More from Folklore: Aesop’s Fables

We’re moving on to The Conference of the Birds (link goes to Wiki) in tomorrow’s class. Before I switch gears, I wanted to share some facts and thoughts on a misunderstood genre of writing: Aesopic fables.

The word “fable” comes from the Latin “fabula” (a “story”), itself derived from “fari” (“to speak”) with the -ula suffix that signifies “little”: hence, a “little story”.

Aesop’s fables have grown from an early group of Greek stories – attributed to a single source – into a genre, describing a type of stories, regardless of author. We now refer to this body of stories as the “Aesopic tradition”. Fables are generally short, insightful, tales, meant to convey a message in only a few sentences. There are several parts to a fable, not all of which are required but most of which appear over and over again. These include:

  • the moral, with or without an explanatory promythium or epimythium
  • using animals or gods as main characters
  • often explains acts of nature, such as why an animal is of a certain color
  • not (originally) meant for children

promythium is an explanation of the fable’s moral placed before the story, just as an epimythium comes after the tale. It became very common to add these notes to fables, particularly in the middle ages, in case the reader didn’t get quite the same message that the author intended. When a fable doesn’t have these notes, it’s said to have an endomythium – the moral of the tale is inside the story, and we’re supposed to know what it is.

These moral messages go back to the beginning of fables and speak to the point of having a fable in the first place. Early scholars talk about the original Aesop, who cannot be proven to have existed at all but who may have lived in the 6th century BC, as an angry, sarcastic, stumpy, misshapen, dwarf of a slave*. He was born deaf and mute, but – after helping a priestess – was granted speech as a gift by her goddess. He promptly used his new gifts to denounce his master, the slave system, and pretty much everyone and everything he ran into. He told allegorical stories in order to explain his meaning to people he assumed weren’t as smart as he was, and eventually so angered the people of Delphi that they framed him for stealing in order to have an excuse to shove him off of a cliff. Moral of that story: being smart and clever won’t help you if you’re still an ass to everyone around you.

His stories lived on long after he did, through the oral tradition. Socrates and Aristotle wrote about him; Babrius wrote his fables down for (possibly) the first time; and Pheadrus, Hesiod, Epicharmus of Kos and Phormis all wrote their own fables. The tradition carried on through the middle ages (the Church had several of its own fable writers), found popularity again in 17th century France, and into modern day. There’s significant evidence that the fables didn’t originate with Aesop but that he was himself carrying on an earlier Sumerian tradition of story telling using animals**, but it’s Aesop who gets the fame.

The use of animals and gods is extremely common in fables, but perhaps not for the reason you think. Humans are also common in fables, but it’s never specific human beings. It’s “a man” or “a slave master” or “a wife”, sometimes with unappealing adjectives, but never with a name. The characters in the fables are all archetypes, so that the story can be transposed onto different situations and still have universal ability to get across a message. There are stories of Aesop telling about a fox choosing to live with the ticks it has rather than flick them off and get new ones in order to convince a town not to cast out their politician, because while he was corrupt the next one might be worse. He’s also been said to have told stories to save people in court, insult the rich, and mock the stupid, all without saying precisely who he was referring to. Given that he was eventually executed for being so annoying, the generic content of his stories probably kept him alive a little while longer.

Not every fable was meant to point out someone else’s flaws. Some of them were meant to explain what Aesop considered to be obvious facts about the natural world, such as why a bird has no crown feathers, of why another animal hunts at night. It’s these fables that get handed down as teaching instruments, and what gives rise to the incorrect assumption that Aesop wrote from children. It is only in the last century or so that writers have been adapting fables for children’s books, because before that they’re considered the privilege of educated men to know and discuss (and get the “joke” of”). Nowadays you can find illustrated versions of such “children’s classics” as The Ant and the Grasshopper. We all know that one, don’t we?

1919 illustration of Aesop's Fables by Milo Winter

Except that there’s also a version where the ant was a farmer who stole from his neighbors at night because he couldn’t stop working and enjoy life … but that fable isn’t told as often as the one which extols hard work and mocks the artists and muscians of the world.

Because there have been fables written for thousands of years, the assumption is that only the important ones are preserved or are being presented to the reader. Modern authors often write in an archaic or poetic meter in to give weight to their creations, just as people often use a quote from an ancient or respected source to present our own opinion in a way that others will take more seriously than if we had used our own words. While it’s important to know the history of your stories, I do like some of these new stories quite a bit.

We were asked to bring in to class an example of Aesop in our time, and my example was Aesop Cop. Haven’t heard of it?

Aesop Cop is a collaboration between Franklin Crawford, who scans police logs around the world (mostly in his hometown of Ithaca, N.Y.) and writes an Aesop-inspired morality poem about notable crimes, and Rigel Stuhmiller, a Berkeley, CA-based artist, who illustrates the poems.

How fun is that?

Like any other genre of writing, we can respect its origins and preserve the style while still adapting it to our own needs. Try writing your own fable and see what you come up with.

* Recent scholars have reinterpreted Aesop as a black Ethiopian, and suggest his “deformity” was just a case of the early Greeks being really, really, racist. Which is entirely possible.

** Within a few hundred years we have recorded fables from India, Asia, and the Middle East, and some of the stories in the Hebrew bible could be considered fables as well, so it’s difficult to say where the genre actually started.

2 thoughts on “More from Folklore: Aesop’s Fables

  1. CC, thanks for the lesson. I heard reference, but I never followed up to see the origin of Aesop.

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