August 07, 2007

Caput imperat, non pedes

In English: The head rules, not the feet.

This is a follow-up to yesterday's proverb, which was also about feet. This time, however, the feet are being "put down," to speak. The head of the body is on top, in charge, etc., while the lowly feet are meant to be its servants. Latin, like English, uses the word caput, "head," to mean both the head of the body but also the metaphorical head of anything, the boss, the chief, etc. (the word "chief" itself derives from Latin caput via French).

There's a very funny Aesop's fable which plays on the interpretive parallel between the "head" of a body and the "head" of a household. There was a farmer, it seems, whose sheep were born with human heads! The poor fellow received quite different interpretations of the omen from the soothsayers and from Aesop. Here is Phaedrus's version of the story:
Habenti cuidam pecora perpererunt oves
agnos humano capite. Monstro territus
ad consulendos currit maerens hariolos.
Hic pertinere ad domini respondet caput,
et avertendum victima periculum.
Ille autem adfirmat coniugem esse adulteram
et insitivos significari liberos,
sed expiari posse maiore hostia.
Quid multa? Variis dissident sententiis,
hominisque curam cura maiore adgravant.
Aesopus ibi stans, naris emunctae senex,
natura numquam verba cui potuit dare,
"Si procurare vis ostentum, rustice,
uxores" inquit "da tuis pastoribus."


There was a farmer who had a flock of sheep, and those sheep gave birth to lambs with human heads. Alarmed by this omen the farmer hurried off, deeply upset, to consult the soothsayers. One soothsayer told him that the birth of lambs with human heads indicated a matter of life and death for him as the 'head' of the household, and a sacrifice would be required to ward off the danger. Another soothsayer insisted that this was instead a sign that the man's wife had been unfaithful to him, and that she had passed off other men's sons as his own; this evil omen could only be averted by an even greater sacrifice. To make a long story short, the soothsayers argued about their interpretations with one another, heightening the man's anxiety with more and more causes for alarm. Aesop also happened to be there, that old man who was nobody's fool: there was no way that nature could play tricks on him! 'If you want to expiate this omen,' said Aesop, 'I suggest you supply your shepherds with wives!'
Admittedly, the story of the human-headed sheep is not an Aesop's fable for children, but it still one of my favorite fables. Ha!

Meanwhile, hoping you have not mean any such dire omens today, here is the proverb read out loud:

1168. Caput imperat, non pedes.

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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