Saturday, August 14, 2010

Overview: Ancient Fables

Aesop's fables go back to the beginnings of Greek culture, already appearing in the archaic poet Hesiod, for example. The legend of Aesop himself is also ancient and long-lived. There is even a Greek novel, The Life of Aesop, which describes Aesop's adventurous life as a slave with a gift for telling stories. Aesop may not have been a historical person, but the legends about him were widely known.

In classical Greece, the fables are scattered throughout all kinds of sources, such as the playwright Aristophanes and also in philosophers such as Socrates and Aristotle. The first actual collection of Aesop's fables was assembled by the scholar Demetrius of Phalerum in the late fourth century BCE, but that collection has not survived. The oldest extant collection of Aesop's fables is by Phaedrus, a freedman of the household of Augustus Caesar in Rome. Phaedrus retold Aesop's fables in iambic Latin verse, and approximately one hundred of his poems have survived; for the importance of Phaedrus in the medieval Aesopic tradition, see the notes on Medieval Fables.

There are two other important collections of Aesopic poetry that have survived from ancient times: the Greek iambic verses of an otherwise unknown poet by the name of Babrius (also known as “Babrias” or “Gabrias”), along with the Latin elegiac poetry of the otherwise unknown Avianus (also known as “Anianus” or “Avienus”).

In addition to these ancient sources in verse, there are several important collections of Aesop's fables in Greek prose. The origin of these prose collections is not entirely clear although they probably date back to the second or third century CE. The collections grew and evolved over time as the Byzantine scribes wove their own comments into the fables, while also adding stories to the collections, such as the Biblical tale of the trees electing a king (#726 in this book). These Greek prose fables were not known in western Europe during the Middle Ages, but during the Renaissance they began to resurface in the form of Latin translations. Some fables from the Greek prose tradition can already be found in Steinhowel's fifteenth-century Latin edition of Aesop, followed by later, more complete Latin editions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, such as those by Camerarius and Nevelet.

Another important Greek prose collection is attributed to Syntipas (sometimes confusing referred to as “Sindbad”), although the actual text of these fables is probably the work of the eleventh-century Byzantine scholar Michael Andreopolous. The Syntipas collection appears to be a Greek translation of a Syriac translation of an ancient Greek original; for further information about this back-and-forth between East and West in the Aesopic tradition, see the notes on Eastern Fables.

Altogether, there are approximately 600 Aesop's fables that have survived from ancient Greece and Rome, directly or indirectly. Ben Perry's monumental Aesopica provides a detailed inventory of these Greek and Latin fables, along with the earliest version of each text. In this book I've included 500 of those Greek and Roman fables, and you will find the Perry number for each one listed in the notes. For all the Greek fables, I have used a variety of Latin translations, including Renaissance translations as well as modern ones. For information about the various Latin translations, see the Bibliography.

Finally, I have also drawn on an important ancient Greek source that Perry did not include in his inventory of the ancient fables: Aelian, a Roman rhetorician of the early third century CE who wrote in Greek. In his collection of anecdotes known as the Varia Historia and in his compendium of animal lore known as De Natura Animalium, Aelian recorded many popular stories that I believe can be classified as Aesop's fables. For example, the traditional Aesopic corpus already includes several stories about the Cynic philosopher Diogenes, and Diogenes was also a favorite subject of Aelian (see #878). Aesopic or not, I hope you will enjoy the dozen stories from Aelian that you will find in the pages of this book.

No comments:

Post a Comment