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Aesop was flung to his death by a mob

Posted in Ancient History, Historical articles, History, Literature on Wednesday, 30 January 2013

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This edited article about Aesop’s Fables originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 112 published on 7 March 1964.

Aesop, picture, image, illustration

Aesop the storyteller by James E McConnell

The mob were howling for the black man’s blood. It did not matter that he was the King’s commissioner, sent to distribute money to the people. It did not matter that he was a court favourite, whose wit and ability as a story-teller had won him fame.

All that mattered was that the money, in the opinion of the mob, had been shared out unfairly. Four minae for each and every person; that was what the king had promised. Now all the money had been handed out and there were hundreds still with empty purses. They were angry – and suspicious of the man the king had sent.

Calmly, for he had dealt with many difficult and dangerous situations before in the same manner, the commissioner raised his hands for silence, and began to tell a story. This is the story:

“A hare being pursued by an eagle, betook himself for refuge to the nest of a beetle, whom he entreated to save him. The beetle therefore interceded with the eagle, begging him in the name of mighty Jupiter, not to break the laws of hospitality and kill the poor hare who was now the guest of a small harmless beetle.

“But the eagle, in wrath, flapped the beetle out of the way with his wing and seized the hare and ate him. When the eagle flew away, the beetle flew after him to find where his nest was, and getting into it, he rolled the eagle’s eggs over the side one by one and broke them.

“The enraged eagle built another nest on an even higher crag. But again the beetle got in and rolled the eggs to destruction. Next time the eagle flew up to heaven and placed his eggs in the lap of Jupiter.


“But the beetle made a tiny ball of dirt and flew up to heaven and dropped it into Jupiter’s lap. He rose to shake the dirt from his garment, quite forgetting the eggs, which again fell and smashed.

“When Jupiter found out the full truth about the feud, he blamed the eagle for the original insult. But not wanting eagles to die out, he asked the beetle to end the quarrel. The beetle refused, and to save the situation, Jupiter changed the eagles’ breeding season, to a time of the year when the beetle would not be about.”

For a moment the crowd were silent, pondering the meaning of this strange tale. For those who could not grasp its relevance to their own situation, the story-teller spelt out the moral:

“No one, however powerful, can slight the laws of hospitality. No influence, however powerful – even the influence of Jupiter himself – can protect the aggressor from vengeance.”

In the mob, serious faces showed that many were considering how they had broken the laws of hospitality by attacking the commissioner. They thought, too, of the vengeance of the king.

But someone in the crowd yelled “Sacrilege!” Another: “Impiety!” The cry was taken up by the mob who surged forward, grabbed the story-teller, carried him to a nearby precipice, and flung him – like the eagle’s eggs – to destruction on the jagged rocks a thousand feet below.

That was the end of Aesop at Delphi in 560 B.C.

But not the end of his Fables, many of which are still read by children today, nearly 2,500 years after his terrible death.

Yet Aesop did not create his stories for children. They were designed to teach the people and rulers of his time to use their heads, and not to act blindly out of habit or anger.

At Corinth he warned against mob-law in a fable which Socrates turned into verse to while away the hours during his imprisonment.

At Athens, by a recital of “The Frogs Asking for a King,” he persuaded the citizens not to revolt against their ruler, Peisistratus.

Often he instructed his king, Croesus of Lydia, on matters of statecraft, by means of his stories.

The citizens of Himera were warned against the dangers of the tyrant Phalaris, by an official recital of “The Horse and the Stag.” The Samians, when they were about to put to death an embezzler of public funds, were reminded of Aesop’s “The Fox and the Hedgehog,” and showed mercy instead.

When the Athenians were ready to betray Demosthenes, he warned them with Aesop’s “The Wolves and the Sheep” that in turning against public orators they were surrendering to the watch-dogs of the State.

Many years later, the Roman Menenius Agrippa quelled an insurrection by reciting Aesop’s “The Belly and the Members.”

No educated man of ancient Greece would be without his store of Aesop’s Fables to recite to friends and enemies alike at an appropriate moment when the moral of the story applied to them.

But Aesop was self-educated. He was born a slave in about 620 B.C. Possibly he was the child of Indian parents, who had somehow been captured and made slaves. His stories have an eastern ring about them, alluding to Asiatic customs and introducing panthers, peacocks and monkeys.

So, although scholars dismiss suggestions that he was deformed and of extremely ugly appearance, the notion of Aesop being dark-skinned is certainly supported by evidence in his tales, as well as in some commentaries written after his death.

Aesop’s master was Iadmon, who, recognizing his slave’s genius, freed him and sent him to the king. At court he was first looked upon as a sort of jester. But those who came to laugh at him, stayed to ponder his words.

It is unlikely that Aesop ever wrote down his fables. He hardly needed to. Everyone knew them by heart – and that is how they were handed down at first.

Some scholars doubt that we have anything left of the original Fables. But others point to the reliability of oral tradition to preserve the main points of a story however much it may be adapted or added to through the years.

Thomas James, who pieced together a fine collection of the Fables in 1874, wrote: “We have, in the main, both the spirit and body of Aesop’s Fables, if not as they proceeded from the Sage’s own lips, at least as they were known in the best times of Greek literature.”

Aesop was probably the first to invent stories of wit and wisdom with morals of political significance that ordinary people could appreciate and understand.

And yet his art failed him in the end, before the howling mob at Delphi, who suspected him of embezzlement.

But vengeance, as he predicted in his story, came to Delphi. It was not a beetle, but something far tinier that entered their “nests.” It was a germ – a plague germ that killed young and old alike, and from which even the most powerful of the gods – even Jupiter – could not protect them.

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