November 25, 2008

In quo nascetur asinus corio morietur

In English: The donkey will die in the skin in which he's born.

I thought this saying about the donkey and his skin would make a good follow-up to the fable yesterday about the donkeys who tried to improve their lot in life by wearing lion skins. That fable illustrated the general idea that suam quisque pellem portat, "each carries his own skin," while today's saying is more specific about the fate of the donkey in particular, who has no hope at all of changing his skin throughout his long life of toil and trouble. As often in the world of fables and proverbs, the donkey stands here for anyone who lives the life of a servant or a slave, working hard at someone else's command, bearing other people's burdens, and being whipped and cudgeled along the way.

As you can see from the rhyming form of the proverb, In quo nascetur asinus corio morietur, the saying is medieval in origin. Unlike the classical Latin authors, who rejected rhyme as a literary device, the medieval authors embraced rhyme whole-heartedly, which is one of the many things that I enjoy about medieval Latin literature. In the case of this saying, the desire to rhyme was so strong that it swept the word for "being born" into the future tense, nascetur, in order to rhyme with morietur, when you probably would have expected a present tense nascitur, or the perfect natus est. In classical Latin poetry, of course, many things happen metri causa, "for the sake of the meter," so we could say here that the verb form has been chosen rhythmi causa, "for the sake of the rhyme." There is also meter at work in this saying as well, since it is a Leonine verse, which features internal rhyme within a dactylic hexameter. This verse can be read as a dactylic hexameter provided you admit the license that lets the syllable before the caesura be taken as long (understandably, if you imagine a true pause at the caesura): In quō nascētur || asinus coriō moriētur.

For a fable about the donkey's skin in which he is born and dies and in which he suffers even after death, consider this sad little fable by Phaedrus:
Qui natus est infelix, non vitam modo
tristem decurrit, verum post obitum quoque
persequitur illum dura fati miseria.
Galli Cybebes circum in quaestus ducere
asinum solebant, baiulantem sarcinas.
Is cum labore et plagis esset mortuus,
detracta pelle sibi fecerunt tympana.
Rogati mox a quodam, delicio suo
quidnam fecissent, hoc locuti sunt modo:
"Putabat se post mortem securum fore:
ecce aliae plagae congeruntur mortuo!"
For an English version, here is one by Christopher Smart:
The luckless wretch that's born to woe
Must all his life affliction know-
And harder still, his cruel fate
Will on his very ashes wait,
Cybele's priests, in quest of bread,
An Ass about the village led,
With things for sale from door to door;
Till work'd and beaten more and more,
At length, when the poor creature died,
They made them drums out of his hide.
Then question'd "how it came to pass
They thus could serve ther darling Ass?"
The answer was, " He thought of peace
In death, and that his toils would cease;
But see his mis'ry knows no bounds,
Still with our blows his back resounds."
The fable tells us that not only will the donkey die in the skin in which he is born, even after death he will no know peace.

So, hoping that the skin in which you find yourself is a more fortunate skin than that of the donkey, here is today's proverb read out loud:

3253. In quo nascetur asinus corio morietur.

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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