fable is a short fictional story designed to teach a moral lesson. Often humorous, early fables were intended to entertain listeners and to instruct them in how to make wise and practical decisions. They usually were set in the animal kingdom, with animals speaking like humans. These short tales usually had one simple central episode with two characters, and they led to a strong, direct statement of a moral precept* at the end.
* precept guiding principle or rule for action or behavior
Fables almost certainly grew out of the vital oral traditions and anonymous folk tales of many different nations, and it is likely that the Greeks adopted this form of storytelling from countries to the east. Ancient Mesopotamian fables have been discovered on clay tablets dating as far back as 1800 B.C. Ancient Hebrew fables survive in the Bible, and the fables of ancient India are found in the Sanskrit* writings of the Panchatantra. The Greeks themselves said that some of their fables came from Libya or from Egypt. However, fables gained their greatest popularity as a Greek story format when they gradually became associated with the name of Aesop.
Many scholars think that Aesop was not an actual person but a legend. Another possibility is that Aesop may have been a name given to a group of traditional storytellers, just as the name Homer may have been given to a long line of epic poets. If a single storyteller named Aesop lived, it was probably during the 500s B.C.
It is highly unlikely that Aesop actually wrote down any fables, and no manuscripts have survived. Nevertheless, it is Aesop who is credited as the author of many of the most famous fables that people throughout the world still retell today, such as “The Fox and the Grapes,” “The Tortoise and the Hare,” and “The City Mouse and the Country Mouse.”
The earliest known example of a Greek fable is “The Hawk and the Nightingale” told by Hesiod in Works and Days. In the story, a hawk catches a nightingale. When the victim cries and pleads for its life, the hawk calmly tells the small bird to be quiet and then delivers the guiding principle of the tale: It is useless for those who are weak to pit themselves against those who are strong.
* Sanskrit ancient language of India
Aesop, the figure to whom we attribute many ancient Greek fables, is pictured here with one of his most famous characters, the fox. The widely known fable of the “Fox and the Grapes” tells about a fox who desires a bunch of grapes on a vine but can’t reach it. He tells himself that they are probably sour anyway. The fable’s moral suggests that we often begin to dislike what we cannot have.
Other Greeks told and retold fables too, incorporating them into works of both verse and prose. The poets Archilochus and Theognis, the philosophers Plato and Aristotle, and the historian Xenophon all made use of fables.
The moral lessons found in fables usually focus on issues of facing the truth and of being practical, of accepting one’s natural place in the order of things, and of striving for justice in an often harsh world. Fables provided a popular method for transmitting traditional wisdom from one generation to the next. At the same time, fables suggested ways in which weaker beings can sometimes defeat (or at least make fools of) the powerful—a subject that was dear to the hearts of the downtrodden throughout the ancient world.
Fables developed more fully as written literary works when they were collected and published, in much the same way as a collection of short stories or anecdotes would be gathered and published today. The first such written collection of Greek fables was made by Demetrios of Phaleron about 300 B.C. and was intended to be used as a source book by speakers and writers. The author of the oldest surviving collection of fables in Greek was Valerius Babrius, who wrote in the A.D. 100s.
The Romans carried on the tradition of the Greek fable, writing new ones and publishing collections of traditional ones. A former Roman slave named Phaedrus composed five books of fables in Latin verse. He wrote fables not only to entertain his readers but also as a form of serious satire,drawing on Aesop and creating fables out of the events of his own life. Fables are also found in the works of Ovid and Plutarch, and they continued to be a popular story form well into the Middle Ages. In the late A.D. 1600s, the French poet Jean de La Fontaine modeled his famous Fables on the fables of Aesop.