July 31, 2007

Manus operarii corporis, digiti chordarum plectra

In English: The hands are the body's workers, the fingers are pluckers of strings.

Carrying on with the theme of sayings about the hand which I started yesterday, I thought this saying would make a good contribution. It is from the wonderful medieval riddling dialogue, commonly known as the "Dialogue of Alcuin and Pippin," where there is a long series of questions-and-answers about the cosmos, the natural world, and the things found therein, the human body in particular.

Here is the context in which hands and fingers appear, with the questions addressed by P (Pippin) and the answers provided by A (Alcuin):

P. Quid manus? — A. Operarii corporis.
P. Quid sunt digiti? — A. Chordarum plectra.
P. Quid est pulmo? — A. Servator aeris.
P. Quid est cor? — A. Receptaculum vitae.
P. Quid est jecur? — A. Custodia caloris.

What are the hands? They are the body's workers.
What are the fingers? The pluckers of strings.
What is the lung? The keeper of air.
What is the heart? The holder of life.
What is the liver? The guardian of heat.

Intriguing? I will confess that I love this kind of thing, and I borrowed many phrases and riddles from this dialogue in preparing the Latin Via Proverbs book. You can find the complete Latin text of the dialogue from the old Migne edition online, and you can also find a complete English translation online, thanks to the poet-translator Gillian Spraggs!

Riddles have played a profound role in cultures around the world. In my Ancient Indian Epics class each semester, we read the Mahabharata, one of the great epics of India (it contains the Bhagavad-Gita), and you will find there a long riddling dialogue which has a great deal in common with the spirit and even the content of this medieval European dialogue. You can read an English translation online of this famous confrontation between the King Yudhishthira and his father, the god Dharma (Truth), who is concealed as a yaksha guarding the waters of a lake.

Back then to Alcuin's hands and fingers. Take a look at your hand right now: we give it the name "hand," and you can say "hand" and think "this is a hand"... but what is a hand? If you suddenly lost the word "hand" and didn't know the name of this thing, this part of your body, how would you describe it? Well, it is a worker, it does things, makes things, causes things to happen, dressing the body, lifting food to the body's mouth, cleaning the body, etc. It is clearly a worker: the hands, then, are the body's workers.

And what about fingers? If you suddenly did not know the word "finger" and had to say what those strange things are sticking out off the end of your hand, what would you call them? What do they look like? Well surely they are designed to pluck strings, something the fleshy part of the hand could never manage to do. You need the hands to do the work, but the fingers to accomplish the detail, to pluck the strings of the body, of life, of the world, and make them resound.

So, in honor of the Latin digiti, here is today's saying made available to you in DIGITAL audio... let the virtual strings resound!

557. Manus operarii corporis, digiti chordarum plectra.

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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Gillian Spraggs said...

Thanks for the link. I am delighted to have discovered your fascinating site.

Gillian Spraggs

CoolCat said...

This could also be applied metaphorically, I think. The hands are so practical, the body's workers... who would think that their constituents, the fingers, would be the pluckers of strings, an act symbolic of the lyre, which is itself symbolic of culture, learning, and leisure, seemingly the opposite of the hands' work? I think this proverb shows how a person who is, from a distance, purely utilitarian and practical, can have an unexpected love for music, pure math, literature, or the arts "close up" -- i.e. on the scale of the fingers. So this is a proverb that has both literal and metaphorical applications -- which is, in some ways, like the person described in the proverb! Mind-bendingly self-referential...
Keep up the great work!

Laura Gibbs said...

You are so right about the many different ways to interpret a proverb, based on the metaphorical associations of all the different elements. I just finished this big Aesop's fables book in Latin and there is a fun fable in there about the fingers of the hands! Here it is:
833. Colonus et Adiutores Eius Colonus quidam, homo piger et iners, ignaviam suam semper excusabat, culpamque in alios conferens, exclamabat, “Nemo me adiuvat; adiutore opus est.” Villicus, qui querelam audierat, “Quid est?” inquit; “decem habes adiutores.” “Minime vero,” respondit colonus. Tum villicus “Sustolle,” inquit, “manus tuas. Nonne decem habes digitos? His si gnaviter uteris, numquam tibi deerunt adiutores.”