December 07, 2006

Non curat numerum lupus

In English: The wolf doesn't worry about the number.

Since I had written about dogs in yesterday's post (and also the day before), I thought I would do a proverb about the wolf today. There are many Latin proverbs about wolves, and in particular about wolves, sheep and shepherds, which is the clue you need to understand the meaning of today's proverb. Just what number is it that the wolf ignores? It is the number of the sheep!

In other words, the shepherd can keep track of his sheep, counting them and recounting them, but that is not going to stop the wolf from taking what he can. Are there supposed to be fifty sheep in your flock? The wolf doesn't care. He takes one... and all of a sudden you have just forty-nine.

Metaphorically speaking, this refers to any disaster that upsets your best laid plans. The weather doesn't care if you have invited five hundred guests to an outdoor wedding; it's going to rain anyway. The traffic light doesn't care if you are running late, desperately late, to an important job interview. Although it's not quite the same idea, it's something like the English saying: "The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry" (from a poem by Robert Burns).

The Latin proverb was clearly in common usage, as it is an implied text in one of Vergil's Eclogues, where a shepherd is singing the praises of bright light and a warm fire on a cold night:
Hic focus et taedae pingues, hic plurimus ignis
semper, et adsidua postes fuligine nigri.
hic tantum Boreae curamus frigora quantum
aut numerum lupus aut torrentia flumina ripas.

Here is the hearth and the well-fueled torches, here there's always an abundant fire, and the doorposts are black with constant soot. Here we heed the North Wind's blasts just as much as the wolf heeds the number or the raging rivers heed their banks.
In other words, we heed the North Wind not at all, just as the wolf does not heed the number of the sheep!

As often with proverbs, this one circulates in a fuller form which is less enigmatic: Lupus non curat numerum ovium, "The wolf does not care about the number of the sheep." In the Latin Via Proverbs book, I included both versions, purely for grammatical reasons. Latin students can do the simpler version of the proverb as soon as they know the first conjugation verbs (curat) and the second declension nouns (numerum lupus). They can then attempt the more complex version as soon as they have learned the third declension (ovium, which a nice i-stem noun students need to learn early on so that they can keep their eggs and their sheep separate - a pair of nouns easily confused in Latin!).

Here, then, are both proverbs read out loud:

1058. Non curat numerum lupus.

1171. Lupus non curat numerum ovium.

The numbers here are the numbers for these proverbs in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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1 comment:

CoolCat said...

Interesting, in the passage you cited, how soot is praised as a GOOD thing. I've always thought of it as something you want to avoid, by using better fuel or whatever, but I suppose if your choice is between a sooty fire or no fire, on a cold night, you would choose the soot!