Is religion just a fable

Aesopian fables

The term fable is derived from the Latin word “fabula”, which in German means something like speech or story. For a long time, literary studies preferred the theory that the origin of the fable was to be found in India or the Orient and not in Greece with the Aesopian fables. In the 19th century, the Jewish orientalist Julius Landsberger assumed that the fable was of Jewish origin. As the main argument he listed the striking similarity between the names Aesop and Asaph. His assumption turned out to be wrong. Nonetheless, the Hebrew fables are among the oldest evidence of this literary genre. Nowadays scientists speak of a polygenesis, that is, of several origins that took place independently of one another.

In general, fables are didactic narratives, from the action of which the reader can derive a morally valuable message, or the narrator himself prefers the teaching to be derived (anamythion) or appends it (epimythion). The main actors are mostly animals, onto which both positive and negative human characteristics are projected. They experience their adventures in their natural environment, but under ideal conditions to focus on teaching.

In Europe the tradition of the Aesopian fables has prevailed. This collection of animal fables is attributed to a slave from Phrygia in Asia Minor named Aesop. Certificates that could prove his authorship or that he actually lived have not been preserved. The reason for this can be easily deduced from the fact that fables were initially only passed down orally. In “Phaedo” Plato tells how Socrates put Aesop's fables into verse before his death. On the basis of this, we can assume that it was already around 500 BC. There were already collections of stories that indicated Aesop as the author. These anthologies included not only animal fables, but also little stories that we today would call sagas, fairy tales, legends and parables. Obviously, the concept of fable was not yet clearly defined in ancient times.

Because of its moral content, the fable is a popular medium in religious circles. In addition to some well-known examples from the Bible, such as the Jotham fable, we find a number of outstanding storytellers in the Talmud and Midrash. These include Hillel, his student Jochanan ben Zakkai and Rabbi Meir. One of the most common fabulous characters in the Talmudic tradition is the fox, which is remarkable as it often plays the leading role in European fables.
During the Middle Ages, the Aesopian fables became very popular in Europe and exerted a great influence on Jewish literature.

Text: Patricia Fromme (student at the Free University of Berlin) in collaboration with Dr. Annett Martini