(The following is a post by Taru Spiegel, Reference Specialist, European Division.)
“Aesop’s Fables” have been known for well over two millennia, and have been published in numerous languages and various configurations. Expressions such as “sour grapes,” “birds of a feather flock together,” “familiarity breeds contempt,” and “slow and steady wins the race,” have their origins in these fables. Most of the stories feature animals whose human characteristics and interactions provide moral lessons, such as: someone else is much worse off than you, or there is no reward for serving the wicked.
Numerous stories have been told of Aesop’s life. According to various sources he was a freed slave in sixth-century Greece, adviser to King Croesus, a riddle-solver for another king in Babylonia, and met his death at Delphi. However, current research suggests that there was likely no such person, and that the name was simply a way to describe a certain body of edifying tales. Researchers also debate the origins of the tales themselves, with some seeing a linguistic connection between the names Aesop and Aethiop (Ethiopian), tracing the stories originally to Africa, where animal stories are widespread. The scholarly interest surrounding Aesop’s fables attests to their enduring fascination.
After word-of-mouth transmission, the fables were known to have been written down in Greece by Demetrius Phalareus (350-280 B.C.E.), in Rome most notably by Phaedrus (15 B.C.E.-50 C.E.), and in the 17th century by the famous Jean de la Fontaine (1621-95). Many of the current fable versions stem from de la Fontaine’s treatment of them. The Library of Congress has hundreds of books, in several languages, featuring the stories, and also works of research related to the tales.
Over the years, authors have created their own versions of Aesopica, sometimes adding similar stories of their own creation. Professor Ben Edwin Perry (1892-1968) developed the so-called “Perry Index,” which sorts the fables chronologically, by source, and then alphabetically, distinguishing later inventions from earlier stories.
Artists, as well, have found the stories a source of inspiration, adding their own versions to the Aesopic tradition. Several of the Library of Congress’ illustrated “Aesop’s Fables” have been digitized, featuring images ranging from 15th-century woodcuts to present-day interactive color illustrations. The Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection of illustrated books contains a number of versions of “Aesop’s Fables” from the 15th and 16th centuries.
A 1479 German incunabulum (book printed before 1501) contains charming woodcuts such as the one depicting a wolf and a lamb drinking at a stream. The wolf tries to pick a fight with the lamb, but the lamb always has a reasonable comeback. Annoyed, the wolf invents a ridiculous pretext and eats the lamb. The story illustrates the fact that a tyrant needs no factual reason for his acts of cruelty.
The story of the country mouse and the city mouse is well known. While the city mouse may have grander surroundings and fancier food, it risks constant threats and has stress levels much higher than those of the country mouse, who enjoys a modest, but quiet life in rural surroundings.
The following cartoon-like image for the story of the lion and the mouse shows the narrative in a single frame, with the lion both capturing the mouse, and the freed mouse gnawing the ropes binding the lion. Because the lion generously let the mouse go, the mouse repaid the kindness by helping the lion escape captivity. This story has several lessons, such as one good turn deserves another, and that even a seemingly insignificant mouse can help a powerful lion.
The story of the dog and the wolf describes a very lean and hungry wolf who is invited by a kindly hound to partake of the hound’s secure life and regular feeding by people. However, once the wolf realizes that the dog is regularly kept chained, he decides that freedom with its difficulties is better than a secure life in confinement. The witty illustration from a 19th-century Bulgarian work is reminiscent of those in German, Italian, and Spanish from earlier centuries.
A completely different style of illustration is found in “The Baby’s Own Aesop: Being the Fables Condensed in Rhyme, with Portable Morals Pictorially Pointed.” Despite the title, the book appears to be targeted for a somewhat older audience than babies. In the fable of the fox and the grapes, the fox vainly tries to catch the tempting grapes. When he is unable to reach them, he turns away and tries to persuade himself that the grapes were probably sour, anyway. This fable points out that we often belittle that which is beyond our reach.
An online interactive version of “Aesop’s Fables” is available here, as an adaptation of Milo Winter’s 1919 illustrated work. In this series of successive images, the frog is trying to become as big as an ox by sucking in large amounts of air. Alas, he ends up by exploding and disappearing, the moral being that a frog cannot become an ox, and that one should not attempt the impossible.
The fables have endured for millennia because they are a brilliant teaching tool. The sly and often humorous approach to life leaves one pondering the lessons in the stories for a long time afterwards. They also show that human nature has not changed very much over the ages. One need merely observe the daily news to see that there is hardly a story which does not have a parallel in one of Aesop’s fables!
Dear Taru, I enjoyed reading the piece on Aesop’s fables. The name Aesop indeed coincides to the once Ethiopian sovereign, Ethiop, a Kush. The name Ethiopia is believed by some Ethiopian scholars to derive from this source. As you correctly pointed out the stories are animal related, characteristic of Ethiopian fables to this day. My mother who was illiterate taught me how to behave via folktales of animals, in most cases. We have Amharic sources that show this to be true.
I am going to refer your entry to an Ethiopian doctoral candidate who is researching Ethiopian folktales. I had suggested to her to research the Ethiopian origin of Aesop’s tales.
Congratulations on your wonderful blog.