he ever wrote anything down; the legends present him as a teller rather than
a writer. The collections that were in circulation in the fifth century, inso-
far as we know anything about them, seem to have been miscellaneous col-
lections of tales from various sources, some of them demonstrably predating
Aesop. Within a century after he was said to have lived, Aesop had become
“Aesop,” a generalized name that could be cited as the author of a large
body of folk narrative gathered from oral as well as written tradition.
Several collections of Aesop’s fables were apparently made in classical times;
one we know of indirectly was made by someone named Demetrius in about
.But modern versions of Aesop derive mainly from the two earliest
collections to survive: a collection in Latin made by Phaedrus, a freed slave
who lived in Rome during the first century
., and a collection in Greek
verse by Babrius in the second century
.These early versions apparently
lacked the “morals” now generally assumed to be a defining characteristic
of fables; these were tacked onto the fables in medieval versions, probably
less to inculcate morality than to serve as a quick guide for using the fables
to make points in public speaking. The present translators, Olivia and Robert
Temple, comment that the morals are “often silly and inferior in wit and
interest to the fables themselves” and that “some of them are truly
appalling, even idiotic.” At least one modern translator, Lloyd W. Daly, has
refused to print the morals and calls his version Aesop Without Morals. In some
ironic modern versions—those of La Fontaine, for example—the disjunc-
ture between fable and moral becomes significant in itself; a bland, innocu-
ous moral sometimes becoming a device of concealment for the genuinely
subversive content of the fable.
When we strip away the accretions of sentimentality and childishness that
have gathered around Aesop’s Fables, we glimpse a grim world indeed. The
Temples describe it well when they write that “the fables are not the pretty
purveyors of Victorian morals that we have been led to believe. They are
instead savage, coarse, brutal, lacking in all mercy or compassion, and lack-
ing also in any political system other than absolute monarchy. . . . This is
largely a world of brutal, heartless men—and of cunning, of wickedness, of
murder, of treachery and deceit, of laughter at the misfortune of others, of
mockery and contempt. It is also a world of savage humor, of deft wit, of
clever wordplay, of one-upmanship, of ‘I told you so!’”
This bleak assessment of the Aesopian world is accurate, but it perhaps
understates the variety of that world. The Fables are, among other things, a
joke book, and many of them seem intended as harmless entertainment. Many
of them, too, satirize common human foibles: conceit, laziness, drunkenness,
gluttony, and avarice. A number of others, underrepresented here, are bawdy
tales of sexual infidelity, often turning around an unfaithful wife and her gullible
husband. The gallery of animals, too, that inhabit the fables are not undif-
ferentiated predators. The lion and the wolf are always ferocious, but the smaller
animals, the nightingales, lambs, and chickens, are always victims.
The pervasive theme of the Fables—insofar as so heterogeneous a collection
can be said to have a theme—is power, the war of those who have it upon
those who do not, the strategies that the powerful employ to dominate the
powerless, and those that the powerless employ to resist that dominance. This
theme is stated most nakedly in such fables as 12: “The Cat and the Cock,”
and 221: “The Wolf and the Lamb.” In both, a powerful predator proposes
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to eat a powerless victim, and despite rational arguments against such an
action, the predator eats the victim anyway. As the wolf says in “The Wolf
and the Lamb,” “Whatever you say to justify yourself, I will eat you all the
same,” and he does.
Plato, in his dialogue Phaedo, reports that Socrates had Aesop’s fables very
much on his mind during his last days in prison, awaiting execution by poi-
soning for religious heresy and “corrupting the youth.” When Socrates’ fet-
ters were removed on the day of his death, he commented on how closely
pleasure is linked with pain and wondered how Aesop would have composed
a fable on the subject. Then he told his friend that he had spent much of
his time in prison turning Aesop’s fables into verse. A recurring dream had
told him to turn from philosophy to music, and Socrates tells his auditors,
I thought that it would be safer to acquit my conscience by creating
poetry in obedience to the dream before I departed. So . . . I turned
such fables of Aesop as I knew, and had ready to my hand, into verse
.. . for I reflected that a man who means to be a poet has to use fic-
tion and not facts for his poems; and I could not invent fiction myself.
Socrates may have been drawn to Aesop by something more than his abil-
ity to make up stories. A person sentenced by an authoritarian state to die
for having told the truth may well have found a special wisdom and rele-
vance in Aesop’s fierce fables of power.
: There is no such thing as an authoritative complete works of
Aesop. As Olivia and Robert Temple, the present translators, comment, “The ‘com-
plete fables of Aesop’ is whatever the editor of its Greek text chooses to say it is.”
There have three main twentieth-century attempts to establish the most reliable texts,
by Emile Chambry (1925–1926), Ben Edwin Perry (1952), and A. Hausrath
(1956–1959). The Temples’ translation, 1998, of the 358 fables in Chambry’s edition
is the closest thing we have in English to a complete Aesop. Serious analyses of the
fables are scarce. Marcel Gutwirth’s Fable, 1980, is about the form in general, but he
has some useful things to say about Aesop in particular. Perry’s Aesopica, 1952, largely
consists of Greek texts, but the introductory material contains some interesting com-
mentary. Annabel Patterson’s Fables of Power: Aesopian Writing and Political History, 1991,
concentrates on political fables in England between 1575 and 1725, but her analy-
sis of the fable form and its connection with censorship has wide applicability to the
fable tradition in general.
Translated by Olivia and Robert Temple
THE EAGLE AND THE FOX
An eagle and a fox, having become friends, decided to live near one another
and be neighbors. They believed that this proximity would strengthen their
friendship. So the eagle flew up and established herself on a very high branch
05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 597
of a tree, where she made her nest. And the fox, creeping about among the
bushes which were at the foot of the same tree, made her den there, deposit-
ing her babies right beneath the eagle.
But, one day when the fox was out looking for food, the eagle, who was
very short of food too, swooped down to the bushes and took the fox cubs
up to her nest and feasted on them with her own young.
When the fox returned, she was less distressed at the death of her little
ones than she was driven mad by frustration at the impossibility of ever effec-
tively avenging herself. For she, a land animal [chersaia], could never hope
to pursue a winged bird. She had no option but to content herself, in her
powerlessness and feebleness, with cursing her enemy from afar.
Now it was not long afterwards that the eagle did actually receive her
punishment for her crime against her friend.
Some men were sacrificing a goat in the countryside and the eagle swooped
down on the altar, carrying off some burning entrails, which she took up to
her nest. A strong wind arose which blew the fire from the burning entrails
into some old straw that was in the nest. The eaglets were singed and, as they
were not yet able to fly, when they leaped from the nest they fell to the ground.
The fox rushed up and devoured them all in front of the eagle’s eyes.
This story shows that if you betray friendship, you may evade the vengeance of those
whom you wrong if they are weak, but ultimately you cannot escape the vengeance
THE NIGHTINGALE AND THE HAWK
A nightingale, perched on a tall oak, was singing as usual when a hawk saw
her. He was very hungry, so he swooped down upon her and seized her. Seeing
herself about to die, the nightingale pleaded to the hawk to let her go, say-
ing she was not a sizeable enough meal and would never fill the stomach of
a hawk, and that if he were hungry he ought to find some bigger birds. But
the hawk replied:
“I would certainly be foolish if I let a meal go which I already have in my
talons to run after something else which I haven’t yet seen.”
Men are foolish who, in hope of greater things, let those which they have in their
The Ancient World
This fable is told in verse by the poet Archilochus (eighth or seventh century
also referred to by Aristophanes in 414
.in The Birds (651), where it is attributed to Aesop.
(Notes to Aesop are by the translators.)
A different fable of “The Hawk and the Nightingale” is related by the poet Hesiod (circa
.) in his Works and Days (201–210). In that fable the hawk has seized the nightingale,
and, as he carries her high up among the clouds, he tells the nightingale she should not cry
out or resist his superior might, for: “He is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger, for he
does not get the mastery and suffers pain besides his shame.” The old fable clearly antedates
the time of Aesop, and perhaps he or another wrote a fable with the same characters because
they were familiar. Two points particularly noteworthy about the fable recounted by Hesiod
are that it clearly preceded him and that it had a clear moral appended to it, showing that
this practice of appending morals to animal fables was very ancient.
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THE CAT AND THE COCK
A cat who had caught a cock wanted to give a plausible reason for devour-
ing it. So she accused it of annoying people by crowing at night and dis-
turbing their sleep.
The cock defended himself by saying that he did it to be helpful. For, if
he woke people up, it was to summon them to their accustomed work.
Then the cat produced another grievance and accused the cock of insult-
ing Nature by his relationship with his mother and sisters.
The cock replied that in this also he was serving his master’s interests,
since it was thanks to this that the chickens laid lots of eggs.
“Ah well!” cried the cat, “I’m not going to go without food just because
you can produce a lot of justifications!” And she ate the cock.
This fable shows that someone with a wicked nature who is determined to do wrong,
when he cannot do so in the guise of a good man, does his evil deeds openly.
THE TWO COCKS AND THE EAGLE
Two cockerels were fighting over some hens. One triumphed and saw the
other off. The defeated one then withdrew into a thicket where he hid him-
self. The victor fluttered up into the air and sat atop a high wall, where he
began to crow with a loud voice.
Straight away an eagle fell upon him and carried him off. And, from then
on, the cockerel hidden in the shadows possessed all the hens at his leisure.
This fable shows that the Lord resisteth the proud but giveth grace unto the humble.1
THE COCKS AND THE PARTRIDGE
A man who kept some cocks at his house, having found a partridge for sale
privately, bought it and took it back home with him to feed it along with
the cocks. But, as the cocks pecked it and pursued it, the partridge, with
heavy heart, imagined that this rejection was because she was of a foreign
This moral, which calls the fable by the late term mythos, uses the term Kyrios (Lord) which,
though it was used in inscriptions to Zeus and other Greek deities, is used as an epithet for
both God and Jesus in the Christian gospels. S. A. Handford pointed out that the moral was
the same as a passage in the New Testament Epistle to James (iv.6). We have accordingly quoted
the relevant words from the King James Bible. Handford believed that this moral was appended
by a Christian, which is probably more likely than that the Epistle to James was quoting a pop-
ular maxim derived from an edition of Aesop.
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However, a little while later, having seen that the cocks fought among them-
selves as well and never stopped until they drew blood, she said to herself:
“I’m not going to complain at being attacked by these cocks any longer,
because I see that they do not have any mercy on each other either.”
This fable shows that sensible men easily tolerate the outrages of their neighbors when
they see that the latter do not even spare their parents.
THE FOX AND THE BUNCH OF GRAPES
A famished fox, seeing some bunches of grapes hanging [from a vine which
had grown] in a tree, wanted to take some, but could not reach them. So
he went away saying to himself:
“Those are unripe.”
Similarly, certain people, not being able to run their affairs well because of their inef-
ficiency, blame the circumstances.
THE FOX AND THE BILLY-GOAT
A fox, having fallen into a well, was faced with the prospect of being stuck
there. But then a billy-goat came along to that same well because he was
thirsty and saw the fox. He asked him if the water was good.
The fox decided to put a brave face on it and gave a tremendous speech
about how wonderful the water was down there, so very excellent. So the
billy-goat climbed down the well, thinking only of his thirst. When he had
had a good drink, he asked the fox what he thought was the best way to get
back up again.
The fox said:
“Well, I have a very good way to do that. Of course, it will mean our work-
ing together. If you just push your front feet up against the wall and hold
your horns up in the air as high as you can, I will climb up on to them, get
out, and then I can pull you up behind me.”
The billy-goat willingly consented to this idea, and the fox briskly clam-
bered up the legs, the shoulders, and finally the horns of his companion.
He found himself at the mouth of the well, pulled himself out, and imme-
diately scampered off. The billy-goat shouted after him, reproaching him
for breaking their agreement of mutual assistance. The fox came back to
the top of the well and shouted down to the billy-goat:
The Ancient World
This famous fable gave rise to the common English expression “sour grapes.” Omphakes
can mean “sour,” but it is more accurate to translate it as “unripe,” since the sourness was a
result of the unripeness, and when Greeks used the word to describe grapes they were usu-
ally referring to their unripe state rather than to their taste. The same word was used to describe
girls who had not yet reached sexual maturity.
05_273-611_Homer 2/Aesop 7/10/00 1:25 PM Page 600
“Ha! If you had as many brains as you have hairs on your chin, you
wouldn’t have got down there in the first place without thinking of how
you were going to get out again.”
It is thus that sensible men should not undertake any action without having first
examined the end result.
THE MIDDLE-AGED MAN AND HIS MISTRESSES
A middle-aged man who was going gray had two mistresses, one young and
the other old. Now she who was advanced in years had a sense of shame
at having sexual intercourse with a lover younger than herself. And so she
did not fail, each time that he came to her house, to pull out all of his
The young mistress, on her part, recoiled from the idea of having an old
lover, and so she pulled out his white hairs.
Thus it happened that, plucked in turn by the one and then the other,
he became bald.
That which is ill-matched always gets into difficulties.
THE SHIPWRECKED MAN
A rich Athenian was sailing with some other travellers. A violent tempest sud-
denly arose, and the boat capsized. Then, while the other passengers were
trying to save themselves by swimming, the Athenian continually invoked the
aid of the goddess Athena [patroness of his city], and promised offering after
offering if only she would save him.
One of his shipwrecked companions, who swam beside him, said to him:
“Appeal to Athena by all means, but also move your arms!”
We also invoke the gods, but we mustn’t forget to put in our own efforts to save our-
selves. We count ourselves lucky if, in making our own efforts, we obtain the pro-
tection of the gods. But if we abandon ourselves to our fate, the daimons alone can
A hetaira was a “female companion,” a courtesan or concubine, as opposed to a legal wife.
The English word “mistress” does not adequately convey the full social meaning if we wish
to be precise about ancient Greek society. Similarly, the man is described as a mesopolios, a
form of mesaipolios, which means “half-gray” but is also the word used by association to mean
“middle-aged” in Greek.
The daimons were semidivine beings intermediate between men and the gods, who might
come to the aid of men from time to time if whimsy took them, or they might even be per-
suaded by promises of offerings.
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THE MAN AND THE LION TRAVELLING TOGETHER
A man and a lion were travelling along together one day when they began
to argue about which of them was the stronger. Just then they passed a stone
statue representing a man strangling a lion.
“There, you see, we are stronger than you,” said the man, pointing it out
to the lion.
But the lion smiled and replied:
“If lions could make statues, you would see plenty of men under the paws
Many people boast of how brave and fearless they are, but when put to the test are
exposed as frauds.
The astronomer was in the habit of going out every evening to look at the
stars. Then, one night when he was in the suburbs absorbed in contem-
plating the sky, he accidentally fell into a well. A passer-by heard him moan-
ing and calling out. When the man realized what had happened, he called
down to him:
“Hey, you there! You are so keen to see what is up in the sky that you
don’t see what is down here on the ground!”
One could apply this fable to men who boast of doing wonders and who are inca-
pable of carrying out the everyday things of life.
THE NORTH WIND AND THE SUN
The North Wind [Boreas] and the Sun had a contest of strength. They decided
to allot the palm of victory to whichever of them could strip the clothes off
The North Wind tried first. He blew violently. As the man clung on to
his clothes, the North Wind attacked him with greater force. But the man,
uncomfortable from the cold, put on more clothes. So, disheartened, the
North Wind left him to the Sun.
The Sun now shone moderately, and the man removed his extra cloak
[himation]. Then the Sun darted beams which were more scorching until
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