November 20, 2008

Non formosus erat, sed erat facundus Ulixes

In English: Ulysses was not handsome, but he was good with words.

Since yesterday's proverb was warning us about people to watch out for because of their occasional falsehoods, I figured Odysseus was a great character to look at as a case in point. Odysseus is famous as a teller of fabulous fictions and outright lies, and managed to save his life more than once as a result... thanks to the gullibility of his antagonists.

What this proverb focuses on is that while Odysseus was not good to look (not "shapely," formosus), he was a great talked, facundus, from the same root as the verb for, fari, "to speak" (as in fatum, the thing "spoken" in the sense of divine destiny, and in fama, "oral rumor, report"). Over and over again in both the Iliad and the Odyssey, we see Odysseus put his crafty speaking skills to good use, most famously when he spins his tales for Alcinous after being shipwrecked among the Phaeacians.

In fact, one of the funniest moments that I remember from graduate school is going to a symposium on Homer, and watching a graduate student presenting a paper be simply thunderstruck, completely stupefied and taken aback, by the idea that Odysseus was not telling the truth in the tales he told about the Cyclops and the Sirens and all his other outrageous adventures. Someone in the audience asked a casual question about Odysseus's "lies" at the court of Alcinous, and she had simply never even pondered the possibility that Odysseus was lying, telling tall tales for the benefit of his audience. So, even at a distance of thousands of years, we could see that Homer's Odysseus was still able to cast his spell, making this graduate student believe that insofar as Odysseus was a real character, he had really experienced all those adventures on his way to the court of Alcinous.

As for the Latin here, it comes from Ovid's Ars Amatoria; here is the complete couplet:
Non formosus erat, sed erat facundus Ulixes,
Et tamen aequoreas torsit amore deas.

Ulysses was not handsome, but he was good with words, and he still set the watery goddesses afire with love.
Ah, those aequoreae deae, like fair Calypso... Odysseus was one of those fellows with a goddess in every port no doubt! So, in honor of those two great wordsmiths Odysseus and Ovid, here is today's proverb read out loud:

2314. Non formosus erat, sed erat facundus Ulixes


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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