restricted access Was Aesop a Nubian Kummaji (Folkteller)?
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Northeast African Studies 9.1 (2002) 11-31

Was Aesop a Nubian Kummaji (Folkteller)?
Richard A. Lobban Jr.
Rhode Island College, Providence

Who Was Aesop?

The life of Aesop may be sketched in general, but important parts of his biography are missing and his precise identity remains to be determined. All agree that this sixth-century BCE storyteller was of captured slave origins and that he was sold to a merchant of the island of Samos, a man perhaps originally from Phrygia in Asia Minor. According to his editor, Robert Temple, Aesop was a native of Mesembria in mainland Thrace, but Aristotle, an avid collector and lover of Aesop's entertaining, peasant-like tales, says in his Constitution of Samos that Aesop lived much of his life in Samos.1 Aesop's tales were widely valued for their folkloric wisdom and oracular applicability. Although it is clear that the dispersal of Aesop's literary tradition originated in Greece, all scholars agree that Aesop was not a slave by birth (doulos) but an andrapodon, or slave by virtue of foreign capture. Because of this status he was liable to further exile and sale. While precise confirmation that Aesop was a Nubian is lacking, a convincing case for this can be made on the basis of circumstantial evidence about his life and a content analysis of his literary legacy.

According to Frank Snowden, it was not uncommon for Greeks in the Persian or Ptolemaic periods (sixth to first centuries BCE) to have "Ethiopian," meaning African, slaves; it was common for such slaves to serve as acrobats, entertainers, dancers, mimes, and personal attendants.2 Roughly contemporary were the Assyrian-backed satrap kings of Twenty-sixth Dynasty Egypt, Necho II (610–595 BCE) and Psammetichos II [End Page 11] (595–589), who clashed militarily with the Nubians, erstwhile masters of Egypt under the preceding dynasty. These campaigns may well have resulted in the enslavement of prisoners of war. The Nile Valley and Rea Sea slave trade was common in these centuries, as well as long before and long afterward. Roger Green refers to Aesop in his version of the tale "The Girl with the Rose-Red Slippers," set during the reign of King Amasis, from 570 to 526 BCE.3 Aesop was also reported to have traveled to Egypt during the reign of Nectanebo (Thirtieth Dynasty) but this would have been in the fourth century BCE, so obviously this report is not correct. Others say that he lived during the time of Licurus of Babylon. Aesop was killed by the people of Delphi in about 564 BCE in an extrajudicial execution. This was about two centuries before the Greeks actually came to rule Egypt under Alexander in 331 BCE.

What Was Aesop's Origin?

Aesop's name helps define his status, for it appears to be a corruption of Aethiop or "burnt-faced people," that is, Nubians. Like other "Ethiopians" he would have been considered melas or dark colored. This linguistic evidence suggests that he may well have been of Nubian origin and was subsequently traded to Samos. Ancient writers said that Aesop was "ugly" and "grotesque" with his "flat nose" and "misshapen head." Such terminology would be consistent with European impressions of someone of non-European, conceivably Nubian, origins. Aesop was also reported to be a "stutterer," which could easily refer to an alien accent; many classical texts in fact called the Nubians by the pejorative terms "Berber" or "Barabra," because of their "unknown stuttering." 4

Aesop's foreign origin was also apparent in the fact that many of the animals he incorporated, such as elephants, camels, lions, crocodiles, scarabs, jackals, monkeys, apes, scorpions, poisonous asps, and huge snakes, were exogenous to Greece. But while such animals did not physically exist in Greece at the time, they were very common in Nubia. To be sure, other animals often mentioned by Aesop, including crows, frogs, kites, horses, dogs, bees, flies, ants, pigeons, mice, storks, rabbits, sheep, and goats, were widely found in Greece as well as in Egypt or Nubia...