Illustration of the magical jungle where Aesop's Fables take place.

The Myth of Aesop & His Fables

Almost three thousand years ago, in the land of Samos, there lived a respected philosopher named Xanthus. He had a slave, as was common then, but this slave was not a common man. He had a hunched back, a large nose, and an unusual talent for telling stories.

One day, Xanthus was invited to a banquet held by another wealthy man from Samos. Xanthus sought to impress his host, so he asked his clever slave to devise some witty riddles for him to use at the banquet.

His slave, Aesop, gladly provided Xanthus with many riddles. At the banquet, Xanthus posed the riddles to the guests, none of whom could figure out the answers. They started asking Xanthus for help, but Aesop hadn’t given him the answers. Realizing that his master was in trouble, Aesop stepped forward and solved the riddles himself, astonishing the guests with his intelligence.

The wealthy host was so impressed by Aesop’s abilities that he bought and freed him. Aesop then travelled the world, recounting clever fables and advising kings. Then, one day, he recounted such a controversial tale that he was put to death.

Or so the story goes.

Was Aesop A Real Person?

Aesop’s history reads suspiciously like a fable. It may indeed be one. Nobody can say for sure. There are many reasons to suspect he existed, but none are particularly sound.

For instance, the famed Greek historian, Herodotus, spoke of Aesop as if he was a real person. But Herodotus lived hundreds of years after Aesop was said to have passed away. Like us, Herodotus was hearing stories passed down through several generations.

Another popular theory is that Aesop was the fictional narrator used to weave a collection of folktales together, similar to how Scheherazade was the fictional narrator of One Thousand and One Nights.

Portrait of Aesop the Fabulist

When Aesop was described, he was said to have looked unusual, with a large nose, a hunched back, and dark skin. His renown came from his wit, not from his appearance.

Aesop’s Lingering Influence

Whoever Aesop was, if he ever existed at all, his fables have become some of the most influential stories of all time:

  1. The Panchatantra: This is the most influential book of fables from India. Several stories are suspiciously similar to Aesop’s, making it unclear whether they originate in India or Greece. Either way, Aesop was folding pre-existing stories into his own (as most fabulists do).
  2. Phaedrus: A Roman fabulist who lived during the 1st century CE, based many of his fables on Aesop’s stories, weaving his own ideas into the mix.
  3. Jean de La Fontaine: A French poet, La Fontaine wrote a collection of fables in the 17th century inspired by Aesop’s stories. As is the tradition, he also added some of his own.
  4. The Brothers Grimm: The famous German folklorists, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, collected, invented, and published folktales in the 19th century, some of which were influenced by Aesop.
  5. Ivan Krylov: A Russian fabulist and poet, Krylov wrote over 200 fables in the 19th century, many of which were adaptations of Aesop’s stories or inspired by them. And, of course, Krylov added his own stories to the mix.

In the end, most collections of fables have some connection to Aesop. Some predate him. Others have subversions or twists. And yet others merely mimic Aesop’s style. But they are all at least somewhat connected.

Aesop’s Fables

Aesop’s fables have been recounted so many times through the millennia by so many authors that they pervade modern literature and language. Almost all of us are familiar with the boy who cried wolf (“crying wolf”), the fox and the grapes (“sour grapes”), and the tortoise and the hare (“slow and steady wins the race”).

Aesop has lesser-known fables, too. Here are some of my favourites:

  • The Dog and the Shadow: A dog with a bone who spies another dog with another bone staring up at him from just beneath the calm water.
  • The Crow and the Pitcher: A thirsty crow who stumbles upon a pitcher full of water. But his beak is too large to fit inside the pitcher’s narrow neck.
  • The Milkmaid and Her Pail: A milkmaid who gets distracted by her daydreams as she carries her pail of milk through the market.
Juan Artola Miranda

I am Juan Artola Miranda, a fabulist living in the Mexican Caribbean. My friends know me by the name of my father's father, but that name grew into something bigger, my writing reaching tens of millions of readers. It was too strong for me to control. Artola Miranda is the name of my mother's mother. It's a better name for a fabulist.

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