June 13, 2008

Mutare non potest pardus varietates suas

In English: A leopard cannot change his spots.

I'm carrying on with the theme of proverbs about animals, and this is definitely one of the most famous. The source of this saying is the Book of Jeremiah in the Bible. As you can see, the proverbial form has been adapted from the more complex rhetorical statement in Jeremiah. Jeremiah is warning the people of Jerusalem that their evil ways will lead to their destruction. They need to change their ways, but it seems impossible that this will happen! Here is what Jeremiah says:

Si mutare potest Aethiops pellem suam, aut pardus varietates suas, et vos poteritis benefacere, cum didiceritis malum.

Literally: If the Ethiopian can change his skin, or the leopard his spots, you also could do good, when you have learned to do evil. In other words, Jeremiah knows that the people will not change, and destruction will come upon them.

The Greek reading is almost identical to the Latin, the only difference between that the phrase "when you have learned to do evil" is a participle, "you-who-have-learned to do evil."

εἰ ἀλλάξεται Αἰθίοψ τὸ δέρμα αὐτοῦ καὶ πάρδαλις τὰ ποικίλματα αὐτῆς καὶ ὑμεῖς δυνήσεσθε εὖ ποιῆσαι μεμαθηκότες τὰ κακά

The Hebrew, however, expresses the same idea in a slightly different form, without the use of the word "if" as it is expressed in the Greek and the Latin. I haven't had good luck reproducing Hebrew right-to-left fonts here in Blogger, but this is a transliteration of the Hebrew text that might be helpful:

ha.ya.ha.fokh (change) ku.shi (Ethiopian) o.ro (his skin), ve.na.mer (leopard) kha.var.bu.ro.tav (spots, stripes)? gam-a.tem (you all likewise) tukh.lu (can) le.hei.tiv (do good) li.mu.dei (who are instructed, accustomed to) ha.re.a (do bad, evil)

The King James version follows the Hebrew closely:

Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? Then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.

One of the interesting questions, of course, is whether a leopard would want to change his spots! In a wonderful little Aesop's fable about the leopard, we learn that he is very proud of his spots indeed, and has no desire to change them. Here is the debate between the leopard and the fox:
Vulpes et Pardus de pulchritudine concertabant et, Pardo suam pellem versicolorem extollente, Vulpes, cum suam praeponere non possit, dicebat Pardo, "At quanto ego sum speciosior, et quam longe formosior, quae non corpus, sed animum versicolorem et variis notis insignem sortita sum?"

A fox and a leopard were disputing about their beauty, with the leopard praising his multi-colored pelt, and when the fox was not able to put her pelt ahead of the leopard's, she said to him, "But how much more lovely am I, and how much more beautiful by far, since I have been allotted not a multi-colored pelt, but an intelligence that is multi-colored and distinguished for its various qualities?"
The fox nicely contrasts the versatility of her mind with the variety of design in the leopard's coat. Still, even after this rebuke by the fox, I'm pretty sure the leopard will want to keep his good looks - which is the point of Jeremiah's saying after all: the leopard is not going to change his spots. And, as far as the leopard is concerned, there's no reason to. :-)

So, hoping you are looking good today, in whatever skin you might be wearing, here is today's proverb read out loud:

2158. Mutare non potest pardus varietates suas.

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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