August 13, 2007

Ab asino lanam quaeris

In English: You're looking to get wool from a donkey.

After yesterday's saying about the gods and their feet wrapped in wool, I thought it would be fun to do this proverb about wool, which is one of the many Latin proverbs describing a fool's errand. Getting wool from a donkey is like the English saying about trying to get blood from a stone or looking for hen's teeth. You can look... but you aren't going to find any!

An old collection of English proverbs supplies this amusing parallel: "you seek breeches of a bare-assed man." Ha!

The saying about the donkey and the wool is one of the proverbs included in Erasmus's Adagia, meaning that it became well-known throughout Europe as a result. He comments simply, De iis, qui stulte quaerunt ea, quae nusquam sunt, "about those who foolishly seek thinks, which are nowhere."

Erasmus cites as a source the Greek playwright, Aristophanes, in his comedy, The Frogs. The words are shouted out by Charon, the boatman to the underworld, who asks: τίς εἰς τοῦ λήθης πεδίον, τίς εἰς ὄνου πόκας; "Who's for the plain of Lethe? Who's for the donkey's wool?" That's a much more bleak take on the quest for the donkey's wool: it is not simply a quest that has nothing as its goal, but actual annihilation, the ultimate nothing invoked by Charon's passage. The person who's looking for donkey's wool is on a Sisyphean quest, to invoke another famous denizen of the classical underworld.

So, hoping that finding some donkey's wool is not on your to-do list, here is today's proverb read out loud:

1676. Ab asino lanam quaeris.

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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