Friday, June 01, 2007
An Old Saying
At dinner that night he was quite unusually silent.Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica 3.8, discusses the superstition and explains it thus:
'Where's your voice gone to?' said his aunt. 'One would think that you had seen a wolf.'
Van Cheele, who was not familiar with the old saying, thought the remark rather foolish; if he had seen a wolf on his property his tongue would have been extraordinarily busy with the subject.
The ground or occasional original hereof, was probably the amazement and sudden silence the unexpected appearance of Wolves do often put upon Travellers; not by a supposed vapour, or venomous emanation, but a vehement fear which naturally produceth obmutescence; and sometimes irrecoverable silence.The earliest explicit reference to this superstition seems to be Theocritus 14.22 (tr. A.S.F. Gow):
Can't you speak? Have you seen a wolf?But Plato, Republic 1.336D (tr. Paul Shorey), alludes to the belief even before Theocritus:
οὐ φθλεγξῇ; λύκον εἶδες;
And I, when I heard him [Thrasymachus], was dismayed, and looking upon him was filled with fear, and I believe that if I had not looked at him before he did at me I should have lost my voice.Earlier in the Republic, Thrasymachus was described as a wild beast.
καὶ ἐγὼ ἀκούσας ἐξεπλάγην καὶ προσβλέπων αὐτὸν ἐφοβούμην, καί μοι δοκῶ, εἰ μὴ πρότερος ἑωράκη αὐτὸν ἢ ἐκεῖνος ἐμέ, ἄφωνος ἂν γενέσθαι.
Geoponica 15.1.8 (p. 432 Beckh) refers to this passage from Plato and also states the superstition in its most complete form:
If the wolf sees the man first, the wolf makes the man weaker and speechless, as Plato says in his Republic; but if the wolf is seen first, it becomes weaker.In Latin, see Vergil, Eclogues 9.53-54 (tr. H. Rushton Fairclough):
ὁ λύκος προορῶν τὸν ἄνθρωπον ἀσθενέστερον αὐτὸν καὶ ἄφωνον ποιεῖ, ὡς ὁ Πλάτων ἐν ταῖς πολιτείαις αὐτοῦ φησιν· ὀφθεὶς ὁ λύκος αὐτὸς ἀσθενέστερος γίνεται.
Even voice itself now fails Moeris; wolves have seen Moeris first.According to Pliny, Natural History 8.80 (tr. John Bostock and H.T. Riley):
vox quoque Moerim / iam fugit ipsa; lupi Moerim videre priores.
In Italy also it is believed that there is a noxious influence in the eye of a wolf; it is supposed that it will instantly take away the voice of a man, if it is the first to see him.I owe the classical references to Gow's commentary on Theocritus, who cites other ancient texts as well.
sed in Italia quoque creditur luporum visus esse noxius vocemque homini, quem priores contemplentur, adimere ad praesens.
I have not seen Richard Preston Eckels, Greek Wolf-Lore (Philadelphia, 1937).