September 24, 2006

Alterum pedem in cymba Charontis habet.

In English: He's got one foot in Charon's boat.

In other words: he's just one step away from death, with one foot in the grave already. According to Greek mythology, Charon is the boatman of the dead. It was Charon's job to bear the souls of the dead in his boat across the river of Acheron, which marked the boundary of the underworld. The dead supposedly had to pay a fee for this service, and so a coin, an obol was sometimes placed in the mouth of the dead, the price of that final journey in Charon's boat. You might be familiar with the harrowing representation in Michelangelo's depiction in the Sistine Chapel, where Charon has raised an oar and is about to beat the dead souls who have entered his boat.

In English, we use a quite different metaphor to express this same idea. Death is a kind of house, and we are at Death's door, or knocking at Death's door, or lying at Death's doorstep. The idea is that we then pass through that door, never to return. When looking for more information about the history of this saying in English, I found this lovely bit of a poem by Sir John Davies, cited in Specimens with Memoirs of the Less-known British Poets:

But as Noah's pigeon, which return'd no more,
Did show she footing found, for all the flood,
So when good souls, departed through death's door,
Come not again, it shows their dwelling good.

For our culture, Noah and his dove are immediately recognizable, just as Charon and his boat were for the ancient Greeks and Romans. The abstract language of theology or the impersonal language of science can provide people with one way of pondering our existence, but the use of stories and myths has always been, and will always be, a powerful way to imagine those things we cannot see but which we need to talk about.

So here is today's proverb read out loud:

1518. Alterum pedem in cymba Charontis habet.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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