Aesop

Aesop, known only for his fables, was by tradition a slave of African descent who lived from about 620 to 560 B.C. in Ancient Greece. Aesop's Fables are still taught as moral lessons and used as subjects for various entertainments, especially children's plays and cartoons.

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 which all fables are ascribed, much as we ascribe all nursery rhymes to Mother Goose, even when these rhymes have a variety of different 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.

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 and later he was owned by Jadmon. 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. Jadom set Aesop free as a reward for his learning and wit.

One of the privileges of a freed slave in the ancient republics of Greece was the permission to take an active interest in public affairs; and Aesop, like the philosophers Phaedo, Menippus, and Epictetus, in later times, raised himself from the indignity of a servile condition to a position of high renown.

Because of his desire to instruct and to be instructed, he traveled through many countries, and among others came to Sardis, the capital of the famous king of Lydia, the great patron, in that day, of educated men. He met at the court of Croesus with Solon, Thales, and other sages, and is related so to have pleased his royal master, by the part he took in the conversations held with these philosophers, that he applied to him an expression which has since passed into a proverb, "The Phrygian has spoken better than all."

He was invited by Croesus to live in Sardis, and was employed by that monarch in various difficult and delicate affairs of State. After his discharge of these commissions he visited the different smaller republics of Greece.

He narrated some of his wise fables in Corinth, and in Athens to help the residents of those cities understand the administration of their respective rulers Periander and Pisistratus.

One of these ambassadorial missions, undertaken at the command of Croesus, was the occasion of his death. Having been sent to Delphi with a large sum of gold for distribution among the citizens, he was so provoked at their greed that he refused to divide the money, and sent it back to his master. The Delphians, enraged at this treatment, accused him of atheism, and, in spite of his sacred character as ambassador, executed him as a public criminal.

This cruel death of Aesop was not without vengeance. The citizens of Delphi were visited with a series of misfortunes, until they made public atonement of their crime; and, "The blood of Aesop" became a well- known adage, bearing witness to the truth that deeds of wrong would not pass unpunished.

Aesop was honored posthumously with a statue erected to his memory at Athens, the work of Lysippus, one of the most famous of Greek sculptors.

Phaedrus thus immortalizes the event:
    Aesopo ingentem statuam posuere Attici,
    Servumque collocarunt aeterna in basi:
    Patere honoris scirent ut cuncti viam;
    Nec generi tribui sed virtuti gloriam

Biographies

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Resources

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