Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose

Tim Whitmarsh writes:

Kurke’s learned and humane book aims to excavate the vibrant popular tradition assumed by Aesop’s fables but now largely buried, and restore it to its place in cultural history. The largely elite literature that survives from antiquity, she argues, grew out of and in response to that tradition, embodied by Aesop; the ‘conversations’ and ‘dialogue’ of her title take place between these two literary communities, the high and the low. In more than 400 pages of dense but untiring argumentation, she ranges across a thousand years of Greek and Near Eastern literature, religion and history, and engages fluently with theorists in a variety of fields. At the most fundamental level she makes two claims. The first is that the Aesopic tradition emerged as a rallying point for resistance to elite dominance. Kurke is interested not in the historical Aesop, but in the process whereby his name came to be associated with popular subversion of existing power structures. In the Life, Aesop is killed by the Delphians, and in a sparkling display of critical detective work, Kurke assembles the traces of this story in earlier authors to argue that the oldest stratum links Aesop with rebellion against the authority of Delphi, the ‘navel of the world’, associated with wealth, power and the right to pronounce truth. Prophecy was closely tied to wisdom, and so the wise were required to endorse Delphi, along with its patron god, Apollo. In particular, Delphic Apollo promoted the Seven Sages, an amorphous group whose fluid membership included the celebrated Athenian lawgiver Solon, the philosopher Thales (famous for predicting an eclipse, and for falling down a well while stargazing), and the tyrant Periander of Corinth. It was this party that, according to Kurke, the legendary Aesop sought to crash with his demotic apophthegms. To snotty Delphic maxims such as ‘know yourself’ and ‘nothing in excess’, Aesop retorted with a playfully subversive, vulgar wit rooted in the body. Hence the Delphians’ hostility to him in the Life.

(LRB 16 June 2011)