Archive for July, 2007
It was during the reign of Peisistratus that Aesop visited Athens, where he told a fable called The Frogs Who Desired a King, in an attempt to dissuade the Athenian citizens from deposing Peisistratus in favor of another ruler. Although his words were successfully received here, further travels across the Greek world would prove his downfall.
It was upon a visit to Dephi that Aesop met a violent end at the hands of the inhabitants there. The cause of this remains unknown, as Herodotus does not explain why Aesop was killed – of course, various theories have emerged on their own, such as the suggestion that Aesop directed highly insulting sarcasm toward certain well-known people, or that he embezzled money that was trusted to him by Croesus, or that perhaps he stole and defiled a sacred silver cup.
After Aesop’s execution, Delphi was apparently fraught with a pestilence, which caused the inhabitants to agree to make compensation for their actions – essentially, realizing they had killed the wrong man. For lack of a closer connection with anyone else, the compensation was claimed by the young Idamon, grandson of Aesop’s former master.
After his death, it was said that the Athenians erected a statue in Aesop’s honor, created by the extremely famous sculptor Lysippos. In fact, the knowledge that this statue was placed in a public area in Athens decries the false but traditional assertion that Aesop was ‘ugly and deformed’, a rumor circulated in the 14th century by a German monk and scholar. Since none of the other Greek writers ever made their own comments on Aesop’s appearance – only referring instead to his previous servile status – there is no reason to believe that there was anything abnormal about his outward appearance.
Instead, it seems that Aesop met his end as a result of a misunderstanding – however, because of the Greek world’s appreciation for his tales and contribution to their storytelling repertoire, his work has continued to be read and loved by many people for thousands of years after his death.
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Tomorrow: How many of these ancient fables do you remember?
Although it is known for certain that Aesop was born a slave and lived during the 6th century BC, his actual place of birth was disputed during ancient times – and the controversy remains unsolved today. Various places, including Phrygia, Thrace, Ethiopia, Egypt, Samos, Athens, Amorium and Sardis have all claimed him as their own – but of course, none can actually prove he was born there.
One theory, however, suggests that he may have been from Africa, since his name could have been derived from the word “Aetheopian”, a word which the Greeks used to refer to dark-skinned people from the inner parts of Africa. Also, many of the animals in the stories are typically considered foreign to Greece and native to Africa, though the true extent of this remains debatable. Also, it was not unusual for Greeks to travel extensively – after all, Herodotus described the wonders of Egypt and the Near East his own writings.
Regardless of the origins of his birth, the rest of the details surrounding Aesop’s life are also highly obscure. The rather sparse ancient accounts from other Greek writers place him living as a slave in Samos around 550 BC, under the employ of some men named Xanthus and then Idamon. He must have proven himself loyal and been highly favored by Idamon, because a later account from Aristotle describes Aesop’s public defense of a Samian demagogue – meaning he must have been freed by his last master.
After this, his social status grew to the point where he was invited to dine and converse with some of ancient Greece’s most prominent public figures. He is known to have remained at the court of Croesus, King of Lydia, for some time, whereupon he met the famous Greek political and social reformer Solon, a man considered one of the Seven Sages or wise men of ancient Greece. It was here that he also dined with the Seven Sages of Greece, including the tyrant Periander of Corinth.
However, he was not to be well-received by everyone across the Greek world…
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Tomorrow: Aesop’s downfall
According to the Greek historian Herodotus, Aesop’s fables were composed by a slave who lived in ancient Greece sometime during the 6th century BC. Whether or not Aesop himself was the person who committed his fables to writing is another debate entirely, however there is no doubt that Aesop actually existed – many other famous Greek authors mention his name in their writings, such as Aristophanes in his play The Wasps, and Plato in the work Phaedo, where he reports that Socrates actually spent some of his time in jail turning Aesop’s writings into verse. Another ancient Greek by the name of Demetrius of Phalerum compiled Aesop’s fables into a set of ten books that orators could use for their speeches, however these have long since been lost.
A man by the name of Phaedrus was the first person to translate Aesop’s writings into Latin, during the 1st century AD. Sometime either before or after Phaedrus, another Greek writer by the name of Babrius compiled his own edition of the stories, which is thought to have been a major source of inspiration for many subsequent versions. Later during the 4th century, a Latin author by the name of Avianus translated 42 of the fables and turned them into a kind of Latin poetry called ‘elegiac’.
Intriguingly, a number of Eastern and Oriental sources picked up the fables and translated them for their own reading, helping to preserve the stories throughout the centuries. Thus, it was only in the 14th century when a monk by the name of Maximus Planudes re-translated and put together the collection of stories known to modern audiences as Aesop’s Fables.
In 1484, the first English version of the fables was printed by William Caxton, the man who introduced England to the printing press. It was subsequently updated in 1692 and then again in the mid-1800s, and many of the more recent publications of the fables now omit some of the stories from certain major ancient sources, including some from Babrius and Phaedrus.
Whether Aesop was the originator of all of the fables is debatable, as many of the stories seem to have been crafted out of the Eastern sources, possibly borrowing from their folk tales just as much as they originally borrowed from Aesop. Many tales from the Sanskrit Panchatantra are morality-themed or didactic tales centered around animals.
But who, exactly, was Aesop himself?
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Tomorrow: The truth behind the myth
Francois Ravaillac was a man whose religious fanaticism carried him over the edge, causing him to commit the act of regicide: on May 13, 1610, he stabbed to death King Henry IV of France while the king’s carriage was stalled in traffic.
Born near Angouleme in France, Ravaillac began his life as a servant and worked his way up to become a schoolteacher of religion. Exceedingly devout, Ravaillac at one point had been admitted in the religious order called the Feuillants, but was asked to leave only six weeks later due to experiencing visions during his prayer time. In 1606, he tried to enter a Jesuit group, only to be once again rejected on the grounds of having visions – however in this case, the Jesuits were under the distinct impression that these so-called ‘visions’ were simply hallucinations.
In 1609, Ravaillac had a vision that he believed told him to convince King Henry IV to stop the spread of Protestantism and convert all Protestants to Catholicism – and when he did not, but rather supported the Edict of Nantes that allowed Protestants freedom to practice their religion, Ravaillac was furious. Henry had also decided to invade the Netherlands, which Ravaillac took as an intentional move against the Pope. Determined to put a stop to Henry’s actions, Ravaillac stabbed his own king while the king’s carriage was stuck in traffic.
After stabbing King Henry IV, Ravaillac made no attempt to flee and was immediately seized by the authorities. They were convinced Ravaillac had accomplices in his actions, but he continually denied anyone else’s involvement or even prompting to carry out the act – it was only after several days of torture, after which nearly all his leg bones were broken or crushed, that the authorities believed his assertion of acting alone.
Naturally, Ravaillac was sentenced to death – and because of the absolutely horrific and treacherous nature of his act, he was to suffer his own excruciating torture before the final execution. His right arm – the stabbing arm – was plunged into burning sulphur, while pieces of flesh from his arms, chest, and thighs were torn off with pincers. A mixture of molten lead, boiling oil and resin was poured into the wounds, which were then cauterized to keep him alive for as long as possible. Records indicate this procedure continued for about an hour before he was eventually given the official sentence for anyone who committed regicide: he was tied to four horses and was drawn and quartered.
According to those two saw the execution and recorded the event, the four pieces of Ravaillac’s body were ripped into even smaller bits by a furious mob – they had loved their king, and did everything possible to ensure the murderer’s body was completely defiled. Following the execution, the remaining members of Ravaillac’s family were exiled from the country, and the name ‘Ravaillac’ was officially banned in France.
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Tomorrow: A new series: All about Aesop!
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