October 05, 2008

Maluisses cloacas Augeae purgare

In English: You would have preferred to clean the sewers of Augeas.

As you might have noticed, this blog has been on hiatus for a while - the Aesop book got me sidetracked over the summer, and then school started, which always gets me sidetracked! I decided to spring back into action with this proverb about the hero Hercules, since Hercules is always a favorite topic among my students and this semester, as in every semester, several students have chosen Hercules as their Myth-Folklore topic for the semester.

This saying (which you can find in the Apocolocyntosis of Seneca) refers to one of the mythical labors of Hercules which is less famous than his slaying of monsters like the Nemean Lion of the Lernean Hydra. For this particular task, Hercules was condemned to clean out the sewer drains of the stables of King Augeas, who was famous for his horses, and who also owned more cattle than anyone in Greece, along with thousand of sheep and goats and other livestock, and the story goes that the stables had not been cleaned out in thirty years. As you can imagine, his stables were a mess! Moreover, Hercules was given only one day in which to clean them out. This was clearly a dirty job, and its inclusion in the list of heroic labors shows that the motivation behind these labors was not to give Hercules an opportunity to show off his strength in facing deadly challenges, but rather to condemn him to doing the ugly work of a slave.

Instead of using brute force to accomplish the task, Hercules used his wits instead. He made a large hole in the wall at one end of the enormous stables, and another hole at the other end. Then, Hercules dug a trench and diverted the two rivers Alpheus and Peneus so that they flowed through the stables and cleaned them out!

You can read about this labor in the fables of Hyginus, where it is explain here in Fable 30: Augeae regis stercus bobile uno die purgavit, maiorem partem Iove adiutore; flumine ammisso totum stercus abluit, "He cleaned in one day the cow manure of King Augeas, largely with Zeus helping him; when he had let in the river, it washed away all the manure." Just how Zeus helped his son here is not stated explicitly by Hyginus: perhaps his father gave him the idea to use the rivers to do the work, rather than trying to rely on his own strength.

The proverb cited here cites a comparison: maluisses, "you would have preferred," which is part of an implied contrary-to-fact past conditional, "(if you had had a choice - but you did not), you would have preferred to clean the stables of Augeas." In other words, there is some task even worse than the cleaning out of the stinking stables of Augeas - a task so onerous that cleaning the stables of Augeas would have looked easy by comparison.

I think they were talking about what it will take for me to clean out the garage! Ha ha.

So, hoping you don't face such arduous household cleaning tasks, here is today's proverb read out loud:

3446. Maluisses cloacas Augeae purgare.

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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Anonymous said...

Since I don't really know any latin professors and you certainly seem to know what you are doing, may I ask you a little favor?

I am trying to translate "Life is a long sleepless night"
and this is what I came up with:

"Vita longa et exsomnia noctis est"

Would that be correct or is that totally wrong? Thanks!

Laura Gibbs said...

Because of the freedom of Latin word order and the multiple ways to translate an English word into Latin, there are many options, but be careful with the word endings - you need the form nox for night, and the adjective is insomnis (like in our word insomnia!) - so you could try this (you can safely leave the verb out; "est" is often omitted in Latin mottoes).

Vita nox longa insomnisque.