February 06, 2008

Nihil annis velocius

In English: Nothing is faster than the years.

I've been very remiss about blogging here (although I have been blogging away at various Latin things, as you can see at Bestiaria Latina). February 7 is the Chinese New Year, though, so I thought I would post a proverb here in honor of that change of year. Happy Year of the Rat!

Today's saying, about the swiftness of the passage of time, is derived from a passage in Ovid's Metamorphoses. It comes from Book X when the great bard Orpheus has just told the sad and terrible story of Myrrha, the unfortunate woman who was seized by sexual desire for her father and thus became pregnant with his child.

Transformed into a tree, Myrrha gave birth to that child who was none other than Adonis, who would become the lover of Venus herself. Here is what Orpheus sings:
Labitur occulte fallitque volatilis aetas,
et nihil est annis velocius: ille sorore
natus avoque suo, qui conditus arbore nuper,
nuper erat genitus, modo formosissimus infans,
iam iuvenis, iam vir, iam se formosior ipso est,
iam placet et Veneri matrisque ulciscitur ignes.


Fleeting time glides by furtively and slips away,
and nothing is faster than the years: that man, born of his own sister
and a son to his grandfather, only just sheltered in a tree,
only just born, so recently a most beautiful baby,
now a youth, now a man, now more beautiful than he himself had been,
now he delights even Venus, and avenges his mother's passion.
As always, Ovid is dazzling. He warns us that the years slip by quickly and that the passage of time can be deceiving. How much more so when the generations become entangled, so that someone manages to be a son to his grandfather or with his mother as his sister. The strangely crossed and tangled family lineage of Adonis seems like some kind of chronological accident with time going by so quickly that it has gotten ahead of itself somehow. But no matter: Adonis speeds through his childhood development in order to be a full-grown and beautiful young man, just in time for the next tragic love story that Ovid will tell.

So, with a salute to the quickly passing years - goodbye Year of the Pig and hello Year of the Rat - here is today's proverb read out loud:

721. Nihil annis velocius.

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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