Share it

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Auenis player

I was recently intrigued by the above caption, mirrored on several sites, to an image of a Roman mosaic depicting a man with a panpipe. Sensing the red herring, it didn't take me long to narrow down the source of the information to an online article whose author claimed to have “stumbled” on a Latin word, undiscovered by previous Latin dictionaries, meaning “panpipes”.

He found this word “auenis” in a line from Ovid. “Sub galea pastor iunctis pice cantat auenis”. As anyone who knows his Latin can see, “avenis” here is an ablative plural, confirmed by the presence of “cunctis”, ablative plural of cunctus, meaning “joined”, in agreement with it. A quick search in the dictionary will turn up “avena” meaning “oats” and by extension, a stalk of a grass or cane, and therefore “tube” or “chalumeau”.
The passage comes from book V of Tristia, in which the poet bemoans the civil strife in the countryside, causing the ploughman to plough unhappily with one hand, holding a weapon in the other, and here, the shepherd, under his helmet, to play on reeds joined with pitch (a makeshift panflute) to calm his sheep, who are afraid of the wolf.

Ovid also used the expression “avenae structae” to mean panpipes, literally “arrayed tubes”. These were presumably of better manufacture than the ones made by the shepherd with the materials to hand in the war-torn countryside.

Supposing for a moment that there was a word “avenis” or “auenis” (i-stem 3rd declension) meaning panflute, what is it doing in this sentence? If it is a nominative that would make it the subject in competition with “pastor”. The only other possibility ending in “-is” is a genitive. Either way, that leaves poor “cunctis” orphaned, a participle with nothing to qualify. The correct parsing of the line is therefore, as I tried to explain to him, “sub galea”=under his helmet, “pastor cantat”=the shepherd sings/plays, “avenis”= on tubes”, “cunctis pice”= joined with (coal tar) pitch.

While there may yet be undiscovered words of the Latin language, they are unlikely to inhabit the verses of Ovid, a poet already studied by millions of schoolchildren and professors.

When I made contact with the author to put him straight I was treated to a barrage of vituperative messages in which he claimed as his authority the Internet, specifically an online Latin dictionary compiled by an amateur from Texas. Blind faith in dubious sources goes back to before the printed word, where at least the name of the authority quoted carried a certain amount of weight. But today the argument "Just Google it and you'll see" seems to trump common sense.

So who was the authority in this case?

Well it turns out that he makes no bones about not even being one. By "just Googling" the name of the compiler of the dictionary, one William Whitaker, I came upon the following engaging disclaimer:

"I am not a Latin scholar, only a dictionary hacker (in the old sense of one building with only an ax as a tool). While I try to [...] do the best I can, I am a very unreliable source [...] And I am not qualified to even try English-to-Latin."

Ah, my faith in Google is restored!


Douglas Bishop said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Douglas Bishop said...

That's quite a tall tale you tell, Paul.

I wonder what would happen, if those to whom you are appealing, knew the truth of our encounter?

Namely, that it was you who approached me in a vituperative and rude, disrespectful fashion. Interestingly, once a third party appeared unlooked-for, who supplied information that substantiated my position, you unaccountably wished to withdraw from our discussion - one, I remind you, that you initiated.

You gave out to me, that you contacted me over this because you wished to save me from humiliation. I should point out, that your condescending behavior was not that which one would expect from someone wishing to spare me damage to my image. However, it is quite consistent with the behavior of one who wishes to do me harm.

Fear for my "reputation", has never been high on my list of concerns, Paul. In fact, it has never been on my list at all. I stopped caring about what people said of me, a long time ago.

Millions of people also once believed the earth to be flat, Paul. Were we indulge your particular brand of determined-by-the-masses "logic", we would not have so much as the computers with which we write our posts.

I think you would benefit from re-reading my article.

Douglas Bishop said...

Something you have apparently missed, Paul, is this: I have but followed the available evidence. That is all that led me to my conclusion - not pride, pomposity, or any of the condescension you dealt out to me in such abundance.

After having a look at the translation sources on my page, have you considered how many translations need to be wrong, in order for you to be right?

Douglas Bishop said...

One thing was crystal-clear during our discussion, Paul - you had no interest whatsoever in considering the implications of my position. You contacted me, utterly convinced in the correctness of your position (I made contact with the author to put him straight), being blinded and made foolish by your unshakeable faith in your perceived correctness. This presumptuous behavior is not indicative of an educated, informed seeker of knowledge, for all that you attempt to cast yourself as such. Here, your original post fairly seethes with holier-than-thou, pompous arrogance, as did the manner in which you approached me.

An amateur from Texas.....Paul, is there any particular reason why someone from Texas cannot be correct about a translation? Aside from bias on your part, that is?

Credentialism, Paul, is simply another way of attempting to make an argument from authority. I feel inclined to point out, that authorities have made mistakes before, and will inevitably do so again. The moment you resort to such fallacies for support of your position, Paul, is the moment you are conceding that your position cannot stand on its own merits.

Does it follow, that someone who disavows any scholarly standing on a given topic, will automatically be mistaken on that topic?

Two more things:

1) You interpreted the first Ovid reference (auenis) as a "makeshift pan flute".

So, you admit that the William Whitaker translation is correct?

2) What makes that particular pan flute makeshift? The fact that they are glued together? If so, then I wonder what Dajoeri, Ulitza, Preda, and other top-notch pan flute builders would have to say about their pan flutes being "makeshift", seeing as they are all assembled by gluing the tubes together?

Paul, I fear that you appear to be suffering from an acute case of "Maestro syndrome", as I have come to refer to this particular mindset. You have assumed, that there were different classes of pan flute in ancient times (a la auenis, and avenae structae), and that the Romans and ancient Greeks perceived the instrument in the same manner as various 21st century European panflutists, who suffer from the same conceited mentality as yourself.

In reality, the evidence has a different story to tell, in that the pan flute was seen by the wealthier classes of Romans and ancient Greeks as an instrument of rustics, of those of the countryside, particularly shepherds. Interestingly, in all three of the references I cite on my page, the auenis references all involve their being played by......shepherds. This is yet another piece of contextual evidence that supports the case for my position.

Finally, let us assume for one moment, that there were different levels of pan flute quality in ancient times. Well, what of it? However you perceive the quality of a given pan flute, you have admitted that each term, auenis and avenae structae, signify the pan flute.

Thank you for making my case for me.