A New Look at Aesop

painting of Aesop

A New Look at Aesop

Leslie Kurke

Diego Rodríguez Velázquez’ Aesop,
at the Museo del Prado, Madrid
(179 x 94 cm, Ca. 1638)

On May 11, 2010, Leslie Kurke delivered a Faculty Research Lecture entitled “Aesop, Popular Culture, and the Invention of Greek Prose,” focusing on Aesop as a means of accessing “popular culture” in dialogue with the texts of high culture within the ancient Greek world. We are pleased to offer a condensed version of the lecture below. Professor Kurke’s full analysis and argument will be presented in her book, "Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose," forthcoming from Princeton University Press in November 2010.

For many of us, Aesop is a quaint figure, linked with animal fables and mainly associated with the entertainment of children. The Greeks too associated Aesop with fable, but for them, Aesop and his characteristic styles of discourse were by no means intended for children; they were instead edgy, disruptive, and dangerous. I’m interested in Aesop as a figure who is marginal but pervasive in the ancient Greek world; reading the ancient tradition through the lens of this lowly figure thus allows us to read the center from the margins, and thereby shift the focus. By this means, different things become perceptible, and it becomes possible to learn something new about the ancient Greek world and to be surprised.

The ancient Greeks themselves believed that Aesop lived in the sixth century BCE on the island of Samos. And it’s still a topic of lively scholarly debate whether Aesop really existed or not. That’s not my interest here. It’s irrelevant, as far as I’m concerned, whether Aesop was a “real guy” or not. Instead, I’m interested in Aesop as a figure who represents a “literary” and cultural tradition, a particular discursive style and socio-politics of speaking. From his first appearances in Greek literature and art of the fifth century BCE, Aesop is marked as low—a slave, non-Greek, hideously ugly, and already making trouble. Likewise, fable as a form is also markedly low in its pattern of occurrence within the hierarchical system of archaic Greek poetry. The ancient Greeks, like many pre-modern cultures, had a complex literary system, articulated by a strict hierarchy of genre and decorum—what you could talk about and how you could talk about it—in different poetic forms (and all this long before the Greeks started to compose in prose as a literary form at all).

In addition to the fables, there is a remarkable, little-known tradition of a comic or proto-picaresque prose narrative of the “Life of Aesop,” which, as scholars have noted, is the only extended biography of a slave to survive from the ancient world. The Life of Aesop exists in numerous different versions, dating from the first to the thirteenth centuries of our era. But it is a remarkable fact that the lineaments of this ancient Life and specific episodes within it are already alluded to in the fifth century BCE by the historian Herodotus and the comic playwright Aristophanes. These fifth-century references prove that there must have been a widely diffused oral tradition of stories about Aesop’s life and death that circulated for centuries before his comic biography was set down in writing. And so, although it is mediated by elite practices of literacy, the Life of Aesop to some extent gives us access to a much older, long-lived popular oral tradition behind it.

Within this oral tradition, Aesop, like folktale tricksters in many different cultures, enables the articulation in public of elements of what the political theorist James Scott calls the “hidden transcript:” the counter-ideology and worldview developed by the oppressed when they are “offstage,” free from the public world whose performances are largely scripted by the dominant. I am not thereby claiming that Aesop represents the veiled fantasies of actual slaves in the ancient world—although it is possible that the figure did serve this function in strands of the oral tradition largely unrecoverable to us. But already by the fifth century BCE the figure of Aesop had floated free from any particular context and passed into the common discursive resources of the culture, available as a mask or alibi for critique, parody, or cunning resistance by any who felt themselves disempowered in the face of some kind of unjust or inequitable institutional authority. Thus already in the classical period, Aesop served as a handy vehicle for a civic critique of oracular practices at Delphi, while in the first or second century CE, another shaping strand of the written Life seems to be parody of those at the apex of the educational hierarchy by their underlings within the system—what we might call, for the written Life of Aesop, “graduate-student literature.” Many of these different appropriations over centuries have left their traces in the written Lives of Aesop as the layered bricolage of multiple symbolic actions and agents within the dialectical formation of culture over centuries and a wide geographic area.

Excavating the reciprocal interaction of a low Aesop tradition with the high texts of Greek culture can help shed light on the invention of mimetic narrative prose in the Greek tradition. It is a strange fact (that no one has ever really remarked upon) that our oldest extant narrative or mimetic prose texts in the Greek tradition—those of Herodotus as the founding text of “history,” and of Plato as the founding texts of “philosophy”—both identify Aesop as a precursor for the kind of mimetic prose they themselves are writing. These unexpected, somewhat ambivalent affiliations with Aesop by both Herodotus and Plato insistently raise the question of the invention of Greek mimetic or narrative prose as a literary form. Why did the Greeks start writing this kind of prose (which includes both narrative prose history—like Herodotus—and Platonic dialogue and which leads ultimately to the form of the novel)? And what did the figure of Aesop have to do with it? The traditional answer to the question of why the Greeks started writing prose as a literary form is still generally framed in terms of the triumphal march “from myth to reason,” where written prose emerges together with the slow dawning of rationality from the fancies of the poets, assisted by the invention of writing that helped liberate the Greeks from the mnemonic constraints of rhythm and song. This is, of course, a very old-fashioned teleological narrative that takes prose for granted as the logical and inevitable endpoint of development (since that is what prose is for us)—a default transparent medium for the communication of rational thought and argument. And yet, studies of the beginnings of prose in other eras and traditions have effectively questioned and estranged these assumptions, demonstrating that the emergence of literary prose is hardly inevitable or unproblematic.

Within the Greek tradition, I would contend, the invention of mimetic narrative prose was also more complicated, and here Aesop played his part. Both Herodotus and Plato, for their different reasons, needed the spiky energy and subversive parodic alibi that Aesop provided, even as their incorporation of Aesop and lowly prose forms connected with him risked both a generic and a status taint within the Greek literary system.

Leslie Kurke is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Classics and Comparative Literature at UC Berkeley.

This article can be found in the September/October 2010 newsletter.