“If Aesop was not an African…”

The anonymously authored Aesop Romance (usually dated to the 1st or 2nd century CE) begins with a vivid description of Aesop’s appearance, saying he was “of loathsome aspect… potbellied, misshapen of head, snub-nosed, swarthy, dwarfish, bandy-legged, short-armed, squint-eyed, liver-lipped—a portentous monstrosity,”[25] or as another translation has it, “a faulty creation of Prometheus when half-asleep.” …

A much later tradition depicts Aesop as a black African from Ethiopia.[29] The presence of such slaves in Greek-speaking areas is suggested by the fable “Washing the Ethiopian white” that is ascribed to Aesop himself. This concerns a man who buys a black slave and, assuming that he was neglected by his former master, tries very hard to wash the blackness away. But nowhere in the fable is it suggested that this constitutes a personal reference. The first known promulgator of the idea was Planudes, a Byzantine scholar of the 13th century who wrote a biography of Aesop based on The Aesop Romance and conjectured that Aesop might have been Ethiopian, given his name.[30] An English translation of Planudes’ biography from 1687 says that “his Complexion [was] black, from which dark Tincture he contracted his Name (Aesopus being the same with Aethiops)”. When asked his origin by a prospective new master, Aesop replies, “I am a Negro“; numerous illustrations by Francis Barlow accompany this text and depict Aesop accordingly.[31] But according to Gert-Jan van Dijk, “Planudes’ derivation of ‘Aesop’ from ‘Aethiopian’ is… etymologically incorrect,”[32] and Frank Snowden says that Planudes’ account is “worthless as to the reliability of Aesop as ‘Ethiopian.'”[33]

Nevertheless, in 1932 the anthropologist J.H. Driberg, repeating the Aesop/Aethiop linkage, asserted that, while “some say he [Aesop] was a Phrygian… the more general view… is that he was an African”, and “if Aesop was not an African, he ought to have been.”


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