November 14, 2006

Nascimur uno modo, multis morimur.

In English: We are born one way, we die in many (ways).

Since I have posted some sayings from Latin epitaphs over the past couple of days, I thought I would post this saying, also about death, which also happens to be one of my favorite Latin proverbs. Proverbs often work by a parallel structure and strongly contrasting meaning, which is just how today's proverb works: uno, on the one hand, the way of birth, and multis on the other hand, the ways of death.

The saying comes from one of the Controversiae of the rhetorician known as Seneca the Elder (NOT to be confused with his son, the philosopher Seneca), and he goes on to provide a list of the ways of death: laqueus, gladius, praeceps locus, venenum, naufragium, mille aliae mortes insidiantur huic miserrimae animae, "the noose, the sword, a steep place, poison, shipwreck, a thousand other deaths lie in way for the most wretched soul."

Seneca's list makes me think of that haunting song by Leonard Cohen which also explores the many ways of death:

And who by fire,
who by water,
who in the sunshine,
who in the night time,
who by high ordeal,
who by common trial,
who in your merry merry month of may,
who by very slow decay
and who shall I say is calling?
And who in her lonely slip,
who by barbiturate,
who in these realms of love,
who by something blunt,
and who by avalanche,
who by powder,
who for his greed,
who for his hunger,
and who shall I say is calling?
And who by brave assent,
who by accident,
who in solitude,
who in this mirror,
who by his lady's command,
who by his own hand,
who in mortal chains,
who in power,
and who shall I say is calling?

Cohen's song seems, in turn, to have been inspired by the Unetaneh Tokef, a portion of the Yom Kippur service, the liturgy for the Jewish Day of Atonement. Here is an excerpt:

On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed,
And on Yom Kippur it is sealed.
How many shall pass away and how many shall be born,
Who shall live and who shall die,
Who shall reach the end of his days and who shall not,
Who shall perish by water and who by fire,
Who by sword and who by wild beast,
Who by famine and who by thirst,
Who by earthquake and who by plague,
Who by strangulation and who by stoning...

Many ways indeed, multi modi, just as today's proverb suggests, without spelling it out in grisly detail.

So here is today's proverb read out loud, and here is a YouTube video of the Leonard Cohen song, too!

3039. Nascimur uno modo, multis morimur.

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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