Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Caesar about unicorns, elks and auroches.

Talking about the Hercynian forest, East of the Rhine and of immense magnitude, Caesar describes some animals unfamiliar to the Romans. He starts with a description of a unicorn, a species that has drawn the attention of writers up to the renaissance. After that it was gradually realized they never have existed – which I think is a pity: unicorns and dragons ought to exist. Caesar had never set foot in the Hercynian forest, so why tell about animals you have never seen? Well, it was more or less required by the genre of literature: in describing foreign lands it was expected that the writer should also mention strange animals and weird customs. Of course these animals did not live where Caesar himself had been:  such animals always live one forest further away…
Did Caesar really believe in what he wrote or is there a touch of irony?
The Hercyniam unicorn differs from the normal unicorn known to us in having a horn that at its top it spreads out in palm leaf like branches.

Caesar, De Bello Gallico, Book 6:

[26] Est bos cervi figura, cuius a media fronte inter aures unum cornu exsistit excelsius magisque directum his, quae nobis nota sunt, cornibus: ab eius summo sicut palmae ramique late diffunduntur. Eadem est feminae marisque natura, eadem forma magnitudoque cornuum.

bos: any big animal was called a bos by the Romans, even elephants!
cervus:  stag, deer
frons, frontis (f.) forehead
directus: straight
summo: the top of the horn
palmae ramique:  branches like palm leaves (hendiadys  )
late: broadly
diffundo diffudi diffusum: to spread, extend
mas, maris: male

The next animal is the elk. But the elk is a real animal, isn’t it? Indeed, but compare this description with the picture of an elk below: did you know that an elk is just a bit larger than a goat (actually large bulls can reach a height of 2 m. at the shoulder…), that it has no horns, has no joints in its legs, that it never lies down (procumbit) and when by some accident (quo casu) it is cast down (adflicta) and falls (concidit), it can’t get up (erigit) or even raise a little (sublevat) itself and that it takes its rest leaning (applicat) against a tree? This is very convenient, because now it can easily be captured and killed by my Germanic ancestors:  from their tracks they make up where it uses to withdraw itself (se recipere). The hunters either dig out (subruunt) the tree form the roots on or cut (accidunt) the tree in such a way that it still seems to be standing. When the elk comes at night to lean against that tree, it overthrows (adfligit) by its weight (pondus ponderis, n.) the tree and falls down together with (una) the tree as an easy prey…
Fantastic as this may sound, this way of capturing an animal also occurs in an ancient Chinese source, were it is said of capturing rhinoceroses. In the Physiologus, a Greek text from about 200 AD, the same is said about elephants, including the detail that they have no joints.

[27] Sunt item, quae appellantur alces. Harum est consimilis capris figura et varietas pellium, sed magnitudine paulo antecedunt mutilaeque sunt cornibus et crura sine nodis articulisque habent neque quietis causa procumbunt neque, si quo adflictae casu conciderunt, erigere sese aut sublevare possunt. His sunt arbores pro cubilibus: ad eas se applicant atque ita paulum modo reclinatae quietem capiunt. Quarum ex vestigiis cum est animadversum a venatoribus, quo se recipere consuerint, omnes eo loco aut ab radicibus subruunt aut accidunt arbores, tantum ut summa species earum stantium relinquatur. Huc cum se consuetudine reclinaverunt, infirmas arbores pondere adfligunt atque una ipsae concidunt.

alces, alcis (f.): elk
Harum est consimilis capris figura et varietas pellium = figura et varietas pellium harum consimilis capris
caper, -is/capra: he/she-goat
varietas pellium:  variance of their skins
mutilaeque sunt cornibus: and are mutilated concerning their horns,  i.e . they lack horns
paulo antecedent: they surpass (the goats) a little

crura sine nodis articulisque: legs without joints and ligatures
cubile cubilis (n.): bed, resting place
vestigium: track
animadverto –verti –versum: to direct the mind, notice
venator, -oris (m.): hunter
tantum ut summa species earum stantium relinquatur: to such extent that the utmost impression is being left of them standing.
huc = ad has arbores

een elandstier

With the final animal we are on firmer zoological ground: the now extinct aurochs (urus). They are captured in pits (foveae) and then killed. Young men harden themselves (se durant) in hunting these animals and the one who has killed the most is much praised.
Aurochses don’t accustom (adsuescere) to men and cannot be tamed (mansuefieri), not even when captured young (ne parvuli quidem excepti possunt). The breadth, form and appearance of their horns differs much from those of Roman cattle. These horns are eagerly sought after (haec studiose conquisita) and the Germanics enclose from the tips with silver (ab labris argento circumcludunt) and use them as beakers during most magnificent banquets (in amplissimis epulis).

[28] Tertium est genus eorum, qui uri appellantur. Hi sunt magnitudine paulo infra elephantos, specie et colore et figura tauri. Magna vis eorum est et magna velocitas, neque homini neque ferae quam conspexerunt parcunt. Hos studiose foveis captos interficiunt. Hoc se labore durant adulescentes atque hoc genere venationis exercent, et qui plurimos ex his interfecerunt, relatis in publicum cornibus, quae sint testimonio, magnam ferunt laudem. Sed adsuescere ad homines et mansuefieri ne parvuli quidem excepti possunt. Amplitudo cornuum et figura et species multum a nostrorum boum cornibus differt. Haec studiose conquisita ab labris argento circumcludunt atque in amplissimis epulis pro poculis utuntur.

quam: antecedent grammaticaliy  ferae, but it also includes homini
parco peperci parsum (+ dat.): to spare
Hos studiose foveis captos interficiunt: they (the Germanics) kill them, being diligently captured in pits
relatis in publicum cornibus: the horns being brought forward in public


Horns of Aurochses plated with metal (Basilica of Saint Servatius, Maastricht, the Netherlands)