Latin Proverb # 24 – Cygnea Cantio

Latin proverb: Cygnea cantio – Erasmus Adagia

English equivalent / Translation: Swan-song.

Meaning: A cygnea cantio, or a swan-song, is a final gesture or performance given just before death (or retirement from one’s career, if you want to be dramatic when you leave your job). It is the last song you sing before you are finished, so to speak.

Curiosities: The proverb is believed to spring from the swans' song just before they die. Many Ancient Greek scholars spoke of the swan as a singer, but point out that they sing the most beautifully just before they die.

Many Romans also describe the swan as a singer and the connection between the song and death. Martial writes (13.77):

Dulcia defecta modulatur carmina lingua, 
     Cantator cygnus funeris ipse sui. 

i.e. ” The swan, chanter of its own death, modulates sweet songs with failing tongue.”*

Ovid too, mentions the fatal song in his Metamorphoses, (lib. XIV, 428–30):

Illic cum lacrimis ipso modulata dolore
verba sono tenui maerens fundebat, ut olim
carmina iam moriens canit exequialia cygnus.

 i.e. " In tears she poured out words with a faint voice,
lamenting her sad woe, as when the swan
about to die sings a funereal dirge.”**

Pliny the Elder, however, is not a believer of the swan-song stating that observations of swans have shown that the stories of dying swans' singing are false. He writes in his Nat. Hist. (lib X:32): olorum morte narratur flebilis cantus, falso, ut arbitror, aliquot experimentis, i.e.  ”A story is told about the mournful song of swans at their death—a false story as I judge on the strength of a certain number of experiences” ***


 * Translation by D. R. Shackleton Bailey. Loeb Classical Library.

** Translation by Brookes More. Ovid, Metamorphoses, Cornhill Publishing Co.

*** Translation by H. Rackham, Loeb Classical Library.

Do you have a similar expression in your language? Leave a comment below!

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