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THE TALE, the Parable, and the Fable are all common and popular
modes of conveying instruction. Each is distinguished by its own
special characteristics. The Tale consists simply in the
narration of a story either founded on facts, or created solely
by the imagination, and not necessarily associated with the
teaching of any moral lesson. The Parable is the designed use of
language purposely intended to convey a hidden and secret
meaning other than that contained in the words themselves; and
which may or may not bear a special reference to the hearer, or
reader. The Fable partly agrees with, and partly differs from
both of these. It will contain, like the Tale, a short but real
narrative; it will seek, like the Parable, to convey a hidden
meaning, and that not so much by the use of language, as by the
skilful introduction of fictitious characters; and yet unlike to
either Tale or Parable, it will ever keep in view, as its high
prerogative, and inseparable attribute, the great purpose of
instruction, and will necessarily seek to inculcate some moral
maxim, social duty, or political truth. The true Fable, if it
rise to its high requirements, ever aims at one great end and
purpose representation of human motive, and the improvement of
human conduct, and yet it so conceals its design under the
disguise of fictitious characters, by clothing with speech the
animals of the field, the birds of the air, the trees of the
wood, or the beasts of the forest, that the reader shall receive
advice without perceiving the presence of the adviser. Thus the
superiority of the counsellor, which often renders counsel
unpalatable, is kept out of view, and the lesson comes with the
greater acceptance when the reader is led, unconsciously to
himself, to have his sympathies enlisted in behalf of what is
pure, honorable, and praiseworthy, and to have his indignation
excited against what is low, ignoble, and unworthy. The true
fabulist, therefore, discharges a most important function. He is
neither a narrator, nor an allegorist. He is a great teacher, a
corrector of morals, a censor of vice, and a commender of virtue.
In this consists the superiority of the Fable over the Tale or
the Parable. The fabulist is to create a laugh, but yet, under a
merry guise, to convey instruction. Phaedrus, the great imitator
of Aesop, plainly indicates this double purpose to be the true
office of the writer of fables.

Duplex libelli dos est: quod risum movet,

Et quod prudenti vitam consilio monet.

The continual observance of this twofold aim creates the charm,
and accounts for the universal favor, of the fables of Aesop.
“The fable,” says Professor K. O. Mueller, “originated in Greece
in an intentional travestie of human affairs. The ‘ainos,’ as
its name denotes, is an admonition, or rather a reproof veiled,
either from fear of an excess of frankness, or from a love of fun
and jest, beneath the fiction of an occurrence happening among
beasts; and wherever we have any ancient and authentic account of
the Aesopian fables, we find it to be the same.” l

The construction of a fable involves a minute attention to (1)
the narration itself; (2) the deduction of the moral; and (3) a
careful maintenance of the individual characteristics of the
fictitious personages introduced into it. The narration should
relate to one simple action, consistent with itself, and neither
be overladen with a multiplicity of details, nor distracted by a
variety of circumstances. The moral or lesson should be so
plain, and so intimately interwoven with, and so necessarily
dependent on, the narration, that every reader should be
compelled to give to it the same undeniable interpretation. The
introduction of the animals or fictitious characters should be
marked with an unexceptionable care and attention to their
natural attributes, and to the qualities attributed to them by
universal popular consent. The Fox should be always cunning, the
Hare timid, the Lion bold, the Wolf cruel, the Bull strong, the
Horse proud, and the Ass patient. Many of these fables are
characterized by the strictest observance of these rules. They
are occupied with one short narrative, from which the moral
naturally flows, and with which it is intimately associated.
“‘Tis the simple manner,” says Dodsley, 2 “in which the morals of
Aesop are interwoven with his fables that distinguishes him, and
gives him the preference over all other mythologists. His
‘Mountain delivered of a Mouse,’ produces the moral of his fable
in ridicule of pompous pretenders; and his Crow, when she drops
her cheese, lets fall, as it were by accident, the strongest
admonition against the power of flattery. There is no need of a
separate sentence to explain it; no possibility of impressing it
deeper, by that load we too often see of accumulated
reflections.” 3 An equal amount of praise is due for the
consistency with which the characters of the animals,
fictitiously introduced, are marked. While they are made to
depict the motives and passions of men, they retain, in an
eminent degree, their own special features of craft or counsel,
of cowardice or courage, of generosity or rapacity.

These terms of praise, it must be confessed, cannot be bestowed
on all the fables in this collection. Many of them lack that
unity of design, that close connection of the moral with the
narrative, that wise choice in the introduction of the animals,
which constitute the charm and excellency of true Aesopian fable.
This inferiority of some to others is sufficiently accounted for
in the history of the origin and descent of these fables. The
great bulk of them are not the immediate work of Aesop. Many are
obtained from ancient authors prior to the time in which he
lived. Thus, the fable of the “Hawk and the Nightingale” is
related by Hesiod; 4 the “Eagle wounded by an Arrow, winged with
its own Feathers,” by Aeschylus; 5 the “Fox avenging his wrongs
on the Eagle,” by Archilochus. 6 Many of them again are of later
origin, and are to be traced to the monks of the middle ages: and
yet this collection, though thus made up of fables both earlier
and later than the era of Aesop, rightfully bears his name,
because he composed so large a number (all framed in the same
mould, and conformed to the same fashion, and stamped with the
same lineaments, image, and superscription) as to secure to
himself the right to be considered the father of Greek fables,
and the founder of this class of writing, which has ever since
borne his name, and has secured for him, through all succeeding
ages, the position of the first of moralists.7

The fables were in the first instance only narrated by Aesop, and
for a long time were handed down by the uncertain channel of oral
tradition. Socrates is mentioned by Plato 8 as having employed
his time while in prison, awaiting the return of the sacred ship
from Delphos which was to be the signal of his death, in turning
some of these fables into verse, but he thus versified only such
as he remembered. Demetrius Phalereus, a philosopher at Athens
about 300 B.C., is said to have made the first collection of
these fables. Phaedrus, a slave by birth or by subsequent
misfortunes, and admitted by Augustus to the honors of a
freedman, imitated many of these fables in Latin iambics about
the commencement of the Christian era. Aphthonius, a rhetorician
of Antioch, A.D. 315, wrote a treatise on, and converted into
Latin prose, some of these fables. This translation is the more
worthy of notice, as it illustrates a custom of common use, both
in these and in later times. The rhetoricians and philosophers
were accustomed to give the Fables of Aesop as an exercise to
their scholars, not only inviting them to discuss the moral of
the tale, but also to practice and to perfect themselves thereby
in style and rules of grammar, by making for themselves new and
various versions of the fables. Ausonius, 9 the friend of the
Emperor Valentinian, and the latest poet of eminence in the
Western Empire, has handed down some of these fables in verse,
which Julianus Titianus, a contemporary writer of no great name,
translated into prose. Avienus, also a contemporary of Ausonius,
put some of these fables into Latin elegiacs, which are given by
Nevelet (in a book we shall refer to hereafter), and are
occasionally incorporated with the editions of Phaedrus.

Seven centuries elapsed before the next notice is found of the
Fables of Aesop. During this long period these fables seem to
have suffered an eclipse, to have disappeared and to have been
forgotten; and it is at the commencement of the fourteenth
century, when the Byzantine emperors were the great patrons of
learning, and amidst the splendors of an Asiatic court, that we
next find honors paid to the name and memory of Aesop. Maximus
Planudes, a learned monk of Constantinople, made a collection of
about a hundred and fifty of these fables. Little is known of
his history. Planudes, however, was no mere recluse, shut up in
his monastery. He took an active part in public affairs. In
1327 A.D. he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Venice by the
Emperor Andronicus the Elder. This brought him into immediate
contact with the Western Patriarch, whose interests he henceforth
advocated with so much zeal as to bring on him suspicion and
persecution from the rulers of the Eastern Church. Planudes has
been exposed to a two-fold accusation. He is charged on the one
hand with having had before him a copy of Babrias (to whom we
shall have occasion to refer at greater length in the end of this
Preface), and to have had the bad taste “to transpose,” or to
turn his poetical version into prose: and he is asserted, on the
other hand, never to have seen the Fables of Aesop at all, but to
have himself invented and made the fables which he palmed off
under the name of the famous Greek fabulist. The truth lies
between these two extremes. Planudes may have invented some few
fables, or have inserted some that were current in his day; but
there is an abundance of unanswerable internal evidence to prove
that he had an acquaintance with the veritable fables of Aesop,
although the versions he had access to were probably corrupt, as
contained in the various translations and disquisitional
exercises of the rhetoricians and philosophers. His collection
is interesting and important, not only as the parent source or
foundation of the earlier printed versions of Aesop, but as the
direct channel of attracting to these fables the attention of the

The eventual re-introduction, however, of these Fables of Aesop
to their high place in the general literature of Christendom, is
to be looked for in the West rather than in the East. The
calamities gradually thickening round the Eastern Empire, and the
fall of Constantinople, 1453 A.D. combined with other events to
promote the rapid restoration of learning in Italy; and with that
recovery of learning the revival of an interest in the Fables of
Aesop is closely identified. These fables, indeed, were among
the first writings of an earlier antiquity that attracted
attention. They took their place beside the Holy Scriptures and
the ancient classic authors, in the minds of the great students
of that day. Lorenzo Valla, one of the most famous promoters of
Italian learning, not only translated into Latin the Iliad of
Homer and the Histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, but also the
Fables of Aesop.

These fables, again, were among the books brought into an
extended circulation by the agency of the printing press. Bonus
Accursius, as early as 1475-1480, printed the collection of these
fables, made by Planudes, which, within five years afterwards,
Caxton translated into English, and printed at his press in West-
minster Abbey, 1485. 10 It must be mentioned also that the
learning of this age has left permanent traces of its influence
on these fables, ll by causing the interpolation with them of
some of those amusing stories which were so frequently introduced
into the public discourses of the great preachers of those days,
and of which specimens are yet to be found in the extant sermons
of Jean Raulin, Meffreth, and Gabriel Barlette. 12 The
publication of this era which most probably has influenced these
fables, is the “Liber Facetiarum,” l3 a book consisting of a
hundred jests and stories, by the celebrated Poggio Bracciolini,
published A.D. 1471, from which the two fables of the “Miller,
his Son, and the Ass,” and the “Fox and the Woodcutter,” are
undoubtedly selected.

The knowledge of these fables rapidly spread from Italy into
Germany, and their popularity was increased by the favor and
sanction given to them by the great fathers of the Reformation,
who frequently used them as vehicles for satire and protest
against the tricks and abuses of the Romish ecclesiastics. The
zealous and renowned Camerarius, who took an active part in the
preparation of the Confession of Augsburgh, found time, amidst
his numerous avocations, to prepare a version for the students in
the university of Tubingen, in which he was a professor. Martin
Luther translated twenty of these fables, and was urged by
Melancthon to complete the whole; while Gottfried Arnold, the
celebrated Lutheran theologian, and librarian to Frederick I,
king of Prussia, mentions that the great Reformer valued the
Fables of Aesop next after the Holy Scriptures. In 1546 A.D.
the second printed edition of the collection of the Fables made
by Planudes, was issued from the printing-press of Robert
Stephens, in which were inserted some additional fables from a
MS. in the Bibliotheque du Roy at Paris.

The greatest advance, however, towards a re-introduction of the
Fables of Aesop to a place in the literature of the world, was
made in the early part of the seventeenth century. In the year
1610, a learned Swiss, Isaac Nicholas Nevelet, sent forth the
third printed edition of these fables, in a work entitled
“Mythologia Aesopica.” This was a noble effort to do honor to
the great fabulist, and was the most perfect collection of
Aesopian fables ever yet published. It consisted, in addition to
the collection of fables given by Planudes and reprinted in the
various earlier editions, of one hundred and thirty-six new
fables (never before published) from MSS. in the Library of the
Vatican, of forty fables attributed to Aphthonius, and of
forty-three from Babrias. It also contained the Latin versions
of the same fables by Phaedrus, Avienus, and other authors. This
volume of Nevelet forms a complete “Corpus Fabularum
Aesopicarum;” and to his labors Aesop owes his restoration to
universal favor as one of the wise moralists and great teachers
of mankind. During the interval of three centuries which has
elapsed since the publication of this volume of Nevelet’s, no
book, with the exception of the Holy Scriptures, has had a wider
circulation than Aesop’s Fables. They have been translated into
the greater number of the languages both of Europe and of the
East, and have been read, and will be read, for generations,
alike by Jew, Heathen, Mohammedan, and Christian. They are, at
the present time, not only engrafted into the literature of the
civilized world, but are familiar as household words in the
common intercourse and daily conversation of the inhabitants of
all countries.

This collection of Nevelet’s is the great culminating point in
the history of the revival of the fame and reputation of Aesopian
Fables. It is remarkable, also, as containing in its preface the
germ of an idea, which has been since proved to have been correct
by a strange chain of circumstances. Nevelet intimates an
opinion, that a writer named Babrias would be found to be the
veritable author of the existing form of Aesopian Fables. This
intimation has since given rise to a series of inquiries, the
knowledge of which is necessary, in the present day, to a full
understanding of the true position of Aesop in connection with
the writings that bear his name.

The history of Babrias is so strange and interesting, that it
might not unfitly be enumerated among the curiosities of
literature. He is generally supposed to have been a Greek of
Asia Minor, of one of the Ionic Colonies, but the exact period in
which he lived and wrote is yet unsettled. He is placed, by one
critic, l4 as far back as the institution of the Achaian League,
B.C. 250; by another as late as the Emperor Severus, who died
A.D. 235; while others make him a contemporary with Phaedrus in
the time of Augustus. At whatever time he wrote his version of
Aesop, by some strange accident it seems to have entirely
disappeared, and to have been lost sight of. His name is
mentioned by Avienus; by Suidas, a celebrated critic, at the
close of the eleventh century, who gives in his lexicon several
isolated verses of his version of the fables; and by John
Tzetzes, a grammarian and poet of Constantinople, who lived
during the latter half of the twelfth century. Nevelet, in the
preface to the volume which we have described, points out that
the Fables of Planudes could not be the work of Aesop, as they
contain a reference in two places to “Holy monks,” and give a
verse from the Epistle of St. James as an “Epimith” to one of
the fables, and suggests Babrias as their author. Francis
Vavassor, 15 a learned French jesuit, entered at greater length
on this subject, and produced further proofs from internal
evidence, from the use of the word Piraeus in describing the
harbour of Athens, a name which was not given till two hundred
years after Aesop, and from the introduction of other modern
words, that many of these fables must have been at least
committed to writing posterior to the time of Aesop, and more
boldly suggests Babrias as their author or collector. 16 These
various references to Babrias induced Dr. Plichard Bentley, at
the close of the seventeenth century, to examine more minutely
the existing versions of Aesop’s Fables, and he maintained that
many of them could, with a slight change of words, be resolved
into the Scazonic l7 iambics, in which Babrias is known to have
written: and, with a greater freedom than the evidence then
justified, he put forth, in behalf of Babrias, a claim to the
exclusive authorship of these fables. Such a seemingly
extravagant theory, thus roundly asserted, excited much
opposition. Dr. Bentley l8 met with an able antagonist in a
member of the University of Oxford, the Hon. Mr. Charles Boyle,
19 afterwards Earl of Orrery. Their letters and disputations on
this subject, enlivened on both sides with much wit and learning,
will ever bear a conspicuous place in the literary history of the
seventeenth century. The arguments of Dr. Bentley were yet
further defended a few years later by Mr. Thomas Tyrwhitt, a
well-read scholar, who gave up high civil distinctions that he
might devote himself the more unreservedly to literary pursuits.
Mr. Tyrwhitt published, A.D. 1776, a Dissertation on Babrias,
and a collection of his fables in choliambic meter found in a MS.
in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Francesco de Furia, a learned
Italian, contributed further testimony to the correctness of the
supposition that Babrias had made a veritable collection of
fables by printing from a MS. contained in the Vatican library
several fables never before published. In the year 1844,
however, new and unexpected light was thrown upon this subject.
A veritable copy of Babrias was found in a manner as singular as
were the MSS. of Quinctilian’s Institutes, and of Cicero’s
Orations by Poggio in the monastery of St. Gall A.D. 1416. M.
Menoides, at the suggestion of M. Villemain, Minister of Public
Instruction to King Louis Philippe, had been entrusted with a
commission to search for ancient MSS., and in carrying out his
instructions he found a MS. at the convent of St. Laura, on
Mount Athos, which proved to be a copy of the long suspected and
wished-for choliambic version of Babrias. This MS. was found to
be divided into two books, the one containing a hundred and
twenty-five, and the other ninety-five fables. This discovery
attracted very general attention, not only as confirming, in a
singular manner, the conjectures so boldly made by a long chain
of critics, but as bringing to light valuable literary treasures
tending to establish the reputation, and to confirm the antiquity
and authenticity of the great mass of Aesopian Fable. The Fables
thus recovered were soon published. They found a most worthy
editor in the late distinguished Sir George Cornewall Lewis, and
a translator equally qualified for his task, in the Reverend
James Davies, M.A., sometime a scholar of Lincoln College,
Oxford, and himself a relation of their English editor. Thus,
after an eclipse of many centuries, Babrias shines out as the
earliest, and most reliable collector of veritable Aesopian

The following are the sources from which the present translation
has been prepared:

  • Babrii Fabulae Aesopeae. George Cornewall Lewis. Oxford, 1846.
  • Babrii Fabulae Aesopeae. E codice manuscripto partem secundamedidit. George Cornewall Lewis. London: Parker, 1857.
  • Mythologica Aesopica. Opera et studia Isaaci Nicholai Neveleti. Frankfort, 1610.
  • Fabulae Aesopiacae, quales ante Planudem ferebantur cura et studio Francisci de Furia. Lipsiae, 1810.
  • Ex recognitione Caroli Halmii. Lipsiae, Phaedri Fabulae Esopiae. Delphin Classics. 1822.


  1. A History of the Literature of Ancient Greece, by K. O.
    Mueller. Vol. i, p. l9l. London, Parker, 1858.
  2. Select Fables of Aesop, and other Fabulists. In three books,
    translated by Robert Dodsley, accompanied with a selection of
    notes, and an Essay on Fable. Birmingham, 1864. P. 60.
  3. Some of these fables had, no doubt, in the first instance, a
    primary and private interpretation. On the first occasion of
    their being composed they were intended to refer to some passing
    event, or to some individual acts of wrong-doing. Thus, the
    fables of the “Eagle and the Fox” and of the “Fox and Monkey’ are
    supposed to have been written by Archilochus, to avenge the
    injuries done him by Lycambes. So also the fables of the
    “Swollen Fox” and of the “Frogs asking a King” were spoken by
    Aesop for the immediate purpose of reconciling the inhabitants of
    Samos and Athens to their respective rulers, Periander and
    Pisistratus; while the fable of the “Horse and Stag” was composed
    to caution the inhabitants of Himera against granting a bodyguard
    to Phalaris. In a similar manner, the fable from Phaedrus, the
    “Marriage of the Sun,” is supposed to have reference to the
    contemplated union of Livia, the daughter of Drusus, with Sejanus
    the favourite, and minister of Trajan. These fables, however,
    though thus originating in special events, and designed at first
    to meet special circumstances, are so admirably constructed as to
    be fraught with lessons of general utility, and of universal
  4. Hesiod. Opera et Dies, verse 202.
  5. Aeschylus. Fragment of the Myrmidons. Aeschylus speaks of
    this fable as existing before his day. See Scholiast on the Aves
    of Aristophanes, line 808.
  6. Fragment. 38, ed. Gaisford. See also Mueller’s History of
    the Literature of Ancient Greece, vol. i. pp. 190-193.
  7. M. Bayle has well put this in his account of Aesop. “Il n’y a
    point d’apparence que les fables qui portent aujourd’hui son nom
    soient les memes qu’il avait faites; elles viennent bien de lui
    pour la plupart, quant a la matiere et la pensee; mais les
    paroles sont d’un autre.” And again, “C’est donc a Hesiode, que
    j’aimerais mieux attribuer la gloire de l’invention; mais sans
    doute il laissa la chose tres imparfaite. Esope la perfectionne
    si heureusement, qu’on l’a regarde comme le vrai pere de cette
    sorte de production.” M. Bayle. Dictionnaire Historique.
  8. Plato in Ph2done.
  9. Apologos en! misit tibiAb usque Rheni limite

    Ausonius nomen Italum

    Praeceptor Augusti tui

    Aesopiam trimetriam;

    Quam vertit exili stylo

    Pedestre concinnans opus

    Fandi Titianus artifex.

    Ausonii Epistola, xvi. 75-80.

  10. Both these publications are in the British Museum, and are
    placed in the library in cases under glass, for the inspection of
    the curious.
  11. Fables may possibly have been not entirely unknown to the
    mediaeval scholars. There are two celebrated works which might
    by some be classed amongst works of this description. The one is
    the “Speculum Sapientiae,” attributed to St. Cyril, Archbishop
    of Jerusalem, but of a considerably later origin, and existing
    only in Latin. It is divided into four books, and consists of
    long conversations conducted by fictitious characters under the
    figures the beasts of the field and forest, and aimed at the
    rebuke of particular classes of men, the boastful, the proud, the
    luxurious, the wrathful, &c. None of the stories are precisely
    those of Aesop, and none have the concinnity, terseness, and
    unmistakable deduction of the lesson intended to be taught by
    the fable, so conspicuous in the great Greek fabulist. The exact
    title of the book is this: “Speculum Sapientiae, B. Cyrilli
    Episcopi: alias quadripartitus apologeticus vocatus, in cujus
    quidem proverbiis omnis et totius sapientiae speculum claret et
    feliciter incipit.” The other is a larger work in two volumes,
    published in the fourteenth century by Caesar Heisterbach, a
    Cistercian monk, under the title of “Dialogus Miraculorum,”
    reprinted in 1851. This work consists of conversations in which
    many stories are interwoven on all kinds of subjects. It has no
    correspondence with the pure Aesopian fable.
  12. Post-medieval Preachers, by S. Baring-Gould. Rivingtons, 1865.
  13. For an account of this work see the Life of Poggio
    Bracciolini, by the Rev. William Shepherd. Liverpool. 1801.
  14. Professor Theodore Bergh. See Classical Museum, No. viii.
    July, 1849.
  15. Vavassor’s treatise, entitled “De Ludicra Dictione” was
    written A.D. 1658, at the request of the celebrated M. Balzac
    (though published after his death), for the purpose of showing
    that the burlesque style of writing adopted by Scarron and
    D’Assouci, and at that time so popular in France, had no sanction
    from the ancient classic writers. Francisci Vavassoris opera
    omnia. Amsterdam. 1709.
  16. The claims of Babrias also found a warm advocate in the
    learned Frenchman, M. Bayle, who, in his admirable dictionary,
    (Dictionnaire Historique et Critique de Pierre Bayle. Paris,
    1820,) gives additional arguments in confirmation of the opinions
    of his learned predecessors, Nevelet and Vavassor.
  17. Scazonic, or halting, iambics; a choliambic (a lame, halting
    iambic) differs from the iambic Senarius in always having a
    spondee or trichee for its last foot; the fifth foot, to avoid
    shortness of meter, being generally an iambic. See Fables of
    Babrias, translated by Rev. James Davies. Lockwood, 1860.
    Preface, p. 27.
  18. See Dr. Bentley’s Dissertations upon the Epistles of
  19. Dr. Bentley’s Dissertations on the Epistles of Phalaris, and
    Fables of Aesop examined. By the Honorable Charles Boyle.

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