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Aesop's Fables: General Useful Weblinks

Aesop’s life

  • Read this brilliant overview of Aesop and the Aesopica (different collections of the fables), which can be found on the Illinois library website in two parts: 1 and 2. There are lots of illustrations accompanying the text.
  • The Victoria and Albert museum believe that ‘Aesop’ was just a collector of the fables, since some have been found on papyri dated to well before his supposed birth-date.
  • Biographies of Aesop:
    Biography 1
    Biography 2 – including a discussion of the early biographers of Aesop (e.g. Maximus Planudes, writing in the early 14th century CE [biography], and the mathematician M. Mezeriac, who published his Life of Aesop in 1632 [biography]) and how we ‘know’ what we know about the fabulist.
  • Planudes may have based his biography in part on The Aesop Romance, of unknown authorship. A version of which can be found in the Michigan State University Library, accompanied by illustrations by Francis Barlow [pages 11-102 of the pdf.; there is a small section missing on pages 69-70].
  • The BBC made a radio programme about ‘Aesop in our time’, which includes a good discussion of the links between the tales and their ‘morals’, along with what we know and what we assume about Aesop’s life and the subsequent use of his tales throughout history. Having three scholars present gives a good variety of views and insights into different linked areas, such as how ‘Classical’ are the fables and how do they affect our views of the ancient world?

Aesop’s ancient appearances

  • Aesop appears as a character is Plutarch’s The Dinner of the Seven Wise Men [skip to section 6 for his first appearance], where his fables and propensity for using animal characters are often referenced: for instance, he tells this tale during the discussion: A wolf, seeing some shepherds in a shelter eating a sheep, came near to them and said, “What an uproar you would make if I were doing that!”’.
  • Socrates, whilst in prison, apparently turned some of Aesop’s fables into verse – as attributed in Plato’s Phaedo [61b].

Aesop’s modern representations

  • Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera is credited with two portraits of Aesop: Aesop, poet of the fables is in the El Escorial and Aesop in beggar’s rags is in the Museo de Prado, dated 1640-50.
  • The Spaniard Diego Velázquez also painted a portrait of Aesop (1639-40), now in the collection of the Museo del Prado. 
  • Here is the frontispiece woodcut from the 1489 Spanish edition of Aesop’s Fables. Aesop is portrayed as ugly here, surrounded by scenes and animals from the fables.
  • The fables spread far and wide. This woodblock print is from the Japanese Kyoto Isoppu Monogatari (1659) [kept in the British Museum]: the story of the cockerel and the fox is told in the top half and Aesop himself is presented in Japanese garb on the bottom half.
  • A 1971 TV production of Aesop’s Fables was created, with Bill Crosby playing Aesop. Focusing on the tortoise, it can be watched in three parts here: 1, 2 and 3.
  • Beginning in 1959, animated shorts were created with the title Aesop and Son, each focusing on a different fable (and moral) – they formed a recurring piece of the TV series Rocky and His Friends and its successor The Bullwinkle Show. Browse a list of the episodes on this site, or watch one of the shorts here: ‘Birds of a feather flock together!’
  • Aesop also makes a very short appearance in an episode of Disney’s Hercules: ‘Hercules and the Kids’ [1.40-2.33]. 

The Fables

  • ‘Fables teach or confirm truths about ourselves, but an essential trait is indirection, even misdirection. They do not admonish us to our faces. Rather they combine insight with amusement, revealing truth indirectly through tales about animals with their universally recognized characters – the lion, the donkey, the crow – talking and acting like humans’ – Champlin, E. ‘Phaedrus the Fabulous’, JRS 95 (2005) p.106
    The first written compilation of Aesop’s tales – Assemblies of Aesopic Tales – was created by Demetrius of Phaleron (c. 320 BC) but it disappeared in the ninth century.
  • The first extant version of the fables was compiled by Phaedrus, who translated the fables into Latin in the first century CE in what is now known as the Romulus collection. This site provides a short biography of Phaedrus, although very little is actually known about him. What can be drawn from the tone of his fables is that, unlike the subversive Aesop (as portrayed in The Aesop Romance), Phaedrus preaches a doctrine of resignation and acceptance, of not rocking the boat, of hoping to be ignored by the mighty.
  • Valerius Babrius, a Greek living in Rome, translated these and other fables of the day into Greek in the first half of the 200s CE. Forty-two of those, in turn, were translated into Latin by Avianus around 400 CE.
  • A German edition of the fables, translated into English by William Caxton, was one of the first 100 books ever printed in the English language (Caxton also introduced the first printing press to England)!
  • Originally aimed at adults, the fables gradually began to be promoted as ideal for teaching children morals and were used as resources to teach children how to read.
  • Jean de La Fontaine (a brief biography) created perhaps the largest and most widely read collection of Aesop’s Fables, rendered in poetry, with volumes being published from 1668-1694.  A biography of the French poet along with a review of his most famous work can be read here in two parts: 1 and 2.
  • This site includes interactive stories (in many languages!) for a lot of Aesop’s fables, among other tales. It is often updated with new stories.
  • Read Aesop’s Fable 515, in which some animals get turned into humans. The close link seen to exist between humans and animals may explain why Aesop uses a lot of animals in tales designed to comment upon human behaviour.
  • Another reason for using animals is put forward by Phaedrus. In his own words he asserts that fables originated as a coded language among slaves, who used it to circulate subversive messages that might have put them at risk of retaliation by their owners.