is the name given to a collection of short, moralistic stories attributed to Aesop, a Thracian wise man who spent most of his life in slavery on the island Samos. The stories each contain hybrids of myth, legend, and social parable, reframing many elements from the oral tradition within Aesop’s didactic
moral universe. There are 725 known parables in all, which were told roughly between 620 and 564 BC, but not published at their onset due to their verbal nature.
Most of Aesop’s fables feature personified animals, which generally have a one-to-one symbolic relationship with a vice or virtue. For example, the fox frequently symbolizes cleverness; the hare, agility; the bull, recklessness; the donkey, fatuousness; and the ant, industriousness. Aesop throws these animals together in different social environments and in different combinations, postulating allegorically about what his formulations produce.
In one of his most famous parables, “The Ass, the Fox, and the Lion,” a fox agrees to trick his donkey friend to his doom at the hands of the lion in exchange for eternal protection. The cunning lion pretends to agree and traps and eats the donkey, then eats the fox anyway. The moral of this parable is that treachery begets more treachery, hurting one’s karma by destabilizing a culture of trust.
In another story, “The Fox and the Grapes,” a fox tries to obtain a bunch of grapes that is too high up on a vine. After trying to ascend multiple times, he gives up and leaves, bitterly stating that the grapes must be sour anyways. This parable led to the expression “sour grapes,” which is used in the modern day to describe when an individual dismisses or insults an unattainable object of desire.
In “The Fox and the Bramble,” a fox is teetering atop a hedge and grabs hold of a thorny vine to stay upright. The thorns gouge him, and he personifies the bramble and lambasts it for being resistant to helping others. The bramble replies that it is foolish of the fox to trust an organism whose primary function is to hold onto others. The conclusion is that it is unwise to ask for help from those who are constantly in need of it.
Some of Aesop’s fables depart from his tradition of personifying animals. In “Zeus, Poseidon, Athena, and Momus,” he recapitulates a popular Greek myth about the interactions between the gods. In this story, Poseidon, Zeus, and Athena agree to stage a competition to determine who can make the most perfect divine creation. Zeus molds a man out of the earth; Athena builds a house; and Poseidon invents the bull. The gods elect Momus, the god of seeing inadequacy and fault, as judge in the contest, since he is highly critical and never content with anything. Momus rewards the prize to no one. Instead, he states that the man is shoddily made and should have a window over his heart to make his inner life transparent; the house lacks wheels with which to move it away from bad neighbors; and the bull foils his own strength by needing to avert his eyes from his target when he charges with his horns. Enraged, Zeus banishes Momus from Olympus, complaining that critics are unable to create anything good.
In some of Aesop’s other fables, such as “The Two Pots,” personified inanimate objects take the stage and deliberate on moral issues. In this story, a pot made of metal and a pot made of clay tumble together into a stream. The metal pot tells the clay pot to stay near him so that he can protect the clay pot from breaking on the rocks. The clay pot declines, arguing that he is better off away from the bronze pot, whose hardness might destroy him just as easily as the rocks. This fable suggests that the weak should not try to ally with the strong, since their constitutions will ultimately suffer damage. Rather, individuals in a given hierarchy should remain in their preordained position.
Aesop was a prolific oral literary figure, and even stories that he did not create became attributed to him simply due to his skill and reputation. Most fables are only a handful of sentences long, efficiently packaged and delivered to leave a maximum impact on their Greek audiences, who listened to them mostly for entertainment. They also carry a political weight and are theorized to have been used by Aesop to indirectly comment on, and change, the political attitudes and policies of his society. Most of the fables are still famous today, owing to their highly generalizable messages and their focus on enduring vices and virtues.