Fable as a genre
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.
—Philostratus, Life of Apollonius of Tyana, Book V:14
The Greek historian Herodotus mentioned in passing that "Aesop the fable writer" was a slave who lived in Ancient Greece during the 5th century BCE. Among references in other writers, 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. Nonetheless, for two main reasons – because numerous morals within Aesop’s attributed fables contradict each other, and because ancient accounts of Aesop’s life contradict each other – the modern view is that Aesop did not solely compose all those fables attributed to him, if he even existed at all. Instead, any fable tended to be ascribed to the name of Aesop if there was no known alternative literary source.
In Classical times there were various theorists who tried to differentiate these fables from other kinds of narration. They had to be short and unaffected; in addition, they are fictitious, useful to life and true to nature. In them could be found talking animals and plants, although humans interacting only with humans figure in a few. Typically they might begin with a contextual introduction, followed by the story, often with the moral underlined at the end. Setting the context was often necessary as a guide to the story’s interpretation, as in the case of the political meaning of The Frogs Who Desired a King and The Frogs and the Sun.
Sometimes the titles given later to the fables have become proverbial, as in the case of ‘killing the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs or the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse. In fact some fables, such as The Young Man and the Swallow, appear to have been invented as illustrations of already existing proverbs. One theorist, indeed, went so far as to define fables as extended proverbs. In this they have an aetiological function, the explaining of origins such as, in another context, why the ant is a mean, thieving creature. Other fables, also verging on this function, are outright jokes, as in the case of The Old Woman and the Doctor, aimed at greedy practitioners of medicine.
The contradictions between fables already mentioned and alternative versions of much the same fable – as in the case of The Woodcutter and the Trees, are best explained by the ascription to Aesop of all examples of the genre. Some are demonstrably of West Asian origin, others have analogues even further to the East. Modern scholarship reveals fables and proverbs of Aesopic form existing in both ancient Sumer and Akkad, as early as the third millennium BCE. Aesop’s fables and the Indian tradition, as represented by the Buddhist Jataka Tales and the Hindu Panchatantra, share about a dozen tales in common although often widely differing in detail. There is therefore some debate over whether the Greeks learned these fables from Indian storytellers or the other way, or if the influences were mutual. Loeb editor Ben E. Perry took the extreme position in his book Babrius and Phaedrus that
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 that first appear in Greek or Near Eastern literature are found later in the Panchatantra and other Indian story-books, including the Buddhist Jatakas.
Although Aesop and the Buddha were near contemporaries, the stories of neither were recorded in writing until some centuries after their death and few disinterested scholars would now be prepared to make so absolute a stand about their origin in view of the conflicting and still emerging evidence.
Translation and transmissionGreek versionsA Greek manuscript of the fables of Babrius
When and how the fables arrived in and travelled from ancient Greece remains uncertain. Some cannot be dated any earlier than Babrius and Phaedrus, several centuries after Aesop, and yet others even later. The earliest mentioned collection was by Demetrius of Phalerum, an Athenian orator and statesman of the 4th century BCE, who compiled the fables into a set of ten books for the use of orators. A follower of Aristotle, he simply catalogued all the fables that earlier Greek writers had used in isolation as exempla, putting them into prose. At least it was evidence of what was attributed to Aesop by others; but this may have included any ascription to him from the oral tradition in the way of animal fables, fictitious anecdotes, etiological or satirical myths, possibly even any proverb or joke, that these writers transmitted. It is more a proof of the power of Aesop’s name to attract such stories to it than evidence of his actual authorship. In any case, although the work of Demetrius was mentioned frequently for the next twelve centuries, and was considered the official Aesop, no copy now survives.
Present day collections evolved from the later Greek version of Babrius, of which there now exists an incomplete manuscript of some 160 fables in choliambic verse. Current opinion is that he lived in the 1st century CE. In the 11th century appear the fables of ‘Syntipas’, now thought to be the work of the Greek scholar Michael Andreopulos. These are translations of a Syriac version, itself translated from a much earlier Greek collection, and contain some fables unrecorded before. The version of 55 fables in choliambic tetrameters by the 9th century CE Ignatius the Deacon is also worth mentioning for its early inclusion of stories from Oriental sources.
Some light is thrown on the entry of stories from Oriental sources into the Aesopic canon by their appearance in Jewish commentaries on the Talmud and in Midrashic literature from the 1st century CE. Some 30 fables appear there, of which twelve resemble those that are common to both Greek and Indian sources, six are parallel to those only in Indian sources, and six others in Greek only. Where similar fables exist in Greece, India, and in the Talmud, the Talmudic form approaches more nearly the Indian. Thus, the fable "The Wolf and the Crane" is told in India of a lion and another bird. When Joshua ben Hananiah told that fable to the Jews, to prevent their rebelling against Rome and once more putting their heads into the lion’s jaws (Gen. R. lxiv.), he shows familiarity with some form derived from India.
The first extensive translation of Aesop into Latin iambic trimeters was performed by Phaedrus, a freedman of Augustus in the 1st century CE, although at least one fable had already been translated by the poet Ennius two centuries before, and others are referred to in the work of Horace. The rhetorician Aphthonius of Antioch wrote a technical treatise on, and converted into Latin prose, some forty of these fables in 315. It is notable as illustrating contemporary and later usage of fables in rhetorical practice. Teachers of philosophy and rhetoric often set the fables of Aesop as an exercise for their scholars, inviting them not only to discuss the moral of the tale, but also to practise style and the rules of grammar by making new versions of their own. A little later the poet Ausonius handed down some of these fables in verse, which the writer Julianus Titianus translated into prose, and in the early 5th century Avianus put 42 of these fables into Latin elegiacs.
12th century pillar, cloister of the Collegiata di Sant’Orso, Aosta: the Fox and the Stork
The largest, oldest known and most influential of the prose versions of Phaedrus bears the name of an otherwise unknown fabulist named Romulus. It contains 83 fables, dates from the 10th century and seems to have been based on an earlier prose version which, under the name of "Aesop" and addressed to one Rufus, may have been written in the Carolingian period or even earlier. The collection became the source from which, during the second half of the Middle Ages, almost all the collections of Latin fables in prose and verse were wholly or partially drawn. A version of the first three books of Romulus in elegiac verse, possibly made around the 12th century, was one of the most highly influential texts in medieval Europe. Referred to variously (among other titles) as the verse Romulus or elegiac Romulus, it was a common Latin teaching text and was popular well into the Renaissance. Another version of Romulus in Latin elegiacs was made by Alexander Neckam, born at St Albans in 1157.
Interpretive "translations" of the elegiac Romulus were very common in Europe in the Middle Ages. Among the earliest was one in the 11th century by Ademar of Chabannes, which includes some new material. This was followed by a prose collection of parables by the Cistercian preacher Odo of Cheriton around 1200 where the fables (many of which are not Aesopic) are given a strong medieval and clerical tinge. This interpretive tendency, and the inclusion of yet more non-Aesopic material, was to grow as versions in the various European vernaculars began to appear in the following centuries.
With the revival of literary Latin during the Renaissance, authors began compiling collections of fables in which those traditionally by Aesop and those from other sources appeared side by side. One of the earliest was by Lorenzo Bevilaqua, also known as Laurentius Abstemius, who wrote 197 fables, the first hundred of which were published as Hecatomythium in 1495. Little by Aesop was included. At the most, some traditional fables are adapted and reinterpreted: The Lion and the Mouse is continued and given a new ending (fable 52); The Oak and the Reed becomes "The Elm and the Willow" (53); The Ant and the Grasshopper is adapted as "The Gnat and the Bee" (94) with the difference that the gnat offers to teach music to the bee’s children. There are also Mediaeval tales such as The Mice in Council (195) and stories created to support popular proverbs such as ‘Still Waters Run Deep’ (5) and ‘A woman, an ass and a walnut tree’ (65), where the latter refers back to Aesop’s fable of The Walnut Tree. Most of the fables in Hecatomythium were later translated in the second half of Roger L’Estrange’s Fables of Aesop and other eminent mythologists (1692); some also appeared among the 102 in H. Clarke’s Latin reader, Select fables of Aesop: with an English translation (1787), of which there were both English and American editions.
There were later three notable collections of fables in verse, among which the most influential was Gabriele Faerno’s Centum Fabulae (1564). The majority of the hundred fables there are Aesop’s but there are also humorous tales such as The drowned woman and her husband (41) and The miller, his son and the donkey (100). In the same year that Faerno was published in Italy, Hieronymus Osius brought out a collection of 294 fables titled Fabulae Aesopi carmine elegiaco redditae in Germany. This too contained some from elsewhere, such as The Dog in the Manger (67). Then in 1604 the Austrian Pantaleon Weiss, known as Pantaleon Candidus, published Centum et Quinquaginta Fabulae. The 152 poems there were grouped by subject, with sometimes more than one devoted to the same fable, although presenting alternative versions of it, as in the case of The Hawk and the Nightingale (133-5). It also includes the earliest instance of The Lion, the Bear and the Fox (60) in a language other than Greek.