June 07, 2007

Incustoditum captat ovile lupus

In English: When it's unguarded, the wolf captures the sheepfold.

I thought this would be a good follow-up to yesterday's proverb, which was about the dangers posed for the poor sheep, and the way they depend on their custodians, the shepherds.

Today's saying comes from one of the poems by Ovid written in his exile, the sad Tristia. Ovid addressed this poem to his wife, praising her for having protected his interests while Ovid was sent away to the Black Sea. Ovid unleashes a whole stream of metaphors, starting with the idea that he has been shipwrecked:
tu facis, ut spolium non sim, nec nuder ab illis,
naufragii tabulas qui petiere mei.


"You have kept me from being treated like spoils from a shipwreck, keeping me from being stripped bare by those who seek the planks of my wrecked ship."
Next comes the couplet with today's saying, in which Ovid compares himself to unguarded sheep:
utque rapax stimulante fame cupidusque cruoris
incustoditum captat ovile lupus,


"And just as the ravening wolf, as hunger spurs him on, greedy for gore, captures the sheepfold when it is unguarded"
Ovid then compares himself to an unburied corpse, the prey of vultures:
aut ut edax vultur corpus circumspicit ecquod
sub nulla positum cernere possit humo,


"Or just as the devouring vulture looks around for a corpse, to see if it can detect one that is not buried beneath the earth,"
And now we reach the final point of these metaphorical comparisons. Ovid is praising his wife for rescuing Ovid's goods from the predatory creatures, his erstwhile friends who are now ready to take advantage of his reversal of fortune:
sic mea nescioquis, rebus male fidus acerbis
in bona venturus, si paterere, fuit.


"Likewise some treacherous person could have come into my possessions, because of my bitter circumstances, if you had let them do it."
Luckily for Ovid, his wife stood by him and fought back the metaphorical vultures hovering about the corpse of Ovid's good fortunes, laid low by his exile!

So, hoping that you are keeping an eye on your sheep, here is today's proverb read out loud:

1166. Incustoditum captat ovile lupus.

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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