Aesop's Fables: An Introduction
The Greek and Roman Fables
Aesop's fables are the single most successful storytelling genre of ancient Greece and Rome. The fables were extremely popular in the ancient world, and approximately 600 Aesop's fables have been preserved from the ancient Greek and Latin sources. In addition, the fables continued to be incredibly popular during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, with many translations into the vernacular languages of Europe. One of the very first books ever published in the English language was a translation of Aesop's fables published by William Caxton in the year 1484. Many of the fables continue to be famous even today, such as the story of "The Tortoise and the Hare" or "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."
If you are interested in getting an overview of the entire spectrum of Aesop's fables from ancient Greece and Rome, you can find all 600 of those ancient fables translated into English at Aesopica.net, a very old website of mine. Aesop's fables are my own academic specialty, and I have been studying them for many years. I hope you will enjoy learning more about them in this class!
Was there really somebody in ancient Greece named Aesop who told the stories that you are reading this week? While it is impossible to prove that such a person did not exist, there is also no concrete historical evidence that he did exist. Because the legends about Aesop are very old, they predate any of our written sources and thus we cannot be sure if the legends are not themselves the source for the "history." The oldest surviving historical reference to Aesop comes from Greek writer Herodotus, who lived in the fifth century B.C.E. Herodotus claims that Aesop was a slave from the island of Samos and that he was killed by the people of Delphi. But the story of Aesop and the Delphians was already an old legend before Herodotus was even born. The fables were part of the oral Greek tradition for centuries before they were written down, and there are allusions to Aesop's fables in classical Greek authors, especially in the playwright Aristophanes. The oldest surviving collection of Aesop's fables is from a Roman source, the poet Phaedrus, who lived in the first century CE.
Defining the Fable
Just what makes an Aesop's fable? In general, the fables are short, sometimes very short. In the reading selection for this week, you will have several fables presented together on a single page, grouped together based on similar characters: stories about lions, stories about the gods, etc. When you take notes on the fables, I would suggest that in your Reading Diary you pick out your favorite fable from each page and just focus on those favorites.
In addition to being short, Aesop's fables are usually, but not always, didactic stories, stories that teach a lesson of some kind. Often that lesson is expressed in the form of a moral. The moral might be spoken by one of the characters inside the story, or it might be added on at the end of the story.
Aesop's method of teaching is usually by a negative exemplum, a negative example rather than a positive one. The plot of the fable is typically about a foolish mistake, and the point of the fable is that you should avoid making that same mistake yourself. Often the mistake is fatal; the characters in Aesop's fables rarely live "happily ever after."
Of course, there are exceptions to these rules. Sometimes a fable might be on the long side; in the later literary fables by European authors such as La Fontaine, the fables can be quite long. There are also fables that teach a positive lesson, giving you an example that you should imitate rather than an example you should avoid.
Finally, you may be surprised to find out that, in the ancient world, Aesop's fables were not intended for children. Originally, the fables of Aesop were stories told by adults for adults, and sometimes with adult themes that would not even be considered suitable for children (some of the fables are downright pornographic). Many of the fables do contain talking animals, but there are also fables about human beings, along with many fables that involve the Greek and Roman gods, as you will see.