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A View into (a Better) Society: Archetypes in "Aesop’s Fables"

Most modern sayings or proverbs people remember come from an ancient collection of fables attributed to the Greek slave Aesop around the 5th century BC. Not a lot is known of Aesop’s life, and, over the centuries, much has been contested even with his biography Life of Aesop. However, what has not been contested is the validity of his lessons throughout time. Fables are defined by their didactic scheme, and Aesop had used this form to educate the masses by taking human traits and placing them on animals. In essence, he created human archetypes that offered a view into society in simple terms. This analysis will focus on the morals embedded in Aesop’s fables and how they help satirize and critique people in society, even today.

One of the bases of Aesop’s fables lies in their endomythium, i.e., the moral of the story. They sometimes appear as a separate line of text (e.g., “Persuasion is better than force” (43) in “The North Wind and The Sun”) or embedded in the character’s dialogue as a biting last line that conveys the story’s theme and meaning. No matter their placement within the story, the endomythium is used to underline the essence of the oral lesson, since all of Aesop’s fables use a didactic strategy in which the stories focus on someone else's mistake and critique it because “negative exempla are instructive” (Gibbs 71). For example, in “The Fox and The Goat,” the fox insults the goat for foolishly descending into the well at his pleas: “If you had as much sense in your head as you have hair in your beard you wouldn’t have got into the well without making certain that you could get out again” (73). This endomythium becomes part of the story, but it is also stressed abstractly in the proverb “Look before you leap.” The effect is of generalizing the mistake and creating archetypes associated with it: the gullible and the opportunist. Moreover, Aesop critiques the gullible goat verbally because it appears that “the verbal catastrophe of being insulted is in some sense worse than a physical catastrophe in the world of Aesop” (Gibbs 64); the verbal insult is enough to attest to whose mistake audiences pay attention to. Thus, the animals having been given human speech and mannerisms through anthropomorphism cease to act like animals and instead fully become human archetypes.

Archetypes are a natural outcome of generalizing the Aesopic fable structure of learning from someone else’s mistakes. They work on the dichotomy of the good and bad characters, meaning the ones who succeed in the end or the ones who are verbally punished for their foolishness; the animal associations enable the encompassing of most human traits and the easier understanding of them: the sly fox, the predatory wolf, the slow turtle, etc. With Aesop’s critique, the audiences learn to emulate the good qualities of these archetypes and alter the satirized bad behaviors if they want to have a good life. In “The Fox and The Stork,” the malice of the fox trying to amuse himself on behalf of the stork’s incapacity to eat from the same plate as his is punished with the same treatment from the stork, which illustrates that bad deeds always come around. As a result, the proverbs embedded in the fables infiltrate people’s minds and help guide their actions to better distance themselves from the bad archetypes: “slow and steady wins the race,” “things are not always what they seem,” “deeds speak louder than words,” etc. The association with the humanized animal characters is what allows Aesop to satirize and critique society for the purposes of educating and reforming it, in a way integrating the morals from within the fables into the world outside them.

The legendary Aesopic fables have passed through generations, from ancient times to the modern, and their moral lessons still carry an impact today. While using animals to generalize human traits and make the lesson more palatable to audiences, Aesop successfully criticized the bad seeds of society and compacted the stories’ morals in simple, abstract endomythiums that are so pertinent that they have become popular sayings.


Works Cited

Aesop, Jones V. S. Vernon, and Arthur Rackham. Aesop’s Fables. Dover Publication, 2013.

Gibbs, Laura Kathleen. Lost in a town of pigs: The Story of Aesop’s Fables. PhD. dissertation, University of California, 1999. ProQuest,

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