Aesop's Fables

Ancient Greek Bibliography Persons | Aesop | Aesop's Texts

Throughout history fables have been a popular method of giving instruction. Fables contain a short narrative that seeks to illustrate a hidden message. Generally, fables use animals or objects as part of the narrative yet the message is designed to apply to humans. By doing this, the fabulist is not perceived as the teacher and this reduces any bias the listeners might have against the person. The most famous fabulist would be Aesop who most date around 620 B.C. 

The fables originally belonged to the oral tradition and were not collected for some three centuries after Aesop’s death. By that time a variety of other stories, jokes and proverbs were being ascribed to him, although some of that material was from sources earlier than him or came from beyond the Greek cultural sphere. The process of inclusion has continued until the present, with some of the fables unrecorded before the later Middle Ages and others arriving from outside Europe. The process is continuous and new stories are still being added to the Aesop corpus, even when they are demonstrably more recent work and sometimes from known authors.

Manuscripts in Latin and Greek were important avenues of transmission, although poetical treatments in European vernaculars eventually formed another. On the arrival of printing, collections of Aesop’s fables were among the earliest books in a variety of languages. Through the means of later collections, and translations or adaptations of them, Aesop’s reputation as a fabulist was transmitted throughout the world.

Initially the fables were addressed to adults and covered religious, social and political themes. They were also put to use as ethical guides and from the Renaissance onwards were particularly used for the education of children. Their ethical dimension was reinforced in the adult world through depiction in sculpture, painting and other illustrative means, as well as adaptation to drama and song. In addition, there have been reinterpretations of the meaning of fables and changes in emphasis over time.
The Greek historian Herodotus mentioned in passing that "Aesop the fable writer" was a slave who lived in Ancient Greece during the 5th century BCE. Among references in other writers, 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 time in prison turning some of Aesop's fables "which he knew" into verses. Nonetheless, for two main reasons – because numerous morals within Aesop's attributed fables contradict each other, and because ancient accounts of Aesop's life contradict each other – the modern view is that Aesop was not the originator of all those fables attributed to him. Instead, any fable tended to be ascribed to the name of Aesop if there was no known alternative literary source.

In Classical times there were various theorists who tried to differentiate these fables from other kinds of narration. They had to be short and unaffected; in addition, they are fictitious, useful to life and true to nature. In them could be found talking animals and plants, although humans interacting only with humans figure in a few. Typically they might begin with a contextual introduction, followed by the story, often with the moral underlined at the end. Setting the context was often necessary as a guide to the story's interpretation, as in the case of the political meaning of The Frogs Who Desired a King and The Frogs and the Sun.

Sometimes the titles given later to the fables have become proverbial, as in the case of killing the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs or the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. In fact some fables, such as The Young Man and the Swallow, appear to have been invented as illustrations of already existing proverbs. One theorist, indeed, went so far as to define fables as extended proverbs.In this they have an aetiological function, the explaining of origins such as, in another context, why the ant is a mean, thieving creature or how the tortoise got its shell. Other fables, also verging on this function, are outright jokes, as in the case of The Old Woman and the Doctor, aimed at greedy practitioners of medicine. 

The contradictions between fables already mentioned and alternative versions of much the same fable - as in the case of The Woodcutter and the Trees, are best explained by the ascription to Aesop of all examples of the genre. Some are demonstrably of West Asian origin, others have analogues further to the East. Modern scholarship reveals fables and proverbs of Aesopic form existing in both ancient Sumer and Akkad, as early as the third millennium BCE. Aesop's fables and the Indian tradition, as represented by the Buddhist Jataka tales and the Hindu Panchatantra, share about a dozen tales in common, although often widely differing in detail. There is some debate over whether the Greeks learned these fables from Indian storytellers or the other way, or if the influences were mutual.

Loeb editor Ben E. Perry took the extreme position in his book Babrius and Phaedrus (1965) that

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 that first appear in Greek or Near Eastern literature are found later in the Panchatantra and other Indian story-books, including the Buddhist Jatakas.
Although Aesop and the Buddha were near contemporaries, the stories of neither were recorded in writing until some centuries after their death. Few disinterested scholars would now be prepared to make so absolute a stand as Perry about their origin in view of the conflicting and still emerging evidence.

Aesop's Fables "Read all of them: HERE"

List of some fables by Aesop
Aesop and the Ferryman
The Ant and the Grasshopper
The Ape and the Fox
The Ass and his Masters
The Ass and the Pig
The Ass Carrying an Image
The Ass in the Lion's Skin
The Astrologer who Fell into a Well
The Bird-catcher and the Blackbird
The Bear and the Travelers
The Beaver
The Belly and the Other Members
The Bird in Borrowed Feathers
The Boy Who Cried Wolf
The Cat and the Mice
The Cock and the Jewel
The Cock, the Dog and the Fox
The Crow and the Pitcher
The Crow and the Sheep
The Crow and the Snake
The Deer without a Heart
The Dog and its Reflection
The Dog and the Sheep
The Dog and the Wolf
The dogs and the lion's skin
The Dove and the Ant
The Eagle and the Beetle
The Eagle and the Fox
The Eagle Wounded by an Arrow
The Farmer and his Sons
The Farmer and the Sea
The Farmer and the Stork
The Farmer and the Viper
The Fir and the Bramble
The Fisherman and his Flute
The Fisherman and the Little Fish
The Fowler and the Snake
The Fox and the Crow
The Fox and the Grapes
The Fox and the Mask
The Fox and the Sick Lion
The Fox and the Stork
The Fox and the Weasel
The Fox and the Woodman
The Frightened Hares
The Frog and the Mouse
The Frog and the Ox
The Frogs and the Sun
The Frogs Who Desired a King
The Goat and the Vine
The Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs
The Hare in flight
Hercules and the Wagoner
The Honest Woodcutter
Horkos, the god of oaths
The Horse and the Donkey
The Impertinent Insect
The Lion and the Fox
The Lion and the Mouse
The Lion Grown Old
The Lion in Love
The Lion's Share
The Lion, the Bear and the Fox
The lion, the boar and the vultures
The Man with two Mistresses
The Mischievous Dog
The Miser and his Gold
Momus criticizes the creations of the gods
The Mountain in Labour
The Mouse and the Oyster
The North Wind and the Sun
The Oak and the Reed
The Old Man and Death
The Old Man and his Sons
The Old Man and the Ass
The Old Woman and the Doctor
The Old Woman and the Wine-jar
The Oxen and the Creaking Cart
The Rivers and the Sea
The Rose and the Amaranth
The Satyr and the Traveller
The Shipwrecked Man and the Sea
The Sick Kite
The Snake and the Crab
The Snake and the Farmer
The Snake in the Thorn Bush
The Statue of Hermes
The Swan and the Goose
The Tortoise and the Birds
The Tortoise and the Hare
The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
The Travellers and the Plane Tree
The Trees and the Bramble
The Trumpeter Taken Captive
The Two Pots
Venus and the Cat
The Walnut Tree
War and his Bride
Washing the Ethiopian white
The Wolf and the Crane
The Wolf and the Lamb
The Woodcutter and the Trees
The Young Man and the Swallow
Zeus and the Tortoise


Anthony, Mayvis, 2006. The Legendary Life and Fables of Aesop
Caxton, William, 1484. The history and fables of Aesop, Westminster. Modern reprint edited by Robert T. Lenaghan (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, 1967)
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.
Gibbs, Laura (translator), 2002, reissued 2008. Aesop's Fables. Oxford University Press
Gibbs, Laura, "Aesop Illustrations: Telling the Story in Images"
Rev. Thomas James M.A., Aesop's Fables: A New Version, Chiefly from Original Sources, 1848. John Murray. (includes many pictures by John Tenniel)
McKendry, John, ed. (1964). Aesop, Five Centuries of Illustrated Fables. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. - online version
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
Perry, Ben E. (editor), 1965. Babrius and Phaedrus, (Loeb Classical Library) Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1965. English translations of 143 Greek verse fables by Babrius, 126 Latin verse fables by Phaedrus, 328 Greek fables not extant in Babrius, and 128 Latin fables not extant in Phaedrus (including some medieval materials) for a total of 725 fables
Temple, Olivia; Temple, Robert (translators), 1998. Aesop, The Complete Fables, New York: Penguin Classics. (ISBN 0-14-044649-4)

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