The Fable of Aesop

While his work has stood the test of time, very little is known about the man for whom Aesop’s fables were named. Was he a singular historical figure, or a group of men who wrote in the Aesopic tradition? One thing we do know is that he was popular (or unpopular) enough to inspire a fictional account of his life known as the Aesop Romance, or The Life of Aesop. While the origins and history of the text are unknown, it provides a humorous look at the on-going battle between the poetics and philosophy.

According to this text, Aesop started life as a lowly slave, yet that was not the worst of his lot. As a Phrygian he was a foreigner in a foreign land, and was also considered extremely ugly: “potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped — a portentous monstrosity” [1]. And if that wasn’t bad enough, poor Aesop was also mute, one of the worst afflictions possible in a land that placed so much value on linguistic ability.

One day, after kindly assisting a priestess of Isis, she repaid him by remembering him in her prayers to her Goddess. As a reward, Isis cured Aesop of his muteness, while the nine muses threw in a bonus, the gift of storytelling. Aesop immediately used his newfound skills to denounce his overseer for his cruelty, which resulted in his being put up for sale. Aesop’s next master was a philosopher named Xanthus, a man who was already totally dominated and ridiculed by his wife, who now had a slave that would constantly outwit and undermine him. There was the time he ordered Aesop to make lentil for their supper, and Aesop presented him with a single lentil, or the time when he asked Aesop to bring food to the “one who loves me”, which Aesop promptly presented to the family dog instead of Xanthus’ wife. These exchanges continued until Aesop finally won his freedom, and became adviser to the king of Babylon.

Despite his way with words, they would prove his undoing. In the text, he calls out the Delphians for being born into slavery to the Greeks, an offense that led them to drive him off a cliff.

Assuming the Romance is a work of fiction, it is definitely ironic fiction;  the words of the story teller become the very source of his demise. We have Aesop’s fables, but in the Romance, we have the fable of Aesop: a tragic trickster who was too clever for his own good.

[1] Aesop’s Romance (a.k.a. The Book of Xanthus the Philosopher and Aesop his Slave, or the Career of Aesop), from Greek trans. Lloyd W. Daly in Hansen (1998) p. 111.

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