November 15, 2008

Homo ad laborem natus est et avis ad volatum

In English: A man is born to work and a bird to fly.

Since the proverbs for the past few days have been about birds where the birds are metaphors for different kinds of people, I thought it would be good to move on to this saying where the fundamental difference between men and birds is highlighted: men labor by tilling the ground down here, while birds fly high up in the sky above.

The saying is Biblical, and comes from the Book of Job, which reads as following in the Vulgate: Homo nascitur ad laborem, et avis ad volatum. Yet when you look at the King James version, you find something quite different: "Yet man is born unto trouble, as the sparks fly upward." The Septugaint gives yet another rendering: ἀλλὰ ἄνθρωπος γεννᾶται κόπῳ νεοσσοὶ δὲ γυπὸς τὰ ὑψηλὰ πέτονται, "but man is born for trouble, and the chicks of the vulture seek the heights."

So, this little verse turns out to be a great example of the fascinating example of the questions and dilemmas that are part of the Biblical text tradition. The Hebrew Hebrew בְנֵי־רֶשֶׁף (bine reshef, “sons of the flame”), which is what accounts for the King James reading "sparks." Yet some Biblical scholars think that, from context, the verse must refer to some kind of bird, "sons of lightning," which could means eagles, given that the eagle was associated with the lightning in many ancient traditions. The eagle interpretation helps to explain the Septuagint rendering, since the eagle and the vulture were sometimes closely associated (even though nowadays we tend to have an entirely negative view of the vulture, based solely on the fact that it is a scavenger). The Latin takes a more neutral approach, adopting the interpretation that "sons of the flame" must mean some kind of bird, but it does not specify what kind of bird, rendering the phrase simply as avis, "bird."

As the variety of interpretations here in Greek, Latin and English show already, there is no easy answer to the problem posed by this passage! Still other solutions have been proposed, including the idea that "sons of the flame" might refer to angels, or - as the Job Targum suggests - the "sons of the flame" could refer to demons.

Luckily for us, though, the Vulgate reading makes a wonderful little saying which took on a life of its own in Latin. You can also find this Latin saying in other European languages, as in Italian, l'uomo fu creator per lavorare come l'uccello per volare, or Spanish el hombre ha sido creado para trabajar, como el pájaro para volar, or German der Mensch ist zur Arbeit, wie der Vogel zum Fliegen gemacht. So, even if the Hebrew itself is not clear, the Latin Vulgate - inspired by that bit of Hebrew - has given Europe a wonderful and well-known saying about man's lot in this world.

So, hoping your life is enjoying some flights of fancy in addition to your allotted labors, here is today's proverb read out loud:

3527. Homo ad laborem natus est et avis ad volatum

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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