Aesop

Aesop

Overview

Aesop was a Greek
Greeks
The Greeks, also known as the Hellenes , are a nation and ethnic group native to Greece, Cyprus and neighboring regions. They also form a significant diaspora, with Greek communities established around the world....

 writer credited with a number of popular fables
Aesop's Fables
Aesop's Fables or the Aesopica are a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a slave and story-teller believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BCE. The fables remain a popular choice for moral education of children today...

. Older spellings of his name have included Esop(e) and Isope. Although his existence remains uncertain and no writings by him survive, numerous tales credited to him were gathered across the centuries and in many languages in a storytelling tradition that continues to this day. In many of the tales, animals speak and have human characteristics.

Scattered details of Aesop's life can be found in ancient sources, including Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

, Herodotus
Herodotus
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...

, and Plutarch
Plutarch
Plutarch then named, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus , c. 46 – 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia...

.
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Quotations

Any excuse will serve a tyrant.

The Wolf and the Lamb

Appearances often are deceiving.

The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Be content with your lot; one cannot be first in everything.

Juno and the Peacock

Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.

The Dog and the Shadow

Beware the wolf in sheep's clothing.

The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing

Do not count your chickens before they are hatched.

The Milkmaid and Her Pail

Don't cry over spilt milk.

The Milkmaid and Her Pail

Familiarity breeds contempt or Acquaintance softens prejudices.

The Fox and the Lion

I am sure the grapes are sour.

The Fox and the Grapes

I will have nought to do with a man who can blow hot and cold with the same breath.

The Man and the Satyr
Encyclopedia

Aesop was a Greek
Greeks
The Greeks, also known as the Hellenes , are a nation and ethnic group native to Greece, Cyprus and neighboring regions. They also form a significant diaspora, with Greek communities established around the world....

 writer credited with a number of popular fables
Aesop's Fables
Aesop's Fables or the Aesopica are a collection of fables credited to Aesop, a slave and story-teller believed to have lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BCE. The fables remain a popular choice for moral education of children today...

. Older spellings of his name have included Esop(e) and Isope. Although his existence remains uncertain and no writings by him survive, numerous tales credited to him were gathered across the centuries and in many languages in a storytelling tradition that continues to this day. In many of the tales, animals speak and have human characteristics.

Scattered details of Aesop's life can be found in ancient sources, including Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

, Herodotus
Herodotus
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...

, and Plutarch
Plutarch
Plutarch then named, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus , c. 46 – 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia...

. An ancient literary work called The Aesop Romance tells an episodic, probably highly fictional version of his life, including the traditional description of him as a strikingly ugly slave
Slavery in Ancient Greece
Slavery was common practice and an integral component of ancient Greece throughout its rich history, as it was in other societies of the time including ancient Israel and early Christian societies. It is estimated that in Athens, the majority of citizens owned at least one slave...

 (δοῦλος) who by his cleverness acquires freedom and becomes an adviser to kings and city-states. A later tradition (dating from the Middle Ages
Middle Ages
The Middle Ages is a periodization of European history from the 5th century to the 15th century. The Middle Ages follows the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and precedes the Early Modern Era. It is the middle period of a three-period division of Western history: Classic, Medieval and Modern...

) depicts Aesop as a black Ethiopian. Depictions of Aesop in popular culture over the last 2500 years have included several works of art and his appearance as a character in numerous books, films, plays, and television programs.

Life


"The name of Aesop is as widely known as any that has come down from Graeco-Roman antiquity [yet] it is far from certain whether a historical Aesop ever existed", writes one scholar; "in the latter part of the fifth century [BCE] something like a coherent Aesop legend appears, and Samos
Samoš
Samoš is a village in Serbia. It is situated in the Kovačica municipality, in the South Banat District, Vojvodina province. The village has a Serb ethnic majority and its population numbering 1,247 people .-See also:...

 seems to be its home."

The earliest Greek sources, including Aristotle
Aristotle
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher and polymath, a student of Plato and teacher of Alexander the Great. His writings cover many subjects, including physics, metaphysics, poetry, theater, music, logic, rhetoric, linguistics, politics, government, ethics, biology, and zoology...

, indicate that Aesop was born around 620 BCE in Thrace
Thrace
Thrace is a historical and geographic area in southeast Europe. As a geographical concept, Thrace designates a region bounded by the Balkan Mountains on the north, Rhodope Mountains and the Aegean Sea on the south, and by the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara on the east...

 at a site on the Black Sea coast which would later become the city Mesembria; a number of later writers from the Roman imperial period (including Phaedrus
Phaedrus
Phaedrus , Roman fabulist, was probably a Thracian slave, born in Pydna of Macedonia and lived in the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius...

, who adapted the fables into Latin), say that he was born in Phrygia
Phrygia
In antiquity, Phrygia was a kingdom in the west central part of Anatolia, in what is now modern-day Turkey. The Phrygians initially lived in the southern Balkans; according to Herodotus, under the name of Bryges , changing it to Phruges after their final migration to Anatolia, via the...

. The 3rd-century poet Callimachus
Callimachus
Callimachus was a native of the Greek colony of Cyrene, Libya. He was a noted poet, critic and scholar at the Library of Alexandria and enjoyed the patronage of the Egyptian–Greek Pharaohs Ptolemy II Philadelphus and Ptolemy III Euergetes...

 called him "Aesop of Sardis
Sardis
Sardis or Sardes was an ancient city at the location of modern Sart in Turkey's Manisa Province...

," and the later writer Maximus of Tyre
Maximus of Tyre
Cassius Maximus Tyrius Cassius Maximus Tyrius Cassius Maximus Tyrius (Maximus of Tyre; was a Greek rhetorician and philosopher who flourished in the time of the Antonines and Commodus. His writings contain many allusions to the history of Greece, while there is little reference to Rome; hence it...

 called him "the sage of Lydia
Lydia
Lydia was an Iron Age kingdom of western Asia Minor located generally east of ancient Ionia in the modern Turkish provinces of Manisa and inland İzmir. Its population spoke an Anatolian language known as Lydian....

."

From Aristotle and Herodotus
Herodotus
Herodotus was an ancient Greek historian who was born in Halicarnassus, Caria and lived in the 5th century BC . He has been called the "Father of History", and was the first historian known to collect his materials systematically, test their accuracy to a certain extent and arrange them in a...

 we learn that Aesop was a slave in Samos and that his masters were first a man named Xanthus and then a man named Iadmon; that he must eventually have been freed, because he argued as an advocate for a wealthy Samian; and that he met his end in the city of Delphi
Delphi
Delphi is both an archaeological site and a modern town in Greece on the south-western spur of Mount Parnassus in the valley of Phocis.In Greek mythology, Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle, the most important oracle in the classical Greek world, and a major site for the worship of the god...

. Plutarch
Plutarch
Plutarch then named, on his becoming a Roman citizen, Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus , c. 46 – 120 AD, was a Greek historian, biographer, essayist, and Middle Platonist known primarily for his Parallel Lives and Moralia...

 tells us that Aesop had come to Delphi on a diplomatic mission from King Croesus
Croesus
Croesus was the king of Lydia from 560 to 547 BC until his defeat by the Persians. The fall of Croesus made a profound impact on the Hellenes, providing a fixed point in their calendar. "By the fifth century at least," J.A.S...

 of Lydia
Lydia
Lydia was an Iron Age kingdom of western Asia Minor located generally east of ancient Ionia in the modern Turkish provinces of Manisa and inland İzmir. Its population spoke an Anatolian language known as Lydian....

, that he insulted the Delphians, was sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of temple theft, and was thrown from a cliff (after which the Delphians suffered pestilence and famine); before this fatal episode, Aesop met with Periander
Periander
Periander was the second tyrant of Corinth, Greece in the 7th century BC. He was the son of the first tyrant, Cypselus. Periander succeeded his father in 627 BC. He died in 585 BC....

 of Corinth
Corinth
Corinth is a city and former municipality in Corinthia, Peloponnese, Greece. Since the 2011 local government reform it is part of the municipality Corinth, of which it is the seat and a municipal unit...

, where Plutarch has him dining with the Seven Sages of Greece
Seven Sages of Greece
The Seven Sages or Seven Wise Men was the title given by ancient Greek tradition to seven early 6th century BC philosophers, statesmen and law-givers who were renowned in the following centuries for their wisdom.-The Seven Sages:Traditionally, each of the seven sages represents an aspect of worldly...

, sitting beside his friend Solon
Solon
Solon was an Athenian statesman, lawmaker, and poet. He is remembered particularly for his efforts to legislate against political, economic and moral decline in archaic Athens...

, whom he had met in Sardis
Sardis
Sardis or Sardes was an ancient city at the location of modern Sart in Turkey's Manisa Province...

. (Leslie Kurke suggests that Aesop himself "was a popular contender for inclusion" in the list of Seven Sages).

Problems of chronological reconciliation dating the death of Aesop and the reign of Croesus led the Aesop scholar (and compiler of the Perry Index
Perry Index
The Perry Index is a widely-used index of "Aesop's Fables" or "Aesopica", the fables credited to Aesop, the story-teller who lived in ancient Greece between 620 and 560 BC...

) Ben Edwin Perry in 1965 to conclude that "everything in the ancient testimony about Aesop that pertains to his associations with either Croesus or with any of the so-called Seven Wise Men of Greece must be reckoned as literary fiction," and Perry likewise dismissed Aesop's death in Delphi as legendary; but subsequent research has established that a possible diplomatic mission for Croesus and a visit to Periander "are consistent with the year of Aesop's death." Still problematic is the story by Phaedrus which has Aesop in Athens, telling the fable of the frogs who asked for a king
The Frogs Who Desired a King
The Frogs Who Desired a King is one of Aesop's Fables and numbered 44 in the Perry Index. Throughout its history, the story has been given a political application.-The Fable and its political applications:...

, during the reign of Peisistratos, which occurred decades after the presumed date of Aesop's death.

The Aesop Romance


Along with the scattered references in the ancient sources regarding the life and death of Aesop, there is a highly fictional biography now commonly called The Aesop Romance (also known as the Vita or The Life of Aesop or The Book of Xanthus the Philosopher and Aesop His Slave), "an anonymous work of Greek popular literature composed around the second century of our era....Like The Alexander Romance
Alexander Romance
Alexander romance is any of several collections of legends concerning the mythical exploits of Alexander the Great. The earliest version is in Greek, dating to the 3rd century. Several late manuscripts attribute the work to Alexander's court historian Callisthenes, but the historical figure died...

, The Aesop Romance became a folkbook, a work that belonged to no one, and the occasional writer felt free to modify as it might suit him." Multiple, sometimes contradictory, versions of this work exist. The earliest known version "was probably composed in the 1st century CE", but the story "probably circulated in different versions for centuries before it was committed to writing"; "certain elements can be shown to originate in the 4th century BCE." Scholars long dismissed any historical or biographical validity in The Aesop Romance; widespread study of the work began only toward the end of the 20th century.

In The Aesop Romance, Aesop is a slave of Phrygian origin on the island of Samos, and extremely ugly. At first he lacks the power of speech, but after showing kindness to a priestess of Isis, is granted by the goddess not only speech but a gift for clever storytelling, which he uses alternately to assist and confound his master, Xanthus, embarrassing the philosopher in front of his students and even sleeping with his wife. After interpreting a portent for the people of Samos, Aesop is given his freedom and acts as an emissary between the Samians and King Croesus. Later he travels to the courts of (the imaginary) Lycurgus of Babylon and Nectanabo of Egypt in a section that appears to borrow heavily from the romance of Ahiqar
Ahiqar
Ahiqar or Ahikar was an Assyrian sage known in the ancient Near East for his outstanding wisdom.The Story of Ahikar, also known as the Words of Ahikar, has been found in an Aramaic papyrus of 500 B.C. among the ruins of Elephantine...

. The story ends with Aesop's journey to Delphi, where he angers the citizens by telling insulting fables, is sentenced to death and, after cursing the people of Delphi, throws himself from a cliff.

Aesop the fabulist


Though Aesop became famous across the ancient world as the preeminent teller of fables, he did not create the genre; the earliest known story with talking animals in ancient Greek is the fable of the Hawk and the Nightingale
The Hawk and the Nightingale
The fable of The Hawk and the Nightingale is one of the earliest recorded in Greek and there have been many variations on the story since Classical times. The original version is numbered 4 in the Perry Index and the later Aesop version, sometimes going under the title "The Hawk, the Nightingale...

 found in the work of Hesiod
Hesiod
Hesiod was a Greek oral poet generally thought by scholars to have been active between 750 and 650 BC, around the same time as Homer. His is the first European poetry in which the poet regards himself as a topic, an individual with a distinctive role to play. Ancient authors credited him and...

, who lived some three centuries before Aesop.
Aesop may or may not have written his fables - The Aesop Romance claims that he wrote them down and deposited them in the library of Croesus; Herodotus calls Aesop a "writer of fables" and Aristophanes
Aristophanes
Aristophanes , son of Philippus, of the deme Cydathenaus, was a comic playwright of ancient Athens. Eleven of his forty plays survive virtually complete...

 speaks of "reading" Aesop - but no writings by Aesop have survived. Scholars speculate that "there probably existed in the fifth century [BCE] a written book containing various fables of Aesop, set in a biographical framework." True or not, by the time of Classical Greece
Classical Greece
Classical Greece was a 200 year period in Greek culture lasting from the 5th through 4th centuries BC. This classical period had a powerful influence on the Roman Empire and greatly influenced the foundation of Western civilizations. Much of modern Western politics, artistic thought, such as...

 Aesop and the fables attributed to him seem to have been widely known. Sophocles
Sophocles
Sophocles is one of three ancient Greek tragedians whose plays have survived. His first plays were written later than those of Aeschylus, and earlier than or contemporary with those of Euripides...

 in a poem addressed to Euripides
Euripides
Euripides was one of the three great tragedians of classical Athens, the other two being Aeschylus and Sophocles. Some ancient scholars attributed ninety-five plays to him but according to the Suda it was ninety-two at most...

 made reference to Aesop's fable of the North Wind and the Sun
The North Wind and the Sun
The North Wind and the Sun is one of Aesop's Fables . It is type 298 in the Aarne-Thompson folktale classification.-The story and its application:...

. Socrates
Socrates
Socrates was a classical Greek Athenian philosopher. Credited as one of the founders of Western philosophy, he is an enigmatic figure known chiefly through the accounts of later classical writers, especially the writings of his students Plato and Xenophon, and the plays of his contemporary ...

 while in prison turned some of the fables into verse, of which Diogenes Laertius
Diogenes Laertius
Diogenes Laertius was a biographer of the Greek philosophers. Nothing is known about his life, but his surviving Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers is one of the principal surviving sources for the history of Greek philosophy.-Life:Nothing is definitively known about his life...

 records a small fragment. The early Roman playwright and poet Ennius
Ennius
Quintus Ennius was a writer during the period of the Roman Republic, and is often considered the father of Roman poetry. He was of Calabrian descent...

 also rendered at least one of Aesop's fables in Latin verse, of which the last two lines still exist.

The body of work identified as Aesop's Fables was transmitted by a series of authors writing in both Greek and Latin. Demetrius of Phalerum made a collection in ten books, probably in prose (Αισοπείων α) for the use of orators, which has been lost. Next appeared an edition in elegiac verse, cited by the Suda
Suda
The Suda or Souda is a massive 10th century Byzantine encyclopedia of the ancient Mediterranean world, formerly attributed to an author called Suidas. It is an encyclopedic lexicon, written in Greek, with 30,000 entries, many drawing from ancient sources that have since been lost, and often...

, but the author's name is unknown. Phaedrus, a freedman of Augustus
Augustus
Augustus ;23 September 63 BC – 19 August AD 14) is considered the first emperor of the Roman Empire, which he ruled alone from 27 BC until his death in 14 AD.The dates of his rule are contemporary dates; Augustus lived under two calendars, the Roman Republican until 45 BC, and the Julian...

, rendered the fables into Latin in the 1st century CE. At about the same time Babrius
Babrius
Babrius was the author of a collection of fables written in Greek. He collected many of the fables that are known to us today simply as Aesop's fables .Practically nothing is known of him...

 turned the fables into Greek choliambics. A 3rd century author, Titianus is said to have rendered the fables into prose in a work now lost. Avianus
Avianus
Avianus, a Latin writer of fables, generally placed in the 5th century, and identified as a pagan.The 42 fables which bear his name are dedicated to a certain Theodosius, whose learning is spoken of in most flattering terms. He may possibly be Macrobius Ambrosius Theodosius, the author of...

 (of uncertain date, perhaps the 4th century) translated 42 of the fables into Latin elegiacs. The 4th century grammarian Dositheus Magister
Dositheus Magister
Dositheus Magister was a Greek grammarian who flourished at Rome in the 4th century CE. He was the author of a Greek translation of a Latin grammar, intended to assist the Greek-speaking inhabitants of the empire in learning Latin...

 also made a collection of Aesop's Fables, now lost.

Aesop's Fables continued to be revised and translated through the ensuing centuries, with the addition of material from other cultures, so that the body of fables known today bears little relation to those Aesop originally told. With a surge in scholarly interest beginning toward the end of the 20th century, some attempt has been made to determine the nature and content of the very earliest fables which may be most closely linked to the historic Aesop.

Physical appearance and the question of African origin


The anonymously authored Aesop Romance (usually dated to the 1st or 2nd century CE; see above) begins with a vivid description of Aesop's appearance, saying he was "of loathsome aspect...potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped—a portentous monstrosity," or as another translation has it, "a faulty creation of Prometheus
Prometheus
In Greek mythology, Prometheus is a Titan, the son of Iapetus and Themis, and brother to Atlas, Epimetheus and Menoetius. He was a champion of mankind, known for his wily intelligence, who stole fire from Zeus and gave it to mortals...

 when half-asleep." The earliest text by a known author that refers to Aesop's appearance is Himerius
Himerius
Himerius , Greek sophist and rhetorician. 24 of his orations have reached us complete, and fragments of 12 others.- Life and works :...

 in the 4th century, who says that Aesop "was laughed at and made fun of, not because of some of his tales but on account of his looks and the sound of his voice." The evidence from both of these sources is dubious, since Himerius lived some 800 years after Aesop and his image of Aesop may have come from The Aesop Romance, which is essentially fiction; but whether based on fact or not, at some point the idea of an ugly, even deformed Aesop took hold in popular imagination. Scholars have begun to examine why and how this "physiognomic tradition" developed.
A much later tradition depicts Aesop as a black African from Ethiopia
Ethiopia
Ethiopia , officially known as the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, is a country located in the Horn of Africa. It is the second-most populous nation in Africa, with over 82 million inhabitants, and the tenth-largest by area, occupying 1,100,000 km2...

. The presence of such slaves in Greek-speaking areas is suggested by the fable "Washing the Ethiopian white
Washing the Ethiopian white
Washing the Ethiopian White is one of Aesop's Fables and is numbered 393 in the Perry Index. The fable is only found in Greek sources and the impossibility of such an attempt became proverbial at an early date. It was given greater currency in Europe during the Renaissance by being included in...

" that is ascribed to Aesop himself. This concerns a man who buys a black slave and, assuming that he was neglected by his former master, tries very hard to wash the blackness away. But nowhere in the fable is it suggested that this constitutes a personal reference. The first known promulgator of the idea was Planudes, a Byzantine scholar of the 13th century who wrote a biography of Aesop based on The Aesop Romance and conjectured that Aesop might have been Ethiopian, given his name. An English translation of Planudes' biography from 1687 says that "his Complexion [was] black, from which dark Tincture he contracted his Name (Aesopus being the same with Aethiops)". When asked his origin by a prospective new master, Aesop replies, "I am a Negro
Negro
The word Negro is used in the English-speaking world to refer to a person of black ancestry or appearance, whether of African descent or not...

"; numerous illustrations by Francis Barlow
Francis Barlow (artist)
Francis Barlow was an English painter, etcher, and illustrator.-Life:Barlow's first major work was the illustration of Edward Benlowe's Theophila...

 accompany this text and depict Aesop accordingly. But according to Gert-Jan van Dijk, "Planudes' derivation of 'Aesop' from 'Aethiopian' is...etymologically incorrect," and Frank Snowden says that Planudes' account is "worthless as to the reliability of Aesop as 'Ethiopian.'"

The tradition of Aesop's African origin was carried forward into the 19th century. The frontispiece of William Godwin
William Godwin
William Godwin was an English journalist, political philosopher and novelist. He is considered one of the first exponents of utilitarianism, and the first modern proponent of anarchism...

's Fables Ancient and Modern (1805) has a copperplate illustration of Aesop relating his stories to little children that gives his features a distinctly negroid appearance. The collection includes the fable of "Washing the Blackamoor white", although updating it and making the Ethiopian 'a black footman'. In 1856 William Martin Leake
William Martin Leake
William Martin Leake, FRS , British antiquarian and topographer, was born in London.After completing his education at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and spending four years in the West Indies as lieutenant of marine artillery, he was sent by the government to Constantinople to instruct the...

 repeated the false etymological linkage of "Aesop" with "Aethiop" when he suggested that the "head of a negro" found on several coins from ancient Delphi (with specimens dated as early as 520 BCE) might depict Aesop, presumably to commemorate (and atone for) his execution at Delphi, but Theodor Panofka
Theodor Panofka
Theodor Sigismund Panofka was one of the first scholars to make a systemic study of the pottery of Ancient Greece, and one of the founders of the institution later to become the German Archaeological Institute .-Life:Panofka studied classical philology at Berlin University from 1819...

 supposed the head to be a portrait of Delphos
Delphos
Delphos may refer to:* Delphos , the son of Apollo in Greek mythology; Delphi was named for him* Isle of Delphos, a former name for the island of Delos, mythological birth place of ApolloPlaces in the United States:* Delphos, California...

, founder of Delphi, a view more widely repeated by later historians.

The idea that Aesop was Ethiopian has been further encouraged by the presence of camels, elephants, and apes in the fables, even though these African elements are more likely to have come from Egypt and Libya than from Ethiopia, and the fables featuring African animals may have entered the body of Aesopic fables long after Aesop actually lived. Nevertheless, in 1932 the anthropologist J.H. Driberg, repeating the Aesop/Aethiop linkage, asserted that, while "some say he [Aesop] was a Phrygian...the more general view...is that he was an African", and "if Aesop was not an African, he ought to have been;" and in 2002 Richard A. Lobban cited the number of African animals and "artifacts" in the Aesopic fables as "circumstantial evidence" that Aesop may have been a Nubian folkteller.

Popular perception of Aesop as black may have been further encouraged by a perceived similarity between fables of the trickster Br'er Rabbit
Br'er Rabbit
Br'er Rabbit is a central figure in the Uncle Remus stories of the Southern United States. He is a trickster character who succeeds by his wits rather than by brawn, tweaking authority figures and bending social mores as he sees fit...

, told by African-American slaves, and the traditional role of the slave Aesop as 'a kind of culture hero of the oppressed, and the Life [of Aesop] as a how-to handbook for the successful manipulation of superiors.' This is reinforced by the 1971 TV production Aesop's Fables in which Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby
William Henry "Bill" Cosby, Jr. is an American comedian, actor, author, television producer, educator, musician and activist. A veteran stand-up performer, he got his start at various clubs, then landed a starring role in the 1960s action show, I Spy. He later starred in his own series, the...

 played Aesop. In this mixture of live action and animation, two black children wander into an enchanted grove, where Aesop tells them fables that differentiate between realistic and unrealistic ambition. His version there of the Tortoise and the Hare
The Tortoise and the Hare
The Tortoise and the Hare is a fable attributed to Aesop and is number 226 in the Perry Index. The story concerns a hare who ridicules a slow-moving tortoise and is challenged by him to a race. The hare soon leaves the tortoise behind and, confident of winning, decides to take a nap midway through...

 illustrates how to take advantage of an opponent's over-confidence.

On other continents Aesop has occasionally undergone a degree of acculturation
Acculturation
Acculturation explains the process of cultural and psychological change that results following meeting between cultures. The effects of acculturation can be seen at multiple levels in both interacting cultures. At the group level, acculturation often results in changes to culture, customs, and...

. This is evident in Isango Portobello
Isango Portobello
Isango is a Cape Town based theatre company led by director Mark Dornford-May and music directors Pauline Malefane and Mandisi Dyantyis. Most of the company members are drawn from the townships around Cape Town...

's 2010 production of the play Aesop's Fables at the Fugard Theatre
Athol Fugard
Athol Fugard is a South African playwright, novelist, actor, and director who writes in English, best known for his political plays opposing the South African system of apartheid and for the 2005 Academy-Award winning film of his novel Tsotsi, directed by Gavin Hood...

 in Cape Town
Cape Town
Cape Town is the second-most populous city in South Africa, and the provincial capital and primate city of the Western Cape. As the seat of the National Parliament, it is also the legislative capital of the country. It forms part of the City of Cape Town metropolitan municipality...

, South Africa. Based on a script by British playwright Peter Terson
Peter Terson
Peter Terson is a British playwright whose plays have been produced for stage, television and radio. His early work in the 1960s focused on growing up in the dead-end working-class culture of industrial England. He was born as Peter Patterson. He was a schoolteacher for 10 years before writing...

 (1983), it was radically adapted by the director Mark Dornford-May as a musical using native African instrumentation, dance and stage conventions. Although Aesop is portrayed as Greek, and dressed in the short Greek tunic, the all-black production contextualises the story in the recent history of South Africa
History of South Africa
South African history has been dominated by the interaction and conflict of several diverse ethnic groups. The aboriginal Khoisan people have lived in the region for millennia. Most of the population, however, trace their history to immigration since...

. The former slave, we are told 'learns that liberty comes with responsibility as he journeys to his own freedom, joined by the animal characters of his parable-like fables'. One might compare with this Brian Seward's Aesop's Fabulous Fables (2009), which first played in Singapore with a cast of mixed ethnicities. In it Chinese theatrical routines are merged with those of a standard musical.

There had already been an example of Asian acculturation in 17th century Japan. There Portugese missionaries had introduced a translation of the fables (Esopo no Fabulas, 1593) that included the biography of Aesop. This was then taken up by Japanese printers and taken through several editions under the title Isopo Monogatari. Even when Europeans were expelled from Japan and Christianity proscribed, this text survived, in part because the figure of Aesop had been assimilated into the culture and depicted in woodcuts as dressed in Japanese costume.

Depictions of Aesop in art and literature


Ancient sources mention two famous statues of Aesop, one by Aristodemus and another by Lysippus, and Philostratus describes a painting of Aesop surrounded by the animals of his fables, none of which have survived. Early on, the perennial representation of Aesop as an ugly slave emerged. Another recurrent motif is the love story of the slaves Aesop and Rhodopis. The tradition which makes Aesop a black African has resulted in several such depictions, ranging from 17th century engravings to television portrayal by a black comedian. Some feature combinations of these motifs, or eschew them altogether (as in the portrayal of Aesop in The Bullwinkle Show. In general, beginning in the 20th century, plays have shown Aesop as a slave, but not ugly, while Hollywood movies and television shows have depicted him as neither ugly nor a slave.

In 1843, the archaeologist Otto Jahn
Otto Jahn
Otto Jahn , was a German archaeologist, philologist, and writer on art and music.He was born at Kiel...

 suggested that Aesop was the person depicted on a Greek red-figure cup, c.450 BCE, in the Vatican Museums
Vatican Museums
The Vatican Museums , in Viale Vaticano in Rome, inside the Vatican City, are among the greatest museums in the world, since they display works from the immense collection built up by the Roman Catholic Church throughout the centuries, including some of the most renowned classical sculptures and...

. Paul Zanker describes the figure as a man with "emaciated body and oversized head...furrowed brow and open mouth", who "listens carefully to the teachings of the fox sitting before him. He has pulled his mantle tightly around his meagre body, as if he were shivering...he is ugly, with long hair, bald head, and unkempt, scraggly beard, and is clearly uncaring of his appearance."

Some archaeologists have suggested that a Hellenistic statue of a bearded man with a deformed torso in the Villa Albani in Rome depicts Aesop (see photo elsewhere on this page); but as François Lissarrague points out, "It could be the realistic portrait of some individual unknown to us, or an expressive portrait like others known to exist in Hellenistic art. The sole argument advanced to identify the fabulist in this work is the facial expression: He looks intelligent. Admittedly, this evidence is a bit meager."

Aesop also began to appear early in literary works. The 4th century BCE Athenian playwright Alexis
Alexis
Alexis was a Greek comic poet of the Middle Comedy period, born at Thurii in Magna Graeca and taken early to Athens, where he became a citizen, being enrolled in the deme Oion and the tribe Leontides. It is thought he lived to the age of 106 and died on the stage while being crowned...

 put Aesop on the stage in his comedy "Aesop", of which a few lines survive (Athenaeus
Athenaeus
Athenaeus , of Naucratis in Egypt, Greek rhetorician and grammarian, flourished about the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd century AD...

 10.432); conversing with Solon, Aesop praises the Athenian practice of adding water to wine. Leslie Kurke suggests that Aesop may have been "a staple of the comic stage" of this era.

The 3rd century BCE poet Poseidippus of Pella wrote a narrative poem entitled "Aesopia" (now lost), in which Aesop's fellow slave Rhodopis
Rhodopis (hetaera)
Rhodopis was a celebrated 6th-century BCE Greek hetaera, of Thracian origin. She is one of only two hetaerae mentioned by name in Herodotus's discussion of the profession ....

 (under her original name Doricha) was frequently mentioned, according to Athenaeus
Athenaeus
Athenaeus , of Naucratis in Egypt, Greek rhetorician and grammarian, flourished about the end of the 2nd and beginning of the 3rd century AD...

 13.596. Pliny would later identify Rhodopis as Aesop's lover, a romantic motif that would be repeated in subsequent popular depictions of Aesop.

The fabulist then makes a cameo appearance in the novel A True Story by the 2nd-century satirist Lucian
Lucian
Lucian of Samosata was a rhetorician and satirist who wrote in the Greek language. He is noted for his witty and scoffing nature.His ethnicity is disputed and is attributed as Assyrian according to Frye and Parpola, and Syrian according to Joseph....

; when the narrator arrives at the Island of the Blessed, he finds that "Aesop the Phrygian was there, too; he acts as their jester."

Beginning with the Heinrich Steinhowel
Heinrich Steinhowel
Heinrich Steinhöwel was a Swabian author, humanist, and translator who was much inspired by the Italian Renaissance...

 edition of 1476, many translations of the fables into European languages, which also incorporated Planudes' Life of Aesop, featured illustrations depicting him as a hunchback. The 1687 edition of Aesop's Fables with His Life: in English, French and Latin included 28 engravings by Francis Barlow
Francis Barlow (artist)
Francis Barlow was an English painter, etcher, and illustrator.-Life:Barlow's first major work was the illustration of Edward Benlowe's Theophila...

 which show him as a dwarfish hunchback, and his facial features appear to accord with his statement in the text (p. 7), "I am a Negro" (see illustration on this page).

The Spaniard Diego Velázquez
Diego Velázquez
Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez was a Spanish painter who was the leading artist in the court of King Philip IV. He was an individualistic artist of the contemporary Baroque period, important as a portrait artist...

 painted a portrait of Aesop, dated 1639-40 and now in the collection of the Museo del Prado
Museo del Prado
The Museo del Prado is the main Spanish national art museum, located in central Madrid. It features one of the world's finest collections of European art, from the 12th century to the early 19th century, based on the former Spanish Royal Collection, and unquestionably the best single collection of...

. The presentation is anachronistic and Aesop, while arguably not handsome, displays no physical deformities. It was partnered by another portrait of Menippus
Menippus
Menippus of Gadara, was a Cynic and satirist. His works, which are all lost, were an important influence on Varro and Lucian. The Menippean satire genre is named after him.-Life:...

, a satirical philosopher equally of slave-origin. A similar philosophers series was painted by fellow Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera, who is credited with two portraits of Aesop. "Aesop, poet of the fables" is in the El Escorial gallery and pictures him as an author leaning on a staff by a table which holds copies of his work, one of them a book with the name Hissopo on the cover. The other is in the Museo de Prado, dated 1640-50 and titled "Aesop in beggar’s rags". There he is also shown at a table, holding a sheet of paper in his left hand and writing with the other. While the former hints at his lameness and deformed back, the latter only emphasises his poverty.

In 1690, French playwright Edmé Boursault
Edmé Boursault
Edmé Boursault was a French dramatist and miscellaneous writer, born at Mussy l'Evéque, now Mussy-sur-Seine ....

's Les fables d'Esope (later known as Esope à la ville) premiered in Paris. A sequel, Esope à la cour (Aesop at Court
Royal Household
A Royal Household in ancient and medieval monarchies formed the basis for the general government of the country as well as providing for the needs of the sovereign and his relations....

), was first performed in 1701; drawing on a mention in Herodotus 2.134-5 that Aesop had once been owned by the same master as Rhodopis
Rhodopis (hetaera)
Rhodopis was a celebrated 6th-century BCE Greek hetaera, of Thracian origin. She is one of only two hetaerae mentioned by name in Herodotus's discussion of the profession ....

, and the statement in Pliny 36.17 that she was Aesop's concubine as well, the play introduced Rodope as Aesop's mistress, a romantic motif that would be repeated in later popular depictions of Aesop.

Sir John Vanbrugh's comedy "Aesop"" premiered at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane, London, in 1697 and was frequently performed there for the next twenty years. A translation and adaptation of Boursault's Les fables d'Esope, Vanbrugh's play depicted a physically ugly Aesop acting as adviser to Learchus, governor of Cyzicus under King Croesus, and using his fables to solve romantic problems and quiet political unrest.

In 1780, the anonymously authored novelette
Novelette
A novelette is a piece of short prose fiction. The distinction between a novelette and other literary forms is usually based upon word count, with a novelette being longer than a short story, but shorter than a novella...

 The History and Amours of Rhodope was published in London. The story casts the two slaves Rhodope and Aesop as unlikely lovers, one ugly and the other beautiful; ultimately Rhodope is parted from Aesop and marries the Pharaoh of Egypt. Some editions of the volume were illustrated with an engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi
Francesco Bartolozzi
Francesco Bartolozzi was an Italian engraver, whose most productive period was spent in London.He was born in Florence...

 of a work by the painter Angelica Kauffmann
Angelica Kauffmann
Maria Anna Angelika/Angelica Katharina Kauffman was a Swiss-Austrian Neoclassical painter. Kauffman is the preferred spelling of her name; it is the form she herself used most in signing her correspondence, documents and paintings.- Early years :She was born at Chur in Graubünden, Switzerland,...

. Titled "The beautiful Rhodope in love with Aesop", it pictures Rhodope leaning on an urn; she holds out her hand to Aesop, who is seated under a tree and turns his head to look at her. His right arm rests on a cage of doves, towards which he gestures. There is some ambiguity here, for while the cage suggests the captive state of both of them, a raven perched outside the cage may allude to his supposed colour. In fact, the whole picture is planned to suggest how different the couple are. Rhodope and Aesop lean on opposite elbows, gesture with opposite hands, and while Rhodope's hand is held palm upwards, Aesop's is held palm downwards. She stands while he sits; he is dressed in dark clothes, she in white.

In 1844, Walter Savage Landor
Walter Savage Landor
Walter Savage Landor was an English writer and poet. His best known works were the prose Imaginary Conversations, and the poem Rose Aylmer, but the critical acclaim he received from contemporary poets and reviewers was not matched by public popularity...

, famed for his series of Imaginary Conversations
Imaginary Conversations
Imaginary Conversations is the best-known prose work of the English poet and author Walter Savage Landor. It comprises 6 volumes of imaginary conversations between personalities of classical Greece and Rome, poets and authors, statesmen and women, and fortunate and unfortunate...

, published two fictional dialogues between Aesop and Rhodope.

Depictions in popular culture


Abandoning the perennial image of Aesop as an ugly slave, the movie Night in Paradise (1946) cast Turhan Bey
Turhan Bey
Turhan Bey is an American actor of Turkish and Czech descent. Bey was active in Hollywood from 1941 to 1953. He was dubbed "The Turkish Delight" by his fans for his exotic handsome looks...

 in the role, depicting Aesop as an advisor to King Croesus
Croesus
Croesus was the king of Lydia from 560 to 547 BC until his defeat by the Persians. The fall of Croesus made a profound impact on the Hellenes, providing a fixed point in their calendar. "By the fifth century at least," J.A.S...

 who falls in love with the king's intended bride, a Persian princess played by Merle Oberon
Merle Oberon
Merle Oberon was an Indian-born British actress best known for her screen performances in The Scarlet Pimpernel and The Cowboy and the Lady . She began her film career in British films as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII . She travelled to the United States to make films for Samuel...

. There was also the 1953 teleplay "Aesop and Rhodope"by Helene Hanff
Helene Hanff
Helene Hanff was an American writer. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, she is best known as the author of the book 84, Charing Cross Road, which became the basis for a stage play, , and film of the same name.- Career :...

, broadcast on Hallmark Hall of Fame
Hallmark Hall of Fame
Hallmark Hall of Fame is an anthology program on American television, sponsored by Hallmark Cards, a Kansas City based greeting card company. The second longest-running television program in the history of television, it has a historically long run, beginning in 1951 and continuing into 2011...

 with Lamont Johnson
Lamont Johnson
Lamont Johnson was an American actor and film director who has appeared in and directed many television shows and movies. He won two Emmy Awards....

 playing Aesop.

"A raposa e as uvas" ("The Fox and the Grapes"), a play in three acts about the life of Aesop by Brazilian dramatist Guilherme Figueiredo
Guilherme Figueiredo
Guilherme Figueiredo was a Brazilian dramatist. He is best known for his play The Fox and the Grapes in 1953 about Aesop's life....

, was published in 1953 and has been performed in many countries, including a videotaped production in China in 2000 under the title Hu li yu pu tao or 狐狸与葡萄.

Beginning in 1959, animated shorts under the title "Aesop and Son" appeared as a recurring segment in the TV series Rocky and His Friends and its successor, The Bullwinkle Show. The image of Aesop as ugly slave was abandoned; Aesop (voiced by Charles Ruggles
Charles Ruggles
Charles Sherman “Charlie” Ruggles was a comic American actor. In a career spanning six decades, Ruggles appeared in close to 100 feature films. He was also the brother of director, producer, and silent actor Wesley Ruggles .-Background:Charlie Ruggles was born in Los Angeles, California in 1886...

), a Greek citizen, would recount a fable for the edification of his son, Aesop Jr., who would then deliver the moral in the form of an atrocious pun. Aesop's 1998 appearance in the episode "Hercules and the Kids" in the animated TV series Hercules (voiced by Robert Keeshan) amounted to little more than a cameo.

Occasions on which Aesop is portrayed as black include Richard Durham's "Destination Freedom" radio show broadcast (1949), where the drama "The Death of Aesop," portrays him as an Ethiopian. In 1971, Bill Cosby
Bill Cosby
William Henry "Bill" Cosby, Jr. is an American comedian, actor, author, television producer, educator, musician and activist. A veteran stand-up performer, he got his start at various clubs, then landed a starring role in the 1960s action show, I Spy. He later starred in his own series, the...

 played Aesop in the TV production Aesop's Fables.

The musical Aesop's Fables by British playwright Peter Terson
Peter Terson
Peter Terson is a British playwright whose plays have been produced for stage, television and radio. His early work in the 1960s focused on growing up in the dead-end working-class culture of industrial England. He was born as Peter Patterson. He was a schoolteacher for 10 years before writing...

 was first produced in 1983. In 2010, the play was staged at the Fugard Theatre in Cape Town, South Africa with Mhlekahi Mosiea in the role of Aesop (see above).

Further reading

  • Anonymous, 1780. The History and Amours of Rhodope. London: Printed for E.M Diemer.
  • Anthony, Mayvis, 2006. The Legendary Life and Fables of Aesop. Toronto: Mayant Press. A retelling of the Life of Aesop for children.
  • Caoursin, William, The Siege of Rhodes, London (1482), with Aesopus, The Book of Subtyl Histories and Fables of Esope (1484). Facsimile ed., 2 vols. in 1, Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1975. ISBN 978-0-8201-1154-4.
  • Caxton, William, 1484. The history and fables of Aesop, Westminster. Modern reprint edited by Robert T. Lenaghan (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1967). Includes Caxton's Epilogue to the Fables, dated March 26, 1484.
  • Clayton, Edward. "Aesop, Aristotle, and Animals: The Role of Fables in Human Life". Humanitas, Volume XXI, Nos. 1 and 2, 2008, pp. 179–200. Bowie, Maryland: National Humanities Institute.
  • Compton, Todd, 1990. "The Trial of the Satirist: Poetic Vitae (Aesop, Archilochus, Homer) as Background for Plato's Apology", The American Journal of Philology, Vol. 111, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990), pp. 330–347. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Compton, Todd, 2006. Victim of the Muses: Poet as Scapegoat, Warrior and Hero in Greco-Roman And Indo-European Myth and History. Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies.
  • Daly, Lloyd W., 1961. Aesop Without Morals: The Famous Fables, and a Life of Aesop, Newly Translated and Edited. New York and London: Thomas Yoseloff. Includes Daly's translation of The Aesop Romance.
  • Figueiredo, Guilherme, 1953? The Fox and the Grapes (English translation of A raposa e as uvas). New York: Brazilian-American Cultural Institute.
  • Gibbs, Laura (translator), 2002, reissued 2008. Aesop's Fables. Oxford University Press.
  • Gibbs, Laura. "Aesop Illustrations: Telling the Story in Images", Journey to the Sea (online journal), issue 6, December 1, 2008.
  • Gibbs, Laura. "Life of Aesop: The Wise Fool and the Philosopher", Journey to the Sea (online journal), issue 9, March 1, 2009.
  • Jacobs, Joseph
    Joseph Jacobs
    Joseph Jacobs was a folklorist, literary critic and historian. His works included contributions to the Jewish Encyclopaedia, translations of European works, and critical editions of early English literature...

    , The fables of Aesop: as first printed by William Caxton in 1484, London : David Nutt, 1889.
  • Perry, Ben Edwin (editor), 1952, 2nd edition 2007. Aesopica: A Series of Texts Relating to Aesop or Ascribed to Him. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
  • Sluiter, Ineke and Rosen, Ralph M. (editors), 2008. Kakos: Badness and Anti-value in Classical Antiquity. Mnemosyne: Supplements. History and Archaeology of Classical Antiquity; 307. Leiden/Boston: Brill Academic Publishers. Includes "Ugliness and Value in the Life of Aesop" by Jeremy B. Lefkowitz.
  • Temple, Robert
    Robert K. G. Temple
    Robert K. G. Temple is an American author best known for his controversial book, The Sirius Mystery which presents the idea that the Dogon people preserve the tradition of contact with intelligent extraterrestrial beings from the Sirius star-system...

    , "Fables, Riddles, and Mysteries of Delphi", Proceedings of 4th Philosophical Meeting on Contemporary Problems, No 4, 1999 (Athens, Greece) In Greek and English.
  • Wills, Lawrence M., 1997. The Quest of the Historical Gospel: Mark, John, and the Origins of the Gospel Genre. London and New York: Routledge. Includes, an appendix, Wills' English translation of the Life of Aesop, pp. 180–215.

External links