laid the Golden Eggs - This is the story about a farmer and his wife who owned a goose, which every morning laid an egg of solid gold. In the end the farmer's wife gets impatient with waiting for the goose to lay every morning, and convinces her husband to cut the goose open so they might have all the eggs at once and get rich quickly. He does so and they find the insides of the goose completely lacking in gold. They are left with no goose and no gold. Moral - don't be greedy

  • The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing - A wolf finds a sheep's fleece and wraps himself in it, intending to get close to the flock without being detected. At night he is locked up with the sheep but as he is about to kill one the farmer comes in looking for a sheep for his dinner. He chooses the biggest, which is in fact the wolf, and kills it, before discovering the truth. Moral - don't pretend to be something you're not

  • The Boy that Cried Wolf - A boy supposed to be looking after the village sheep gets bored and cries out that there's a wolf attacking them. The villagers come running to help and discover the trick. The boy repeats the stunt again, much to the anger of the villagers. Then, as the boy is watching the sheep, a wolf really does come, and the boy cries for help. However no one believes him, and the flock is lost. Moral - no one believes a known liar.

  • The Fox and the Goat - A fox slips into a well, the sides of which are too slippery for him to climb out of. A passing goat comes and asks what he is doing, upon which the fox replies he is drinking the water which is delicious, and invites the goat to come in and taste it, prompting the goat to jump in. When they want to get out the fox climbs on the goat's back, promising to pull him up afterwards. Of course he does no such thing, and leaves the goat stranded. Moral (all together now...) - Look before you leap.

  • The Hare and the Tortoise - The hare makes fun of the tortoise so much that the tortoise challenges it to a race. The hare laughs at him but she accepts the challenge and runs off at full speed. However, halfway through she gets sleepy so decides to take a nap. When she wakes she can't see the tortoise so she runs towards the finish expecting an easy victory. It is then she sees the tortoise about to cross the line. She puts everything into a final sprint, but the tortoise is the winner. Moral - slow and steady wins the race.

Strong Moral Messages

Aesop wrote well over a hundred fables, of varying themes but all containing strong moral messages. They often featured animals, especially the lion, the fox and the wolf, who were each given the traits assigned to them for generations. Sometimes, though, he used humans, especially where there was no animal whose stereotype matched the character he wished to create.

Some morals were especially close to his heart, prompting him to write many stories featuring the same moral. 'Pride comes before a fall', 'One good turn deserves another' and 'Beware of flatterers' all fall into this category. These stories were often shorter than others.

Was He Really The Author?

Aesop didn't actually write any of his stories down. This means that by the time they were transcribed they would no longer be in his own words. They were rewritten by the poet Babrius, and again by Phaedrus, and no doubt, by many others. There is also the consideration that whole stories could have been added or omitted at the discretion of 'publishers' over the ages, whilst still retaining the generic title Aesop's Fables. It is possible that, like others before and after him, Aesop's name carried so much weight that to publish a piece in his name was to guarantee a readership for your work. This could mean that there are fraudulent stories published purely to cash in on his name. However, there is little serious debate about the authorship, and it is generally accepted that they are stories originally conceived and narrated by Aesop that were transcribed by others.

1Aphrodite, Apollo, Ares, Artemis, Athena, Demeter, Dionysus, Hephaestus, Hera, Hermes, Poseidon and Zeus.

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