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Æsop. (Sixth century B.C.) Fables. rn The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

THE HABIT of telling stories is one of the most primitive characteristics of the human race. The most ancient civilizations, the most barbarous savages, of whom we have any knowledge have yielded to investigators clear traces of the possession of this practise, The specimens of their narrative that have been gathered from all the ends of the earth and from the remotest times of which we have written record show traces of purpose, now religious and didactic, now patriotic and political; but behind or beside the purpose one can discern the permanent human delight in the story for its own sake.

The oldest of stories are the myths: not the elaborated and sophisticated tales that one finds in, say, Greek epic and drama, but the myth pure and simple. This is the answer of primitive science to the question of the barbaric child, the explanation of the thunder or the rain, of the origin of man or of fire, of disease or death. The form of such myths is accounted for by the belief known as “animism,” which assumed personality in every object and phenomenon, and conceived no distinction in the kind of existence of a man, a dog, a tree, or a stone. Such myths are still told among, e. g., the American Indians, and the assumption just mentioned accounts for such features as the transformation of the same being from a man into a log or a fish, or the marriage of a coyote and a woman. Derived from this state of belief and showing signs of their origin, are such animal stories as form the basis of the artistically worked-up tales of “Uncle Remus.”

Thus in primitive myth, the divinities of natural forces are not personifications, for there was no figure of speech involved; the storm, the ocean, and the plague were to the mythmakers actually persons. The symbolical element in literary myths is a later development, possible only as man gradually arrived at the realization of his separateness in kind from the non-human objects of his senses. With this realization came the attempt to adapt the myths that had come down from more primitive times to his new way of thinking, and the long process of making the myths reasonable and credible set in.

But while the higher myths were being thus transformed into the religions of the civilized man, the ways of thinking that had produced them in their original form survived to some extent in stories of less dignity, which made no pretensions to be either science or religion but which were told only because they entertained. Tales of this kind have come down from mouth to mouth in less sophisticated communities to our own day, and are now being killed out only by the printing press and the diffusion of the art of reading.

Far earlier written down, but less primitive in kind, are the Æsopic Fables. In these allegorical tales, the form of the old animistic story is used without any belief in the identity of the personalities of men and animals, but with a conscious double meaning and for the purpose of teaching a lesson. The fable is a product not of the folk but of the learned; and though at times it has been handed down by word of mouth, it is really a literary form.

ÆSOP is little more than the shadow of a name. He was a slave from the island of Samos, who flourished, according to Herodotus, about the middle of the sixth century before Christ; and his name is associated with the special use of the fable for political purposes at a time when the reign of the tyrants in Greece made unveiled speech dangerous. About two hundred and fifty years after Æsop’s time, Demetrius of Phaleron collected a large number of fables and called them by Æsop’s name, and a version of these was turned into Latin verse by one Phædrus in the time of Augustus. This Phædrus is the main source of the modern “Æsop,” but no one can point to any one fable existing today as certainly the invention of the Samian slave.

In India as well as in Greece the fable was common from very early times; and near the beginning of our era a Buddhist collection that had come west by Alexandria was combined with that of Demetrius, and later turned into Greek verse by Valerius Babrius. A Greek prose version of Babrius was accepted for centuries as the original Æsop. The habit of summing up the lesson of the fable in a “moral” at the end seems to have come in with the Oriental contribution.

The history of collections of fables in Europe from Phædrus and Babrius down is one of incredible complexity, on many of the details of which scholars are yet far from agreement. Additions to the common stock have come in from a vast variety of sources; the stories have been retold scores of times, so that there is nothing approaching an authentic text; yet the name of Æsop has clung till it has become merely a convenient name for this particular type of allegorical beast-tale.

In the present collection, the fables have been retold in simple language by Mr. Joseph Jacobs. He has chosen those examples that have become most universally popular, and at the same time has given representatives from all the main sources. A glance at the titles will be sufficient to show to what an extraordinary extent these simple stories have become the common property of all peoples.