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QUAINT OPINIONS, EXPRESSIONS, AND MANNERS
OF THE ANCIENTS.
Anima certe, quia spiritus est, in sicco habitare non potest.-S. Augustin.
Pliny says of the bear, “ Nec alteri animalium in maleficio stultitia solertior.” — Lib. viii. This is indeed a quaint and paradoxical attribute of Bruin's character. Not that the paradox involved in the antithesis, solertior stultitia, will not admit of an explanation analogous to that of vis inertiæ, and many similar combinations; but we are at a loss what to do with in maleficio. Folly may be busy, and bustling in left-handed attempts to do good, in impotent or accidentally successful efforts to do evil : but a consistent and well followed up plot of mischief, and nothing else could deserve the epithet of solers, must be an effort of strength, and not an ebullition of weakness. Harduin's reading of astutia for stultitia, proposed conjecturally without a shadow of authority, takes away the point and epigram of the sentence, and leaves the bare statement of a fact, probably in all the truth of natural history.
The Flibbertigibbet of Shakspeare and the Great Unknown is in close alliance with those familiar spirits or hobgoblins, conceived by the ancients to amuse themselves by wrestling with men merely to put them into a fright. Puck is the most delightful of all hobgoblins; and Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his picture painted for the Shakspeare Gallery, proved how truly Shakspearian both his mind and pencil were. Pliny, in the preface to his Natural History, represents Plancus as humourously alluding to these ghostly opinions of the people :-“ Nec Plancus illepide, cum diceretur Asinius Pollio orationes in eum parare, quæ ab ipso aut liberis post mortem Planci ederentur, ne respondere posset: Cum mortuis non nisi larvas luctari."
It is a practice among the vulgar, in modern times, to call down a blessing on the sneezer. We learn from Cicero, that the same absurdity prevailed among the ancients:
the ancients:—“Quæ si suscipiamus, pedis offensio nobis, et abruptio corrigiæ, et sternutamenta erunt observanda." But the modern benediction is only a remnant of a more extensive and ridiculous superstition. Not only was sneezing considered as a presage of impending events, but the prosperous or adverse characters of those events was calculated by the direction in which the prophetic convulsion took place, whether to the right or to the left.
The dying speech and confession of the swan was among the most strange fancies of popular belief. It was, however, well adapted to poetical embellishment and illustration. The swans of the river Mæander were supposed to be most zealous in undertaking their own funerals. Ovid makes Dido begin her pathetic remonstrance to Æneas with an appeal to this authentic fact :
Sic, ubi fata vocant, udis abjectus in herbis,
There has been much dispute whether Horace, in his satires, means Tiresias to sneer at Ulysses, and covertly to express his private opinion of his own art, which is the most obvious sense, and lets down the pretence of prophecy to the level of the most ordinary capacity; or whether in the words,
O Laertiade, quidquid dicam, aut erit, aut non:
Satir. hb. ii. sat. 5.
we are to adopt a construction, which shall make the passage a serious assertion of prophetic truth. The rules of interpretation will fairly admit the meaning to be, considering the sentence as elliptical, that whatever he says shall be, will come to pass; and whatever he says shall not be, will not take place. The probability is that Horace intended the sense to be equivocal : in disguising the real meaning of the supposed diviner, he clearly, but safely, indicates his own opinion, that their pretended skill was mere imposition, and humourously makes the prophet assert his professional character, in terms as ambiguous as those in which his policy was in the habit of couching his oracular answers.
Herodotus represents the evil consequences to the Eubeans, of having rejected the advice of an oracle, delivered in unusually intelligible terms, involving little more than the plain dictates of common sense:- Βάκιδι γαρ ώδε έχει περί τούτων ο χρησμός:
Φράζεο βαρβαρόφωνον όταν ζυγόν είς άλα βάλλη
There were three soothsayers, of the name of Bacis. The most ancient was of Eleus in Bæotia; the second of Athens; and the third of Caphya in Arcadia, who went also by the names of Cydus and Aletes. The most wonderful stories are told of this last.
The following is a proverbial expression :
Plaut. in Pseud.
Among the number of strange fancies, is one, attaching to the number ten. The ancients thought, and many of the summer bathers at Brighton and Margate continue to think, that the tenth wave is larger, stronger, and more overwhelming than the other nine. If the military writers talk to us about the decuman legion and the decuman gate, the authors on natural history and agriculture talk of decuman pears being very fine and large ; and we are gravely told, that the tenth egg is always the largest. Is not the tenth pig also the most plump of the litter? The decuman gate, we are told, was so called on account of its size. If its dimensions were imposing, its purpose was awful :
“ Decumana autem porta quæ appellatur, post prætorium est, per quam delinquentes milites educuntur ad portam.”—Veget.
Pomponius Mela tells us of a bandy-legged or baker-kneed nation in Ethiopia. Their name is derived from luas. “ Ab eo tractu, quem feræ infestant, proximi sunt Himantopodes, inflexi lentis cruribus, quos serpere potius quam ingredi referunt; deinde Pharusii, aliquando, tendente ad Hesperidas Hercule, dites; nunc inculti, et, nisi quod pecore aluntur, admodum inopes." — Lib. iii.
Seneca gives a very humourous account of persons leading a sort of antipodean life, doing every thing by contraries, and living by candle-light. It seems an anticipation of modern hours in the fashionable world : -“Excedebat, inquit, cena ejus diem ? Minime! valde enim frugaliter vive.
nihil consumebat, nisi noctem. Itaque, crebro dicentibus illum quibusdam avarum et sordidum: Vos, inquit, illum et lychnobium dicatis! Non debes admirari, si tantas invenis vitiorum proprietates : varia sunt; innumerabiles habent
prendi eorum genera non possunt."