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From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Aesop, as depicted in the Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel. Here he is shown wearing 15th century German clothing

Aesop's Fables or Aesopica refers to a collection of fables credited to a slave and story-teller who lived in Ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BC. Aesop's Fables have become a blanket term for collections of brief fables, especially beast fables involving anthropomorphic animals. 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" was derived), 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.
And there is another charm about him, namely, that he puts animals in a pleasing light and makes them interesting to mankind. For after being brought up from childhood with these stories, and after being as it were nursed by them from babyhood, we acquire certain opinions of the several animals and think of some of them as royal animals, of others as silly, of others as witty, and others as innocent. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14)

1887 children's edition by Walter Crane

Aristotle was a keen systematic collector of riddles, folklore, and proverbs; he had a special interest in the riddles of the Delphic Oracle and studied the fables of Aesop.[1]



Aesop (from the Greek ΑἴσωποςAisopos), famous for his fables, was a slave who lived mid–fifth century BC, in Ancient Greece.

The place of Aesop's birth was and still is disputed: Thrace, Phrygia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Samos, Athens, Sardis, and Amorium all claimed the honor. Little is known about him from credible records, except that he was at one point freed from slavery and that he eventually died in Delphi. In fact, the obscurity shrouding his life has led some scholars to deny his existence altogether.


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; Demetrius of Phalerum compiled the fables into a set of eleven books (Lopson Aisopeion sunagogai), which have been lost, for the use of orators. There was also an edition in elegiac verse by an anonymous author, which was often cited in the Suda. Two fables of Aesop are similar to those found in Panchtantra, an Indian story book of older origin.

Nonetheless, for two main reasons,[2] 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.[2] Modern scholarship reveals fables and proverbs of "Aesopic" form existing in both ancient Sumer and Akkad, as early as the third millennium BCE.[3] Therefore, at their most ancient roots, the fables of Aesop are composed in a literary format which appears first not in Ancient Greece or Ancient India or Ancient Egypt, but instead in ancient Sumer and Akkad.[3]

From circa 2000 BCE, in Mesopotamia, then, storytelling in this format finally reached ancient Greece at least by circa 600 BCE during the time of Aesop.[3] How it eventually reached ancient Greece however remains another mystery. Nevertheless it is known that fables existed long before Aesop's time in Ancient Egypt, Assyria, Babylonia, and Sumer.[4] It is also known that some fables reaching us today and which had traditionally been attributed to Aesop actually have their most ancient origins resting in Ancient India.[4] Some other fables cannot be dated any earlier than Babrius and Phaedrus, several centuries after Aesop,[4] and yet others even later, to Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini and Jean de La Fontaine slightly before and after the end of the Middle Ages respectively.[4]

There was an edition of Aesop's fables in elegiac verse by an anonymous author, which was often cited in the Suda. Two fables of Aesop are similar to those found in Panchtantra, an Indian story book of older origin.

Translation and transmission

The first extensive translation of Aesop into Latin was done by Phaedrus, a freedman of Caesar Augustus in the 1st century AD, although at least one fable had already been translated by the poet Ennius. Avianus also translated forty two of the fables into Latin elegiacs, probably in the 4th century AD.

The collection under the name of Aesop's Fables evolved from the late Greek version of Babrius, who turned them into choliambic verses, at an uncertain time between 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD. In about 100 BC, Indian philosopher Syntipas translated Babrius into Syriac, from where Andreopulos translated back to Greek, since original Greek scripts had all been lost. Aesop's fables and the Panchatantra share about a dozen tales, leading to discussions whether the Greeks learned these fables from Indian storytellers or the other way, or if the influences were mutual. Ben E. Perry, one of the foremost authorities on Aesopic fable, argued for the second possibility in his book Babrius and Phaedrus. In his introduction he wrote:

"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 which make their first appearance in Greek or Near Eastern literature are found later in the Panchatantra and other Indian story-books, including the Buddhist Jatakas."[5]

In the 9th century, Ignatius Diaconus created a version of fifty-five fables in choliambic tetrameters, into which stories from Oriental sources were added, ultimately mutated from the Sanskrit Panchatantra. From these collections the 14th-century monk Maximus Planudes compiled the collection which has come down under the name of Aesop.[6]

Picture from Caxton's edition

The first printed version of Aesop's Fables in English was published on March 26, 1484 by William Caxton. Around the same time, the Scottish poet Robert Henryson was composing his poem, The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian, a sophisticated interconnected sequence of fable adaptations which made a work of high art out of the genre. At the heart of his version, Aesop himself enters in the unusual guise of a Roman. Henryson's Scots fable version is not known to have occurred in print form until the 16th century. Caxton's version was updated by Sir Roger L'Estrange in 1692.

Here is an example of the fables in Caxton's collection[7] containing dialogue between the fisherman and the fish he has caught, a frequent trope in Aesopian plots:

Men ought not to leue that thynge whiche is sure & certayne / for hope to haue the vncertayn / as to vs reherceth this fable of a fyssher whiche with his lyne toke a lytyll fysshe whiche sayd to hym / My frend I pray the / doo to me none euylle / ne putte me not to dethe / For now I am nought / for to be eten / but whanne I shalle be grete / yf thow come ageyne hyther / of me shalt thow mowe haue grete auaylle / For thenne I shalle goo with the a good whyle / And the Fyssher sayd to the fysshe Syn I hold the now / thou shalt not scape fro me / For grete foly hit were to me for to seke the here another tyme.

In Henryson's version of the fables, such Aesopic tropes are consistently developed and expanded. For example, in his dialogue between the lion and the mouse, the mouse (in a parallel predicament to the fish above) makes an extended plea which explicitly cites issues of law, justice and politics:

Mercie, lord, at thy gentrice I ase! (ask) / As thou art king of beistis coronate, / sober thy wraith and let it overpas / [...] / Without mercie justice is crueltie, / [...] / Quhen rigour sittis in the tribunall / The equitie of law quha may sustene? / Richt few or nane but (unless) mercie gang betwene / [...] / Ane thowsand myis to kill and eik devoir / Is lyttil manheid to ane strang lyoun

The most reproduced modern English translations were made by Rev. George Fyler Townsend (1814 – 1900). Ben E. Perry, the editor of Aesopic fables of Babrius and Phaedrus for the Loeb Classical Library, compiled a numbered index by type. The edition by Olivia Temple and Robert Temple is entitled The Complete Fables by Aesop; the fables are not complete here since fables from Babrius, Phaedrus and other major ancient sources have been omitted. More recently, in 2002 a translation by Laura Gibbs was published by Oxford World's Classics, entitled Aesop's Fables. This book includes 359 fables and has selections from all the major Greek and Latin sources.

Jewish version of Aesop's fables

See also: Aesop among the Jews

In the 1200s a Jewish author, Berechiah ha-Nakdan, wrote a Hebrew work, Mishlei Shualim, derived from a collection of Aesop's fables. Berechiah's work adds a layer of Biblical quotations and allusions to Aesop's tales, adapting them as a way to teach Jewish ethics. The first edition appeared in Mantua, in 1557; another with a Latin version by M. Hanel, Prague, 1661; other editions at Berlin, 1706; Lemberg, 1809; Grodno, 1818; Sklov, n.d.; and Warsaw, 1874. An English translation appeared in 1967 by Moses Hadas, entitled Fables of a Jewish Aesop; it has recently been republished by David R. Godine, publishers.

The fables give in rhymed prose most of the animal tales passing under the name of Aesop during the Middle Ages; but in addition to these, the collection also contains fables conveying the same plots and morals as those of Marie de France, whose date has been placed only approximately toward the end of the twelfth century.

Aesop's Fables in other languages


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 Crane and the Wolf 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


  1. ^ Temple, Olivia, and Temple, Robert (translators), The Complete Fables By Aesop Penguin Classics, 1998. ISBN 0140446494 Cf. Introduction, pp. xi-xii.
  2. ^ a b D. L. Ashliman, “Introduction,” in George Stade (Consulting Editorial Director), Aesop’s Fables. New York, New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, published by Barnes & Noble Books (2005). Produced and published in conjunction with New York, New York: Fine Creative Media, Inc. Michael J. Fine, President and Publisher. See pp. xiii-xv and xxv-xxvi.
  3. ^ a b c John F. Priest, "The Dog in the Manger: In Quest of a Fable," in The Classical Journal, Volume 81, No. 1, (October-November, 1985), pp. 49-58.
  4. ^ a b c d Daniel G. Marowski (Editor), Amy Crook (Associate Editor), "Aesop," in Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Volume 24. Detroit, New York: Gale Research (1998), p. 1.
  5. ^ Ben E. Perry, "Introduction", p. xix, in Babrius and Phaedrus (1965)
  6. ^ D.L. Ashliman, "Introduction", p. xxii, in Aesop's Fables (2003)
  7. ^
  8. ^ Préface aux Fables de La Fontaine
  9. ^ Aesop’s fables (illustrated by Jacob Lawrence) – Seattle : University of Washington Press, 1997. ISBN 0295976411
  10. ^ Exhibition: Jacob Lawrence--Aesop's Fables, April 10 - June 20, 1999, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College


External links

Source material

Up to date as of January 22, 2010

From Wikisource

Aesop's Fables
by Aesop
Aesop's Fables are a collection of fables credited to Aesop (620—560 BC), a slave and story-teller that lived in Ancient Greece. Aesop's Fables become a blanket term for collections of brief fables, usually involving personified animals. The fables remain a popular choice for moral education of children today.Excerpted from Aesop's Fables on Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Some of Aesop's fables have multiple translations in Wikisource, e.g. Fables, by Jean de La Fontaine and translated by Elizur Wright

The entries in the following alphabetical list link to the fables within George Fyler Townsend's work; Townsend's collection was not ordered alphabetically.

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