June 19, 2007

Phoenice rarior

In English: More rare than the phoenix.

After the previous two proverbs about animal comparisons, I thought this saying would be a good one to include. The idea of something that is more rare than the phoenix would have to refer to something extremely rare indeed, given that many legends about the phoenix insist that there is one, and only one, phoenix alive in the world at any one time.

The phoenix legend was widely known in ancient Greece and Rome, and it also continued to be famous throughout the Middle Ages, thanks to the inclusion of the phoenix in the medieval bestiary, via the account in the Physiologus. The story of the phoenix is also told in Isidore of Seville's famous late antique encyclopedia, the Etymologiae. Here is what Isidore says about the phoenix: Phoenix Arabiae avis, dicta quod colorem phoeniceum habeat, vel quod sit in toto orbe singularis et unica. Nam Arabes singularem 'phoenicem' vocant. "The phoenix is a bird of Arabia, so-called because it is the color of Phoenician purple dye, or because it is singular in all the world, with just one unique example, for the Arabs call something singular 'phoenix.'"

From this last bit, you can tell where Isidore's encyclopedia, "The Etymologies," gets its name. Although his etymologies are usually without much linguistic foundation of any kind, Isidore regularly makes a comment about the origin of something's name in conjunction with the meaning he attributes to that thing. In this case, since he is not really sure about the etymology of "phoenix," he decides it must be an Arab word meaning "singular," since, for Isidore, one of the most important things about the phoenix is its uniqueness, the fact that there is only one phoenix in the world at any given time. Given that linguists to this day are still uncertain about the origin of the Greek word "phoenix," Isidore is not alone in having to guess!

Isidore also relates what is probably the best-known part of the phoenix legend, its rebirth from the ashes: Haec quingentis annis ultra vivens, dum se viderit senuisse, collectis aromatum virgulis rogum sibi instruit et conversa ad radium solis alarum plausu voluntarium sibi incendium nutrit sicque iterum de cineribus suis resurgit., "When this bird has lived as long as five hundred years and sees that it has grown old, it gathers twigs of aromatic plants and builds itself a pyre. It turns itself towards a sun beam and, with a flap of its wings, it kindles a voluntary funeral pyre for itself and thus rises up again from its own ashes."

There is much more to read and learn about the phoenix legend if you are interested in that. You can find more materials at the Bestiaria Latina website, which has links in turn to other valuable online resources, such as the magnificent Aberdeen Bestiary.

Meanwhile, here is today's proverb read out loud:

645. Phoenice rarior.

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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