What scientific truths lie behind the millennia-old collection of moral tales we know as Aesop’s Fables? Do the stories tell us something about real-life animal behaviour? How do our myths and metaphors match up to the realities of the natural world?
Zoologist Dr. Jo Wimpenny‘s new book Aesop’s Animals explores all of these questions, linking ancient stories to the latest research into animal behaviour, and challenging our assumptions about the animal kingdom.
Jo and I spoke on the eve of the book’s launch.
We might think we know what Aesop’s Fables are, but was there even really a historical Aesop? What do we mean when we talk about “Aesop’s Fables”?
An exact answer isn’t possible: Aesop’s Fables stretch back to something like two thousand five hundred years ago, which we know because certain ancient scholars of the time mentioned the fables in their writing. Those scholars certainly thought there was an Aesop, though it’s a disputed point; a lot of modern historians point to inaccuracies in descriptions of him, which suggest there may not have been a single author who bore that name. Today there are hundreds of fables attributed to Aesop, but some of these may have been created later, building on the existing tales.
The standard view is that Aesop was a slave, who might have been Greek, Turkish or Ethiopian, who created little moral fables, moral messages. They weren’t about animal behaviour, and they weren’t based on science, because science as we know it didn’t exist at that point. They used animal and mythological characters to communicate moral teachings.
The story goes that Aesop won his freedom by being a master storyteller – that he used his wit and intelligence to entertain and educate people, impressing those in power into granting him his freedom.
The basis for my book is less about whether Aesop was a real person, and more about this very real collection of stories which verifiably does date back to the ancient world.