Aesop’s fables are an incredible resource for stimulating young minds and instilling helpful morals. Every one of the tales is accompanied by a lesson that will enable children to watch out for common behavioral issues such as acting selfishly, trusting strangers or being too quick to judge.
Almost as interesting as the stories is the history of how they have weaved their way into popular awareness and literary discussions. Here is a brief history of Aesop’s tales and the way in which they became ingrained into cultures throughout the world.
The Real Aesop
Like many figures with an almost-mythical reputation, there is some debate as to whether Aesop genuinely existed at all. According to historical accounts, Aesop was a slave who lived between 500 and 600 BCE. He would tell his imaginative tales as a way to entertain and also to communicate an important theme or lesson at the end. He was supposedly owned by two masters, the latter of which set him free. Following his freedom, he was offered a job at the court of King Croesus of Lydia.
Debate exists because there are conflicting accounts of Aesop, and most of the official accounts were in an embellished or partially-fictionalized setting. Herodotus described Aesop in his historical writings, Aristophanes referenced Aesop’s works in his comedy The Wasps and Plato mentioned Aesop in his Phaedo as something that Socrates used to occupy his time while imprisoned.
Many stories similar to Aesop’s originals have been attributed to him — even though they came long after him or have contradicting morals. Nevertheless, people often described a fable as belonging to Aesop, in much the same way some people describe every animated movie as a “Disney movie.”
Aesop’s Popularity and Distribution Throughout the World
One of the most appealing elements of Aesop’s tales is that they were short, featured distinctive characters that were often talking animals and that they were spoken in the common language rather than verse. This format captured the consciousness of Greeks, Latin scholars and later cultures throughout the world.
Aesop’s tales have been translated and adapted into Hebrew with a rabbinical slant to their messages, into Sanskrit as a way to impart Buddhist morals and into Japanese where Aesop was morphed into a Japanese folk hero to the point where when Western culture was banned, “Isopu” and his stories remained. The fables were also rapidly adopted into European languages, especially following the spread of print in the late 15th century.
Aesop as Children’s Stories
Philosopher and political theorist John Locke was one of the first to recommend telling Aesop’s fables to children because they were “apt to delight and entertain a child . . . yet afford useful reflection to a grown man.” Locke predicted that the colorful imagery of the tales would stick with a child’s mind while the morals would provide guidance even into their adulthood. By the 19th century, English translations in verse and with illustrations sold extremely well as gifts for children and adults alike.
One huge proponent of Aesop was King Louis XIV, who built a labyrinth in his Gardens of Versailles for his six year old son, complete with water fountains that depicted scenes from the fables.
Today, Aesop continues to be a model of storytelling and moral instruction for children. The stories stoke the flames of their imagination and give them both models of behavior and models of simple stories to invent of their own. Aesop’s popularity and widespread reputation make coming up with parodies or extensions of the stories a fun activity for adults and children to participate in together. Continue this tradition with your own children or students to open new worlds of creativity while imparting valuable life lessons that will travel with them as they grow and mature.