Aesop’s Fables - Morality Through History
By: Alex Fatato
When considering which text I’d like to write about, I surveyed my life and old texts that have been around my house for the entirety of my life. My dad is a pastor, so of course I first thought of the Christian Bible. But interestingly enough, in my life I think I’ve applied more moral lessons from another ancient text - Aesop’s Fables. My family had a colorful children’s book version of these fables. I remember being homeschooled in the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grades, and at the end of each day’s teachings my mother would have me read aloud a fable from Aesop’s Fables. I never really questioned this or thought about where this book came from, as most six to eight year-olds wouldn’t. Truthfully, I haven’t thought about it much since, beyond a glance at a bookshelf and a brief recollection of those end-of-day virtue readings. As soon as the idea to write about these fables popped into my mind, I was excited to learn about the origin, translation, and dissemination of these short stories for children.
Aesop was a Greek slave, and he told 725 fables in the late to mid 6th century BCE. However, humans had been telling similar stories long before the Greeks. John Horgan, a history professor at Concordia University notes in a 2014 article that Sumerian proverbs involving animals that acted like humans were written “some 1,500 years before Christ,” (https://www.ancient.eu/article/664/aesops-fables/). Aesop never actually wrote down any of the tales he told, he simply spoke them. About 100 years after he died, Greek historian Herodotus was the first to write of him as a slave who freed himself through his talent of storytelling. All his stories employed anthropomorphism. (Encyclopedia.com)
I found a lot of contradicting statements about when, who, and how Aesop’s Fables were written down and translated. Some say that there were “prose and verse collections of “Aesop’s Fables” as early as the 4th century BCE,” (http://www.ancient-literature.com/greece_aesop.html). Phaedrus (the fabulist, not the athenian from our previous readings) was the first to translate the fables into Latin iambic trimeters, in the 1st century CE. The stories that we know today are probably based on a 3rd century CE Greek version by Babrius. Of course, this was a copy of a copy. It seems that the first English translation appeared around the start of the 15th century. Since then, it has been modified and paraphrased by many, often in colorful storybooks that can be found on bookshelves today. These stories found their way through hundreds of peoples’ voices and pens, across years and continents onto my parents’ bookshelf. It’s pretty amazing to think about, especially with how little is known of the specifics of translation and transmission of these stories. The lab helped me understand the cumbersome nature of copying text. I can’t imagine doing as many as 725 fables, let alone translating them to another language. Nevertheless, the fables have spread around the world as universal virtues and moral guidelines, and have invaded our vocabulary through phrases like “a wolf in sheep’s clothing”, “sour grapes”, and “slow and steady wins the race”. This slave from the 6th century’s voice will continue to be heard on our planet for the foreseeable future thanks to word-of-mouth, writing, and translation. That’s pretty neat.