June 01, 2008

Ne capra contra leonem

In English: A goat should not (confront) a lion.

Carrying on with the theme of animal proverbs (like yesterday's hedgehog), I chose this saying about the goat and the lion for today. With this elegant use of the word ne in Latin, no verb needs to be specified. It is a kind of all-purpose, blanket negative injunction: the goat should not fight against a lion, confront a lion, stand up to a lion, etc. etc. In English, we have to choose to supply a specific verb, but Latin is able to create a saying here that covers all possible situations: whatever the goat is thinking about doing against a lion, the goat should not do that thing!

You can find this phrase in Erasmus's Adagia (instead of capra, "goat," the version in Erasmus has caprea, a wild goat, or silvestris capreolus). A fuller form of the Latin does contain a verb: Ne capra contra leonem pugnet, "A goat should not fight against a lion." Such a saying seems to conjure up an Aesop's fable, although there is not an extant Aesop's fable which has exactly this moral. There is, of course, the story of the "lion's share" where some meek animals - a cow, a goat, a sheep - go hunting together with a lion, and the lion ends up claiming everything they catch for himself. So in that fable, the goat definitely makes a mistake by making an alliance with the lion, but that is not quite the same as the idea expressed in today's saying. A proverbial saying for that fable might be something like ne capra con leone, "let no goat (go hunting) with a lion."

To find an Aesop's fable which has a moral comparable to that of today's saying, we need to turn to the story of a goat and a wolf, rather than a lion. Here is a translation of a medieval Latin version of that story:
A wolf was chasing the billy goat of the herd, intending to capture him. The goat climbed up on a tall cliff where he was safe, so the wolf besieged the goat from the bottom of the cliff. After two or three days, when the wolf had grown hungry and the goat had grown thirsty, they each went away: the wolf left first in order to look for food and then the goat went away to find a drink of water. When he had quenched his thirst, the goat noticed his reflection in the water and said, 'Oh what fine legs I have and what a beautiful beard and what great horns! Just let that wolf try to make me run away: this time I will defend myself! I will not let that wolf have any power over me!' Behind the goat's back, the wolf had been listening in silence to every word the goat said. Then, as he plunged his teeth deep into the goat's flank, the wolf asked, 'What is this you are saying, brother goat?' The goat, when he realized he was trapped, said, 'O my lord wolf, I admit my mistake and beg your forgiveness! After a goat has something to drink, he says things he shouldn't.' But the wolf showed no mercy and devoured the goat.
The fable warns us that weak and poor people should not try to rebel against the high and mighty.
So, whether the saying is ne capra contra leonem, or ne capra contra lupum, it is very clear that goats should not challenge such big creatures with such big teeth, whether they be lions or wolves!

Meanwhile, hoping you have steered clear of all large carnivores today, here is the proverb read out loud:

897. Ne capra contra leonem.

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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