Aesop. Aesop’s fables. Aesop is a famous guy, we know him as the great fable teller whose stories are still used to teach children valuable morals through animal characters. You may even have read a few yourself, but even if you haven’t the point is you’ve probably heard of them at some point. The strange thing about Aesop is that he is practically unknown. Yes he is famous, but what is factually known about his life? Not very much it seems…
Aesop’s life has left so little evidence of his existence that some scholars, such as Martin Luther (1483-1546), deny he ever lived. Aesop’s place of birth is also highly contended and the following places are the nominations for his birthplace: Thrace, Phrygia, Aethiopia, Samos, Athens and Sardis. Not only is it clear that we are uncertain of his nationality but no one is one hundred percent sure what he looked like either. Richard Lobban (Professor of African Studies) has discussed the likelihood of his name being derived from the Greek word ‘Aethiopian’ which referred to people of dark skin from the African Interior. Another point made to support the hypothesis that Aesop may have originated from the African Interior is the content of his fables which have been argued to contain animals predominantly present on the African continent as opposed to Europe or Greece. Aesop has at times been depicted in sculptures as having physical deformities or being hideous. He is also said by some to have had a speech impediment which was miraculously cured by a deity. Debate rages on, however and even these few details are not a certainty.
Since we know so little about the guy how did he come to be famous in the first place? It turns out that Aesop has appeared in the works of great ancient authors such as; Aristophanes, Plato, Xenophon and Aristotle and particular documents which give accounts of his life are ‘The Life of Aesop’ and ‘The Book of Xanthus the Philosopher and his Slave Aesop’. It is from these accounts that Aesop became known as the slave to a man named Xanthus who lived on an island called Samos around 550 B.C. but he is also said to be the slave of a man named Ladmon of the same island – Samos. Aesop apparently did not capture his fables in the written form himself and it may have been the above mentioned authors that set about that task after having heard his stories told.
Aesop is then said to have been freed from slavery by Ladmon according to Herodotus’ ‘History’ which contains the earliest mention of him. How do we know that Aesop was released from slavery? It is said that his public defence of Samian Demagogue (Aristotle, Rhetoric, ii 20) which could only have taken place with him a free man is reason to believe so.
Aesop’s life is shrouded in mystery and even in death the mystery and debate continues. Herodotus describes Aesop’s death as violent at the hands of the people of Delphi who pushed him off a cliff although the cause is unknown, or the cause is the theft of a silver cup, while others say the theft of the silver cup was a separate death incident altogether having nothing to do with Delphi or the cliff.
Whoever he was, I think it is inspiring that someone’s work can live on for so long without any idea of the true identity of the author. Today, it is refreshing because now more than ever identity comes before the work or often, at the expense of the work.
Speaking of the work, here is a short list of some of Aesop’s fables:
The Lion and the Mouse
The Ant and the Grasshopper
The Tortoise and the Hare
The Fox and the Goat
The Fox and the Crane (or Crow)
The Fox and the Grapes
The Dog and the Bone
The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing
The Boy Who Cried Wolf
The Hen (or Goose) that Laid the Golden Eggs
The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse
The North Wind and the Sun
The Ass in the Lion’s Skin
The Old Man and Death
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