The Greek in this mosaic flooring reads gnothi sauton "know thyself." This was one of the mottoes in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo near the entranceway to the Oracle of Delphi. The skeleton is a "momento mori," a visual reminder that we all die and that it might be pleasant to expire with at least a modicum of self-knowledge.
At the Wording Desk
Latin & Greek Words & Phrases Worth Knowing
Increase your vocabulary by learning some Latin and Greek words and phrases that may prove worth knowing.
Here’s an idea possibly worth reviving in modern times. In ancient Rome, an archimime was an actor, sometimes a court jester, invited to attend funerals of wealthy persons specifically to perform impressions and impersonations of the deceased notable, not usually satiric but in praise of the dead person’s character. This rare Latin word is mentioned in Suetonius’ life of the emperor Vespasian. The Latin term archimimus is a direct borrowing from a classical Greek agent noun ἀρχίμιμος archimimos ‘chief actor, leading pantomime artist.’
I see “archimimicry” as an excellent addition to those funerals which contain obituary lines like “Mr. Stenson’s demise was a great loss to the hardware industry.” To which burbles of bloated praise, I always want to add, “Before or after he stopped selling his daughters into white slavery.” My point and firm belief is that 95% of obituary tributes and fulsome approbations are lies, plain and simple. In the same way that most of grief is self-pity, so obituaries do not laud the dead; they praise us, the survivors, who had the good taste and good fortune to have known the deceased. In no way is such mere acquaintance praiseworthy.
I deem it would be immense fun at, say, Donald Trump’s funeral, to have an archimimus dip into the audience of mourners, single out beautiful women and have the archimimus plunge his hands up their skirts and dresses and grab their privates in a manner similar to simian Trump antics.
This Late Latin phrase, literally ‘Greek white’ denoted any distasteful medication, but it referred specifically to dried dog shit, once used to soothe inflammation of the throat.
Ridentem dicere verum
One famous characterization of the Roman poet Horace comes from his first Satire. The first typifies his facetious manner: “ridentem dicere verum / quid vetat” ‘What's wrong with someone laughing as they tell the truth?’ (Sat. 1.1.24-25)
The know-nothing dropouts who support Donald Trump might pay heed to this little adage by the ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician Pythagoras: Απαιδευσία πάντων τῶν παθῶν μήτηρ apaideusia ton pathon meter ‘A lack of education is the mother of all suffering.’
Astra castra, numen lumen
This Christian praise of self-denial means “the stars are my camp and God is my lamp.” It means that true faith does not require even a roof over one’s head “for the Lord will provide all you need.” A proposition dubious even to some true believers.
Many consider doubt about who and what we humans are to be strictly a modern malaise. But check out an ancient Greek poet’s existential fretfulness: τί δέ τις; τί δ’ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ / ἄνθρωπος. ‘What is a person? What is not a person? Man is but a dream of a shadow,’ wrote Pindar somewhere around 500 BCE.
In his Pythian Victory Ode # 8, Pindar nevertheless held out hope for a moment’s glory to athletic achievers and other rare lucky winners of fate’s dice toss:
“Creatures for a day! What is a man?
What is he not? A dream of a shadow
Is our mortal being. But when there comes to men
A gleam of splendour given of heaven,
Then rests on them a light of glory
And blessed are their days.”
Qui omnes insidias timet in nullas incidit.
‘He who fears every ambush falls into none.’
In other words, in the long run of reasonable security surveillance, keeping one’s guard up is always worth it.
There is a middle course? News to me!
Difficile est modum tenēre in omnibus.
‘It is difficult to be moderate in all actions of life.’
So said St. Jerome who translated the Bible into Latin. His version is called The Vulgate.
Roman Reading is Good for You
Ubi vivit latinitas, ibi viget humanitas
My translation: Where the study of Latin lives, there too thrives civilized learning.”
The above is the motto of a Twitter hashtag called #robertus.
Bill Casselman, October 13, 2016
Copyright William Gordon Casselman 2016
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