Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Latin Without Latin: Finis Ab Origine Pendet

This is my twenty-first "Latin without Latin" essay. For background and a link to other essays, see this page: About the English Essays. This essay is about one of the Latin emblems of Gabriel Rollenhagen (1583-1619). You can read more about Rollenghagen and his influential work in this blog post. I chose this particular emblem because it seemed a good follow-up to the paradox of birth and death in the phoenix emblem from Camerarius that I wrote about yesterday.

As often with emblems, the title of the emblem is a Latin proverb, in this case a proverb first recorded in the Astronomicon of the poet Manilius: Finis Ab Orígine Pendet. Let's look at the motto first, and then the poem.

Finis. This is the Latin word for the end, the limit (compare the English word finish).

Ab Orígine. The Latin preposition ab means from, away from (you can see this as a prefix in the English word abduction). The word orígine is the ablative form, as required by the preposition, of the noun órigo, meaning origin, beginning. Put them together and you have a prepositional phrase: ab orígine, from the beginning.

Pendet. This is from the Latin verb pendére, to hang down, depend (compare the English word pendulum). It is third-person singular in form, which is what we need for finis as the subject: Finis Ab Orígine Pendet, the end hangs down from the start, the finish depends on the beginning.

In general terms, this Latin proverb usually refers to the notion that if you get off to a good start, you can expect success in the end, but if you get off to a bad start, things are not likely to end well. In this poem, however, Rollenhagen is going to apply the idea to something more paradoxical, the endless cycle of birth, death and re-birth (this was also the theme in Manilius' poem as well).

Nascéntes. This is from the Latin verb nasci, to be born (compare the English words nascent and renaissance). It is a participle in the plural: nascéntes, being born. Now we just need a verb!

mórimur. This is from the Latin verb mori, to die (compare the English word mortal). It is first-person plural, we are dying. So, put that together with the participle and you get a paradox: in the moment of being born, nascéntes, we are dying, mórimur.

finísque ab orígine pendet. The little -que after the word finis means and, so it links this statement (which we already saw in the title) to the preceding statement: Nascéntes mórimur, As we are born, we are dying, and finísque ab orígine pendet, the end depends upon the beginning - in other words, the moment of death already begins at the moment of birth.

Now, let's see what the second line adds to this first line. The entire first line, in fact, comes from the poem of Manilius which I mentioned above; the second line is Rollenhagen's own.

De vita. Here we have the Latin preposition de, meaning from, down from (you can see this as a prefix in English words like depart, deviate, etc.), with the Latin noun vita, meaning life (compare the English word vital). So, the phrase reads: De vita, from life.

ad mortem. Here we have the Latin preposition ad, meaning to, towards (you can see this as a prefix in English words like admission, adopt, etc.), with the Latin noun mors, death, in the accusative form required by the preposition: ad mortem, to death, unto death.

mors. Here we have the Latin noun mors again, this time in the nominative form, meaning that it must be the subject of the verb - but we are still waiting to see what the verb is.

redivíva. This is from the Latin adjective redivívus, meaning that which lives again, something that has revived, come back to life. The form is feminine singular, agreeing with the feminine noun, mors, death. So, the result is a paradoxical noun phrase: mors redivíva, death that has come back to life. Now, we just need the final word of the poem to give us the verb we have been waiting for.

trahit. This is from the Latin verb trahere, to drag or to pull (compare the English word tractor). The form is third-person singular, which is what we want for mors, death, as the subject: Death reborn, mors redivíva, drags us, trahit, from life all the way unto death, de vita ad mortem.

So, put it all together and review the paradoxical poem once again, this time looking at the emblem illustration; you can see birth personified as a baby, resting his hand on death symbolized by a human skull. Wrapping around the two of them, in a paradox of beginning and ending, is the famous ouroboros, the circular serpent that eats its own tail. You can read more about the ouroboros in this Wikipedia article.

Finis Ab Orígine Pendet
Nascéntes mórimur; finísque ab orígine pendet;
De vita ad mortem mors redivíva trahit.

There is a famous edition of Rollenhagen's emblems in English by the 17th-century English poet, George Wither. Here is how he renders this distich in English:

As soone, as wee to bee, begunne;
We did beginne, to be Vndone.

For more of Rollenhagen's poems in Latin, you can visit the Rollenhagen stream in my Latin distichs blog. Here is a link to the blog post for this specific poem. As I add new English essays, you will be able to find those in the English stream at the blog. The next essay is about another Rollenhagen emblem, this time involving a turtle: Omnia Mea Mecum Porto.


  1. I don't get to visit the teachings of Laura Gibbs nearly as often as I'd like, for at 61 years old many responsibilities are vying continuously for my time. But I must reiterate once more, in different words, that her teaching style and understanding of her subject are truly impressive. Lucky are her students everywhere.

  2. Thank you so much for your nice comment! During the year I've got all kinds of responsibilities vying for my time, too, which is why I am enjoying so much the great summer of Latin distichs... it won't last long enough to suit me, of course, but as long as the summer lasts, I will be Latinizing! :-)

  3. Why in this emblem is the word written PEDET, with an accent over the first "E," instead of PENDET? Do you think this means the letter "N" was purposefully left out, and the accent is a sort of apostrophe? Is there a hidden joke or meaning in leaving out the "N"? I would really like to know!

  4. Not an accent mark - that's an abbreviation that you will sometimes find used in Latin (the mark alerts you to the missing letter, something like the way we use apostrophes in contractions in English today), and I suspect it was used here in order to make the motto fit into the space of the circle. That's my guess anyway!


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