Aesop’s Fables in Context
Aesop’s fables contain some of the most well-known stories from the Western world: ‘The Tortoise and the Hare’, ‘The Dog and His Reflection’, ‘The Crow and the Pitcher’. But the collection of short, moral tales doesn’t always offer sound advice. Taken as a whole, they’re classist, unforgiving and patriarchal. In order to understand the crux of their morals, you need to look at the context of their distribution, which began in ancient Greece.
According to Histories by Herodotus, Aesop was a slave who lived during the fifth century, somewhere near the island of Samos. He’s depicted as a small, grotesque, illiterate man with a speech impediment, who performed his stories in a mad, comic fashion. Delphian cultists chucked him off a rock, to his death, for stealing a cup from their temple. Though, mythically, he was reborn. His life certainly sounds like a fable, whether or not he coined the many attributed to his name.
The compilation has undergone periodical changes. It’s been translated and added to throughout the Christian era, the Victorian era and the modern day. Given the differences between these periods, the morals which underpin the tales were likely remoulded and adapted.
As S. A. Hanford states in the introduction to the Penguin Classics (1954) edition of “Fables of Aesop”, “it is unlikely that [the fables] are preserved in the versions…we possess.”
With that in mind, I analysed the stories using a critique of the three major influences upon their alterations and distribution: Christian ethics, capitalism and Classical Greek thought.
“…when the latent powers of the mind are neglected, or not directed into the paths of rectitude, by good precepts and worthy examples, vice and folly enter the opening, and lead their victim into evils and errors, which render his life miserable, and sometimes hurry him into an ignominious grave.”
Those are the words of Thomas Bewick, renowned wood engraver, natural history author and devote Christian, taken from the introduction to “The Fables of Aesop and Others” (1818). In the text, he presents an argument for the spiritual value of fables, stressing how they can teach children how to act with “…the reasoning power given by the Great Creator”.
His sentiments resonate in our modern translations of Aesop’s fables, particularly in their ‘bon mot’: the moral quips that follow or proceed fables. These summarising statements often mask a deeper, contextual meaning, born of the various periods the fables were revised.
For example, in ‘The Victor Vanquished’, a cockerel who hides after loses a fight over the favour of hens sees his rival eaten by an eagle as he crows in celebration, allowing the loser to reappear without fear. In the Penguin Classics version, the fable is followed by the statement, “This story shows that God resists the proud but gives grace to the humble.” In itself, this is a fair reading of the story, though the religious aspect is not implicit in the original. ‘No Respite’, ‘The Reward of the Wicked’ and ‘What a Piece of Work Is Man!’ are more examples of fables with a distinctly Christian spin.
Though, on the whole, the religious influence is less strongly felt than the political.
In ‘A Communist Dictator’, a wolf implores his community to distribute resources evenly, only to horde possessions for himself. This mockery of alternatives to capitalism is repeated in ‘Negotiating from Weakness’, where socialism is slighted. In the fable, a hare gathers all the animals together to express his idea of pooling resources, only to be laughed at by a lion, who says, “A good speech, Hairy-Feet, but it lacks claws and teeth such as we have.” In other words, without the tools of industry, a worker has no power.
The characters even have their own class system.
Lions sit at the top of the chain. They are referred to as ‘master’ or ‘lord’ by wolves and foxes, who sit below them. Where the lion is the embodiment of power, perseverance, sovereignty and honour, the wolf and the fox are the loyal, the fierce and the cunning. The fox, in particular, is blessed with a “honeyed tongue”. In terms of politics, they are the consorts to the king.
Smaller creatures like rabbits, jackdaws and frogs sit lower down the chain. They have their own communities but no power. Lower still are fawns and asses. They consort and hunt with foxes and lions but they always get a raw deal, eaten or ripped off. Other animals share a similar place lower down the scale, such as bulls.
In a Marxist perspective, the lion is the capitalist land-owner. He sits at the top of the chain but he rarely does his own work, favouring to exploit the trust, fear and subservience of ‘lesser’ creatures. Foxes and their equals are the bourgeois. They are often trapped by circumstances but willing to trade places with those below their stature, to escape punishment for their ignorance, by feigning comradery. As seen in ‘Look Before You Leap’, where a fox tricks a goat into a water tank. At the bottom of the chain are the proletariat: the donkey and the bull. They are the animals who bear heavy loads but get nothing more than scraps in return.
Further rooted in the fables is a gendered bias. Other than a single appearance from Aphrodite, only birds and cats are female, and seldom are they the protagonists.
They are the nightingale in ‘A Bird in the Hand’, eaten by a hawk for singing. They are the cat in ‘Metamorphosis’, who longs to become human so she can wed a man. They are ruined by affection and aimless joy and, sneakily, they lack fraternity: the thing that joins the male characters, despite their divergences.
Of course, the earliest period to influence the translations of Aesop’s Fables was ancient Greece, which is widely regarded as the origin of Western culture.
The lineage of Classical Greek thought is extensive but the numerous philosophers, inventors and intellectuals who developed it do have shared precepts. One of which is the notion that all life and all things originate from a cosmic singularity. Pythagoras sought it with Pi, Democritus postulated it in Atomic theory and Plato expressed it in his ‘origin of forms’. And, out of all the Greek founders, Plato’s influence is most strongly felt upon Aesop’s fables.
Plato held reason and logic as ‘man’s’ highest faculties. To him, they were the closest route to God. He didn’t believe women had souls and he saw them as intrinsically “emotional animals”, incapable of reason. For Plato, emotions and instincts were undesirable—something to be overcome and tamed by logic.
This attitude bleeds through Aesop’s fables in the way that characters are punished, humiliated or even killed for impulsive, dreamy or uncritical actions. They are condemned as having “no brain” for failing to use their reason. Of course, they bare the folly so that—in theory—the readers don’t have to, having learned the relevant lesson though the story.
Amongst the contextual influences that have come with Aesop’s many translations and editions is a plethora of more general, sound advice. There are frequent cautions against blind rivalry and feuds, reminders of the dangers of consorting with villainous people or of resting upon your laurels, and warnings about the pitfalls of falling for your own delusions of grandeur. Permeating the collection is a brutally snide attitude towards bestowing hard lesson, often with a social as well as a moral tone, such as ‘Self-Deception’: the tale of an amateur harpist, whose poor skills anger his audience.
Aesop’s Fables may not always be progressive or polite. But they are ruthlessly funny, beautifully concise and, when viewed historically, a telling collaboration across time.
* All the images in this article are photographs of illustrations by Brian Robb, taken from “Fables of Aesop” (Penguin Books, 1954).