Tuesday, October 30, 2012


More on Aurum ex Stercore

This is an update on Aurum ex Stercore, with help from readers of this blog.

Jane Seeber notes that the proverb aurum ex stercore is embedded in the title of a work by Sir Thomas Urquhart (1611–1660), his Ekskybalauron. Urquhart's coinage is derived from Greek ἐκ (ek) = "out of", σκύβαλον (skybalon) = "dung", and Latin aurum = "gold". The full title is Ekskybalauron: or, The discovery of a most exquisite jewel, more precious then diamonds inchased in gold, the like whereof was never seen in any age; found in the kennel of Worcester-streets, the day after the fight, and six before the autumnal aequinox, anno 1651. Serving in this place, to frontal a vindication of the honour of Scotland, from that infamy, whereinto the rigid Presbyterian party of that nation, out of their coveteousness and ambition, most dissembledly hath involved it.

Alistair Ian Blyth points out that Henry Fielding (1707-1754) alludes to the proverb in The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, Book VI, Chapter I:
In reality, I am inclined to suspect, that all these several Finders of Truth are the very identical Men, who are by others called the Finders of Gold. The Method used in both these Searches after Truth and after Gold, being, indeed, one and the same, viz. the searching, rummaging, and examining into a nasty Place; indeed, in the former Instances, into the nastiest of all Places, A BAD MIND.

But though, in this Particular, and perhaps in their Success, the Truth-finder, and the Gold-finder, may very properly be compared together; yet in Modesty, surely, there can be no Comparison between the two; for who ever heard of a Gold-finder that had the Impudence or Folly to assert, from the ill Success of his Search, that there was no such thing as Gold in the World? Whereas the Truth-finder, having raked out that Jakes his own Mind, and being there capable of tracing no Ray of Divinity, nor any thing virtuous, or good, or lovely, or loving, very fairly, honestly, and logically concludes, that no such things exist in the whole Creation.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites this passage under gold-finder, sense 1 ("One whose occupation it is to find gold"), but Fielding's mention of jakes makes it more likely that the word is meant in OED's sense 2 ("A scavenger"). "Scavenger" here is a euphemism—all five of the OED's citations for sense 2 evidently refer to "one who empties privies" (The Century Dictionary, s.v. gold-finder). The last OED citation for sense 2 is G.F. Northall, Warwickshire Word-Book (London: English Dialect Society, 1896), p. 94:
Gold-dust, sb. Ordure. Wright, Uriconium, 1872, footnote, p. 146, remarks that the Anglo-Saxon Vocabularies have preserved the name gold-hord-hus, a gold treasure-house or gold treasury, for a Jakes; and remarks on its connexion with the name gold-finder or gold-farmer, given as late as the seventeenth century to the cleaners of privies, and which still lingers in Shrewsbury.

Ian Jackson sent me a copy of Georges Folliet, "La fortuna du dit de Virgile Aurum colligere de stercore dans la littérature chrétienne," Sacris Erudiri. A Journal on the Inheritance of Ancient and Medieval Christianity 41 (2002) 31-53. Folliet lists 50 occurrences of the proverb (with slight adaptations) among 36 writers from the 4th to the 19th centuries. He also carefully analyzes the uses to which the proverb has been put.

Two of the authors cited by Folliet are Greek—Theophilus of Alexandria and John Chrysostom. The use of the proverb by Theophilus of Alexandria occurs in a letter extant only in a Latin translation by St. Jerome, quoted in my earlier post. Here are the examples from John Chrysostom:

On Matthew, Homily 39.3 (Patrologia Graeca 57.437, tr. "by members of the English Church"):
Let us keep the feast then continually, and do no evil thing; for this is a feast: and let our spiritual things be made intense, while our earthly things give place: and let us rest a spiritual rest, refraining our hands from covetousness; withdrawing our body from our superfluous and unprofitable toils, from such as the people of the Hebrews did of old endure in Egypt. For there is no difference between us who are gathering gold, and those that were bound in the mire, working at those bricks, and gathering stubble, and being beaten. Yea, for now too the devil bids us make bricks, as Pharaoh did then. For what else is gold, than mire? And what else is silver, than stubble? Like stubble, at least, it kindles the flame of desire; like mire, so does gold defile him that possesses it.

Ἑορτάζωμεν τοίνυν διηνεκῶς, καὶ μηδὲν πονηρὸν πράττωμεν· τοῦτο γὰρ ἑορτή· ἀλλ' ἐπιτεινέσθω μὲν τὰ πνευματικά, καὶ παραχωρείτω τὰ ἐπίγεια, καὶ ἀργῶμεν ἀργίαν πνευματικήν, τὰς χεῖρας πλεονεξίας ἀφιστῶντες, τὸ σῶμα τῶν περιττῶν καὶ ἀνονήτων ἀπαλλάττοντες καμάτων, καὶ ὧν ἐν Αἰγύπτῳ ὑπέμεινε τότε ὁ τῶν Ἑβραίων δῆμος. Οὐδὲν γὰρ διαφέρομεν οἱ χρυσίον συνάγοντες τῶν τῷ πηλῷ προσδεδεμένων, καὶ τὴν πλίνθον ἐκείνην ἐργαζομένων, καὶ ἄχυρα συλλεγόντων, καὶ μαστιζομένων. Καὶ γὰρ καὶ νῦν ὁ διάβολος ἐπιτάττει πλινθουργεῖν, καθάπερ τότε ὁ Φαραώ. Τί γάρ ἐστιν ἄλλο τὸ χρυσίον ἢ πηλός; τί δὲ ἄλλο τὸ ἀργύριον ἢ ἄχυρον; Ὡς ἄχυρα γοῦν ἀνάπτει τῆς ἐπιθυμίας τὴν φλόγα, ὡς πηλὸς οὕτω ῥυποῖ τὸν ἔχοντα ὁ χρυσός.
Homily on the Canaanite woman (Patrologia Graeca 52.451, sometimes attributed to Eusebius, my translation):
"And as Jesus passed forth from thence, He saw a man, named Matthew, sitting at the receipt of custom: and He saith unto him, Follow me." [Matthew 9:9] O power of speech! The fish-hook went in, and He made the prisoner of war a soldier, He made mud into gold. The fish-hook went in, and at once he stood up and followed Him.

"Παράγων, φησὶν, ὁ Ἰησοῦς, εἶδε Ματθαῖον ἐπὶ τὸ τελώνιον καθήμενον, καὶ λέγει αὐτῷ· Ἀκολούθει μοι." [Matthew 9:9] Ὢ λόγου δύναμις· εἰσῆλθε τὸ ἄγκιστρον, καὶ τὸν αἰχμάλωτον στρατιώτην ἐποίησε, τὸν πηλὸν χρυσὸν εἰργάσατο· εἰσῆλθε τὸ ἄγκιστρον, καὶ εὐθέως ἀναστὰς ἠκολούθησεν αὐτῷ.

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