February 19, 2007

Leonis exuvium super asinum

In English: A lion's skin on a donkey.

After yesterday's Aesopic fable about the dog in the manger, I thought I would do another proverb with an Aesopic connection: the donkey in the lion's skin.

This proverb actually makes sense if you do not know what the actual fable is about. A lion and a donkey are completely different animal characters. The lion is brave, noble, the king of beasts. The donkey is not a fighter, hardly noble, and is a beast of burden, the animal symbol of a slave's lot in life. Obviously, a lion's skin doesn't suit a donkey, so this is a proverb about things that are out of place.

The saying takes on even more life when you know the Aesop's fables that tell what happens when the donkey puts on a lion's skin. There are two basic variants to the story.

In one version, it is the fox who points out the donkey's foolishness (Perry 188). This is a version attested in the Greek tradition, but I don't have a Latin version of this story. Here is an English translation by V.S. Vernon Jones:
An Ass found a Lion's Skin, and dressed himself up in it. Then he went about frightening every one he met, for they all took him to be a lion, men and beasts alike, and took to their heels when they saw him coming. Elated by the success of his trick, he loudly brayed in triumph. The Fox heard him, and recognized him at once for the Ass he was, and said to him, "Oho, my friend, it's you, is it? I, too, should have been afraid if I hadn't heard your voice."
There's a wonderful illustration by Arthur Rackham, too.

In the other main version, the donkey gives himself away to the human beings who were previously intimidated by his appearance (Perry 358). This version is well-attested in the Latin tradition, as in this version by Odo of Cheriton:
Asini viderunt quod homines male et dure tractaverunt eos, stimulando, onera imponendo. Viderunt etiam quod timuerunt Leones. Condixerunt ad invicem quod acciperent pelles leoninas, et sic homines timerent illos. Fecerunt sic. Asini igitur, induti pellibus leoninis, saltabant, discurrebant. Homines fugerunt credentes esse Leones. Tandem Asini inceperunt recanare. Homines diligenter auscultaverunt et dixerunt: Vox ista vox Asinorum est; accedamus proprius. Accesserunt tandem; viderunt caudas illorum et pedes et dixerunt: Certe isti sunt Asini, non Leones, et ceperunt Asinos et multum bene verberaverunt.

The donkeys saw that the people treated them very badly and harshly, with whips and putting loads on them. They also saw that the people were scared of lions. So the donkeys decided amongst themselves that they would get some lion skins, and then the people would fear them. That's what they did. The donkeys, therefore, dressed in lion skins, leaped about and ran here and there. The people ran away, thinking they were lions. Finally the donkeys started to bray. The people listened carefully and said: "That voice is the voice of donkeys! Let's go over there." So they went over to the donkeys and saw their tails and their hooves and they said: "For sure these are donkeys, not lions," and they seized the donkeys and they gave them a very sound whipping indeed.
You can see some great woodcut illustrations of this story, too.

So, while the proverb definitely makes sense on its own, it's more fun when you have a story to go with it!

And here is today's proverb read out loud (hoping I don't sound like a donkey braying, ha ha!):

407. Leonis exuvium super asinum.

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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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Exceptionally enjoyable extrapolation of a favourite fable.