Aesop: unclear biography, no written fables, with timeless morals

by Tolovaj

Aesop was most popular fabulist in the world. He still is. But we don't know much about him. Fortunately his fables are much more clear than his biography.

Aesop and fables are among most related words in the world of literature. But people too often confuse Aesop with Greek philosophers and fables with fairy tales.

So I decided to collect top 10 facts about Aesop, the mysterious man who never wrote any of his fables, but still managed to become one of most popular authors of all times.

(Image credit: Diego Velasquez, all used images are in public domain)

Who is Aesop?

or: who was Aesop?

1. Nobody knows who was Aesop. All what we can find about him is unreliable and old. There is pretty wide agreement he was a slave who was freed and became a great rhetorician. But it is not clear where this happened.

Or when.Vignette by Walter Crane

Or where he was from.

Or if he even existed.

Aesop's biography can be found in several books but all of them belong to the fiction section.

So when we try to answer the question 'Who is Aesop?' we should probably say, it is a trademark used to sign famous fables. Many of Aesop's fables were written more than thousand years after he supposedly lived.

2. Reality or fiction, several historians from Old Greece mentioned Aesop's name. His cleverness helped him not only to get freedom, he became adviser to influential people (that includes kings) too. His low social status did not allow him directly criticizing decisions of nobility, so he was forced to use fables to illustrate their mistakes and provide them with proper advice.

Aesop's Fables are extremely popular at children (and parents) for centuries

Image from Baby's Own Aesop by Walter Crane
The man that pleased none
The man that pleased none


3. Like every celebrity Aesop should be described in as many details as possible. His appearance is certainly at the top of the list. There are speculations about African origin and dark tone of his skin. The word Aesopus was for centuries translated as 'from Ethiopia' or simply 'dark man'.

Etymologically this is wrong but in 1971 they still made a TV movie with Bill Cosby playing Aesop. Thanks to imagination of medieval artists he was also a dwarf, stutterer, hunchback and a lame. It seems for many centuries writers and painters competed in showing his ugliness.

4. Ugly or cute, Aesop was supposedly involved in a romance with one of the most popular ladies of questionable virtues in his times (about 5 centuries AD).

Rhodopis was a courtesan from Thrace (part of today's Bulgaria), one of other possible origins of Aesop.

She was a slave and maybe served as a role model for earliest versions of the main character in the most popular fairy tale of all times - Cinderella. By the way - name Rhodopis, meaning 'with rosy cheeks', can also came from Rhodope (mountains in Balkan), her possible origin.

We can see both portrayed on the painting by Angelica Kaufmann on the right.

Aesop and Rhodopis by Angelica Kauffmann
Aesop and Rhodopis by Angelica Kauffmann

Endless source of inspiration

5. Aesop's work, no matter who's originally was, inspired many writers to write their own fables in verses or prose, or rewrite Aesop's, often with humorous and surprising, even shocking twists.

Greatest fabulist ever?

We don't have enough space for all the names, but we should mention at least Ambrose Bierce and Jean de La Fontaine as two of the greatest.

The influence of former slave from Ancient Greece didn't stop in literature.

Many paintings, musical compositions, theater plays, movies... were made after 'his' tales.

Why? Their characters and structures are simple and their morals are useful for different reasons. Some are really evergreen and can be used as such and some are so outdated they almost scream for artistic reinterpretation.

Because they are public domain, nobody don't have to worry about copyright issues either, so it is a win win ...

Painting of entrance to labyrinth of Versailles

Aesop and Cupid by Jacques Bailly
Aesop and Cupid by Jacques Bailly

Greece or India?

Satyr visiting a peasant, painting by Jacob Jordaens6. Many of the Aesop's fables are almost the same as tales in another famous collections from India and Southeast Asia. Dozens of stories from Panchatantra and Jataka tales share the same plots and morals, many others differ in characters or plots and others have completely different morals.

Nobody knows how many of fables from Ancient Greece originate in India and in how many cases the opposite is true.

7. What we can say for sure, some of the more famous fables attributed to Aesop could never be his work. Among these are: Mice in council, Milkmaid and her pail, Scorpion and frog, Wolf in sheep's clothing... So when talking about Aesop we should think more as of a brand than writer.

Quotes by Aesop

'Aesop quotes'

8. The so called Aesop quotes are often attributed to Aesop although some of them come from stories written many centuries after he supposedly lived. Any excuse will serve the tyrant origins in The wolf and the lamb, One cannot be first in everything comes from Juno and the Peacock, Crying over spilt milk from The milkmaid and her pail, ...

Fox and grapes
Fox and grapes

 9. There are also many everyday expressions like sour grape (The fox and the grapes), lion's share (Lion and wild ass), wolf in sheep's clothing (the title is the same), put one's head in the lion's mouth (The lion and the crane)... We'll probably never know if Aesop ever lived but his wisdom will stay incorporated in our society forever.

(Images above and on the right are work of Arthur Rackham)

I can't reach these grapes, so they ae probably sour
I can't reach these grapes, so they a...

Aesop's death

10. As we can expect from his mysterious life Aesop's death should be nothing but spectacular. Citizens of Delphi, afraid to be shown in not so favorable light, accused him stealing from the temple of Apollo (bribed servant helped them) and sentenced Aesop to death.Aesop's death, woodcut from 15th century

Before he was thrown from the cliff, he said: 'You can kill me, but my death will be revenged by great misfortunes.'

After he died Delphi was really affected by many problems, and the situation settled down only after people from Delphi built a temple dedicated to Aesop and punished his murderers. That's what I call the power of the word.

More on Aesop, his work and its influence

Esop's life, fables, morals, followers
If you want to know who was Aesop (sometimes called Esop), what are his most famous fables (with short summaries and morals) and some background, don't hesitate to visit this page.

Updated: 03/23/2015, Tolovaj
Thank you! Would you like to post a comment now?

Your thoughts on most famous fabulist of all times?

Tolovaj on 09/21/2014

Thanks, frankbeswick, for your contribution and sorry for my late response (life happened). You are right about the connections, for me this is part of the charm of old tales and fables. We can learn a lot about history and about ourselves just by reading the fables.

frankbeswick on 09/09/2014

It is unsurprising that there is an Indian parallel with Aesop, for Greece and India were in contact through the trade routes through the east. A sea route to India ran from India to the Red Sea ports of Egypt, and the shipping connections between Egypt and Greece were regular. Furthermore, Greek and Sanskrit are related and similar languages [Latin as well.] The similarities led Greeks and Romans to speculate on a common origin for both theirs and the Sanskrit language. Thus there were no significant barriers to an interchange of stories between the two.

There were very strong cultural connections between India and South East Asia, as we see in the export of Hinduism to Indonesia, so tales could go back and forth.

But many folk tales rise from deep in the human psyche,in the collective unconsciousness that holds the archetypes and which gives birth to myths, so the same ones tend to spring up, and so cultural networks tend to arouse what is implicitly, potentially present in the human mind.

Tolovaj on 09/08/2014

Esop is a class on his own;)

othellos on 09/08/2014

I grew up with his fables. Some of them were a part of our ancient Greek lessons in high school. Right on the point review with lots of comprehensive details...and knowledge I must admit.

Tolovaj on 02/11/2014

Thanks, VioletteRose, for stopping by!

VioletteRose on 02/11/2014

I have heard about him, but never knew this much. All those tales are lovely. Thanks for writing this!

Tolovaj on 07/13/2013

You are right, sheilamarie. Simplicity is probably the main reason for popularity of the fables. And we should never underestimate the wisdom of people with lower social status. We don't know why Aesop became a slave, we don't know almost anything about his education, but we know he earned freedom what definitely wasn't an easy task.

sheilamarie on 07/12/2013

I love the simplicity of the tales. They are great for telling orally. I find the idea of a slave who has the wisdom to see into people's motivations and wants to give advice in a slant way very appealing.

Tolovaj on 06/05/2013

Thanks for you visit:)

davestone13 on 06/05/2013

Really interesting and all news to me, just the right entertaining touch in information. Thanks.

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