Appendix 14: Omarian Epitaphs & Sundial Mottoes

a) Epitaphs.

As is to be expected (and as we have already seen in the case of John Gay’s in Westminster Abbey and John Keats’ in the Protestant Cemetery in Rome), epitaphs are occasionally Omarian in tone, and this goes back to ancient times.

E.H.Warmington, in his Remains of Old Latin (Loeb, 1940) gives, in volume 4, two Roman examples. The first comes from the marble tablet erected in Rome, over the grave of one Pompeia, by her parents, at the end of the 2nd century BC. In translation (#39, p.15) it reads:

Fortune pledges things to many,
Guarantees them not to any.
Live for each day, live for the hours,
Since nothing is for always yours.

The second, from a gravestone found near Cremona, and dating from the early 1st century BC, reads thus in translation:

Marcus Statius Chilo, freedman of Marcus, lies here. Ah! Weary wayfarer, you there who are passing by me, though you may walk as long as you like, yet here’s the place you must come to. (#41, p.17)

The main source as regards anything to do with ancient epitaphs, though, is Richard Lattimore’s Themes in Greek and Latin Epitaphs (Illinois Studies in Language and Literature, vol.xxviii, nos.1-2 (1942).) The following is perhaps the best example of an Omarian epitaph (part of which has already been quoted in the note on Gallery 2A, Folder 1, Fig.3, relating to Charon.) Though from ancient Rome, the epitaph was written in Greek:

“Wayfarer, do not pass by my epitaph, but stand and listen, and then, when you have learned the truth, proceed. There is no boat in Hades, no ferryman Charon, no Aeacus keeper of the keys, nor any dog called Cerberus. All of us who have died and gone below are bones and ashes: there is nothing else. What I have told you is true. Now withdraw, wayfarer, so that you will not think that, even though dead, I talk too much.” (p.75)

Epitaphs which address the wayfarer or passer-by are common, and probably the most famous of these, which occurs in many variants, is typified by the following example from the grave of William Chichele and his wife Beatrice at Higham-Ferrars, Northamptonshire. It is dated 1425 and comes from Thomas F. Ravenshaw’s Antiente Epitaphes (from AD 1250 to AD 1800) Collected and set forth in Chronologicall Order (1878), p.8. I retain the original spelling:

Such as ye be :  such wer we
Such as we be  :  such shal ye be.

Ravenshaw gives several variations on this spanning the date-range of his study – see p.38 (“Suche as I am suche shall you bee”);  p.88 (“I was as thou art now / And thou in time shalt bee/ even dust as I am now”);  p.143 (“As we are now so must ye be”); p.146 (“As you are now so once was I, as I am now so must you bee”); and p.158 (“For as you am so wounce wous I / And as I am so must you be.”). Others are to be found in Thomas Caldwall’s book A Select Collection of Ancient and Modern Epitaphs and Inscriptions (1796), to which we have already referred in the notes on the Kuza-Nama, preceding verse 59. The following example (p.78) is from the grave of Thomas Hare at St. Paul’s, Covent Garden. It is dated 1757:

As you are now, so once was I,
Cut down by death, now here I lie;
Until that great and glorious day,
The trumpet calls me hence away.

This, unlike the Roman example from Lattimore quoted above, does at least express some faith in the existence of an afterlife! For related examples in Caldwall’s book, see his p.57 (“Survey this stone, and pay the tribute due / To those who once could think and feel like you”) and p.389 (“Earth thou art, and to earth thou shalt return, and thou shalt be as I am now.”) For more on the medieval history of these lines, see the note on The Dance of Death below.

As might be expected, many epitaphs use Omarian symbolism of one kind or another. The following example is from Caldwall (p.194-5) and contains multiple symbols. It is from the grave of Richard Humble at St. Saviour’s, Southwark, and is dated 1616:

Like to the damask rose you see,
Or like the blossom on the tree,
Or like the dainty flow’r of May,
Or like the morning of the day,
Or like the sun, or like the shade,
Or like the gourd which Jonas had..
Even so is man, whose thread is spun,
Drawn out, and cut, and so is done:
The rose withers, the blossom blasteth,
The flower fades, the morning hasteth,
The sun sets, the shadow flies,
The gourd consumes, and man he dies.

The following, also from Caldwall (p.343), seems not to be an epitaph, for it bears no name or date. Rather, it seems to be a general reminder to passers-by of the transience of human life and endeavour, and links up with the various meditations on the ruins of empires, discussed in chapter 8 of the main essay. It is the inscription on a stone at St. Dunstan’s, Stepney (“on the east side of the portico, leading up to the gallery, on the north side of the chancel”):

Of Carthage great I was a stone;
O mortals read with pity:
Time consumes all, it spareth none,
Men, mountains, towns, nor city.
Therefore, O mortals, all bethink
You whereunto you must,
Since now such stately buildings
Lie buried in the dust.

Ravenshaw’s book likewise cites other epitaphs containing Omarian symbolism. Thus, the epitaph of Sir James Pemberton, dating from 1613, contains the line “What life can be but vanisheth as smooke?” (p.54);  that of Robert Longe, dating from 1620, contains the lines, “The life of Mann is a trewe Lottarie, / Where venterouse Death draws forth lotts shorte & longe” (p.65); and that of William Penell, dating from 1623, contains the lines, “The life of man is but a daye: / The daye will pass, the night must come” (p.68). Again, at the head of the epitaph of Thomas Bannatine, at Grey Friars, Edinburgh, and dating from 1635, are the lines (p.82-3):

Today is mine, tomorrow yours may be;
Each mortal man should mind that he must die.
What is man’s life? a shade, a smoak, a flower,
Short to the good, to the bad doth long endure.

The essence of the last line is that the good times seem to pass by in no time, whilst the bad seem to last forever. The verse is an English adaptation of the following Latin inscription (at the head of the same gravestone), which is in itself of some interest:

Hodie mihi, Cras tibi.
Vita quid est hominis? Flos, umbra et fumus, arista;
Illa malis longa est; illa bonis brevis est.

The first line means “Today (is) mine, tomorrow yours”. It is quite often found on gravestones, at the entrance to cemeteries and mausoleums (some examples can be seen in Gallery 8A, Figs.1 to 3 - browse here), as well as on sundials (see b below). The last two lines of the Latin are reasonably well translated by the last two lines of the English, save that “arista”, meaning “an ear of corn”, has been omitted. These two lines appear not to be from the Vulgate (Latin) Bible, but to be from a so-called “Dance of Death” play, but which one I have been unable to discover. At any rate, the whole of the above Latin inscription is to be found on a Memento Mori (= Remember Death) engraving by the Flemish artist and engraver Dominicus Custos of c.1600 in the British Museum (reproduced in Gallery 8A, Fig.4.) For more information on the Dance of Death and Memento Mori, see the note below.

Ravenshaw (p.113) gives the following Omar-related epitaph “on a father & son”, which dates from 1658, and is from Branscombe in Devon:

The wine that in these earthen vessels lay
The hand of Death has lately drawn away:
And as a present sent it up on high,
Whilst here the Vessels with the lees doe lie.

This is curiously Sufic in its symbolism. Wine is here clearly used as a metaphor for spirit, whilst the vessels are a metaphor for the bodies of the departed father and son, but whether these metaphors relate to the pair’s literal fondness for the bottle, or whether it relates to a punning use of their family name (which is not given), remains unclear. Certainly, death is often made light of via name-puns. Thus Ravenshaw (p.79) gives Roger Earth’s epitaph, dating from 1634, and to be found in Dinton, Wiltshire. Its first two lines are as follows, the capitalisation and spelling being those of the original:

From Earth wee came, to Earth wee must returne,
Witness this EARTH that lies within this VRNE.

Likewise, Caldwall (p.221) gives the epitaph of a Mr. Foote:

Here lies one FOOTE, whose death may thousands save,
For death has now one FOOTE within the grave.

Unfortunately, Caldwall gives no date or location for Mr Foote’s witty gravestone, and nor does he for the graves of Mr Thomas All (“Then smile at death, enjoy your mirth, / Since he has took his ALL from earth”) and Mr Miles (“A little man he was, a dwarf in size, / But now stretch’d out, at least MILES long he lies”) – both on p.162.

But let us finish with an Omarian “Drink!” epitaph, this time from Ravenshaw (p.140). It is from the grave of John Randall at Great Wolford, Worcestershire, and dates from 1699:

Here old John Randall lies
Who counting from his tale
Lived threescore years & ten
Such virtue was in Ale.
Ale was his meat,
Ale was his drink,
Ale did his heart revive;
And if he could have drunk his Ale,
He still had been alive;
But he died January five.

A Note on the Dance of Death and Memento Mori.

“The Dance of Death” was a type of medieval play in the form of a dialogue between the figure of Death and a sequence of figures from all levels of society – from Pope and King, via Judge, Merchant and Nun, down to Farm Labourer and Child.  The overall message, then, is that Death is the Great Leveller of all, of “Slave and Sultan” alike (to keep one eye on Omar!) Actually, “Dance” is probably something of a misnomer, though the figure of Death in mural or manuscript illustrations of the theme often does look to be involved in some sort of grotesque dance, and “Procession of Death” would probably be a more accurate, if less dramatic, description. But whatever, Death leads (or drags!) each figure in turn towards the grave in what came to be known, rightly or wrongly, as a Dance of Death or Danse Macabre. In fact, the Dance of Death is probably best known today through Saint-Saëns’ tone poem “Danse Macabre”,written in 1874 (Schubert’s string quartet “Death and the Maiden” of 1824 is related), and the 41 woodcuts on the theme by Hans Holbein the Younger, first published in 1538, some of which are shown in Gallery 8B. (Some later editions have 49 woodcuts.)

Manuscripts of “The Dance of Death” are found in many languages – Latin, English, French, Spanish, Italian and German, and date mostly from the mid 15th century onwards, through to the early 19th, after which they seem rather to have fallen out of fashion, publications of it after that sort of date being produced out of literary or antiquarian interest. The origins and development of the genre – both the plays and pictorial representations of the theme – are very complex, but it seems likely that one initial impetus was the appalling mortality that resulted from the outbreaks of the Black Death throughout Europe in the 14th century, and the consequent preoccupations, not just with mortality, but with the morality (or lack of) that led to what was seen as a terrible manifestation of God’s displeasure. For a good overview see L.P.Kurtz, The Dance of Death and the Macabre Spirit in European Literature (1934) and J.M.Clark, The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance (1950). For Holbein’s woodcuts, probably the most readily available edition of them is The Dance of Death: 41 Woodcuts by Hans Holbein (Dover Publications, 1972), this being a complete facsimile of the 1538 edition, with an Introduction by Werner L. Gundersheimer. The full 49 woodcuts of later editions can be found in The Dance of Death by Hans Holbein, with an Introductory Note by Austin Dobson, first published in 1892, but with reprints since. At the time of writing, the full 49 woodcuts can be found online at

As for the Latin lines of Thomas Bannatine’s monument perhaps being taken from a Dance of Death type text, I say this because of their similarity to the following lines, quoted by Francis Douce in his book The Dance of Death (1833), p.18-9. The lines occur at the end of a Latin play by Johannes Placentius, entitled Susanna, and published in Antwerp in 1534:

Vita quid est hominis? Fumus super aream missus.
Vita quid est hominis? Via mortis, dura laborum
Colluvies, vita est hominis via longa doloris
Perpetui. Vita quid est hominis? cruciatus et error,

and so on for another eight lines, which then continue into a Dance of Death type scenario involving an Emperor, a Pope, a Cardinal, and various other characters. The line from Bannatine’s epitaph, “Vita quid est hominis? Flos, umbra et fumus, arista”, is not actually to be found here, but clearly it could well come from a similar work.

The famous epitaph type “as you are now, so once was I etc” has a history that relates it to The Dance of Death, or rather to a precursor of the Dance of Death, a type of poem entitled “Le Dit des Trois Mors et des Trois Vifs”. (The Dance of Death does seem to have originated in France, and spread throughout Europe from there through the agency of the Church – see Kurtz, op.cit. p.179 & p.281.) As the title “The Tale of the Three Dead and the Three Living” indicates, these poems consist of a dialogue between three dead people and three living people, in which the dead advise the living as to how to conduct their lives. Unlike the Dance of Death plays, though, the dead do not lead or drag the living off to their graves; rather the living return to their everyday lives – hopefully to act on the advice of the dead, and to live a suitably moral course of life! Be that as it may, as Kurtz says, “The essential idea at the base of the poem of ‘The Three Dead and the Three Living’ is contained in the phrase that the ‘dead’ repeat: ‘What you are, we were! What we are, you will be!’” (p.180; see also p.144) This connection pushes the date our famous epitaph back to the 13th century at least.

For links between the Dance of Death and the Dance of Fortune, with links to the Wheel of Fortune, see Kurtz p.222; also Kurtz p.10: “The idea of death and equality forms the base of the Danse Macabre…The inexorableness of death, the gloating over the fate of the powerful on earth, their being levelled and put beneath the cobbler, the procession of the dead of every social degree…” This recalls the Beggar trampling on the King in Burne-Jones’ painting “The Wheel of Fortune” (Gallery 3A, Fig.1 & note 57a.)

For a good history of the Dance of Death, from its rise to popularity in the 15th century, down to its modern survivals in Young’s Night Thoughts (Appendix 12c), Browning’s poem “The Dance of Death”, and Elihu Vedder’s picture “The End of the Play” (which shows an old stage-hand, Death, sweeping a crown, axe, sword, and plumed helmet into a trap-door in the stage, an illustration of which I have, alas, been unable to trace at the time of writing), see Kurtz, chapters 14 & 15.

“Memento Mori” means “Remember you will (one day) die”, and is basically an injunction not just to remember your mortality, but also – more importantly - to bear in mind your moral conduct before the time comes to meet your Maker. ‘Reminders’ can take many forms, from the presence of a skull or hour-glass in a portrait painting, to some suitable print or engraving hung on a wall – almost invariably a skull is depicted somewhere in it, often in contrast to a child. Occasionally the ‘reminder’ takes the form of a pendant or ring worn as a jewellery item, again a skull being a regular feature. Examples are shown in Gallery 8C (browse here.) Kurtz (op.cit. p.6-7) refers to an interesting example from Ancient Rome, already mentioned in the notes on verse 25:

“A pronounced Epicurianism is evidenced in Roman times by wine jars and drinking cups engraved with skeletons of which F. Weber offers plate reproductions. There are two magnificent one handled wine-cups forming part of the Boscoreale treasure in the Louvre at Paris and believed to date from the first century of the Christian era. Some of the skeletons represent shades of Greek poets and philosophers whose names are inscribed on the sides. One bears the name of Epicurus. The dancing or tipsy attitude of the skeletons on some vases was probably intended to supply the Epicurian hint to drink and dance while you may.”

Kurtz’s cited source here is F. P. Weber’s Aspects of Death and Correlated Aspects of Life in Art, Epigram and Poetry (1922), the key Omarian quote from which can be found in the note on verse 25. As there stated, the figures of the philosophers are accompanied by mottoes like “Pleasure is the final object” and “Enjoy yourself whilst you are alive”, so the intention is definitely Epicurean. As Weber points out (p.96 & p.436), it is interesting that for the Romans memento mori was an urge to enjoy life while you can, whereas for the medieval (and modern) Christian it was more a case of fear Death and your impending Judgement before God! Like Kurtz’s book, Weber’s is an invaluable sourcebook for anyone interested in this field.

An illustration of both of these drinking cups can be found in Gallery 8C (Fig.18). For the irreverent Roman attitude to poets and philosophers displayed on the cups, compare the notes on Edmund J. Sullivan’s illustration to verse 27 in Gallery 2A, Folder 1 (Fig.6), and of course, FitzGerald’s verses 25 – 27 themselves.

Following on from the Roman drinking-cups, a rather curious custom prevailed in ancient Rome, and we glimpse it at the “Dinner with Trimalchio” in The Satyricon of Petronius (§ 34). I here quote the translation by J.P.Sullivan:

Naturally we drank and missed no opportunity of admiring his elegant hospitality. In the middle of this a slave brought in a silver skeleton, put together in such a way that its joints and backbone could be pulled out and twisted in all directions. After he had flung it about on the table once or twice, its flexible joints falling into various postures, Trimalchio recited:

‘Man’s life, alas! is but a span,
So let us live it while we can,
We’ll be like this when dead.’

A similar custom prevailed much earlier, in ancient Egypt. Thus in Herodotus (2.78) we read:

“At their rich men’s banquets, when they have done eating, a man carries round a wooden corpse in a coffin, made and painted to look exactly like a real corpse, about a cubit or two cubits long. This he shows to each of the company and says: ‘Look upon this and drink and be merry: for thou shalt die and such shalt thou be.’ This is the custom at their banquets.” (Translation by Harry Carter.)

Weber illustrates an example of both the Roman and Egyptian skeletal figures (op.cit. p.31 & p.29 respectively) – in the case of the latter, with the obelisk-shaped box or coffin that contained it (see Gallery 8C, Fig.20 & Fig.21.) At this point one inevitably recalls a rather extreme form of European memento mori pendant which actually consists of a coffin-shaped locket containing a skeleton! (An example is shown in Gallery 8C, Fig.22.)

Kurtz cites another, even more extreme form of memento mori:

“Sainte Françoise Romaine made a drinking vessel for herself of a human skull in order to have before her eyes the recollection of what she would one day be.” (op.cit. p.232)

This recalls Lord Byron’s famous drinking-cup, made out of a skull found by his gardener at Newstead Abbey, about which he wrote his poem “Lines inscribed upon a Cup formed from a Skull”, and in which the Cup is imagined to address the Drinker. Verses 2 and 3 are nicely Omarian:

I lived, I loved, I quaffed like thee;
I died: let earth my bones resign:
Fill up—thou canst not injure me;
The worm hath fouler lips than thine.
Better to hold the sparkling grape
Than nurse the earthworm's slimy brood,
And circle in the goblet's shape
The drink of gods than reptile's food.

The original source for the story of Byron’s skull-cup is Thomas Medwin’s Journal of the Conversations of Lord Byron, noted during a Residence with his Lordship at Pisa in the Years 1821 and 1822 (1824), p.64-65. The poem is not there quoted, however, being merely referred to by Byron thus: “I remember scribbling some lines about it.”

The phrase “memento mori” is also to be found on sundials – see below.

b) Sundial Mottoes.

In the notes on verse 7 we noted that catchphrases like “tempus fugit” (time flies) and “carpe diem” (seize the day) occur among the many mottoes inscribed on old sundials. This, of course, is not surprising, as a sundial marks the passage of time, and the passage of time marks the passage of life. This in its turn invites, on the one hand, the attitude of “live life while you can”, and on the other, the attitude of “live piously / virtuously and fear God, for you may meet Him sooner than you think.”

In what follows the key reference is the work already referred to in the notes on verse 7, namely, The Book of Sundials, “originally compiled by the late Mrs.Alfred Gatty, now enlarged and re-edited by H.K.F. Eden and Eleanor Lloyd”, published in 1900. Mrs Gatty’s original book was first published in 1872, and revised editions appeared in 1889 and 1890 as well as the 1900 edition used here. At the time of writing (February 2012), the catalogue of mottoes from Mrs Gatty’s book can be found online at:

As regards mottoes related to “tempus fugit” (#342-3; p.264-5) and its English equivalent, “time flies” (#1408f; p.439-40), we find “Time bears all away” (#305; p.258), “Time destroys all things” (#484; p.290), “Time cannot be retrieved / recalled” (#523f; p.298), “Time and Fire destroy all things” (#1336; p.425), “Time the devourer of all things” (#1422; p.441). (For this last, see c below.) We also find “Time is on the wing” (#1414-5; p.440), reminiscent FitzGerald’s verse 7 (“the Bird of Time…is on the Wing”.)

The shadow of the sundial leads to other mottoes, often via Biblical verses such Job 8.9: “For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, because our days upon earth are a shadow” (this verse also being used in the occasional epitaph – see, for example, Caldwall p.49): “As a shadow, such is life” (#60; p.213); “our days are as a shadow” (in Greek) (#377; p.270) and “His days are as a shadow that passeth away” (based on Ps.144.4) (#409; p.276); “The Shadow is a symbol of thy fleeting life” (in Italian) (#585; p.307); “Life’s but a fleeting Shadow” (#650; p.316); “Our days pass like a shadow” (in French)(#825-6; p.343-4); “Our days on Earth are as a Shadow” (based in I Chronicles 29.15) (#939f; p.361-2). We also find: “We are dust and shadow” (based on Horace, Odes, book 4,.ode 7, line 16) (#1008; p.373); “Mankind is as the Dream of a Shadow” (in Greek; based on Pindar, Pythian Ode 8, line 96) (#1219; p.406); and “Man’s life is at once a shadow and smoke” (#1513; p.453) Compare the “Magic Shadow-show” of FitzGerald’s verse 46.

Also of interest is the motto: “The Life of Man is a Bubble” (#104; p.221.) Compare the “Millions of Bubbles like us” of verse 46 in the 3rd, 4th & 5th editions (v.47 in the 2nd); Jeremy Taylor’s “A Man is a Bubble” in Appendix 12a, with details of Lucian’s use of bubbles as a symbol of the transience of human life in note 57f; and the various comments on Millais’ painting “Bubbles”.

Other mottoes of interest are:

“The Life of Man is Wind” (#1567; p.463) cf. “I came like Water, and like Wind I go” of FitzGerald’s verse 28.

“Now is the time for drinking” (#116; p.223) is the motto on the sundial of an inn; “Hora Bibendi” (The Hour for Drinking”) (#415; p.277); and a French equivalent for this last: “Le soleil lève pour tous / Hora Bibendi” (“The Sun rises for You / The Hour for Drinking”)(#624; p.313.) This French motto connects neatly with the sunrise and tavern door opening of The Rubaiyat, of course.

“Sic transit Gloria Mundi” (#1172; p.399) and its English equivalent “Thus the Glory of the World passes away” (#1399; p.437), with its relative (in French) “The Glory of the World passeth away like a Shadow.” (#567; p.305) Compare the notes on FitzGerald’s verse 14 and verse 17.

“Omnia vana” (All is vanity) (#905; p.358). Compare. Ecclesiastes 1.2 (also 2.11) etc in Appendix 11b.

“Hodie mihi, Cras tibi” (Today for me, tomorrow for thee) (#400; p.274). On the use of this phrase on gravestones, and at the entrance to cemeteries and mausoleums, see a above. A similar phrase “mihi heri et tibi hodie” (yesterday for me, today for you) is to be found in the (Vulgate) Apocrypha (Ecclesiasticus 38.23.)

“Memento Mori” (#727; p.327-8) to be found on numerous sundials. See also a above.

There is no mention in the 1900 edition of Mrs Gatty’s book of any of FitzGerald’s verses being used on sundials, but as mentioned in the notes on verse 7, in The Book of Old Sundials and their Mottoes, illustrated by Alfred Rawlings and Warrington Hogg, with an introductory essay by Launcelot Cross (1922), we see that by 1922 some of FitzGerald’s verses were actually appearing as the mottoes on sundials - verse 46 on p.63 (“’Tis nothing but a magic shadow show…”) and verse 51 on p.94  (“The moving finger writes…”) (Unfortunately, unlike Gatty’s book, this one does not specify the locations of the sundials bearing the mottoes.) The book also uses lines from FitzGerald to elucidate several Latin sundial mottoes. Thus on p.29, CARPE DIEM is accompanied by “Ah, take the Cash in hand and waive the Rest” (v.12); again on p.29, CITO PEDE LABITUR AETAS is accompanied by “The Bird of Time has but a little way / To fly – and Lo! The Bird is on the Wing” (v.7); on p.66, ORIENS SOL ADORNATUR is accompanied by “Lo! The Hunter of the East has caught / The Sultan’s turret in a Noose of Light” (v.1); and on p.70, POST EST OCCASIO CALVA is accompanied by “One thing is certain, and the Rest is Lies: / The Flower that once has blown for ever dies” (v.26). Of these Latin mottoes, CARPE DIEM is covered in the notes on verse 7; CITO PEDE LABITUR AETAS, which is #126, p.225 in Gatty and is from Ovid’s The Art of Love (3.65), means “life glides on with speedy foot”; ORIENS SOL ADORNATUR (which is #932; p.360 in Gatty), means “the rising sun is equipped (for his journey)”; and POST EST OCCASIO CALVA (= Gatty #977, p.368) is the last part of a longer sundial motto FRONTE CAPILLATA, POST EST OCCASIO CALVA (= Gatty #322, p.260) which is a line from Dionysius Cato’s Disticha de Moribus (= Moral Distichs: book 2, distich 26), and means “opportunity has locks in front, and is bald behind”. Mrs Gatty neatly explains the meaning of this curious motto by quoting the old adage, “Take time by the forelock” (meaning, “seize the opportunity while you can”) plus the following lines from the quaker poet Thomas Ellwood, which come from his poem “To such as stand idle in the Market-place” (from A Collection of Poems on Various Subjects, published posthumously in 1750, p.16):

The moment that is past, will come no more;
The hour mis-spent, can never be recalled,
Old Cronos has but one poor lock before,
His head, behind is altogether bald;
Take that from me.

Cronos (or Chronos as Mrs Gatty has it) is the Greek personification of Time, as opposed to Cairos, who is the Greek personification of Opportunity. The English expression of seizing time by the forelock has resulted from a confusion of C(h)ronos and Cairos, which confusion seems to have begun when the Greek image was adopted by the Romans.Quite how and when the Greek image originated is not clear, for the earliest known occurrence of it is a bronze statue of Cairos by the Greek sculptor Lysippus, who was a contemporary of Alexander the Great. His statue is now lost, but a description of it by Callistratus has survived:

“Cairos was a boy, blooming in the very flower of youth from head to foot; handsome in mien, his hair fluttering at the caprice of the wind, leaving his locks dishevelled ..…He stood on a sphere, resting on the tips of his toes, with winged feet. His hair was not, however, fashioned after the usual manner, but the thick curls fell towards his brow, over his cheek, while the occiput of Cairos was destitute of hair, showing only the beginning of hairy growth…….The winged feet indicate swiftness, because time swiftly elapses with the flight of hours; it shows the bloom of youth, because the youthful is ever attractive, and Cairos alone is the creator of beauty. On the other hand, what is withered is foreign to the nature of Cairos; again (it has) the lock on the forehead, because it is easy to seize hold of the favourable moment as it approaches, but having passed by, the opportunity for decisive action is gone, and once neglected it is no longer possible to recover it.”

The above translation comes from John E. Matzke’s article, “On the Source of the Italian and English idioms meaning ‘To take Time by the Forelock’, with special reference to Bojardo’s Orlando Innamorato, Book II, Cantos VII-IX”, Publications of the Modern Language Association, vol.8, no. 3 (1893), p.303-334. The translation is on p.313-4, and for the confusion of Cairos (Occasion) with C(h)ronos (Time), see p.316, 318, 323. For Cairos becoming female in Latin (Occasio = Occasion or Opportunity being a feminine Latin noun), see p.318, and with some subsequent confusion with Fortuna, see p.324-6. For Fortuna, see the notes on FitzGerald’s verse 14 and verse 49. Notice particularly the globe on which Fortuna, like Cairos, stands.

Dionysius Cato’s Disticha de Moribus, mentioned above, uses the expression “seize on Time’s forelock” in book 4, distich 44. For some useful information on Cato’s work, with some observations on Matzke’s article, see George Lyman Kittredge’s article “To take Time by the Forelock” in Modern Language Notes, vol.8, no.8 (Dec 1893), p.230-235. Though Cato’s work is little known today, it enjoyed immense popularity in its time – even being used as a school book – throughout Europe from the Middle Ages and “down to 1750 or even perhaps 1800” (Kittredge p.231), and so it is not very surprising that a line from one of his distichs should find its way onto old sundials. As regards translations of Cato into English, Kittredge (p.231) notes that there were about a dozen available before 1600, though perhaps the easiest of access today is Cato’s Moral Distichs, Englished in Couplets, printed and sold by B. Franklin, Philadelphia 1735. For further material on the substitution of Fortune for Occasion, including a reference to holding Fortune by the forelocks, see Kittredge p.234. For illustrations of Time’s Forelock, see Gallery 8D, Folder 2, Fig.1 and Gallery 8D, Folder 3, Fig.1.

c) A Note on the Scythe of Time.

Whilst on the subject of C(h)ronos and Time, on several occasions in the course of this essay we have come across the Scythe of Time – in Millais’ paintings “Time the Reaper” and “Spring (Apple Blossoms)” (Gallery 3C, Fig.6 & Fig.7); in Walter Crane’s painting “The Mower” (Gallery 3D, Fig.3); on Gustave Doré’s Clock (Gallery 8D, Folder 2, Fig.2); in two of Gordon Ross’ illustrations to The Rubaiyat (v. 24 & 34 – Gallery 2B Folder 1, Fig.3 & Fig.4); in Shakespeare’s 12th Sonnet and in Young’s “Night Thoughts” (both quoted in the notes on verse 8). Kurtz (op. cit. p.8) is one of many to suggest that this evocative image of Time or Death wielding a Scythe may have an ancient antecedent in the scythe (though, strictly speaking, a sickle) of Kronos, the father of Zeus in Greek Mythology. This needs some explanation.

Firstly, it would appear that, originally, Kronos (Κρόνος), the father of Zeus, whose name, confusingly, is sometimes spelt Cronos in English, was not the same as C(h)ronos (Χρόνος), the Personification of Time, though the two did become fused later. (For example, Macrobius quite definitely equates them in his Saturnalia 1.8.6.) The most familiar – and gruesome! – episodes from Greek mythology concerning Kronos, which have naturally attracted some attention from artists (Gallery 8D, Folder 1 - browse here), are to be found in Hesiod’s Theogony.The first (lines 154ff) tells how Kronos, with the collusion of his mother Gaia (Earth), castrated his tyrannical father Ouranos (Heaven) with an adamantine sickle. The second (lines 453ff) tells how Kronos swallowed five of his own children by Rhea because he feared that they would usurp his power. When her sixth child, Zeus, was born she hid him away in a cave, and gave Kronos a stone, wrapped in swaddling clothes, to swallow in his place.Thus Zeus was saved.

These curious stories are part of a broader, primitive, and blatantly figurative creation myth, whose savagery is unusual compared to the generality of Greek Mythology. Neither story seems, at first glance, to have much to do with Father Time and his Scythe, beyond the obvious phonetic link between Kronos and C(h)ronos, and hence with chronology. However, as H.J.Rose points out in his Handbook of Greek Mythology (1974), p.43, the one festival of any importance connected with Kronos was a harvest festival, and that therefore, when the (rare) representations of Kronos in Greek art show him holding a curved knife (Gallery 8D, Folder 1, Fig.1) , though this could indeed be the adamantine sickle with which he castrated his father, it could also be a reaping-hook. Andrew Lang, in his book Custom and Myth (1904) devotes a chapter to Kronos, citing Ludwig Preller’s view that the sickle of Kronos was indeed the sickle of harvest-time, and that the castration of Ouranos was a primitive myth relating to the separation of Earth and Heaven (p.61; p.45). As Lang points out, though, this avenue of explanation is only one of several (p.57-63), though it is probably the most plausible, and he cites, for example, Wilhelm Schwartz’s theory that Kronos was a storm-god and his sickle the rainbow! But whatever, it is certainly a fact that the Romans equated the Greek God Kronos with their own agricultural God, Saturnus, whose name was “a contraction of Saeturnus, from serere, ‘to sow’”, and who was also represented with a pruning knife or with a sickle, just like Kronos. (Sir William Smith’s Classical Dictionary, article on “Saturnus”). Actually, the derivation of the name Saturn from the verb serere (to sow) or the noun satus (sowing) is disputed, though it seems to have been given credence by the Romans themselves (eg Varro’s On the Latin Language 5.64). See, for example, Roland G. Kent’s footnote to his translation of this passage of Varro (Loeb texts, 1938) and H.J.Rose’s article “Saturnus, Saturnalia” in The Oxford Classical Dictionary (2nd ed., 1970). Be that as it may, Virgil says, in his Georgics, how “the lively husbandman projects his thoughts / into the coming year, with Saturn’s hook / goes after the vine just left” (2.405-7: translation L.P.Wilkinson.). As a harvest god, of course, we do have links with the Seasons, and hence with Time, but there is more to it than this.

Time has been Father Time since ancient times. Pindar, for example, in his second Olympian Ode refers to “Time, father of everything” (line 17). Not only this, but the idea that Time devours all things is also ancient – Ovid, for example, in his Metamorphoses refers to “Time the Devourer” (Book 15, line 234) (Compare Spenser’s description of the Ruins of Rome, quoted earlier, as “the prey of time, which all things doth devour.”) All this, of course, recalls the legend of Kronos swallowing his own children, a connection made by St. Augustine in his City of God, though for the Greek Kronos read the Roman Saturn:

“…whereas it is counted so horrid a thing to say that Saturn devoured his sons, they have expounded it thus: that length of time, signified by Saturn’s name, consumes all things it produces: or, as Varro interprets it, that Saturn belongs to the seeds which, being produced by the Earth, are entombed in it again.” (Book 6, chapter 8: translation by John Healey.)

Again, Macrobius in his Saturnalia says of Saturn:

“They say that he was accustomed to swallowing his sons and then vomiting them back up: this also signifies that he is Time, which by turns creates and destroys all things and then gives birth to them again.” (I.8.10: translation Robert A. Kaster.)

Yet again, in The Orphic Hymns (no.13), Kronos is addressed as “O Kronos: begetter of time” you “consume all things and replenish them” (translation A.N.Athanassakis.)

Finally, in modern times, when Shakespeare opens his 19th Sonnet with the lines, “Devouring Time, blunt thou the lion’s paws, / And make the earth devour her own sweet brood,” he is again echoing the Kronos myth. And when Tolkien, in The Hobbit (ch.5), poses the riddle: “This thing all things devours / Birds, beasts, trees, flowers etc…” – the answer to which, of course, is Time – he is echoing an Old English poem known as Solomon and Saturn II. Here the same riddle is posed by Saturnus himself to Solomon the Wise. (See Thomas D. Hill, “Saturn’s Time Riddle: an Insular Latin Analogue for Solomon and Saturn II lines 282-291”, The Review of English Studies, New Series, vol.39, No.154 (May 1988), p.273-276.)

Thus we arrive at an image of Time as the devourer of his own offspring, and who carries a sickle or scythe. It is but a short step from here to Father Time and the Grim Reaper.

But we are not quite finished yet. Saturnus was astrologically linked in Roman times to Saturn, the slowest moving of the planets, bringing with it associations with Old Age (and also, incidentally, with Melancholia – hence the Saturnine Temperament.) Manilius, for example, in his Astronomica, tells us that Saturn governs the fortunes of fathers and the plight of the old (2.931ff). This has a modern incarnation in Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite, in which Saturn is represented as the Bringer of Old Age. (Holst’s suite is based on astrological notions rather than mythological ones.) It was the astral associations of Saturnus that led to those curious medieval representations of him in a sky-borne chariot, drawn by winged serpents (the chthonic nature of the serpent relating it to agriculture), and carrying bundle of wheat and a scythe or sickle (Gallery 8D, Folder 1, Fig.5 & Fig.6.) At this point, of course, one naturally recalls the following lines from Andrew Marvell’s carpe diem poem “To his coy Mistress”, written in the early 1650s:

But at my back I always hear
Time's wingèd chariot hurrying near;
And yonder all before us lie
Deserts of vast eternity.

In addition to sources already mentioned, the following are useful. Eugene S. McCartney, “Father Time”, Classical Philology, vol.23, no.2 (April 1928), p.187-8; Martin P. Nilsson, “The Sickle of Kronos”, The Annual of the British School at Athens, vol.46 (1951), p.122-124; Patricia A. Johnston, “Vergil’s Conception of Saturnus”, California Studies in Classical Antiquity, vol.10 (1977), p.57–70.


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