The Storyteller from Samos

By Donna L. Preble

I found the little book of the famous storyteller in the Children's Room of the Public Library. It was very worn and some of the pages had been carefully mended, for the children had read it threadbare. It was Aesop's Fables. Aesop had not told his fables originally to children but had used them as political arguments with the citizens of Greece. However, it seems to be the children these days who love and appreciate the little stories of animals that talk and leave us with a feeling of having learned a useful moral lesson.

Aesop is said to have been born about 2600 years ago and, though many cities claim him, it appears that he lived on the beautiful Greek island of Samos -- the same island on which Pythagoras, the most famous of early Greek philosophers, was to be born two generations later. It is told of Aesop that he was a slave belonging to Iadmon, a Greek resident of Samos. History does not say why or how Aesop became a slave, but we do know that in that period in Greece many became slaves because of debts incurred. It is probable that Aesop's father gave the lad to Iadmon in order to pay a debt. Iadmon was good to Aesop. He must have recognized that the lad was unusually bright, responsible, and ambitious to learn, with the ability to reason philosophically. Even in the early days of his servitude, Aesop seems to have endeared himself to his master and the latter's family by his wit and storytelling. "Listen to the animals," he would tell his hearers, "for you can learn of many things from them. Listen to the pig and to the cow, for they are wise in their own way. "

We are told that after Aesop became a freedman, he was active in public affairs. It has been said, for example, that he went to Athens in the time of Pisistratus when the people were rebelling against that worthy if usurping tyrant. The latter had seized power in the wake of sweeping constitutional reforms carried out by his kinsman and predecessor Solon, the great Athenian sage and lawgiver. Tradition has it that Aesop effectively discouraged the citizens of Athens from overthrowing Pisistratus by telling them the following fable:

The frogs had petitioned Zeus to send them down a king. Zeus tossed a log into their pond to serve them as their ruler. At first the frogs feared the log -- it looked so big and rolled about. Then they began despising it because it lay so still. Indeed, they grew irreverent and squatted down on it. So they decided to ask Zeus for an active king. This time Zeus threw them an eel. The frogs found the eel active enough -- and also a goodnatured, easygoing fellow -- but of no use as a ruler. So a third time they petitioned Zeus: "We want a real king, a king who will really rule us." Zeus had become impatient with their croaking and complaints. So he dispatched a stork. The stork was neither inactive nor good-natured. Every day he swallowed up another frog or two. Before long no frogs remained to croak.

Only the most stupid citizen could fail to see the point.

Aesop did not put his fables into writing. Neither did the tales he told all originate with him. He often took them from existing folk traditions. The fable holds a special kind of wisdom, the wisdom of collective folk experience, but usually expressed in the words and deeds of animals. Although possibly deriving from a common Indo-European source and carried by migrating peoples East and West, the beast fable emerged in literary form independently in India and Greece. As Joseph Campbell tells us, the Buddhist and Jain fables teach religious lore, while Aesop and the Brahmanical Panchatantra teach the wisdom of life. (The Flight of the Wild Gander, Viking Press, New York, 1969, p.19)The fable is not, like myth, a revelation of transcendental mysteries, but a clever illustration of a political or ethical point. Fables are not to be believed but understood.

Some modem scholars claim that Aesop never lived at all, that the Greeks invented him. It is true that what we "know" of him is fragmentary. No doubt there is much legend in it. But even if Aesop never lived, the fact remains that the ancient Greeks believed he did. Thus the events and circumstances alleged about his life, whether real or fictional, hold symbolical significance -- as with the life of any man enhanced by myth.

Tradition associates him with a very learned group, the Seven Sages, the wisest men of Greece in Aesop's time. Although their names add up to more than seven, they would certainly include as the most illustrious, Solon the Athenian and Thales of Miletus. It would be hard to judge which of these two men made the greater contribution to humanity in the quest for truth. Thales was philosopher and physicist, mathematician and engineer -- and, like the other Sages, a man of practical achievements as well as learning. Above all, he was the first great thinker known to history to have studied man and nature as they are, free from dogma and religious preconceptions.

Solon, on the other hand, was primarily a statesman, whose transforming concepts of democracy he introduced to Athens as its archon. His system of equal freedom under law would point the way for democracies to come, including ours today. It was Solon, too, who in his constant search for knowledge, heard from a priest of Sais while he was journeying in Egypt the story of the sunken continent of Atlantis. This story would be handed down to his descendants, one of whom was Plato, through whose writings we have come to know of it.

Toward the end of his life, Aesop joined the court of Croesus, the fabulously wealthy king of Lydia, whose capital was Sardis, inland from Ionia. Legend tells of Croesus' playing host to Solon and others of the Seven Sages at a banquet with Aesop present. While Cleobulus of Rhodes posed his favorite riddles and Bias of Priene recited his newest maxims, Chilon of Sparta interjected pithy sayings, such as "Know thyself" and "Nothing to excess," both attributed to him. What fables, then, did Aesop tell?

Though legendary, this scene is not without significance. It shows that wise men sit with kings, that wisdom is as power and wealth. It shows us, too, that Aesop was one of that same brotherhood uniting all true philosophers and sages down the centuries. Thus could the wisest jest with him about his having been a slave, for he was now their equal in intellectual attainments. Indeed, when the sculptor Lysippus was commissioned some two centuries later to produce for Athens statues of all the greatest men of Greece, the statue that he made of Aesop was placed together with those of the Seven Sages.

The question may be asked why the Greeks named Aesop as author of the fables, if all he did in fact was to collect them from mankind The answer is, of course, that he did much more than that. His excellence of wit, his rhetoric, his choice of tales to tell, and his innovative skill in telling them, must have distinguished him from other story tellers of his day. And the time was ripe. Greece was becoming urbanized. In an age of tyrants, when free speech was dangerous, Aesop used the fable to promote political ideas, and also to illustrate his own philosophic view of life. What he dared not say outright, he could put into the mouths of animals, whose personalities acquired specific human traits, and whose deeds expressed basic moral truths. So effective was the fable in political debate that afterwards in Greece (and also in Rome) it was cultivated by orators, much as a fitting joke is picked out in our own time to start off an after-dinner speech. Even today, many truths are still the most effectively expressed by recalling one of Aesop's vivid images: the goose that laid the golden eggs; the tortoise and the hare; the boy who cried wolf too many times; the wolf in sheep's clothing; the fox and the "sour" grapes; the grasshopper and the ant; the belling of the cat; the city mouse and the country mouse.

Aesop's fables have come down to us by many roads, and in as many versions. The first collector known to have put them into written prose appears to have been Demetrius of Phaleron, onetime ruler of Athens and founder of the library at Alexandria, about 300 B.C. His collection of perhaps two hundred fables was turned into Latin verse by Phaedrus, a Greek freedman of the emperor Augustus. It is this version from which the modern Aesop is in the main derived.

Meanwhile beast tales from India were entering the Roman world via Alexandria, where a collection was compiled very early in the Christian era. Known as the "Libyan fables," it introduced the practice of summing up the fable's teaching in a "moral." Around 230 A.D. these ancient fables, from both Aesopic and Indian sources, were turned into Greek verse with Latin accentuation by Valerius Babrius, and dedicated to the young son of Alexander Severus.

During the Middle Ages, the web of transmission from Greek and Latin into European languages grew too tangled for more than a cursory description in these pages. There were even Hebrew-Aramaic strands and also Arabic, the latter mostly Indian in origin, but passing under Aesop's name. And though the Latin Phaedrus was the basic source for learned men, the crusaders -- Norman, French, and English -- brought the fables back with them to be turned into the vernacular of their respective lands. With the invention of printing, a German version of the book of Aesop was compiled about 1480 and was soon translated into all the other major European languages, including an English edition published by Caxton in 1484. This contained a 'life" of Aesop crudely illustrated.

To medieval Europe, steeped in dogmatic Christianity, Aesop was a pagan. He also bore the stigma of having been a slave. These prejudices perhaps account for the persistence of the myth that he was ugly and deformed. There is no evidence at all for this from ancient times. Indeed, the opposite is true. Although the statue wrought by Lysippus has not survived, we know that it portrayed a noble figure, not the hunchback an Italian sculptor fashioned in marble and which was placed in the Villa Albani at Rome. The myth in any case is contradicted by a Greek ceramic piece on view at the Vatican Museum. It shows a dark-bearded, keen-eyed Aesop observing a fox, and both are normal of physique.

The best of fables have a certain pungency about them. Yet their irony is inoffensive. All the great teachers of mankind have used allegory, myth, or fable in their teaching. And it was the beloved Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana who in the first century A.D. best defined the fable's value. The occasion was one of those many times when his disciples had gathered to await his words of wisdom. Which, asked Apollonius, did they consider the more worthy -- the Greek myths as recounted in Homeric poetry, or one of Aesop's fables?

Menippus, a disciple, answered scornfully, 'The myths."

"And what do you think of the stories of Aesop?" asked Apollonius.
"Frogs," said Menippus, "and donkeys and nonsense only fit to be swallowed by old women and children."
"And yet, for my part," responded Apollonius, "I find them more conducive to wisdom than the poet's myths, which deal with heroes in such a way that they positively destroy the souls of their hearers, for the poet relates stories of outlandish passion and of incestuous marriages, and repeats calumnies against the gods, of how they ate their children, and committed crimes of meanness, and quarrelled with one another; and the affectation and pretense of reality leads the weaker sort of person to imitate the stories. Aesop, on the other hand, had in the first place never to identify himself with those who put such stories into verse, but took a line of his own. In the second place, like those who can dine well on the plainest dishes, he made use of humble incidents to teach great truths and after telling the story he adds good advice. He was more attached to truth than the poets."

Perhaps that is why fables have lived so long -- over 2500 years! And why the little book in the Children's Library is so well worn.

(From Sunrise magazine, March 1975; copyright © 1975 Theosophical University Press)

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