September 15, 2006

Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi.

In English: What is permitted to Jove is not permitted to an ox.

Alas, English can never hope to capture the delightful rhyme which is, in a sense, the point of this Latin proverb. I guess we could try to say in English, "What is Jovine is not bovine." Alas, "Jovine" did not make it into the English vocabulary!

There is a nice English equivalent cited in wikipedia: "Gods may do what cattle may not."

This proverb follows up on yesterday's proverb about the crows getting off the hook, while the doves are punished.

There is something less cynical about today's proverb, however. A god and an ox are not the same, and they have different jobs in life. Jove wields the thunderbolt, while the ox bears the plough. If I had a choice, I guess it would be nice to be wielding the thunderbolt. I definitely find myself more at the ox-end of the spectrum!

Is there a subtext here of Jupiter's own amorous escapades? The lord of the gods disguised himself as a bull to carry off Europa, after all. (See, for example, this painting by Gustave Moreau, inspired by the story of Europa's abduction.) In that case, it seems that what is permitted to Jove is not permitted to the ox... but to Jove is permitted everything, from the world of gods and men and oxen alike!

Here is today's proverb read out loud - enjoy the rhyme!

1503. Quod licet Iovi, non licet bovi.

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

If you are reading this via RSS: The Flash audio content is not syndicated via RSS; please visit the Latin Audio Proverbs blog to listen to the audio. You can also hear this saying read aloud at a Polish website: Wladyslawa Kopalinskiego Slownik wyrazَw obcych i zwrotَw obcojezycznych (weblink). The Polish translation is lucky enough to have a very nice sound play between wol and woł, even if it does not rhyme: co wolno Jowiszowi, tego nie wolno wołowi.


Paul said...

I guess this is one of the most mistranslated latin proverbs: my old teacher in Greek taught us that the proverb originally stems from a Greek proverb. Bovi refers to a greek equivalent meaning 'the cow eyed', one of the names to indicate Hera (Juno), the wife of Zeus (Jupiter)who in Greek mythology was described as being known for her beautiful large eyes. It basically means that the number one in the hierarchy has more prerogatives than the number two (or in the pre-feminist era: a husband than his wife). This obviously makes a lot more sense than the supreme god being superior to an oxen or a cow, although to some that would seem to be an apt description of the relation between the sexes before the emancipation of women.

Laura Gibbs said...

Hmmm, I am not sure that Juno can be invoked by a "bos" in Latin - admittedly, Juno was "ox-eyed" in Greek, but that's not a usual term of Juno in Latin - at least in this version, the point of the proverb is very much based on the RHYME between the dative Iovi and the dative bovi. Do you happen to know the Greek proverb that your teacher had in mind? It's not one that I'm familiar with although this Latin one works quite well on its own terms - the random coincidence that Iovi rhymes with bovi (linguistic similarity) provides the occasion for a semantic distinction: Iovi may sound like bovi, but they are hardly the same thing!

Kati said...

this one was my father favorite,he told me when I was a little,he mean that not everithing that he can do..I can do

Laura Gibbs said...

Wow, Kati, that is PERFECT - the way proverbs really stay alive is not by being in books or on the Internet, but by being used by people to convey some kind of important meaning in a memorable way. Maybe I would have been better behaved as a child if my dad had used a proverb like this with me... I think I could have put up with some of the rules for being a kid if he told me that's how it goes for "cows"! :-)

Anonymous said...

Nice post.. By the way I prefer the "Quod non licet bovi, licet Iovi" variation of this proverb, it makes even more sense.
("What is not permitted to an ox is permitted to Juppiter")

Laura Gibbs said...

YES, it is so interesting how you can rearrange proverbs or do little variations to bring out the point in a way you think is more expressive. There's a great Portuguese website which collects thousands and thousands of proverbs AND includes many variants, so that you can see the different ways that some of the more popular proverbs are expressed. Here is the website if you are curious - the translations are into Portuguese, but the proverbs themselves are organized by the Latin content:

Michael said...

When I was teaching at a university in the early 80's, I stepped outside after a lecture and lit a small cigar. One of the students came up with a question, and started to pull out a packet of cigarettes. I informed him that students were not allowed to smoke on campus. When he said, "But you're smoking!", my response was this quote.

Anonymous said...

I know that this Proverb was used by Roman playwriter Terence in reference to Zeus as a bull kidnapping Europe. But why, in what context?

Laura Gibbs said...

Hmmm, the rhyming element of this proverb makes me think it is probably medieval in origin, and I don't know about it being in Terence. There is this line in Terence:
hoc licet inpune facere huic, illi non licet (in Adelphoe).
Is that the line you are thinking of? It expresses the same idea but doesn't have the fun bovi-Iovi. If you know a citation for that in Terence, definitely let me know! I have read a lot of Plautus but not much Terence at all, so I'm not sure where he references the motif of the rape of Europa... :-)