Nothing is known of Aesop's early life. However, in the Histories of Herodotus, who wrote during the later half of the fifth century BC, it says that he lived during the time of the Egyptian pharaoh Amasis of the sixth century BC. And that he was connected to the island of Samos. Herodotus also gives evidence that he may have been a slave or a relative of a Samian citizen called Iadmon,
In World's Great Men of Color, Volume I (p. 73–79), J.A. Rogers states that we are indebted to Planudes the Great, a monk of the fourteenth century, for Aesop's life and fables in its present form. Planudes wrote that Aesop was a native of Phrygia, in Asia Minor, and described him as "flat-nosed…with lips, thick and pendulous and a black skin from which he contracted his name (Esop being the same with Ethiop)."
Drusilla Dunjee Houston writes in Wonderful Ethiopians of the Ancient Cushite Empire
(p. 84) that:
"Africans tell many tales like those of Aesop. Many nations claimed Aesop. This was because he was a Cushite of which they were all divisions, so by identity of race he belonged to them all. Tradition said that he was black and deformed. It is very likely that he was a part of the life of Alexandria (Egypt) and the cities of Asia Minor."
Rogers writes that Planudes, and other later writers agree that the first master of Aesop was Xanthus who saw him on sale at a market with a musician and an orator.
"Xanthus asked the musician what he could do." And he replied, "anything." He asked the same question to the orator and he replied, "Everything." When he asked Aesop the question, he replied, "Nothing." "Nothing!" repeated Xanthus, at which Aesop replied, "One of my companions say he can do anything and the other asserts that he can do everything, that leaves me nothing."
Struck by the reply, Xanthus said, "If I buy you, will you promise to be good and honest?"
"I'll be that whether you buy me or not," retorted Aesop.
"Will you promise not to run away?"
"Did you ever hear a bird in a cage tell his master that he intended making his escape?" demanded Aesop
Xanthus, pleased at Aesop's wit, was strongly tempted to buy him, but hesitated because of his black and ungainly form. He said, "That unlucky shape of yours will set people hooting and gaping at us wherever we go."
"A philosopher," replied Aesop calmly, "should value a man for his mind and not for his body."
The purchase was made. (World's Great Men of Color, Volume I, page 75.)
Once when Xanthus' wife left him after a quarrel, Aesop won her back with his wit. Upon her return Xanthus gave a feast for the leading philosophers of Greece and entrusted Aesop to make the preparations. When the guest sat down to eat they found that each dish was a tongue of some sort. Angrily Xanthus demanded an explanation. Aesop innocently replied, "You ordered me to make the best provision that I could think of for the entertainment of these excellent persons. As the tongue is the key that leads to all knowledge, what could be more suitable than a feast of tongues for philosophers?"
Xanthus, pleased with laughter of his guests invited them to dine with him the next day. And asked Aesop, since he was set on contradictions, to prepare the feast of the worst. "We shall see what that shall be." Again all the guest were served were dishes of tongues. Aesop explained to the angry Xanthus that, "Was it not an evil tongue that caused a break with your family? Was it not a soft tongue that caused that healed breach? The tongue is at once the best and the worst entertainment."
Although Aesop was renowned for his wit, his tongue would lead to his demise. Delphi was a city in ancient Greece that was famous for its "piety, learning, and wisdom." When Aesop visited it, he was disappointed with what he found there. In an unguarded moment he told some acquaintances:
"Some persons standing at the seaside saw an object on the ocean coming toward them a great way off, which had all the appearances of being something of importance, but when it came close enough to be discernible they found it to be a great mass of weeds and rubbish. Such, I find, to be the curiosity that brought me to Delphi."
The principle source of income of Delphi came from visitors. When the authorities heard of Aesop's remarks, they realized that if his opinions became known it would lead to the ruin of Delphi. And determined that he should not leave there alive. "They sent soldiers after him who accused him of stealing a sacred cup from the temple, which had been planted in his bag."
When Aesop permitted the search, the cup was found. He was pronounced guilty and sentenced to be thrown of a cliff into the sea. He tried to rely on his wit and told his captors fable after fable all in vain. As a parting shot he told them the fable of the Jackasses:
An old man who had spent his whole life in the country without ever seeing the town decided that nothing would please him better than to see it before he died. His friends were too busy to take him, but they had some jackasses which knew the way to town and decided to let the animals guide him there.
On the way a storm arose and in the darkness the beasts lost their way and tumbled with the old man into a deep pit where he said with his last breath, "Miserable wretch that I am to be destroyed, since I must, among the basest of all animals, jackasses."
The Delphians immediately threw him off the cliff. They later regretted that deed, however, as they received universal condemnation for their action.
Aesop had become famous for his storytelling and fables. Storytelling has been in existence in every age and in every land. Early man lived in close contact with animals, both wild and domestic. Therefore, it was only natural that stories were invented describing imaginary adventures of animals wherein which they acted and spoke like humans.
The fable is designed to teach a lesson in morality or judgment. The lessons are implied within the fable itself. In time, most fables had a moral given explicit to it. (The Tortoise and the Hare, Belling the Cat, and The Fox and the Grapes are some of his most famous.) One of his most impressive fables was:
A wolf, peeping through a window, saw a company of shepherds eating a joint of lamb. "Lord," he exclaimed, "what a fuss they would have raised had they caught me doing that."
Aesop's made use of many animals in many of the fables he became famous for. And from the fifth century onwards, the Aesopian fable and the tradition of Aesop as a storyteller became very popular. It is not known whether or not Aesop, or any of his contemporaries, wrote down any of his own versions of his fables. And at any rate they were unlikely to have been preserved. There is evidence that by the Christian era, the use of fables became a regular part of rhetorical training.
- World's Great Men of Color, Volume I, J.A. Rogers.
- Fables of Aesop, Translated by S.A. Handford.
- Wonderful Ethiopians and the Ancient Cushite Empire, Drusilla Dunjee Houston