Chapter Four: Greek and Roman Folklore: How Do Fables Intersect with Sustainability Goals Life on Land and Quality Education?

…traditional stories and folktales from specific places and particular communities are not an occasion for discourse among critics but …necessary nourishment for their people and one way by which they come to understand their lives…

-Barbara Christian

"Life of Aesop" by Planudes - like animals, plants, skull, ring, boot, rope, church, castle tower, marital bed, bird, dog, eagle, a cliff, grasshopper, and female mythological figure that looks like a sea nymph.450 BCE Greek Coin believed to depict Aesop and the Fox: "Paul Zanker describes the figure as a man with "emaciated body and oversized head... furrowed brow and open mouth", who "listens carefully to the teachings of the fox sitting before him. He has pulled his mantle tightly around his meager body, as if he were shivering... he is ugly, with long hair, bald head, and unkempt, scraggly beard, and is clearly uncaring of his appearance."1890s Japanese Woodcut illustration depicting "The Hercules and the Wagoner," one of Aesop's fables. Image is sepia, tone - like yellow with brownish tint,


Three depictions of Aesop’s Fables – from Spain (left), Greece (center), & Japan (right). CC

Introduction of Chapter Four

Outcomes and Skills Practiced

  • Chapter Four presents critical approaches to close read and identify aspects of the fable featured in Aesop’s Fables
  • To succeed, select several assignments to continue to practice textual analysis on the fable with ‘ecocritical’ approaches

Dr. Martin Puchner reminds readers that literary studies also treats literature as a cultural phenomenon that has ties to sharing folklore across regions and continents, through historical trade routes. The fable, for instance, is part of a collective matrix of multicultural legacies of stories that were collected and compiled. These collective compilations existed longer than the first known libraries in 600 B.C.E and may compete with the oldest known cuneiforms from 2100 B.C.E. of the Epic of Gilgamesh, which were housed at the library of Ashurbanipal, Syria in 600 B.C.E. In his 2023 book titled Culture: The Story of Us, from Cave Art to K-Pop, Puchner describes the culture of collecting and compiling ancient folklore.

This view is exemplified by Zuangang, the Chinese traveler who went to India and brought back Buddhist manuscripts. It was embraced by Arab and Persian scholars who translated Greek philosophy. It was practiced by countless scribes, teachers, and artists who found inspiration far outside their local culture. In our time, it has been endorsed by Wole Soyinka and many other artists working in the aftermath of European colonialism. Culture, for these figures, is made not only from the resources of one community but also from encounters with other cultures. It is forged not only from the lived experience of individuals but also from borrowed forms and ideas that help individuals understand and articulate their experience in new ways. (Puchner xi-xii)

His description also shows a different understanding of literature. We can understand literature as also representing a collective cultural phenomenon, one that many of our own peoples around the world since ancient times and for several millennia have participated in and have contributed to as compilers, collectors, and or at times as adaptors of older stories into renewed versions. The literature we have available to us today is the result of their efforts as ambassadors of culture. They played a key role and did their part to share and perform, to write and borrow, to archive and research, to protect from conflict and export, and to store and catalog thousands of literary works for over four thousand years. Regardless of how we access literary works today, the fact that we may download them represents our current role in this ancient cultural practice.

What Do the Fable and Animal Tale Entail in Aesop’s Fables?

illustration of a person holding a scroll sitting on a pedestal with grape vines on the opposite side with a fox below
1900 Illustration of “The Fox and Grapes” from Aesop’s Fables CC

One of the world’s most famous collections of folklore is the classical collection of allegorical fables titled Aesop’s Fables. Like the poetry of Sappho, Aesop’s Fables only appeared in the texts of others – of Aristophanes, Plato, and Aristotle. While Hesiod, a contemporary of Homer, mentions a fable in Works and Days (700s B.C.E), no one is attributed. Its allegorical tales with animal characters are animal fables – also known as bestial fables.

Even its title was legendary. As fantastic as the tales themselves, it was popular belief that a historical Aesop had actually existed. He was a slave in Archaic Greece, around 600 B.C.E. and a well-known fabulist who retold fables to the ruling classes. It was through his storytelling talent that helped Aesop gain his liberty (OER). Regardless of the legend of a historical Aesop, the stories themselves are diverse and reflect both rural life and urban social norms and values with Eastern influences. What has come to us as Aesop’s Fables is more like a collection of fables with allusions to other literary works as an intertext.

In all actuality, the fables themselves were probably written down by 300 B.C. and represent many sources and variations of content, of what Perry describes as “an appropriative, adaptable, flexible, ‘monstrous and chaotic’ literary category” (Aesopica 2007). Unlike in our modern-day times when distinctions are made between fables and animal fables, Aesop’s Fables were a medley of stories featuring plants, gods, and personified characterizations, which are instances of anthropomorphism. Popular forms of fables – like Aesop’s Fables – attribute a didactic role for the fable to teach social norms, especially on human behavior. When the fables were eventually written down, its ‘style’ was determined in order to make them seem archaic and authentic, as instruction dictates.

The language (phrasis) should be very simple, straightforward, unassuming, and free of all subtlety and periodic expression, so that the meaning is absolutely clear and the words do not appear to be loftier in stature than the actors, especially when these are animals.(Nicolaus qtd. Lefkowitz)

What Roles Has the Fable Had Since Its Early, Ancient Origins?

Like the 1001 Nights, Aesop’s Fables was also known as ‘popular’ with ties to more ancient stories. The added moral endings of Aesop’s Fables show how these fables served to teach a social group.

“To be ‘humane’ (humanus) meant not only to be a human being but also to have exercised one’s capacity as a human being to the fullest through learning” (Christopher Celenza 2008).

Yet, another role of Greek fables was during eras of censorship. The fable served to avoid the censors. This is called Aesopian language, a writing style of the allegory to avoid detection. But as its own subgenre of folklore, differentiating between a fable, story, and parable is neither easy nor helpful.

For example, at a time when Greek citizens were censored in public speaking areas,

“The fables served as a means by which criticisms against the government could be expressed without fear of punishment. In effect, the stories served as a code by which the weak and powerless could speak out against the strong and powerful” (World

This role of the fable has also emerged in modern literature. For example, in the 1860s, the practice of Aesopian language was applied to circumvent censorship in Russian literature.

I spoke the language / of Aesop. / And what’s more, I astonished / Europe. / My bid for independence was / ill-timed. . . / They slapped their imprimaturs / on the press . . . And put one over on all Russia / to a man . . . / Well, what the . . . Am I really back / to Aesop? (S. Skitalets, as satire in 1907)

The use of Aesopian language is satirized by Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol in his story Nose (1836).

‘But what makes ту business unreasonable? It wouldn’t seem to be anything of the sort.’ ‘That’s the way you see it.’ ‘But look here, the same thing happened last week. A civil servant came in exactly as you have now, brought a hand-written note, the charge came to two rubles and seventy-three copecks, and all he wanted to announce was that a black poodle had run away. Ask yourself, what could be wrong with that? But it turned out to be libel; that so-called poodle was the treasurer of some institution, I don’t remember which one.’

How to Approach Fairy Tales through Ecocritical Textual Analysis

Similar to the ways Aesop’s Fables have been modified, so have other forms of folklore, including fairy tales.

For example, the 1812 publication of the Grimms’ Fairy Tales followed similar steps.

“These features form the basis that enables the tales to readily provide a good lesson or a use for the present” (Grimms’ preface 1812).

Modern-day storytelling traditions – either by publishing houses or stories told in our families – challenge literary studies to look at literature for what is told and not told.

For example, Junto Diaz, the author of The Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007) and story cycle writer, takes notes of his role as a storyteller to address and un-silence culture’s narrative gaps known as critical fabulation.

“All societies are organized by the silences they need to maintain. I think the role of art is to try to delineate, break, and introduce language into some of these silences” (Marisol qtd. in Walsh).

Diaz’s approach also applies to ecocriticism, because as readers we may not notice the role and significance of nature in literature due to our own culture’s norms and ideology; hence, our social norms silence nature.

Current scholarship on the intersection of literature and nature is demonstrated through an ecocriticism study of the Brother Grimms and nature.

For example, stories like Old Mother Frost and The Three Snake Leaves show the “interconnectedness of nature and culture (Adler 2014):

From an ecocritical perspective, these tales depict the various manipulations of nature by humans, the moral consciousness formed by the symbiosis and dissonance between nature and culture, the responsibility of humans to respect and nurture nature (as well as the consequences of disrespecting the natural order), in addition to the power of nature to restore and damage human existence. (OER Adler 55)

To paraphrase Adler, what is being argued is that by an ecocritical reading of folklore – as in the tales of the Brothers Grimm – interpretations reveal humanity’s harm to nature and its dire consequences. Since humanity harms nature, nature cannot prevail and support our own health either. Hence, the web of life has been fractured.

Modern children’s literature is a body of written work with many instances and themes that touch upon dynamics between humanity and nature that are potentially fairer and more fruitful for literary studies in ecocriticism.


For example, in E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web, the child Fern protests when her father decides to kill one of their livestock due to its size,

“Do away with it?” shrieked Fern.

“You mean kill it?

Just because it’s smaller than the others?”

Archive E.B. White “Charlotte’s Web”

The deliberate attention to the rights of animals continues in the dialogue between Charlotte and her father as she continues to protest: “Please don’t kill it!” she sobbed. “It’s unfair.”

Another animal fable with a similar ecocritical ‘ethos’ is “Old Sultan” from the Brothers Grimm’s story collection. An elderly dog named Sultan must demonstrate his usefulness to his owner to convince him he deserves to continue living:

“Then the shepherd patted him on the head and said,

‘Old Sultan has saved our child from the wolf,

and therefore he shall live and be well taken care of

and have plenty to eat.”

When we compare different traditions of animal fables, this comparative literary practice offers opportunities in the twenty-first century to learn about beliefs and social norms that support sustainable ideologies in the past. These comparative textual analyses assist in becoming more informed about ways to support sustainable measures and values.

How to Engage in a Textual Analysis on the Representation of Animals through Animal Studies

In his work on animal studies, Mario Ortiz-Robles points out that “some animals are more equal than others” in Orwell’s Animal Farm to affirm that literary studies must continue to work and understand representations of nature.

“We might yet learn to read allegory as a fundamentally political rhetorical figure through which our relation to animals is continually negotiated. We need literature to learn this impossible lesson” (Animal Studies 2016).

The literary theory known as animal studies specializes in intersections with animals and humans in literature. Scholars and critics like Algerian French philosopher Jacques Derrida apply this theory in their own work on topics to understand Western expressions of anthropomorphism in numerous types of texts. For example, in revisiting biblical scripture in Genesis, it has become apparent to Jacques Derrida that humanity’s role in naming the animals demonstrates an inherent hegemonic dynamic.

  • “The animal is a word, it is an appellation that men have instituted, a name they have given themselves the right and the authority to give to another living creature” (Derrida 1997).
  • Derrida defines ‘animal’ as a word that men have given themselves the right to give. His work on folklore also informs on the dynamics between humans and nonhumans in literary texts to address ideology.
  • “We know the history of fabulation and how it remains an anthropomorphic taming, a moralizing subjection, a domestication. Always a discourse of man, on man, indeed on the animality of man, but for man and as man.”

Let’s work with the fables themselves to read them as anthropomorphic reflections of the Western storytelling tradition.

Animals and Aesop’s Fables

In the case of Aesop’s Fables most of these stories end with an inserted moral, and some are quite familiar to us, like “The Ants and the Grasshopper,” where the working insects prepare for future hardships and the grasshopper struggles because he did not ration. He did not plan. Other fables like “The Trees and the Axe” are quite deliberate in addressing the web of life, but its anthropomorphism seems to belittle the message.

“The Ants and the Grasshopper,”

The Ants were employing a fine winter’s day in drying grain collected in the summertime. A Grasshopper, perishing with famine, passed by and earnestly begged for a little food. The Ants inquired of him: “Why did you not treasure up food during the summer?” He replied: “I had not leisure; I passed the days in singing.” They then said: “If you were foolish enough to sing all the summer, you must dance supperless to bed in the winter.”

Idleness brings want. *Inserted moral

The Trees and the Axe

A black and white engraving from Gutenberg's version of Aesop's Fables. The image shows a male adult just about to take a swing to chop down a tree.

A Man came into a forest, and made a petition to the Trees to provide him a handle for his axe. The Trees consented to his request, and gave him a young ash-tree. No sooner had the man fitted from it a new handle to his axe, than he began to use it, and quickly felled with his strokes the noblest giants of the forest. An old oak, lamenting when too late the destruction of his companions, said to a neighboring cedar: “The first step has lost us all. If we had not given up the rights of the ash, we might yet have retained our own privileges and have stood for ages.” OER Gutenberg “Aesop’s Fables” In yielding the rights of others, we may endanger our own.

“The Monkey and the Camel”

A black and white engraving from Gutenberg's version of Aesop's Fables. The image shows a camel, lion, and monkey in the background.

The beasts of the forest gave a splendid entertainment, at which the Monkey stood up and danced. Having vastly delighted the assembly, he sat down amidst universal applause. The Camel, envious of the praises bestowed on the Monkey, and desirous to divert to himself the favor of the guests, proposed to stand up in his turn, and dance for their amusement. He moved about in so very ridiculous a manner, that the Beasts, in a fit of indignation, set upon him with clubs, and drove him out of the assembly.

It is absurd to ape our betters.

Now, let’s compare animal fables: one from Aesop and the other from another tradition. Here is a Native American mythological story by the Cherokee with the fable “The Rat and the Elephant.” How do the two different traditions of fables represent animals? OER folktale by Cherokee

“The Rat and the Elephant”

A black and white engraving from Gutenberg's version of Aesop's Fables. The image shows a camel, lion, and monkey in the background.

A Rat, traveling on the highway, met a huge elephant, bearing his royal master and his suite, and also his favorite cat and dog, and parrot and monkey. The great beast and his attendants were followed by an admiring crowd, taking up all of the road. “What fools you are,” said the Rat to the people, “to make such a hubbub over an elephant. Is it his great bulk that you so much admire? It can only frighten little boys and girls, and I can do that as well. I am a beast; as well as he, and have as many legs and ears and eyes. He has no right to take up all the highway, which belongs as much to me as to him.” At this moment, the cat spied the rat, and, jumping to the ground, soon convinced him that he was not an elephant.

Because we are like the great in one respect we must not think we are like them in all.

Topics relevant to twenty-first century sustainable goals from Aesop’s Fables like those outlined by the United Nations (UNSDG) include life on land and below water, gender equality, reducing inequality, sustainable communities and cities, and quality education.

Key Points

  • Folklore is a collective ancient storytelling culture, like early hymns and oral epic narratives
  • Folklore by its forms, like the animal fable, mythology, allegory, and fantasy, teaches, is didactic
  • Aesop’s Fables are featured and set in rural regions with symbolic characterizations
  • Folklore reflects instances of anthropomorphism in Western fables and animal tales
  • Ecocritical perspectives of folklore unveil silences and efforts to censor folk culture


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Literary Studies For A Sustainable Future Copyright © 2024 by Lisette Helena Assia Espinoza is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book