Thursday, October 11, 2012


Aurum ex Stercore

"Meet the Bacteria That Produces Pure Gold," Slate (October 4, 2012):
Scientists have discovered bacteria that eats toxic material and, well, poops pure gold. This microbial magician, named Cupriavidus metallidurans, when placed in a minilab full of gold chloride, a nasty toxin, gobbled up the poison and, in about a week, processed it out as 24-karat nuggets of the precious yellow metal.
This reminds me of a passage in Donatus' Life of Vergil:
When Vergil was holding [a book by] Ennius in his hand and was asked what he was doing, he answered that he was collecting gold from the dung of Ennius.

cum Ennium in manu haberet rogareturque, quidnam faceret, respondit se aurum colligere de stercore Ennii.
See also Cassiodorus, Institutes of Divine and Secular Learning 1.1.8 (my translation):
While Vergil was reading Ennius, he was asked by someone what he was doing and he answered, "I'm searching for gold in dung."

Vergilius, dum Ennium legeret, a quodam quid faceret inquisitus, respondit: aurum in stercore quaerere.
I haven't seen Georges Folliet, "La fortuna du dit de Virgile Aurum colligere de stercore dans la littérature chrétienne," Sacris Erudiri 41 (2002) 31-53, but the saying is discussed in Renzo Tosi, Dictionnaire des sentences latines et grecques, tr. Rebecca Lenoir (Grenoble: Jérôme Millon, 2010), #1188 (pp. 879-880). Not mentioned by Tosi are three Latin epigrams by John Owen (1564-1622), all translated by me:

Vergil gathers gold from the dung of Ennius,
  A heretic gathers dung from gold.

Aurum Virgilius de stercore colligit Enni,
  Ex auro stercus colligit haereticus.
Vergil gathers gold from the dung of Ennius.
  Vergil did what a doctor also does.

Aurum Virgilius de stercore colligit Enni.
  Fecit Virgilius, quod facit et medicus.
The renter of privies collects gold from dung,
  As do two others as well: the peasant and the doctor.

Conductor foricarum ex stercore colligit aurum,
  Et duo praeterea, rusticus et medicus.
The doctor is said to "gather gold from dung" because he charges a fee to inspect the feces of his patients, for diagnostic purposes.

St. Jerome in his letters employs a similar expression, but substitutes mud for dung:

54.11.1 (ed. Hilberg, CSEL LIV, p. 478, tr. F.A. Wright):
When you are eating, remember that immediately afterwards you will have to pray and read. Take a fixed number of verses from the Holy Scripture and show them up as your task to your Lord; and do not lie down to rest until you have filled your heart's basket with this precious yarn. After the Holy Scriptures, read the treatises that have been written by learned men, provided, of course, that they are persons of known faith. You need not seek for gold amid the mire: with many pearls buy the one pearl of price.

quando comedis, cogita, quod statim tibi orandum, ilico legendum sit. de scripturis sanctis habeto fixum versuum numerum; istud pensum domino tuo redde nec ante quieti membra concedas, quam calathum pectoris tui hoc subtegmine impleveris. post scripturas sanctas doctorum hominum tractatus lege, eorum dumtaxat, quorum fides nota est. non necesse habes aurum in luto quaerere: multis margaritis unam redime margaritam.
98.22.1 (ed. Hilberg, CSEL LV, p. 207, a translation by Jerome of one of Theophilus of Alexandria's letters, tr. Norman Russell):
Therefore those who delight in Origen's errors should not despise the preaching of the Lord's feast. Nor should they seek ointments, gold and pearls in the mire.

unde, qui Origenis erroribus delectantur, festivitatis dominicae non spernant praeconia nec unguenta, aurum et margaritas quaerant in luto.
107.12.3 (ed. Hilberg, CSEL LV, p. 303, tr. W.H. Fremantle):
Let her avoid all apocryphal writings, and if she is led to read such not by the truth of the doctrines which they contain but out of respect for the miracles contained in them, let her understand that they are not really written by those to whom they are ascribed, that many faulty elements have been introduced into them, and that it requires infinite discretion to look for gold in the midst of dirt.

caveat omnia apocrypha et, si quando ea non ad dogmatum veritatem, sed ad signorum reverentiam legere voluerit, sciat non eorum esse, quorum titulis praenotantur, multaque his admixta vitiosa et grandis esse prudentiae aurum in luto quaerere.
Gold from mud also appears in Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), planned epilogue to Flowers of Evil (my translation):
Angels dressed in gold, purple, and hyacinth,
O you, be witnesses that I have done my duty
Like a perfect chemist and a holy soul.
For from each thing I extracted its quintessence,
You gave me your mud, and I made gold out of it.

Anges revêtus d'or, de pourpre et d'hyacinthe,
O vous, soyez témoins que j'ai fait mon devoir
Comme un parfait chimiste et comme une âme sainte.
Car j'ai de chaque chose extrait la quintessence,
Tu m'as donné ta boue, et j'en ai fait de l'or.
Hat tip: Jim K.


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