Did you know that there’s a connection between the famous teller of tales and Isis? In fact, it’s rather important one, at least for Aesop.
Who was Aesop, again?
First, a quick refresher on Aesop. We’ve all heard his fables—amusing stories, often featuring animals, that teach moral lessons: The Fox and the Grapes, the Ant and the Grasshopper, the Tortoise and the Hare, the North Wind and the Sun, the Boy Who Cried Wolf.
Scholars are far from certain as to whether Aesop actually lived or he was more of a Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill folk hero. There are a number of versions of the story of his life, which are known as the Life of Aesop or the Romance of Aesop. Today, it’s more often called the Romance, not because it’s about the love life of Aesop, but because it is likely to be mostly fictional. Early fiction novels were known as romances, and yes, many were indeed about star-crossed lovers. (There were romances that included Isis as a character, too, by the way; I write about one of them in Isis Magic.)
If we believe the Life or Romance, Aesop lived from 620 to 564 BCE. He was said to have been a Phrygian or an Ethiopian, or to hail from Thrace or Sardis or Lydia. He is mentioned by Aristotle, Herodotus, and Plutarch, as well as a number of Greek playwrights and poets. He is supposed to have been a slave with physical deformities that made him quite ugly, but by his wit, wisdom, and skill at storytelling came to be a counsellor to kings and pharaohs and sages.
Aesop & Isis
But where did this ex-slave get his gift of gab? According to one version of the Romance (and there are several), poor Aesop was not only deformed, but mute as well. One day, while he is toiling in the fields, he sees a priestess of Isis who is clearly lost, wandering blindly about in the field where Aesop is working.
He goes to help her, gives her refreshments, and shows her the way back to the road. For his kindness and piety (he was pious in assisting a holy woman), the priestess prays to “Isis of the Many Names” that Aesop will be granted the ability to speak.
Time passes and Aesop settles down in the field for a nap. He dreams. And in his dream, Isis and the Nine Muses appear to him. The Goddess announces that She will give Aesop a voice and asks each of the Muses to bestow upon him a gift from Her own specialty. In addition to those nine gifts, They grant to him “the invention of words, and the weaving and construction of Greek stories.” When Aesop awakes, he finds that he can indeed speak and excitedly begins naming everything he sees. He understands without a doubt that he received this blessing because he had been pious toward the priestess of Isis and he wraps up by telling himself the moral of the tale: “And so it is good to be pious! I expect to receive good hopes from the Gods.”
Because of Aesop’s awakening to a new life (as a speaking teller of tales) and his use of the phrase “good hopes,” some scholars have tried to see in the Romance allusions to an initiation into the Mysteries of Isis similar to that in Apuleius’ famous tale from Metamorphoses. One of the things learned by the Mystery initiates at Eleusis, according to Cicero, was “how to live in joy and to die with better hopes.” Most scholars don’t agree that the Romance supports classification as an initiatory tale. Nevertheless, I find it quite interesting, to say the least, that our romantic Aesop seems to allude to the Mysteries.
Isis & Muses & words, O my!
The Romance was probably written in the 2nd century CE. This places it smack dab in the middle of the height of the worship of Isis in the Graeco-Roman world. If that is so, it explains the prominence of the Goddess in the story. She was big everywhere. The anonymous writer of the Romance of Aesop could not ignore Her. Surely it benefitted him or, less likely, her to have included the popular Goddess in the tale.
But Isis’ connection with the gift of speech and with potent words did not come out of the blue. Like most later expressions of Her nature, they found an antecedent in the Egyptian worship of the Goddess.
I hardly need to mention that Isis is preeminently the Lady of Words of Power—and words are what Aesop is lacking. As Goddess of Magic, Isis “recited formulae with the magical power of Her mouth, being skilled of tongue and never halting for a word, being perfect in command and word…” In the Egyptian Delta city of Busiris (a cult center for Osiris and famous in later times for an elaborate Festival of Isis), Isis was known as Djedet Weret, the Great Word. Thus She is the Goddess Who powerfully speaks the Words and She is the Word Itself. If anybody could do it, She would be the one Who could make the mute speak!
Later tradition has Isis, along with Thoth, involved with words as the inventor of writing, both hieroglyphic and demotic. The Cairo calendar calls our Goddess “the provider of the book.” The Oxyrhynchus Invocation of Isis names Her as skilled in writing and calculations. Even later, Medieval tradition considered Her a culture bearer and credited Isis with teaching the Egyptians to write.
Isis’ connection with the Muses seems to have been something widely understood at the time of the creation of the Romance. Plutarch mentions in his essay On Isis and Osiris that the leader of the Muses at Hermopolis is called both Isis and Justice. It has been suggested that the “Muses” at Hermopolis might have originally been the Egyptian Seven Hathors—plus Isis-Hathor and Isis-Ma’et (as Justice) to make the canonical nine.
And the moral of this little fable? Isis can show up anywhere—even where you didn’t expect to find Her…like hanging out with the Boy Who Cried Wolf and the Tortoise and the Hare.