From the same superstition this Greek proverb take its origin: ‘the owl flies’ or ‘the owl has flown.’ Among the early Athenians the flight of an owl was thought representative of victory because this bird was believed sacred to Athena, who was said to bring good fortune to any doing of Athens, even when poorly planned. On this topic I’ll speak later in the proverb ‘Atheniensium inconsulta temeritas‘. From this association it was customary to say ‘the owl flies’ when matters went well and as desired. Zenodotus and Suidas provide the authority on this. Not unwittily is an owl said to have flown whenever a matter is thought completed not by energy or strength but by the intervention of money – since the Athenian money had an owl imprinted on it. Whence also that proverb ‘Lauriotic Owls’ which is recounted elsewhere.
Ex eadem superstitione manauit et illud Graecanicum: Γλαὺξ ἵπταται, [G] siue ἵπτατο, [C] id est [A] Noctua volat, [C] siue volauit. [A] Nam priscis Atheniensibus noctuae volatus victoriae symbolum existimabatur, propterea quod auis haec Mineruae sacra crederetur, quae quidem dicta est etiam male consulta Atheniensium bene fortunare. [C] Qua de re copiosius aliquanto dicemus in prouerbio Atheniensium inconsulta temeritas. [A] Inde rebus felicius atque ex animi sententia succedentibus dici consueuit Noctua volat. Autores Zenodotus et Suidas. [G] Non illepide dicetur volasse noctua, quoties res non viribus, sed pecuniarum interuentu confecta creditur, quod Atheniensium nomisma noctuam haberet insculptam. Vnde et illud Laurioticae noctuae, quod alibi recensetur.
Erasmus Adagia 51. I’m giving the full Latin at bottom but only translating the beginning and end.
‘Having your throat cut by your own sword or weapon’ is said of someone who is beaten by his own words or captured by his own stratagem or trick…. [Following examples of the metaphor, Erasmus concludes by mentioning that] Trebellius Pollio tells of Marius, one of the thirty tyrants, who was slain by a soldier who told him “here is the sword you yourself made.” For Marius had been a blacksmith before getting power and had employed this soldier in his workshop. So you could say this man truly had his throat slit by his own sword.
Suo gladio suoue telo iugulari dicitur, qui suis ipsius dictis reuincitur aut qui suopte inuento doloue capitur, denique in quem quocunque modo seu dictum seu factum retorquetur, quod ab ipso profectum sit, veluti si quis exemplo Protagorae antistrephon dilemma•in eum, qui proposuerit, retorqueat aut si quemadmodum Phalaris Perillum mali repertorem suo inuento conficiat. Itaque in Adelphis Terentii Mitio senex fratris Demeae saeuitiam increpans huiusmodi vtitur sententia: Hoc vnum affert vitii senecta, attentiores ad rem sumus quam oportet. Eandem Demea paulo post in fratrem retorquens, Postremo, inquit, non meum illud verbum facio, quod tu, Mitio, Bene et sapienter dixti dudum. Vitium commune omnium est, Quod nimium ad rem in senecta attenti sumus. Hanc maculam nos decet Effugere. Hac ratione cum Mitio constringeretur adigereturque, vt agrum, quem rogabatur, daret, turti Demea Suo, inquit•, sibi hunc iugulo gladio. Translata metaphora ab his•, qui in pugna suis ipsorum telis aliquoties confodiuntur.167 Plautus in Amphitryone•: Atque hunc telo suo sibi, malitia sua, a foribus pellere. Cicero pro Cecinna: Aut tuo, quemadmodum dicitur, gladio aut nostro defensio tua conficiatur necesse est. Huc allusit Ouidius in Epistolis Heroidum: Remigiumque dedi, quo me fugiturus abires; Heu, patior telis vulnera facta meis. Eodem pertinent et illa Ciceronis: In tuum ipse mucronem incurras, necesse est. Rursum: Hic est defensionis tuae mucro; in eum incurrat oratio tua necesse est. Neque vehementer hinc abludit Liuianum illud [G] libro ii. de secundo bello Punico•: [A] Sentiebat Hannibal suis | se artibus peti.Lucianus in Piscatoribus: Ὡς παρ᾽168 ἡμῶν τὰ τοξεύματα, ὡς φής, λαβὼν καθ᾽ ἡμῶν ἐτόξευες, id est Quae quidem tela a nobis, vti fateris, sumpta aduersus nos iaculatus es. [B] Tradit Plutarchus Brasidam ducem educto e corpore telo eodem confodisse eum, qui miserat. [C] Marius• vnus e triginta tyrannis a milite quodam interemptus narratur a Trebellio Pollione, qui adoriens dixerit: Hic est gladius, quem ipse fecisti; nam Marius• ante imperium faber ferrarius fuerat et eius militis opera in fabrili officina vsus. Hunc igitur vere suo gladio dixeris iugulatum.
In time for the coming holidays, from Plautus’ Miles Gloriosus 740-743 (The Braggart Soldier), text and translation of the new Loeb edition:
no guest can put up at such a great friend’s place that he wouldn’t be a nuisance as soon as it’s been three days in a row; but when it’s ten days in a row, it’s a whole Iliad of hatred.
nam hospes nullus tam in amici hospitium deuorti potest quin, ubi triduom continuom fuerit, iam odiosus siet; uerum ubi dies decem continuos sit, ea est odiorum Ilias:
Plautus’ exact phrase (odiorum Ilias) is a weird one. The Greek version – κακῶν Ἰλιὰς – was enough of an ancient proverb that Erasmus covered it at Adagia 226 – Ilias Malorum, though he fails there to mention what seems the first (traceable) instance of the phrase itself – Demosthenes’ use in De Falsa Legatione (On the False Embassy).
καὶ κακῶν Ἰλιὰς περιειστήκει Θηβαίους. and an Iliad of woes surrounded the Thebans.
What’s weird in Plautus is obvious from comparison with Erasmus’ Latin rendering – Ilias Malorum, which likely comes from Cicero’s use (Ad Atticum viii. 11) – Tanta malorum impendet Ilias (so great an Iliad of troubles hangs over us). κακόν as substantive carries the sense of ‘evils, ills’ – which is better matched in Latin by malus than odium. But maybe it’s an issue of Plautine usage since there is – according to Lewis and Short – a close transferred sense: “In gen., the object of hatred; hence, an offence, annoyance, disgust, said of persons or things.”
Sus cum Minerva certamen suscepit A pig undertakes a contest with Minerva
The same or at least as close as possible to this is found in Theocritus’ Idylls.
Ὗς ποτ᾽ Ἀθηναίαν ἔριν ἤρισε A pig once challenged Athena to a quarrel
It is said whenever the ignorant and dull-witted, ready to fight, are not afraid to challenge men of the highest learning in a literary competition. Theocritus commentator writes that the phrase is commonly used thus: Ὗς ὢν πρὸς Ἀθήνην ἐρίζεις (though a pig, you quarrel with Athena). Some scholiast adds that ἐρίζειν is used for those who compete with words and ἐρείδειν for those who compete with deeds – which makes it all the more laughable, if an unteachable pig competes with Minerva, the guardian of studies.
Cum hoc aut idem aut certe quam maxime finitimum, quod apud Theocritum legitur in Hodoeporis:
Ὗς ποτ᾽ Ἀθηναίαν ἔριν ἤρισε, id est Cum diua est ausus sus decertare Minerua.
Quoties indocti stolidique et depugnare parati non verentur summos in omni doctrina viros in certamen literarium prouocare. Theocriti enarrator sic efferri vulgo παροιμίαν scribit: Ὗς ὢν πρὸς Ἀθήνην ἐρίζεις, id est Sus cum sis, cum Minerua contendis. Scholiastes nescio quis addit eos ἐρίζειν dici, qui verbis certant, ἐρείδειν, qui factis, quo magis ridiculum est, si sus indocilis certet cum Minerua disciplinarum praeside.
The reference to Theocritus is to Idyll 5, line 23:
Comatas By these Nymphs of the lake—and may they be kind and propitious to me—I, Comatas, did not steal away with your pipe.
Lacon May I have the sufferings of Daphnis if I believe you.6 But if you would like to wager a kid—not a big stake, after all7—then I’ll compete with you in song until you give in.
Comatas A pig once challenged Athena.8 There: the kid is my stake; now you put forward a fat lamb.
Lacon And how will that be fair, you trickster? Who shears hair instead of wool? Who wants to milk a wretched dog when a goat is at hand which has just given birth for the first time?
Among the Greeks is a proverb certainly less elegant but nevertheless just as effective: ‘Speak with less learning and with more clarity’ (Ἀμαθέστερον καὶ σαφέστερον εἰπέ), which is found in the same Aulus Gellius: “You know, I believe, that old and widespread phrase, ‘Speak with less learning and with more clarity,’ that is speak with less learning and more simplicity, do it more openly and clearly. It appears this is taken from a comedy of Aristophanes titled The Frogs:
Ἀμαθέστερον πως εἰπὲ καὶ σαφέστερον Speak with less learning and with more clarity
In that play Bacchus is assessing an obscure statement of Euripides’, which he had set forth with insufficient lucidity. Suidas and the scholiast call attention to a proverb hidden there, which is reported in this way:
Σαφέστερόν μοι κἀμαθέστερον φράσον Tell me more clearly and less learnedly
I suspect it is taken hence – that in antiquity those sages (σοφοί), as they call them, were accustomed to hide in wrappings of enigmas the mysteries of their wisdom, doubtlessly so that the generality, profane and not yet initiated to the rites of philosophy, not be able to follow them. And even today some professors of philosophy and theology, when they treat of things that some mere woman or workman might say, in order that they might seem learned, enfold and roll up the matter in subtleties (lit. thorns) and worded burdens. So Plato darkened his own philosophy with his talk of numbers. So Aristotle rendered many things much darker through mathematical analogies.
Inelegantius quidem est illud apud Graecos, sed idem tamen pollet: Ἀμαθέστερον καὶ σαφέστερον εἰπέ, quod apud eundem refertur Gellium. Nosti enim, inquit, credo, verbum illud vetus et peruulgatum, Ἀμαθέστερον εἰπὲ καὶ σαφέστερον, id est Indoctius rudiusque quodammodo loquere et apertius ac clarius fare. Sumptum apparet ex Aristophanis comoedia, cui titulus Βάτραχοι, id est Ranae:
Ἀμαθέστερον πως εἰπὲ καὶ σαφέστερον, id est Indoctius proloquitor atque clarius.
Quo carmine Bacchus Euripidis obscuritatem taxat, qui nescio quid parum dilucide proposuerat. Suidas et interpres admonent subesse prouerbium, quod hunc ad modum feratur:
Σαφέστερόν μοι κἀμαθέστερον φράσον, id est Apertius mihi loquere atque indoctius.
Suspicor inde sumptum, quod antiquitus illi σοφοί, quos vocant, soleant mysteria sapientiae quibusdam aenigmatum inuolucris data opera obtegere, videlicet ne prophana turba ac nondum philosophiae sacris initiata posset assequi•. [C] Quin et hodie nonnulli philosophiae ac theologiae professores, cum ea quandoque tradant, quae quaeuis muliercula aut cerdo dicturus sit, tamen quo docti videantur, rem spinis quibusdam ac verborum portentis implicant et inuoluunt. Sic Plato numeris suis obscurauit suam philosophiam. Sic Aristoteles multa mathematicis collationibus reddidit obscuriora.
The line from Frogs is 1455, part of an extended exchange where Dionysus, deciding between Aeschylus or Euripides to take back up to Athens, has them both provide advice on how to fix the city. A running theme here is, as phrased in 1434 (ὁ μὲν σοφῶς γὰρ εἶπεν, ὁ δ᾿ ἕτερος σαφῶς), the distinction between the one speaking clearly (σαφῶς) and and the other wisely (σοφῶς). The ordering of the text and assignment of lines in this passage is much contested but the immediate trigger for the proverb is Euripides advising:
Said about imitation which in great degree falls short of what it imitates. Plutarch in his Symposiacs, in the second problem of the fifth decade, explains how this adage came about: There was a certain Parmenon, a man of that sort who even in our time imitate and recreate animal sounds and human voices so skillfully that – though only to listeners, not to those watching – the voices seem real and not imitations. There is no lack of people whom this skill delights to the greatest degree. Accordingly, Parmenon is thought to have been most agreeable and famous among the common people because of this skill. When others tried to imitate him everyone would immediately say, “Εὖ μέν, ἀλλ᾽ οὐδὲν πρὸς τὴν Παρμένοντος ὗν” or “Good certainly, but nothing compared to Parmenon’s pig.”
[But then] someone came forward carrying a genuine pig under his arms. When the people heard the pig’s voice they believed it an imitation and, as they always did, they at once shouted, “Τί οὖν αὕτη πρὸς τὴν Παρμένοντος – Well, what is that compared to Parmenon’s?” When the genuine pig was brought out and shown about openly, it refuted their judgment, inasmuch as it was formed not in accord with the true situation but through their imagination. [Plutarch] likewise mentions Parmenon and his counterfeit pig in his commentary On Listening to the Poets.
Not inopportune is the use of this adage whenever someone, deceived in his opinion about a thing, judges it incorrectly. Like if someone admires an unrefined and new-fashioned epigram persuaded that is is ancient. Or again if someone condemns as modern something ancient and refined. So strong is this type of imagination that it burdens even the most learned men in their judgment.
NIHIL AD PARMENONIS SVEM
Οὐδὲν πρὸς τήν Παρμένοντος ὗν, id est Nihil ad Parmenonis suem. De aemula-
tione dictum, quae longo interuallo abesset ab eo quod imitaretur. Plutarchus
in Symposiacis, quintae decadis secundo problemate, quo pacto natum sit
adagium narrat ad hanc ferme sententiam: Parmeno quispiam fuit ex homi-
num eorum genere, qui nostris etiam temporibus varias animantium et
hominum voces ita scite imitantur ac repraesentant, vt audientibus tantum,
non etiam videntibus verae, non imitatae voces videantur. Neque desunt quos
hoc artificium maiorem in modum delectet. Parmenon igitur hac arte vulgo vt
iucundissimus ita etiam celeberrimus fuisse perhibetur; quem cum reliqui
conarentur aemulari ac protinus ab omnibus diceretur illud: Εὖ μέν, ἀλλ᾽ οὐδὲν
πρὸς τὴν Παρμένοντος ὗν, hoc est Recte quidem, verum nihil ad Parmenonis suem,
quidam prodiit veram suculam sub alis occultatam gestans. Huius vocem cum
populus imitaticiam esse crederet statimque, sicut solent, reclamarent: Τί οὖν
αὕτη πρὸς τὴν Παρμένοντος; id est Quid haec ad Parmenonis suem? vera sue
deprompta ac propalam ostensa refellit illorum iudicium, vtpote non ex vero
sed ex imaginatione profectum. Meminit idem Parmenonis ac suis
adumbratae in commentariis De audiendis poetis. Nec intempestiuiter
vtemur hoc adagio, quoties aliquis opinione deceptus de re perperam iudicat.
Veluti si quis epigramma parum eruditum ac neotericum supra modum
admiraretur persuasus antiquum esse. Rursum, si quod antiquum esset et
eruditum, ceu nuperum damnaret. Tantum enim valet haec imaginatio, vt
eruditissimis etiam viris in iudicando imponat.
I continue to find Erasmus’ Latin very brusque next to classical.
A delightful new phrase for me from Erasmus Adagia 4 – Adonidis Horti (the Gardens of Adonis). The phrase receives its own full slot at Adagia 1046 but I only have volume 1 (1-1000) with me at the moment so the tension will be left to mount.
With a similar metaphor Isaeus, according to Philostratus, labels the passions of youth the Ταντάλου κήπους (Gardens of Tantalus) because they are like shadows and dreams and do not satisfy a man’s spirit but rather goad it on the more. Likewise, Pollux called the style of Athenodorus the Sophist the gardens of Tantalus because it is it is immature and insubstantial, presenting itself as though it contained something when it has nothing.
Non dissimili figura Isaeus apud Philostratum iuueniles voluptates appellat Ταντάλου κήπους, quod vmbris ac somniis persimiles sint nec expleant hominis animum sed iritent potius. Similiter Pollux sophistae Athenodori dictionem appellabat Tantali hortos, quod iuuenilis esset ac leuis, speciem prae se ferens, quasi esset aliquid, quum nihil esset.
The source in Philostratus (Lives of the Sophists 1.20, page 69 in the Loeb) for Isaeus:
Isaeus, the Assyrian sophist, had devoted the period of his early youth to pleasure, for he was the slave of eating and drinking, dressed himself in elegant stuffs, was often in love, and openly joined in drunken revels. But when he attained to manhood he so transformed himself as to be thought to have become another person, for he discarded both from his countenance and his mind the frivolity that had seemed to come to the surface in him; no longer did he, even in the theatre, hearken to the sounds of the lyre and the flute; he put off his transparent garments and his many-coloured cloaks, reduced his table, and left off his amours as though he had lost the eyes he had before. For instance, when Ardys the rhetorician asked him whether he considered some woman or other handsome, Isaeus replied with much discretion: “I have ceased to suffer from eye trouble.”[ὁ Ἰσαῖος “πέπαυμαι” εἶπεν “ὀφθαλμιῶν.”] And when someone asked him what sort of bird and what sort of fish were the best eating: “I have ceased,” replied Isaeus, “to take these matters seriously, for I now know that I used to feed on the gardens of Tantalus.” [“πέπαυμαι” ἔφη ὁ Ἰσαῖος “ταῦτα σπουδάζων, ξυνῆκα γὰρ τοὺς Ταντάλου κήπους τρυγῶν,”] Thus he indicated to his questioner that all pleasures are a shadow and a dream.
And for Athenodorus (2.14, page 243 in the Loeb)
Athenodorus the sophist was, by virtue of his ancestors, the most illustrious of the citizens of Aenus, and by virtue of his teachers and his education the most notable of all the educated Greeks in that city. For he was educated by Aristocles while still a mere boy, and by Chrestus when his intelligence began to mature; and from these two he derived his well-tempered dialect, for he both Atticized and employed an ornate style of eloquence. He taught at Athens at the time when Pollux also was teaching there, and in his discourses he used to ridicule him as puerile and would quote “The gardens of Tantalus,” by which I think he meant to compare his light and superficial style of eloquence with some visionary image which both is and is not.
Λεωφόρου μὴ βαδίζειν, id est Per publicam viam ne ambules. Diuus Hieronymus
exponit: Ne vulgi sequaris errores. Nunquam enim tam bene cum rebus humanis
actum est, vt optima plurimis placuerint. Vnde quidam hoc sic efferunt: Viam
regiam declinato, per semitas ingreditor. Quod quidem praeceptum non abhorret
ab Euangelica doctrina, quae monet, vt declinata via spaciosa per quam
ambulant plerique, per angustam ingrediamur viam a paucis quidem tritam,
sed ducentem ad immortalitatem.
Do not walk along the public way. Saint Jerome explains: Do not follow the errors of the crowd. Indeed, never in human affairs has it been possible to act such that the best actions are pleasing to the majority. For this reason certain authors say it in this way: Avoid the royal road, take the by-ways. A precept which itself is not in disagreement with the evangelical doctrine, which warns that we should turn away from the spacious way by which the many walk and go by the narrow path which is trod by few but leads to immortality.
From Erasmus’ Adagia (2.6). My own hasty rendering.
IGNEM NE GLADIO FODITO
‘Do not stir the fire with a sword’, that is to say, do not provoke someone already stirred to anger. It is far better to yield and calm his enraged spirit with kind words. This is the opinion of Saint Jerome and of Demetrius of Byzantium, cited by Athenaeus.
Diogenes Laertius explains that the choleric temperament of violent and wrathful men ought not to be stirred up with reproaches, because the more a flame is stirred up, the stronger it grows.
Plutarch does not judge any differently.
Plato, however, in Book 6 of The Laws, has used this saying of men who strive in vain for what can be in no way accomplished, showing this to have been a type of game – that they would cut up a fire with a sword.
Saint Basil mentions a nearly identical sense in his letter to his nephews – how they wish to cut fire with a sword and draw water with a sieve.
And it is surely to that definition that Lucian refers in book 2 of his True History. He tells that that at his departure from the Isles of the Blessed, Rhadamanthus ordered him to follow three rules when he came back to our earth: not to stir the fire with a sword, not to eat beans, and not to bed a boy more than 18 years old. If he kept these in mind, he would one day return to the isle.
It seems that Horace, by this saying, points out cruelty mixed with madness. For love is in itself mad and if it breaks forth into fighting and murder, the fire is pierced by a sword. Satire 2.3: “Add bloodshed to these and stire the fire with a sword.”
Πῦρ σιδήρῳ μὴ σκαλεύειν, id est• Ignem gladio ne fodito, hoc est ira percitum ne
lacessas. Quin magis concedere conuenit et blandis verbis tumidum animum
placare. Ita diuus Hieronymus et apud Athenaeum Demetrius Byzantius.
Diogenes Laertius exponit potentium et ferocium iracundiam non esse
conuitiis exagitandam, propterea quod flamma quo magis exagitatur, hoc
magis atque magis inualescit. Neque dissentit ab hoc interpretamento Plutarchus.
Quanquam Plato libro De legibus sexto sic vsurpauit, vt de iis dici
solitum videatur, qui frustra moliuntur quod effici nullo pacto queat, osten-
dens id lusus genus quoddam fuisse, vt ignem gladio dissecarent. Ad eundem
ferme sensum retulit diuus Basilius in Epistola ad nepotes, vt idem sibi velint
ignem gladio dissecare et cribro haurire aquam. Huc nimirum allusit Lucianus
in secundo Verarum narrationum libro, cum ex insulis fortunatis dimitteretur,
fingens se a Rhadamantho admonitum, vt si quando rediret in hunc nostrum
orbem, tria quaedam obseruaret, Μὴ πῦρ μαχαίρᾳ σκαλεύειν, μήτε θερμούς
ἐσθίειν, μήτε παιδὶ ὑπὲρ τὰ ὀκτωκαίδεκα• ἔτη πλησιάζειν, id est Ne gladio ignem
diuerberaret, ne lupinis vesceretur, ne se puero decimumoctauum annum egresso adiunge-
ret. Si quidem horum meminisset, futurum vt aliquando ad eam insulam
reuerteretur. Horatius hoc dicto videtur indicare crudelitatem cum insania
coniunctam. Amor enim per se furor est, qui si erumpat in pugnas ac caedes,
ignis gladio perfoditur. Libro Sermonum secundo, satyra iii.: His adde cruorem
/ atque ignem gladio scrutare.
Erasmus Adagia 377 – from the section of proverbial phrases for pointless tasks.
Τὸν ἀνθέρικον θερίζειν (‘to reap Asphodel’) is said of those who take in hand an empty and profitless task. Asphodel is a kind of herb which cannot be reaped [with a scythe] but requires being plucked by hand like linen….
Τὸν ἀνθέρικον θερίζειν, id est Anthericum metere, dicebantur, qui laborem inanem ac sterilem caperent. Anthericus, herbae genus, quod meti non possit, sed velli manibus necesse est velut et linum….
Aside from Achilles in Bk 11 of the Odyssey walking off through an asphodel meadow in the underworld (μακρὰ βιβᾶσα κατ᾽ ἀσφοδελὸν λειμῶνα) and a similar notice in Bk 24 of the same work the only other reference point I have for asphodel in classical literature is early – lines 37-41 – in Hesiod’s Works and Days where he criticizes his brother Perses’ behavior on the death of their father:
Already we had divided our inheritance but you snatched up and carried off the greater part, honoring the gift-eating (i.e. feeding on bribes) kings who are willing to judge such a case. Fools, who do not know how much more the half is than the whole nor what great benefit there is in mallow and asphodel.
The general sense in West’s commentary on Works and Days is simply that mallow and asphodel – examples of the poorest fare – are recommended under the same conscious paradox as guides ‘the half better than the whole.’ The point is the preferability of honestly obtained poor fare to dishonestly obtained luxury. No commentaries mention Erasmus’ adage – or the harvesting experience it springs from – but it seems something of a confirming contribution to Hesiod’s point – that Asphodel as terrible food and a pain to obtain is still better than wrongly gotten luxury.
And with this thought process I myself have reaped asphodel.