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Unus lanius non timet multas oves

Original post date: Thursday, August 30, 2007

In English: One butcher does not fear the many sheep.

I've been posting proverbs related to Aesop's fables this week, and I thought this would be a good one to include, since it resonates with a really profound Aesop's fable - the story of the butcher and the sheep - which is surprisingly little known. Here is the story in Steinhowel's version:
Verveces in collecto cum essent una cum arietibus, lanium videntes inter se intrare dissimulaverunt. Cum autem unum ex se cernerent mortifera manu lanii teneri, trahi et interfici, etiam nec sic timuerunt, sed inter se incaute dicebant: Hunc tetigit et te [non]; dimittamus, trahat quem trahat. Novissime remansit unus, cum et ipse similiter se trahi videret, se dixisse lanio fertur: Digne sumus laniati singillatim ab uno, qui hoc non prospeximus, dum essemus simul et te in medio nostro positum aspeximus et capitinis impulsionibus quassatum, confractumque non occidimus.

When the wethers were gathered together in a flock with the rams, they saw a butcher enter among them, but they pretended not to see him. Even when they saw one of their number seized by the death-dealing hand of the butcher, dragged off and slaughtered, they even so did not fear but recklessly said to one another: He took that one, and not you; we concede, let him take whom he takes. Finally one was left and when he himself likewise saw that he was being dragged off, he reportedly said to the butcher: Rightly we are butchered one after another, because we did not pay attention; when we were together and we saw you placed in our midst we should have killed you by grinding you with blows from our heads and smashing you to bits.
Here also is Caxton's English version of 1484: "A bocher entryd within a stable full of whethers / And after as the whethers sawe hym / none of them sayd one word / And the bocher toke the fyrst that he fonde / Thenne the whethers spake al to gyder and sayd / lete hym doo what he wylle / And thus the bocher tooke hem all one after another sauf one onely / And as he wold haue taken the last / the poure whether sayd to hym / Iustly I am worthy to be take / by cause I haue not holpen my felawes." The spelling may give you a headache, but you can still see the powerful point of this story, even in the old-fashioned orthography.

As today's proverb tells us, the butcher can indeed face many sheep without fear, exactly because the sheep will do nothing to help themselves, or each other.

This fable has always reminded me of the 'first they came' parable of Pastor Martin Niemoeller (1892-1984): 'First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me.'

So, hoping we can recognize the butcher when we see him coming (or, better yet, hoping he does not come at all), here is today's proverb read out loud:

1441. Unus lanius non timet multas oves.

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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