Although his existence remains unclear and no writings by him survive, numerous tales credited to him were gathered across the centuries and in many languages in a storytelling tradition that continues to this day. Many of the tales are characterized by animals and inanimate objects that speak, solve problems, and generally have human characteristics.
Scattered details of Aesop’s life can be found in ancient sources, including Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch. An ancient literary work called The Aesop Romance tells an episodic, probably highly fictional version of his life, including the traditional description of him as an Ethiopian slave, who by his cleverness acquires freedom and becomes an adviser to kings and city-states.
Tradition depicts Aesop as a Nubian folkteller from Ethiopia, (Aesopus being similar to Aethiops).
The idea that Aesop was Ethiopian explains the inclusion of exotic animals such as camels, elephants and apes in the fables. These animals would have been unfamiliar in the Greece of 600BCE.
Popular perception of Aesop as an African was to be encouraged by comparison between his fables and the stories of the trickster Br’er Rabbit told by African-American slaves.
Regardless of Aesop’s real origins (or even existence), the legends surrounding his life are important to keep in mind when reading the fables, so we can see him as a romantic culture hero of the oppressed.
The stories can also be read as a kind of how-to handbook for the successful manipulation of social superiors.
For example, the fable of The Tortoise and the Hare illustrates an underdog taking advantage of an opponent’s over-confidence.
Re-write one of Aesop’s Fables in one of the following styles:
The Hare and the Tortoise:
They’re idiots! All of them! Every man jack of them!
They think that merely crossing the finish line first makes you a winner!
Winning is about talent and training. It’s all about weeks, months and years of dedication.
Now they’re all going, “Oh the tortoise is the fastest land animal in the world.”
Let me tell you, it’s rubbish. The tortoise is not the fastest animal in any world. It’s not even the tenth fastest. If it was a competition to find the slowest animal in the world the tortoise could probably beat a dead sloth!
Quick the hare might be,
But quicker still the tortoise,
Especially on Wednesdays.
So it is written, and thus it shall be. The lion shall lie down with the lamb, the tapir with the okapi, and the gibbon with the hippopotamus.
Yet no-one shall lie down with the poet, except for the tortoise.
Yet is he really lying down? He might be sitting down. Or even standing up. O muse of the seven wonders, give me eyes to see the truth behind this wondrous odyssey. Give me ears that I may listen to the still small voice within my soul, and long arms to reach down into the inner void and pluck the words from that miasma that is only revealed at the point of weariness so deep that slumber cannot steal.