May 15, 2008

Asinus in tegulis

In English: A donkey on the roof-tiles.

Following up on the previous animal proverb, I thought I would choose this saying about a donkey. Simply based on what we know about donkeys and what we know about the roof of a house, we can assume that a situation involving a donkey on the roof-tiles would be a ridiculous situation at best, and probably an outright disaster!

In the Greek fables of Babrius, there is a story about a donkey on the roof. He has ended up there as a result of foolishly imitating a monkey who did the same thing:
A donkey went up on the top of a house and while he was frisking about he broke some of the roof tiles. A man came running up and dragged the donkey back down to the ground, beating him with a club. The donkey, his back aching from the blows, said to the man, 'But just yesterday and the day before you were so amused when the monkey did the very same thing!'
This story closely resembles the better-known fable of the donkey who decided to imitate his master's pet dog by jumping up on his master and licking his face. Things did not turn out well for that donkey either, as you can read in Barlow's version of that fable.

For the Latin phrase asinus in tegulis, there is a tantalizing citation in Petronius's Satyricon. After the narrator has finished telling the famous werewolf tale, Trimalchio declares that he also has a story to tell: Nam et ipse vobis rem horribilem narrabo. Asinus in tegulis, "For I myself will tell you all a dreadful thing. A donkey on the roof-tiles." From this usage by Trimalchio, it seems that the donkey on the roof-tiles might have had some kind of sinister element, in addition to being something comical. It is, by implication, a res horribilis, something to make you shudder, something more sinister than "a bull in a china shop," as we say in English.

Within the context of that novel, it is worth pointing out that just previously there had been a strange commotion on the roof indeed, when Trimalchio amazed his guests by lowering the elaborate party favors down from the roof! Here is how the narrator describes that event: repente lacunaria sonare coeperunt totumque triclinium intremuit. Consternatus ego exsurrexi, et timui ne per tectum petauristarius aliquis descenderet. Nec minus reliqui convivae mirantes erexere vultus expectantes quid novi de caelo nuntiaretur. Ecce autem diductis lacunaribus subito circulus ingens, de cupa videlicet grandi excussus, demittitur, "All of a sudden the paneled ceiling began to creak and the whole room shook. Baffled, I raised myself up, and I was afraid that some sort of trapeze performer was going to come down through the roof. The rest of the party-goers were no less amazed, and lifted up their faces, expecting that this was a prelude to something weird from the sky. But look: the paneled ceiling drew back and suddenly a huge hoop, clearly loosened from a large cask, came down." The narrator goes on to explain how there were party favors dangling from the hoop which Trimalchio presented to all the guests at the party.

What I would like to contribute to the collection of stories about unexpected things on the roof is this delightful Islamic legend about the Sufi holy man Ebrahim ibn Adham who lived in the 8th century. He was a wealthy and powerful king, but was called by God to a life of poverty. Here is how that happens, as told by the great Sufi author, Attar:
Ebrahim ibn Adham’s saintly career began in the following manner. He was king of Balkh, and a whole world was under his command; forty gold swords and forty gold maces were carried before and behind him. One night he was asleep on his royal couch. At midnight the roof of the apartment vibrated, as if someone was walking on the roof. “Who is there?” he shouted. “A friend,” came the reply. “I have lost a camel, and am searching for it on this roof.” “Fool, do you look for the camel on the roof?” cried Ebrahim. “Heedless one,” answered the voice, “do you seek for God in silken clothes, asleep on a golden couch?” These words filled his heart with terror. A fire blazed within him, and he could not sleep any more.
In this case, the story is not about an actual camel on the roof, but instead about the absurdity of it. You should not expect to find a camel on the roof any more than you should expect to find salvation in a world of material comfort.

So, hoping that you have no large quadrupeds - donkeys OR camels - clattering about on your roof-tiles,here is today's proverb read out loud:

142. Asinus in tegulis.

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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