There wasn’t much about the little man’s life that would make a good tale for children, but almost every child has heard his stories. He lived a life of depressing slavery, but his quick wit and sharp mind earned him freedom. He spoke with a stutter but became one of the greatest storytellers of all time. His monstrous, animal-like features made him a source of ridicule and contempt, so he featured animals in his stories to teach lessons and heap ridicule on those who were in power. In short, his entire life is a model of overcoming challenges, superseding sadness, and finding truth in everyday situations. You might even say that his life could be viewed as a fable. That is an appropriate way to sum up the life of the man whose name is synonymous with fables: Aesop.
A fable is a story using an anthropomorphized animal, plant, or mythological creature to teach a moral truth through a short story. The practice may have originated with the Syrians, but it was Aesop who perfected the technique and whose name became synonymous with the practice.
Aesop’s life covered the approximate years of 600 BC to 560 BC. Although his name and stories are known around the world, much about the man himself is speculative.
It appears that he was born as a slave in what is today western Turkey. He may have been owned by two masters during his lifetime. He earned his freedom from his second master out of appreciation for his wit and intelligence.
While Aesop was blessed with an enviable brain, nature was less than kind to him in all other respects. Aesop’s Romance, an ancient anonymous literary work, tells us there was little about his appearance to recommend him. It begins, describing Aesop as being “of loathsome aspect… potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped — a portentous monstrosity.” He is also described as “a faulty creation of Prometheus when half-asleep.”
There is good reason to believe that Aesop’s deficiencies extended beyond his physical appearance to his voice. Several older writings suggest that he was afflicted with a stutter. Himerius, writing about Aesop in the 4th century, notes that he “was laughed at and made fun of, not because of some of his tales but on account of his looks and the sound of his voice.” Given that he is remembered as one of the greatest storytellers of all time, this tells us a lot about the man’s courage and tenacity. Some have theorized that Aesop was drawn to using animals as the protagonists in his stories so he would have a vehicle through which to speak freely.
This seems to be a lesson he learned and immortalized in his fable “The Hart and the Hunter”:
A Hart is drinking at a river, admiring its beautiful antlers. He then notices how small and weak his legs look. Just then out of nowhere, a Hunter approaches and shoots an arrow. The Hart runs away into the woods and realizes that it was thanks to his legs that he survived. While he is looking at his legs, his antlers get caught in the trees. The Hunter Catches up to the Hart and kills it.
The Moral: We often despise what is most useful to us.
His fables gained instant popularity, were retold throughout Greek civilization, and influenced some of the most respected minds in history. Aristophanes, in his comedy The Wasps, portrayed Philocleon as having learned the “absurdities” of Aesop from conversations at banquets. Plato wrote in Phaedo that Socrates passed the time of his imprisonment by putting some of Aesop’s fables into verses.
During the third century BC, Demetrius of Phalerum compiled the fables into a set of books to be used by orators. Aesop’s Fables has been in print ever since.
A total of 725 fables have been attributed to his authorship. Among these are the immortal stories of the Tortoise and the Hare, the Boy Who Cried Wolf, and the Fox and the Grapes (from which comes the idiom “sour grapes”).
Through his fables, people can teach and learn valuable life lessons more easily than by simply trying to hammer home the principle at issue. Who hasn’t messed something up through hastiness and careless error, only to remember the story of the Tortoise and the Hare and the valuable life lesson: slow and steady wins the race?
Unfortunately, not everyone gladly embraced the lessons Aesop attempted to teach. The record suggests that Aesop tried to use his intellect and wit to criticize some of the people in authority. When he turned his attention on the priests at Delphi, they were so outraged that they murdered him.
If only Aesop had remembered the lesson of another of his fables, “The North Wind and the Sun”:
The North Wind and the Sun quarreled about which of them was the stronger. While they were disputing with much heat and bluster, a Traveler passed along the road wrapped in a cloak. “Let us agree,” said the Sun, “that he is the stronger who can strip that Traveler of his cloak.” “Very well,” growled the North Wind, and at once sent a cold, howling blast against the Traveler.
With the first gust of wind the ends of the cloak whipped about the Traveler’s body. But he immediately wrapped it closely around him, and the harder the Wind blew, the tighter he held it to him. The North Wind tore angrily at the cloak, but all his efforts were in vain.
Then the Sun began to shine. At first, his beams were gentle, and in the pleasant warmth after the bitter cold of the North Wind, the Traveler unfastened his cloak and let it hang loosely from his shoulders. The Sun’s rays grew warmer and warmer. The man took off his cap and mopped his brow. At last, he became so heated that he pulled off his cloak, and, to escape the blazing sunshine, threw himself down in the welcome shade of a tree by the roadside.
The Moral: Gentleness and kind persuasion win where force and bluster fail.
To learn more about Aesop and his fables and to read them for yourself, be sure to visit Fables of Aesop.