June 04, 2007

Vae miseris ovibus, iudex lupus est

In English: Woe for the poor sheep; the judge is a wolf.

Yes, there are still more Latin sayings featuring wolves, like the saying from yesterday and the past week or so. This is one of my favorites. What is a poor sheep supposed to do when she looks up and sees that the judge is none other than the wolf, her worst enemy?

There's a wonderful Aesop's fable that explores this theme, where the dog falsely accuses of the sheep of being in his debt, and brings in as his witnesses against the sheep a wolf, a kite, and a hawk. Based on this false testimony, the sheep had to sell her wool and go cold in the wintertime in order to pay a debt she didn't owe.

To see a fable with the wolf as judge, we can go to the great poems of Robert Henryson, a fifteenth-century Scottish poet. Here is the beginning of Henryson's version of the old fable, with the spelling modernized:
1. About a Dog our Aesop tells this tale,Who, seeing a Sheep for money was hard pressed,Before a Court this luckless Sheep would hail,And payment of a debt he would request.A Wolf was on the bench, a judge unjust,But judge he was, with powers from Parliament,So to the Sheep a summons strict he sent.

2. And it was done in proper legal style;The Judge made out a right citation:"I, the Lord Wolf, free from all fraud and guile,Under the pain of high suspension,Of cursing great, and interdiction,Sir Sheep, I charge thee strict, that thou appearAnd answer to that Dog before me here."
The poem is an absolute delight from start to finish; you can read the rest of the poem in its modernized version, and you can also see Henryson's own words: Esope ane taill puttis in memorie / How that ane doig because that he wes pure, / Callit ane scheip unto the consistorie, / Ane certane breid fra him for to recure...

So, hoping you don't have to go to court at all - but if you do, that you don't find a wolf on the bench, here is today's proverb read out loud:

334. Vae miseris ovibus, iudex lupus est.

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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