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Aesop's Fables

Aesop's Fables or Aesopica refers to a collection of fables credited to Aesop (620–560 BC), a slave and story-teller who lived in Ancient Greece. Aesop's Fables have become a blanket term for collections of brief fables, usually involving anthropomorphic animals. His fables are some of the most well known in the world. The fables remain a popular choice for moral education of children today. Many stories included in Aesop's Fables, such as The Fox and the Grapes (from which the idiom "sour grapes" was derived), The Tortoise and the Hare, The North Wind and the Sun and The Boy Who Cried Wolf, are well-known throughout the world.

Apollonius of Tyana, the 1st century AD philosopher, is recorded as having said about Aesop: those who dine well off the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths, and after serving up a story he adds to it the advice to do a thing or not to do it. Then, too, he was really more attached to truth than the poets are; for the latter do violence to their own stories in order to make them probable; but he by announcing a story which everyone knows not to be true, told the truth by the very fact that he did not claim to be relating real events.
And there is another charm about him, namely, that he puts animals in a pleasing light and makes them interesting to mankind. For after being brought up from childhood with these stories, and after being as it were nursed by them from babyhood, we acquire certain opinions of the several animals and think of some of them as royal animals, of others as silly, of others as witty, and others as innocent. (Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14)


Aesop (from the Greek ΑἴσωποςAisopos), famous for his fables, was a slave who lived mid-sixth century BC, in Ancient Greece. The place of Aesop's birth was and still is disputed: Thrace, Phrygia, Egypt, Ethiopia, Samos, Athens, Sardis and Amorium all claimed the honor. Little is known about him from credible records, except that he was at one point freed from slavery and that he eventually died in Delphi. In fact, the obscurity shrouding his life has led some scholars to deny his existence altogether.


According to the Greek historian Herodotus, the fables were invented by a slave named Aesop, who lived in Ancient Greece during the 6th century BC. While some suggested that Aesop did not actually exist, and that the fables attributed to him are folktales of unknown origins, Aesop was indeed mentioned in several other Ancient Greek works – Aristophanes, in his comedy The Wasps, represented the protagonist Philocleon as having learnt the "absurdities" of Aesop from conversation at banquets; Plato wrote in Phaedo that Socrates whiled away his jail time turning some of Aesop's fables "which he knew" into verses; Demetrius of Phalerum compiled the fables into a set of ten books (Lopson Aisopeion sunagogai), which have been lost, for the use of orators. There was also an edition in elegiac verse by an anonymous author, which was often cited in the Suda.

Translation and transmission

The first extensive translation of Aesop into Latin was done by Phaedrus, a freedman of Augustus in this 1st century AD, although at least one fable had already been translated by the poet Ennius. Avianus also translated forty two of the fables into Latin elegiacs, probably in the 4th century AD.

The collection under the name of Aesop's Fables evolved from the late Greek version of Babrius, who turned them into choliambic verses, at an uncertain time between 3rd century BC and 3rd century AD. In about 100 BC, Indian philosopher Syntipas translated Babrius into Syriac, from where Andreopulos translated back to Greek, since original Greek scripts had all been lost. Aesop's fables and the Panchatantra share about a dozen tales, leading to discussions whether the Greeks learned these fables from Indian storytellers or the other way, or if the influences were mutual. Ben E. Perry, one of the foremost authorities on Aesopic fable, argued for the second possibility in his book Babrius and Phaedrus. In his introduction he wrote:

"In the entire Greek tradition there is not, so far as I can see, a single fable that can be said to come either directly or indirectly from an Indian source; but many fables or fable-motifs which make their first appearance in Greek or Near Eastern literature are found later in the Panchatantra and other Indian story-books, including the Buddhist Jatakas."

In the 9th century, Ignatius Diaconus created a version of fifty-five fables in choliambic tetrameters, into which stories from Oriental sources were added, ultimately mutated from the Sanskrit Panchatantra. From these collections the 14th-century monk Maximus Planudes compiled the collection which has come down under the name of Aesop.

The first printed version of Aesop's Fables in English was published on March 26 1484 by William Caxton. Around the same time, the Scottish poet Robert Henryson was composing his poem, The Morall Fabillis of Esope the Phrygian, a sophisticated interconnected sequence of fable adaptations which made a work of high art out of the genre. Aesop himself appears at the heart of this version in the unusual guise of a Roman. Henryson's Scots fable version is not known to have occured in print form until the later 16th century. Caxton's version was updated by Sir Roger L'Estrange in 1692.

Here is an example of the fables in Caxton's collection containing dialogue between the fisherman and the fish he has caught, a frequent trope in Aesopian plots:

Henryson, throughout his version, consistently developed and expanded on such Aesopic tropes. For example, in his dialogue between the lion and the mouse, his mouse (in a parallel predicament to the fish) makes an extended plea which explicitly cites issues of law, justice and politics:

The most reproduced modern English translations were made by Rev. George Fyler Townsend (1814 – 1900). Ben E. Perry, the editor of Aesopic fables of Babrius and Phaedrus for the Loeb Classical Library, compiled a numbered index by type. The edition by Olivia Temple and Robert Temple is entitled The Complete Fables by Aesop; the fables are not complete here since fables from Babrius, Phaedrus and other major ancient sources have been omitted. More recently, in 2002 a translation by Laura Gibbs was published by Oxford World's Classics, entitled Aesop's Fables. This book includes 359 fables and has selections from all the major Greek and Latin sources.

Aesop's Fables in other languages

  • The French fables of Jean de la Fontaine were inspired by the brevity and simplicity of Aesop's Fables.
  • Around 1800, the fables were adapted and translated into Russian by the Russian fabulist Ivan Krylov.
  • The first translation of Aesop's Fables into Chinese was made in 1625. It included thirty-one fables conveyed orally by a Belgian Jesuit missionary to China named Nicolas Trigault and written down by a Chinese academic named Zhang Geng (張賡). There have been various modern-day translations by Zhou Zuoren and others.
  • Portuguese missionaries arriving in Japan at the end of the 16th century introduced Japan to this story. A Latin edition was translated into romanized Japanese. The title was Esopo no Fabvlas and dates to 1593. This was soon followed by a fuller translation into a three-volume kanazōshi entitled sometime between 1596 and 1624.


List of some fables by Aesop

Aesop's most famous fables include:

See also



External links

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