Aesop: Figment of the Imagination?

“Every man carries Two Bags about with him, one in front and one behind, and both are packed full of faults. The Bag in front contains his neighbours’ faults, the one behind his own. Hence it is that men do not see their own faults, but never fail to see those of others.”
 (Attributed to Aesop, from his collection of fables)

Stories about Aesop are as colorful and varied as the collection of fables that bear his name. His life plays out as a timeless “rags to riches” tale of intrigue, murder, and vengeance. But did he actually exist, or does he belong in the realm of “make-believe”, with those other wonderful imaginary friends of ours—Uncle Remus and Mother Goose?

Aesop & Fox

Historians and scholars commonly set Aesop’s life in the 6th century BCE; and many bother to describe him as extremely ugly. But that’s where the stories diverge. He was (take your pick):

♦ A slave by birth…or…became a slave after being captured

♦ Mute, and received the gift of expressive speech in return for his kindness to an     attendant of the goddess Isis

♦ Claimed by the cities (regions) of: Samos, Mesembria (Thrace), Sardis (Lydia), Amorion  or Cotiaeum (Phrygia); and more

♦ Freed from slavery due to his wit and wise counsel

♦ An advisor and ambassador to kings and statesmen; sent on diplomatic missions

♦ Thrown over a cliff to his death by the people of Delphi after he refused to distribute among them the king’s gold

Aesop was a fabulist—one who invents or recounts simple tales designed with a moral to teach a practical lesson. The main speaking characters in his fables are generally: animals, inanimate objects, elements of nature, descriptive people with no names (old woman, shepherd, etc.), or named mythic gods. Hundreds of fables have been attributed to this renowned storyteller; but many are also believed to have been added throughout history into the collective body known as Aesop’s Fables.

The richness and beauty of the fable is in its creative simplicity…short…to the point…no mistaking its message. Rather than develop an elaborate backstory, or spend time on intricate character descriptions, Aesop’s fables rely on universally understood associations. By applying the concept of anthropomorphism (personification of human traits in animals, objects, etc.) Aesop allowed the main characters to carry the tale; combining their natural traits with human qualities. For example:

♦ Wolf is dangerous and cruel

♦ Fox is sly and clever

♦ Sheep and deer are pawns and victims

♦ Ox and Bull are strong

♦ Lion is ferocious

♦ Put a cat and a mouse together and expect conflict

♦ Mix a wolf with sheep, then throw in a shepherd and things are bound to end badly for someone…or something

How long would the story The Hare and the Tortoise be if it had been told about one human challenged to a race by another? We would have had to first understand the physical limitations or advantages each possessed (i.e. strong and fleet of foot, or slow and plodding, etc.), and something about their true character (thoughtless braggart, or patient and clever) before we could even begin to enjoy the race.

Hare and tortoise says it all…and leads us to believe we know the outcome before finishing the story. But then comes the valuable lesson, and we are left to ponder how something so simple could be so profound.

There is a theory that the title “Aesop’s Fables” references a manner of speaking (Aesopic style) rather than attributing the stories to an author named Aesop. Whether or not Aesop actually lived some 2600 years ago doesn’t really matter…for he and his fables will live in our hearts and minds forever. Who among us cannot recite at least one “moral to the story” that relates to an Aesop’s fable?

To tell and retell these wondrous tales that have survived for thousands of years…across the globe and back again, with lessons understood by all…that is the task of the storyteller.

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