October 01, 2006

Inter pygmaeos regnat nanus.

In English: Among the pygmies, the dwarf is king.

You might be familiar with a similar Latin proverb, "In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." This proverb takes the idea of sight and translates it in terms of height: Among extremely short people, a short person is tall!

As you can guess from the letter "y" in the spelling, the Pygmies are found in Greek mythology. The Greek word "pygme" is the length of the arm from elbow to wrist, hence a very short measure of length, around 13 inches.

The mythological Greek Pygmies were especially famous for their battle with the cranes, as described in Homer. In addition to being represented in poetry and the visual arts, the Pygmies are also included in the accounts of the ancient geographers, such as Pliny. Here is Philemon Holland's delightful 1601 translation of the passage in Pliny's Natural History 7:
And these pretie people Homer also reporteth to be much troubled and annoied by cranes. The speech goeth, that in the Spring time they set out all of them in battell array, mounted upon the backe of rammes and goats, armed with bowes and arrowes, and so downe to the sea side they march, wheere they make foule worke among the egges and young cranelings newly hatched, which they destroy without all pitie. Thus for three moneths this their journey and expedition continueth, and then they make an end of their valiant service: for otherwise if they should continue any longer, they were never able to withstand the new flights of this foule, growne to some strength and bignesse. As for their houses and cottages, made they are of clay or mud, fouls feathers, and birds egge shels.
The word Pygmy is also used today to refer actual tribal peoples, markedly short in stature, who live in central Africa and also in southeast Asia. For more information, there is a website dedicated to the Baka Pygmies of Africa, with detailed accounts of their daily life, rituals, music, and other cultural activities.

Meanwhile, the Latin word nanus, meaning "dwarf," is attested in classical Latin and gives rise to the modern Italian word for dwarf, nano, so that "Snow White and the Seven Dwarves" is rendered in Italian as "Biancaneve e i sette nani." (You can see the Italian wikipedia for more information.)

And here is today's proverb read out loud:

1056. Inter pygmaeos regnat nanus.

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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