Who is Aesop of Aesop's Fables?

by Henry B.

"That's what happens when you cry wolf".... "It's just sour grapes!" - these and any derivatives thereof are just a few common saythings we use today, but do we know where they come from?

They were originally based on stories attributed to a man named Aesop (or Aesopus), a man to whom stories or fables about morality is attributed.  These stories may well be over 2,600 years old as told by Aesop, but aspects of them may date back even much further.  

"Crying wolf" is based on a story about a shepherd boy who thinks it's funny to raise the alarm that there's a wolf nearby when there is no wolf, just to get the townspeople all in a panic all for nothing and make them come running to help.  Then when the wolf really comes, nobody believes the boy that there's danger and the shepherd boy's sheep are all killed.  

"Sour grapes" refer to a story of a fox who badly wanted but couldn't reach grapes that were hanging too high out of reach on a vine, and, giving up and walking away, in a bad attitude she exclaimed "You aren't ripe anyway;  I don't need any sour grapes!". 

Who was this Aesop though to whom these and many more such stories are credited? 

In many ways Aesop himself may be described as a mythical legend, for any sources of Aesop's life date from long after his death and some of it is even considered fictional.  

Information about Aesop's life and death can be gathered from scattered mentions in ancient sources, and then of course there is what is commonly called The Aesop Romance (also known under a few other names).  The latter is considered to be a fictional folkbook from popular Greek literature, with no particular writer credited.  There are many versions of this book. 

The earliest Greek sources indicate that Aesop was born in Thrace at a site on the Black Sea coast which would later become the city Mesambria, while a number of later writers from the Roman imperial period tell that he was born in Phrygia.

In The Aesop Romance, whether considered fictional or not, Aesop is an ugly slave with a hideous, deformed appearance, and people laughed at him.  He couldn't even speak properly if at all;  that is until after he shows some kindness to a priestess of Isis.  Isis, the goddess, grants him speech and also a gift for clever storytelling, which he uses to both assist and confound his master Xanthus, a philosopher, embarrassing the philosopher in front of his students and even sleeping with his wife.

After interpreting a divination or portent for the people of Samos, Aesop is freed as a slave and acts as an emissary between the Samians and King Croesus.  Later he travels to the courts of Lycurgus of Babylon and Nectanabo of Egypt. 

Aesop came to a tragic end when King Croesus sent him to the temple of Apollo in Delphi.  Delphi was the site of the Delphic oracle.  Apparently there people got so angry that they pushed Aesop off a cliff and he was killed in the fall.  Or as Plutarch tells us;  Aesop had come to Delphi on a diplomatic mission from King Croesus of Lydia, that he insulted the Delphians, was sentenced to death on a trumped-up charge of temple theft, and was thrown from a cliff. 

No original writings by Aesop have survived, and the fables have made it to our time through oral tradition and the preservation of the fables by a series of authors starting with ones writing in both Greek and Latin.  Many believe that Aesop himself may never have written down his stories, although The Aesop Romance claims that he wrote them down and deposited them in the library of King Croesus (who was later defeated by the Persians).  Herodotus calls Aesop a "writer of fables" and Aristophanes speaks of "reading" Aesop.  Socrates, while in prison turned some of the fables into verse.  

The first printed version of Aesop's Fables in English was published on March 26, 1484 by William Caxton.

Toward the end of the 20th century, widespread study of The Aesop Romance began. 

Modern scholarship reveals fables and proverbs of "Aesopic" form existing in both ancient Sumer and Akkad, as early as the third millennium BCE. Therefore, at their most ancient roots, the fables of Aesop are composed in a literary format that appears first not in Ancient Greece, Ancient India, or Ancient Egypt, but in ancient Sumer and Akkad. (Sumer is where Mankind had its very first civilization.)

Apollonius of Tyana, a 1st century CE philosopher, is recorded as having said about Aesop:

... like 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.