Saturday, February 18, 2012

Aesop's Fables

Don't cry wolf.

You’ve got sour grapes.

He’s just a dog in the manger.

The little tales told by a Greek slave, centuries before the time of Christ, have had a big impact on our language and our culture. Nearly everyone knows the story of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” or “Pinning the Bell on the Cat.” And if they don’t, they should go straight to the nearest public library and check out a copy of Aesop's Fables.

The Boy Who Cried Wolf
According to Aristotle, Aesop was born about 620 BC, in the town of Thrace. He grew into a rather homely man--some have even said grotesque. I guess you could say he had "a good face for radio."

He was born a slave, but because of his clever wit, Aesop won the affection of his master Iadmon, who set him free. 
The ex-slave grew in wisdom and renown. He became an adviser to kings—and even to the famed Seven Sages of Greece.

The Fox and the Grapes
Aesop loved to tell stories to get his point across. But as it was for some of his story characters, his wit sometimes got him into a spot of trouble, and eventually, his bent for sarcasm proved fatal.

King Croesus of Lydia sent Aesop on a diplomatic mission to Delphi. In the course of negotiations, Aesop insulted the Delphians, who retaliated by falsely charging him with the crime of stealing a silver cup from their temple. 

The punishment? Alas, Aesop was sentenced to death and  thrown from a cliff. In years following, it is said that the Delphians were plagued with famine, warfare, and pestilence as a punishment for killing Aesop.

Illustration from Baby's Own Aesop

The Dog in the Manger
You can probably guess that at least some of this bio is balderdash—aka hogwash and poppycock. In fact, some scholars (Martin Luther among them) say that Aesop never existed at all—that one or more people collected popular animal tales under the name of Aesop. Who knows? Maybe Shakespeare wrote Aesop's Fables while Francis Bacon was writing his plays.

The fables are short, cautionary tales--most with animals as characters and the outdoors as a setting. They have morals or messages, such as "Slow and steady wins the race" or "Look before you leap." By their very simplicity and because of the truths they depict, the stories are timeless. Personally, I will be disappointed if Aesop turns out to be a "fable,” but it won’t change the value and importance of the stories one eensy bit. 

The Ant and the Grasshopper

The Crow and the Pitcher
I don’t know if Aesop was a hunchback—as some sculptors have portrayed—or if he was an Ethiopian—as an alternate history recounts. But I do know that these stories delight me as much today as they did when I was a child. They are as valuable for our world as for the ancient Greeks. They still entertain, and they still illustrate good moral values and common sense. 

Thank you, Mr. Aesop, wherever--and whoever--you are.

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