Aesop, or Æsop (c.6th. century BC), legendary Greek source of over 600 fables including The Tortoise and the Hare, written from the oral, have been translated into English by many including the Rev. George Fyler Townsend (1814-1900) and Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914).
Through the use of (mostly) animal protagonists, Aesop's fables consist of simple tales with moral endings transcending time and place so to be as relevant today as they were millennia ago. Universally popular, they still inspire many contemporary stories, plays, and movies.
The Life of Aesop contains some contradictory details of his life, though contributes to his mythic proportions. The location of his birth is open to much conjecture though the ancient colony of Thrace, Phrygia, Aethiopia, the Greek island of Samos, the city of Athens and Sardis, the capitol of Lydia, are included in the possibilities. His name is from the archaic Greek "Ethiop" in reference to a person of African descent. The first known mention to the man Aesop is contained in the Greek historian Herodotus' History (c.425). There are many other allusions to his life in Greek literature including writers' Aristophanes, Xenophon, Plato, and Aristotle. Born into slavery and depicted in some sculptures with physical deformity, it is also mentioned that at an early age he suffered a speech impediment, miraculously eradicated by a deity. He was eventually freed by his master Iadmon, according to Herodotus. Most likely due to his literacy and wit. However, because of the overwhelming lack of proof of his life lived, many scholars, including Martin Luther (1483-1546), deny his existence. The use of the adjective Aesopic is sometimes used for ambiguous or allegorical political reference due to censorship; or for stories in the literary tradition given no attribution to a specific author.
It is said that Aesop escaped punishment for his irreverence and tomfoolery many times by his ability to stand up to his accusers with a clever turn of phrase, pointing out their ironies and hypocrisy. In his public orations on ethics to the common people he sometimes spoke out against the power structure of his time, using his gift for sarcasm and clever retort to quell his critics. The Frogs Asking for a King is his attempt to dissuade the people from overthrowing their leader. He is critical of a hoarding miser, and uses a dog to illustrate irrational greed. As a free man he spoke to aristocrats, philosophers, and kings. From The Shepherd’s Boy and the Wolf we today have the proverbial saying "the boy who cried wolf", exemplifying the life-lesson that telling lies leads one to lose credibility, that one "reaps what you sow". The Oak Tree and the Reeds uses elements of nature and thus we have the saying "survival of the fittest". The tales provide many allegorical references and practical advice on contemporary human issues such as politics and self-knowledge.
Although it is widely disputed, the death of Aesop is sometimes attributed to his stealing a gold or silver cup, his sentence for the crime to be thrown from a cliff in Delphi. He prophesised: “You may kill me, but my unjust death will bring you great misfortune” and the Oracle of Apollo confirmed to the Delphians that the ensuing pestilence, famine, and warfare were caused by his death.
Aesop's Fables have been told and re-told, then written and re-written countless times as a form of entertainment and education. Anecdotal and comic sketches were everyday forms of amusement in ancient Athens and Delphi. Today these works envelop many realms of life including psychology, politics, spirituality, education, health and well-being. Whether the man himself or Aesop the modern construct of scholars, his influence and commentary on human behaviour has been firmly established.
Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2006. All Rights Reserved.
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