Friday, June 01, 2007


An Old Saying

H.H. Munro (Saki), Gabriel-Ernest:
At dinner that night he was quite unusually silent.

'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.
Thomas Browne, Pseudodoxia Epidemica 3.8, discusses the superstition and explains it thus:
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?

οὐ φθλεγξῇ; λύκον εἶδες;
But Plato, Republic 1.336D (tr. Paul Shorey), alludes to the belief even before Theocritus:
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.

καὶ ἐγὼ ἀκούσας ἐξεπλάγην καὶ προσβλέπων αὐτὸν ἐφοβούμην, καί μοι δοκῶ, εἰ μὴ πρότερος ἑωράκη αὐτὸν ἢ ἐκεῖνος ἐμέ, ἄφωνος ἂν γενέσθαι.
Earlier in the Republic, Thrasymachus was described as a wild beast.

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.

ὁ λύκος προορῶν τὸν ἄνθρωπον ἀσθενέστερον αὐτὸν καὶ ἄφωνον ποιεῖ, ὡς ὁ Πλάτων ἐν ταῖς πολιτείαις αὐτοῦ φησιν· ὀφθεὶς ὁ λύκος αὐτὸς ἀσθενέστερος γίνεται.
In Latin, see Vergil, Eclogues 9.53-54 (tr. H. Rushton Fairclough):
Even voice itself now fails Moeris; wolves have seen Moeris first.

vox quoque Moerim / iam fugit ipsa; lupi Moerim videre priores.
According to Pliny, Natural History 8.80 (tr. John Bostock and H.T. Riley):
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.

sed in Italia quoque creditur luporum visus esse noxius vocemque homini, quem priores contemplentur, adimere ad praesens.
I owe the classical references to Gow's commentary on Theocritus, who cites other ancient texts as well.

I have not seen Richard Preston Eckels, Greek Wolf-Lore (Philadelphia, 1937).

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