Latin Proverb # 24 – Cygnea Cantio
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.
The proverb, found in Erasmus' Adagia, is believed to spring from the swans' song just before they die. Many Ancient Greek scholars spoke of the swan as a singer, but pointed out that they sing the most beautifully just before they die.
Many Romans also described the swan as a singer and the connection between their song and death. Martial wrote:
i.e. ” The swan, chanter of its own death, modulates sweet songs with failing tongue.” (transl. Shackleton Bailey, 1993)
Ovid too, mentions the fatal song in his Metamorphoses:
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.” (transl. More, 1922)
Pliny the Elder, however, was not a believer of the swan-song stating that observations of swans have shown that the stories of dying swans' singing were false.
He wrote in his Nat. Hist.:
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” (transl. Rackham, 1938)
Martial. Epigrams, Volume III: Books 11-14. Edited and translated by D. R. Shackleton Bailey. Loeb Classical Library 480. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993.
Ovid. Metamorphoses. Brookes More. Boston. Cornhill Publishing Co. 1922.
Pliny. Natural History, Volume I: Books 1-2. Translated by H. Rackham. Loeb Classical Library 330. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1938.
Do you have a similar expression in your language? Leave a comment below!