Are Aesop’s Fables an Ethiopian Treasure?

Many people worldwide have developed through childhood with versions of Aesop’s Fables. If not, they probably heard variations in cartoons or films, not realizing the storyteller. This has been true for thousands of years.

Most of us never realized these tales were originally religious, political or social commentaries aimed at adults.

Nor did many of us suspect this famous storyteller might have been an “Ethiopian,” who may have lived around 620 to 564 BCE.

A few famous stories

A Few of his Famous Quotes

  • “After all is said and done, more is said than done.” 
  • “Any excuse will serve a tyrant.”
  • “United we stand, divided we fall.”
  • “Be content with your lot; one cannot be first in everything.”

But was he really ‘Ethiopian?’

 A majority of scholars believe Aesop’s literary tradition came from Greece, but the man himself was a black slave who stuttered. He wasn’t  a slave by birth, but a slave after being captured in a foreign conquest—in Africa. His name came from the Greek word Aethiops, which most closely is defined as “burnt face people,” which some researchers say indicates an Ethiopian.

It could also be any African, particularly Nubian (southern Egypt or northern Sudan). According to a Project Muse report, African slaves were not uncommon in the sixth to first centuries BCE. Often they were acrobats, entertainers, dancers, mimes, or personal attendants. In Africa during these times, there were constant battles between the Egyptians dynasties and the southern Nubians further upstream on the Nile. The slave trade was, and remained, a significant part of ancient life.

So, it’s not impossible Aesop came from northern Ethiopia where the Blue Nile originates and winds down into Sudan, where it meets the White Nile near Khartoum, and then streams into today’s Egypt. But it’s just as likely he’s from Egypt, Sudan or another northern African region.

Racist Descriptions

While many people today would love to claim this brilliant storyteller as an “Ethiopian,” this declaration should be evaluated. The word carries significant racial overtones, as does the full description of Aesop.

Early descriptions of “burnt face” aren’t particularly complimentary. Aesop himself was declared “ugly” and “grotesque” with a flat nose and misshapen head. Such might be a typical response of a different racial group stereotyping people who look different. It’s ironic today as many of the world’s most beautiful models are Ethiopian. I imagine some would say the men are handsome, too.

Ancient descriptions also tell of a deformed man with a stutter. Perhaps not having grown up speaking Greek he sounded different as well, maintaining a foreign accent as he told his stories.

Ethiopian Storytelling

Regardless of Aesop’s original, Ethiopia has had a long tradition of storytelling. Ethiopia had an ancient writing culture, so oral and written stories were common. But as with all storytelling traditions, most of the stories originated as oral tales. Some believe that animal tales are the oldest form of tales in Ethiopia, which would fit right in with Aesop.

Such tales might often have been told during the mid-day heat when children and their parents huddled under trees, taking a break from herding cattle or tending to a farm. This could have been like “school” for these children, as they learned their culture and proper ways to live. The idea of sitting in a circle and listening to stories is a tradition that continued through modern times.

A collection of Ethiopian folktales was put together by Elizabeth Laird and The Story Telling Project. Begun as a printed set of booklets, it’s now available online and is an amazing resource.

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Scott Douglas Martell is a writer, teacher and coach. His most recent novel is The Hyena Man, an African romantic suspense. His blogs often focus on Ethiopia and Vietnam, world traveling, and counseling for a more joyful life, with topics such as brain health and spiritual awareness.

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