The practical and ethical lessons from Aesop’s Fables have become an integral part of our culture. It’s not uncommon to quote the Athenian without realizing it. Yet, his legacy and stories remain a well of insight and knowledge. And in my opinion, we haven’t even scratched the surface. In this blog post, we’re going to explore Aesop’s Fables from the perspective of Applied Mythology.
One of my earliest memories from childhood is holding this big, colored book with stories about foxes, crows, and lazy kings. It wasn’t until recently, after outlining the methodology of applied mythology, that it hit me!
That book was Aesop’s Fables.
I tried to find it in old boxes and dusty shelves. Unfortunately, it’s lost. But the lessons I gained from it are still ingrained in my psyche.
One of the reasons is that… we never really stopped telling these stories – even when we became adults.
The origins, the roots, of many adages and folklore wisdom are Aesop’s Fables.
But for the most part, it’s the fact that they’re an expression of our psyche. They have mythological underpinnings in the sense that they serve an aetiological purpose. They contain a meaningful explanation of our emotional behaviors.
Today, in many cases, we view them as bedtime stories for kids. But what if we were able to transcend these limitations and view them through the prism of applied mythology?
The Mythology behind Aesop’s Fables
Before we take a look at a few of these short stories, we need to understand the context – and the man behind it all.
Like many ancient Greek writers, Aesop has become the placeholder for every piece of writing that has no formal author!
While he was definitely real, at some point Greeks started associating his name with all sorts of stories and gnomika. Numerous tales across cultures and through the ages were credited to his “archetypal” identity.
The Real Identity of Aesop
The influence of the famous fabulist has been documented by Aristotle, Aristophanes, Socrates, and many more. Eventually, we can observe the acculturation of his persona from various civilizations.
What’s interesting here is that he might be the originator of the anthropomorphic animal characters, which have influenced medieval folktales.
Even though little is known about Aesop, some sources claim he was hideously ugly and bore the mark of a slave.
But through his intellect and quick wit, he was able to free himself from the shackles and rise socially, eventually becoming a trusted consultant for Kings.
In the 20th century, there was a surge in academic interest regarding the mysterious man and his original fables.
Whatever the case may be, I’d argue that his mode of writing reveals a native way of organizing information about reality through tales, and the use of animals as placeholders for the tribalistic side of humans.
While we usually associate Aesop with lukewarm, cute fables for children, you might find interesting that the original stories were aimed to be sharp, moral critiques of politics, religion, and philosophy.
For Greeks, satire always expressed the sentiment of the common folk, standing against the more refined – yet divorced from reality – intellectual thought.
Once that form of story-telling was solidified, it was used as a tool by various writers. The spirit of Aesop travelled across the world, to Europe, Asia, Africa, etc.
We find the essence of his stories in the rough translation of the Caribbean creole or Sir Roger’s slang version, giving voice to minorities and the disenfranchised.
During the Renaissance, the drabbles had a pedagogical character, especially for children, dispensing condensed moral rules.
How Influential are Aesop’s Fables?
I think we can’t really appreciate how powerful this genre of writing is. I believe it’s perhaps THE most influential and well-known literary art coming from the ancient Greek and Roman civilization. But it’s so deeply embedded in our culture, we don’t make the connection that some of the quotes we use every day belong to Aesop.
I can prove it! I’m gonna write 40 Aesop’s Quotes. You’ll be surprised by how many you already know.
- “Look and see which way the wind blows before you commit yourself.”
- “Whoever neglects old friends for the sake of new deserves what e gets if he loses both”
- “A man is known by the company he keeps”
- “I can’t be friends with a man who blows hot and cold with the same breath.”
- “It is easy to despise what you cannot get”
- “Expect no reward when you serve the wicked, and be thankful if you escape injury for your pain”
- “Self-help is the best help”
- “No act of kindness, no matter how small, is ever wasted.”
- “Betray a friend, and you’ll often find you have ruined yourself.”
- “A doubtful friend is worse than a certain enemy. Let a man be one thing or the other, and we then know how to meet him.”
- “Don’t let your special character and values, the secret that you know and no one else does, the truth – don’t let that get swallowed up by the great chewing complacency.”
- “Never trust the advice of a man in difficulties.”
- “We hang the petty thieves and appoint the great ones to public office.”
- “Fine clothes may disguise, but silly words will disclose a fool”
- “After all is said and done, more is said than done.”
- “If you choose bad companions, no one will believe that you are anything but bad yourself.”
- “A liar will not be believed even when he speaks the truth.”
- “Those who cry the loudest are not always the ones who are hurt the most”
- “It is easy to be brave at a safe distance.”
- “Please all, and you will please none.”
- “United we stand; divided we fall.”
- “Necessity is the mother of invention.”
- “No one believes a liar even when he tells the truth”
- “Beware lest you lose the substance by grasping at the shadow.”
- “Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear.”
- “It is not only fine feathers that make fine birds.”
- “The injury we do and the one we suffer are not weighed in the same scales.”
- “Adversity tests the sincerity of friends”
- “Outside show is a poor substitute for inner worth.”
- “Once a wolf, always a wolf.”
- “Little by little does the trick.”
- “Give assistance, not advice, in a crisis.”
- “In trying to please all, he had pleased none.”
- “He that always gives way to others will end in having no principles of his own. ”
- “We often give our enemies the means for our own destruction”
- “Those who suffer most cry out the least.”
- “No argument, no matter how convincing, will give courage to a coward”
- “Misfortune tests the sincerity of friends.”
- “Persuasion is better than force.”
- “A crust eaten in peace is better than a banquet partaken in anxiety.”
I think I’ve made my point…
I don’t know about you but personally, I’ve seen these statements quoted in movies, TV shows, even political speeches!
Are Aesop’s Fables Considered Mythology?
Their etiological function, as well as their tendency to critique religion make them an integral part of mythology.
Perhaps not the kind of epics that we’re used to, but still part of oral tradition and storytelling.
From my perspective, I consider them one of the earliest forms of applied mythology, in the sense that they mythologized day to day life. Where Homer outlined archetypal characters, Aesop mythologized your neighbor, your jealous employers or the eager salesman from the car dealership.
Moreso, the element of anthropomorphism takes advantage of our atavistic tendencies, but more importantly, it displaces our knee jerk reaction to criticism. After all, it’s a talking wolf, the story isn’t about me… right?
Of course, not all of Aesop’s tales include animals. Yet, practically all borrow animalistic behaviors, in the context of this particular philosophical view; people believed that animals outnumbered humans, and many of them retained their beast mentality but adopted human form.
At the same time, the primacy of rationality, what distinguishes an animal from a human, is championed in Aesop’s myths.
3 Aesop’s Fables and their True Meaning
As always, I want to ground the abstract theory into tangible examples. After all, it’s applied mythology we’re talking about.
Let’s take a look at 3 of Aesop’s Fables, and how you can use them in your life.
Of course, some of them might seem way too obvious but if we dig a little deeper, you’ll see that there’s more than meets the eye…
1. THE WOLF AND THE SHEPHERD
Perry Index 234 (tr. Laura Gibbs)
“A wolf followed along after a flock of sheep without doing them any harm. At first, the shepherd kept his eye on the wolf as a potential enemy to the flock and never let him out of his sight. But as the wolf continued to accompany the shepherd and did not make any kind of attempt to raid the flock, the shepherd eventually began to regard the wolf more as a guardian of the flock than as a threat. Then, when the shepherd happened to have to go to town, he commended the sheep to the wolf in his absence. The wolf seized his chance and attacked the sheep, slaughtering most of the flock. When the shepherd came back and saw that his flock had been utterly destroyed, he said, ‘It serves me right! How could I have ever trusted my sheep to a wolf?’”
The original lesson is simple: a hungry wolf cannot be trusted with sheep, the same way a greedy man cannot be trusted with money.
But I propose a slightly different interpretation. The Wolf represents human nature – our Jungian shadow.
Human nature doesn’t change, and so as long as we keep it in check, we’ll be fine. But when we let our dark side unattended, unintegrated, it’ll come to bite us. And it won’t bite one or two sheep; it’ll eat the whole herd!
2. ZEUS AND THE DONKEYS
Perry Index 185 (tr. Laura Gibbs)
“The donkeys were tired of being burdened with burdens and labouring all the days of their lives, so they sent ambassadors to Zeus, asking him to release them from their toil. Zeus, wanting to show them that they had asked for something impossible, said that their suffering would come to an end on the day when they pissed a river. The donkeys took him seriously and to this day whenever donkeys see where another donkey has pissed, they come to a halt and piss in the same place.”
First of all, this little fable is the perfect example of why Aesop’s fables weren’t intended for kids, since this belongs to scatology.
In any case, the common interpretation is that one cannot escape his allotted faith. And while that might be true… I’d add that they cannot escape fate IF they’re doing what everyone else is doing without experiencing different results.
The key is in the last sentence. The donkey is a man or a woman that doesn’t seek to nurture personal agency and instead looks for external solutions to their individual problems.
3. THE MAN AND THE SWORD
Perry Index 579 (tr. Laura Gibbs)
“A traveller was walking along and found a sword lying in the road. He said to the sword, ‘Who lost you?’ The weapon replied, ‘One man has lost me, but I have caused the loss of many a man!’”
We hurt others because we hurt ourselves. Our self-destructive habits can potentially create unimaginable second-order effects on others.
That’s something to think about when we indulge in seemingly selfish behaviors.
Using Mythology as a Tool
As you noticed, I extrapolated meaning from rather simplistic tales. Like a Delphic Prophecy, these short stories are stacked with layers of insight; you just have to do some work to untangle them.
The commodification of story-telling has spoiled us in the sense that we expect straightforward scripts and plot premises. Instead, ancient mythology contains multiple interpretations, being almost a blank canvas where we can project our thoughts and philosophy.
When you look at a myth through the prism of applied mythology, you need to keep this in mind. You aren’t reading a story, but you’re reading the organization of your psyche via words and arcs, often finding emotions and feelings lurking at the edge of your awareness.
So, where others read Aesop’s fables as a children’s bedtime story, you look at them for what they are; study material for self-improvement.
P.S. We’ll talk more about applied mythology in the coming months. We’ll cover a lot of ground. But in the meantime, leave any suggestions you have in the comments below!
Writer. Seeking to discover my private mythology through dreams.