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.

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Folklore: Great Story Collections

Last week I started back at the University of Pennsylvania, after a year off. I’ll be finishing my last semester this Spring, and graduating with a BA in History of Art in May.

In addition to the math and biology lecture class and bio lab I must take to graduate, I also got to pick two others to round out my semester. I went with World Music (I’m writing a paper for that class that I’ll probably post here when it’s done) and Folklore: Great Story Collections. With my work in anthologies it seems like a perfect fit, and I love classes that have interesting reading lists.

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