By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB
Every ancient civilization has a great corpus of fables. In the case of Greek literature, we are all familiar with writers like Phaedrus and Aesop and their immortal works. Perhaps less well known, though, is the great fabulist Hyginus.
Who Was Hyginus?
Hyginus was born around 60 BC and died in 17 AD. He was probably of Greek origin. Later in his life, due to his intellectual achievements, he was made the superintendent of the Palatine library by Augustus, according to Suetonius’ account in the work De Grammaticis. Apart from fables, he wrote topographical and biographical treatises, commentaries on Helvius Cinna and the poems of Virgil, and disquisitions on agriculture and bee-keeping. Unfortunately, as Suetonius tells us, Hyginus fell into poverty in his old age and had to be supported by the historian Clodius Licinus.
Hyginus’ fabulae are written in a different style from those of Aesop and Phaedrus. There are no talking animals and no moral at the end. His fables are short narratives that tell the stories of relevant myths and legends of Greek and Roman origin. For instance, the text below is Hyginus’ description of what happened after the Deluge, which he says was survived by one couple only. You will be surprised to learn how they repopulated the Earth. The passage is translated by Mary Grant.
Cataclysmus, quod nos diluvium vel irrigationem dicimus, cum factum est, omne genus humanum interiit praeter Deucalionem et Pyrrham, qui in montem Aetnam, qui altissimus in Sicilia esse dicitur, fugerunt. Hi propter solitudinem cum vivere non possent, petierunt ab Iove, ut aut homines daret aut eos pari calamitate afficeret. Tum Iovis iussit eos lapides post se iactare; quos Deucalion iactavit, viros esse iussit, quos Pyrrha, mulieres. Ob eam rem laos dictus, laas enim Graece lapis dicitur.
“When the cataclysm which we call the Flood or Deluge occurred, all the human race perished except Deucalion and Pyrrha, who fled to Mount Etna, which is said to be the highest mountain in Sicily. When they could not live on account of loneliness, they begged Jupiter either to give men, or to afflict them with a similar disaster. Then Jupiter bade them cast stones behind them; those Deucalion threw he ordered to become men, and those Pyrrha threw, to be women. Because of this they are called laos, “people”, for “stone” in Greek is called las.”
Hyginus is a significant addition to the classicist’s library and for this reason deserves more attention from teachers and students. I encourage you to explore his works.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
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