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The Life Of Aesop

A Concise Biography

Aesop - Aesop's Fables - Biography

AESOP, the most famous fabulist of all time, is a figure shrouded in mystery. Because it is unlikely that early remarks in authors like Herodotus, Aristophanes and Plato have no foundation in reality, it can cautiously be said that Aesop was a slave in the sixth century B.C., that he came from Phrygia and lived in Samos, and that he was known for his ability to craft "fables" (logoi). The story that Aesop met his end at Delphi, where he was sentenced to death and pushed off a cliff because he insulted the Delphians, is already current in the fifth century B.C.

Today, everyone assumes that Aesop is a teller of fables who teaches morals to our children. This Aesop is a modern invention that reflects thousands of years of development. The Aesop who has resulted is a figure of mythical proportions, to whom all fables are ascribed, much as we ascribe all nursery rhymes to Mother Goose, even when these rhymes have a variety of disparate origins.

In ancient times, fables are not designed as moral tales for children. Some are versions of famous fables we all know ("The Tortoise and the Hare," "The Ant and the Grasshopper," "The Boy Who Called Wolf," "The Lion's Share," etc.), but early fables are more frequently designed to explain the causes of natural phenomena, and ancient fables are characterized by a hard nosed realism which is at odds with the view of the world that contemporary authors put in the mouth of Aesop. The wisdom associated with the ancient fable is the kind of wisdom evident in Aesop's explanation of the frustrating fact that weeds seem to grow more vigorously than the seeds we plant, a fact he explains by saying that they are the natural offspring of Mother Earth who nurtures them more favorably, just as mothers favor their own children above all others.

When Socrates turns Aesop into verse as he is awaiting execution, he seems attracted by their earthy wisdom. The most significant ancient thinkers who are attracted to the fable are, however, interested in exploiting them as rhetorical devices which can be used in persuading a public audience of some point of view. In keeping with this, the most important collector of ancient Aesopia is the philosopher Demetrius of Phalerum, who studied with Aristotle and became both the ruler of Athens, the librarian at the Great Alexandrian library, and an important proponent of Aristotelean rhetoric.

Though the real Aesop is obscure and inaccessible, we still have an ancient account of him in a Life of Aesop which bears, in its earliest version, the title The Book of Xanthus the Philosopher and His Slave Aesop. According to this Life, Aesop was born an ugly mute slave, but was granted the power to speak and craft fables in return for his generosity to one of the attendants of the goddess Isis. Having gained a knack for logoi, he engineered his way to Samos, where he became the slave of a philosopher called Xanthus. In the course of recounting Aesop's life with Xanthus, the Life implicates Aesop in a series of wild adventures, witty fables and obscene episodes which demonstrate, above all else, that he can outwit and out-philosophize the philosopher who owns him.

Taken as a whole, the Life has a flavor reminiscent of Roman satire. This has tried the patience of many authors, whose exasperation is reflected in George Fyler Townsend's nineteenth century remark that "This life... contains... so small an amount of truth, and is so full of absurd pictures of the grotesque deformity of Aesop, of wondrous apocryphal stories, of lying legends, and gross anachronisms, that it is now universally condemned as false, puerile, and unauthentic. It is given up in the present day and unworthy of the slightest credit." It is telling that such sentiments do not stop Townsend from including a version of the Life within his own popular collection of Aesop's fables.

Leo Groarke
Wilfrid Laurier University

Lloyd Daly, Aesop Without Morals. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1961.
George Fyler Townsend, Three Hundred Aesop's Fables. London: George Routledge & Sons, 1867.