French children are taught Fontaine's fables

The time of enlightenment

by Daniel and Patrick


  1. History and origin of the fables
  2. Purpose of fables in ancient times
  3. Purpose of Fables in the Enlightenment
  4. Example of a fable: "The water snake"
  5. Lessing
  6. Fables today
  1. History and origin of the fables

Probably the first fables came 3000 BC. BC in Sumer and were used there as teaching texts in schools. In Egypt, fables were mainly in the form of images. However, very few of the old fables have been passed down and taken up again. With the exception of the Pancharta ancient Indian collection of fables, which could be translated into Arabia and provided much information about fables in the past. In Europe, Aesop (600 BC) is considered to be the founder of fable poetry, which is still read today. In the Middle Ages (approx. 13th century) Latin fables were used for school purposes, Martin Luther enriched fable poetry during the Reformation, after which it became quiet in Europe about the fable. It only became popular again with La Fontaine (1621-1695) in the 17th century. It was through him that the French fabulous poetry got married. In Germany there was a shift in motifs in the fables in the 18th century; they were now written more to emphasize bourgeois wisdom than for moral instruction. The fable poetry experienced a climax by Lessing (1729-1781), who also orientated himself again on the old fables. In the Enlightenment they were used as instructional texts about politics, since the transmission of information was possible on such a wide scale for the first time in history. In this way, even the largest section of the population (farmers and craftsmen) could be better informed.

Later on there were still a large number of fable poems up to the 19th century, but these were more used to teach children.

  1. Purpose of the fable in ancient times

The purpose of the fables in antiquity was to point out injustices in the system of government. They also wanted to draw attention to grievances in society. This should also indicate the egoism of many rulers, who at that time were often only interested in their own benefit. Official acts were carried out which mostly went against human dignity and the people. Therefore, the fables played an important role in making people aware of the mistakes of the rulers and the politics of the time. Society was more about exposing human misconduct. They wanted to show what led to grievances and hatred in society. The authors, like Aesop, usually implement this with animals. These often symbolize a certain character such as power in the case of a lion or deceit in the case of a snake. In the fables, the characteristics of animals that were related to humans could be better represented. This should reveal mistakes or misconduct in living together. In this way, even uneducated people quickly learned what could be changed for the better.

3. Purpose of Fables in the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment Fables were written to draw attention to the flaws in an absolutist system of government. The printing press and leaflets made it possible to bring news and texts to the reader in large quantities. Since society was still divided into classes, there was much injustice. But this also meant that education was very limited, as it only reached the rich, i.e. the upper classes. But with the fables it was now possible to teach even uneducated people what was wrong with the regime of that time using simple examples of talking animals. It was pointed out that rulers mostly only availed themselves of their own will and that sacrifices in the population played no role for them. Only what was in their interest was considered important. One could create a silent resistance without immediately creating a violent uprising. This development influenced later revolutions, as it became clear to the people that other rulers could rule and not the God-given kings who supported the class society.
Readers were asked to orient themselves to the behavior that could be drawn from the fables and adapt their lives accordingly. The authors wanted to encourage readers to express their gratitude.

4. Example of a fable: "The water snake"


The frogs want a king

Saddened by the anarchy that ruled them, the frogs sent emissaries to Zeus and asked that they be given a king. The god, who saw their limitations, threw a stick down into the lake. At first, frightened by the impact of the waves, the frogs plunged into the depths of the lake, but later, when the wood stopped moving, they reappeared and showed him such disregard that they climbed onto the wood and sat on it. Indignant that they should have a king, they went to Zeus a second time and asked him to exchange their ruler; because the first one is too lazy. Angry about this, Zeus sent them a sea serpent, which they caught and ate.

After Aesop

Lessing has rewritten this fable it now reads as follows:

Zeus had now given the frogs another king; instead of a peaceful log, a voracious water snake. "Do you want to be our king?" Shouted the frogs, "why are you devouring us?" - "Therefore," answered the snake, because you chose me as king, "replied the water snake.
"I did not choose you," called a frog. The snake gave him an angry look. "Don't you?" She said. “That's even worse! Then I have to devour you because you didn't choose me. "

After G. E. Lessing


The fable represents a criticism of absolutism, that is, of the Enlightenment system of government. Lessing lets the characters speak for it. Zeus forms a deity. Therefore his decision is accepted without further ado. It is considered to be given by God. The frogs do not directly contradict Zeus. The water snake represents the absolute ruler. It has power over all inhabitants and can determine the fate of everyone. The sea snake has no problem just pursuing its own interests, which in this case means eating the frogs. The frogs stand in the fable for the lowest class in absolutism. Of course, the frogs have doubts about the water snake's decision, but because of the givenness of God they do not disagree. Only a frog has the courage to say something. This, however, is punished immediately with the greatest severity, although he has not wronged anyone on the human side. In addition, the water snake shows a great ruler who is invincible for the frogs. For this reason the snake can do whatever it wants and is therefore only interested in its own well-being.

She doesn't care about the losses among the population among the frogs. For the people, i.e. the frogs, the king cannot be touched.

You have to accept their fate as it is. Because they know that they cannot do anything against the ruler's decisions. In doing so, however, they should remain loyal to the state and continue to obey its decisions, but they are not open to criticism because of a lack of education of the population or because they know that they have no chance against such a powerful king as the water snake. On the other hand, the harshness of the regime is also shown, because if a subject complains, he is immediately punished with death.

Lessing wanted to use the fable “The Water Snake” to draw the members of the lowest class at the time (farmers, craftsmen) to the grievances of politics. Because, unlike the citizens, they did not know them, even though they represented the largest part of the population. He wanted to show how the rulers treated them and that it was also possible to rule a country without the absolutism given by God. This was a whole new message to readers, and it was at the heart of the Enlightenment. People should realize that they have been mistreated by those in power.

  1. Lessing

Biography: Lessing, who was born in Kamenz in 1729 and died in Braunschweig in 1781, was one of the most important representatives of the Enlightenment in Germany. Both civil and political developments were lastingly influenced by his writings. Gotthold Ephraim Lessing grew up in the family of a theologian together with 12 siblings. After graduating from high school, he began to study theology and medicine in Leipzig in 1746 (cf. Lessing biography & curriculum vitae). Finally he broke off his studies in 1748 and devoted himself continuously to literature. A meeting with Voltaire in 1750 was also decisive.
At the same time he moved to Berlin. There he began to work for the Vossische Zeitung in 1751. Here he met various high-ranking personalities as an editor and reviewer. Including some who influenced the literary movement of the Enlightenment in Germany. In 1752 he made a master's degree and in 1755 he went on an educational trip across Europe. In the following years he was secretary to General Tauentzien. At the same time he got to know some important actors at the National Theater in Hamburg. What prompted him to spend three years as a dramaturge in Hamburg. In 1771 he married the widowed Eva König, whom he already knew from his work at the Vossische Zeitung. In 1775 he accompanied the prince on a journey of several months through the surrounding countries of Germany. His wife died just three years later.

From 1775 to 1778 his health deteriorated increasingly until he finally died of a stroke.

Act: Gotthold Ephraim Lessing is considered to be the founder of the self-confident bourgeoisie. This had largely to do with his role as a thinker, critic and author. Through his critical writings, which were often ironic, he brought his voice to the common people. This resulted in a rapprochement between the bourgeoisie and the nobility. However, this mainly included these sections of the population, as the lower classes by no means had the opportunity to influence the movement. Neither financially nor pedagogically. In rejection of Shakespeare and other well-known authors, he always acted in the spirit of the French Enlightenment. In his best-known works "Emilia Galotti" and "Nathan the Wise", he appeals to believing Christians once less once more and tries to point out the necessary peaceful coexistence of religions. He represents a self-confident attitude of Christians in public. But human reason is also at the center of his works. Last but not least, he denounced the grievances of the monarchy and the class society. Even at this time he was promoting the ideals of a free life.

  1. Fables today

Fables have evolved very little since ancient times. In the Middle Ages, people still resorted to the scheme of letting animals speak. However, much more emphasis was placed on morality, i.e. to appeal directly to the readers. During the Enlightenment, the French fable poetry experienced a marriage, because of course there was the potential for a revolution and therefore a lot of criticism of the existing government was made. Another development emerged in the 20th century. Many documents from this period want to point out the weaknesses and mistakes of humans. But just as in ancient times, also to draw attention to injustices in the distribution of power. That is the reason why the authors used more and more political and social satire with which they adorned their works. Modern fables still want to point out political injustices, but do so in an ironic way that is also intended to appeal to the reader. Millions of people already know the most famous fables from this time - they are comics and cartoons by the makers of Walt Disney. Because of today's freedom of expression, there is increasing open criticism, which is why not only animals are used but also objects or body parts.


Internet addresses:

Author unknown: The water snake - Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. At: Accessed on June 1, 2014

Author unknown: The fable poetry. At: Accessed on: May 22nd, 2014

Authors of the German Poetry Library: Lessing - biography & curriculum vitae. At: Accessed on May 26, 2014

Heinrich Steinhöwel: The Fable. At: DIE FABEL referat Accessed on: 28.06.14

Author unknown (Uni- Kiel): VI. Fables - fable theory / epigrams. At: http://www.literaturwissenschaft-online.uni Accessed on: May 31, 2014


Fable variations 1 and 2

The Age of Enlightenment: Silvia Hähnel: Belief in Reason. At: http: //www.helles and

I like it:

LikeLoading ...