Of Gods and Oxen

How an ancient Latin proverb describes the plight of the war's survivors.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, Gideon Levy published in these pages a touching eulogy of his father, Dr. Heinz Loewy ("Israel must remember the Holocaust's refugees, forever changed," April 20 ). Loewy, he wrote, "was not your classic Holocaust survivor. He did not go through any of the camps, and so did not have a number tattooed on his arm. He was a refugee ... It's true that he had a good life here. But looking back, it seems to me that he never really found his place here ... He stored his suits and ties in the closet, his Bermuda shorts replacing them in the hot summer. He also left behind the Latin he had learned, save for one proverb that he would repeat to us."

This was not only a personal story, touching as it was. It was also a story of a whole generation of people who had come to Israel from Europe, many of them before World War II. "The Holocaust led to the establishment of the State of Israel and the ingathering of a great many survivors to it, but not all of them felt at home," Gideon writes. "They were doomed to a life of exile in their new homeland."

'The Rape of Europa,' by Titian, 1562.

Somehow, besides understanding deeply what my colleague was writing about - as it is in many ways my mother's story as well - I couldn't help wondering what the one Latin proverb was that Gideon said his father wanted to teach his children who, unlike him presumably, felt very much at home in Israel. One such proverb came up in my mind. I asked Gideon, and he remembered it had something to do with an ass or an ox, and Jupiter.

Surprisingly enough it was the proverb I had thought about: "Quod licet Iovi non licet bovi" - usually translated in English as "What is legitimate for Jove (Jupiter ), is not legitimate for oxen (mortals )." According to most phrase finders an early version of the proverb is to be found in the play "Adelphoe" ("The Brothers" ) by the Roman playwright Terence (circa 185-159 B.C.E. ). In the play two brothers are raised separately, one by their father, and the other by their uncle. The one raised by the father is a troublemaker, and when the father wants to punish him severely, the uncle intercedes, and says: "hoc licet inpune facere huic, illi non licet," which means in rough translation "one may be allowed to do a thing with impunity, but another may not." That is indeed the point of the proverb, but it still does not explain what Jupiter and the ox have to do with it.

The coupling of the two - Jupiter and the ox - in the proverb is thought to have been inspired by the Greek mythological tale of Europa, a Phoenician woman of high lineage, who was abducted and brought to Crete. Actually, two myths "compete" over the definitive life story of Europa (the name means "of wide face," in Greek, and in time became the name of a certain continent ): according to one she was kidnapped by the Minoans, and was brought to Crete, where the bull was thought to be a sacred animal; according to the other, it was Zeus, in the guise of a white bull, who charmed her, enticed her to ride on him, and then swam with her on his back through the sea to Crete, later revealing himself to be the deity he was, and in some versions raping her.

In the context of the second version of this story, the above-mentioned proverb can work in the following way: Jupiter has to turn himself into an ox, as an ox is allowed to approach Europe, and she welcomes him. However, to accomplish what he has in his mind (or loins ), he has to reappear as a god, so as to be able to relate to her in a way that would not be permitted to an ox or a mortal male.

Jupiter - or Zeus, in his Greek phase - liked using an animal disguise when wooing women (he turned himself into a swan when pursuing Leda, and with her fathered Helena and Clytemnestra ), and indeed liked chasing after the fair sex in general, although he did marry Hera, or Juno by her Roman name. One of the qualities attributed to Juno was boopis, meaning in Greek having "cow-like eyes." That does not sound like a real compliment, although it is supposed to indicate that those were big, brown, beautiful eyes. This adjective, boopis, is thought to have contributed to the wording of the proverb, meaning that even among gods there are those (Jupiter ) that are more equal then others (Juno ). The fact that Jupiter and Juno were allowed to marry, even though they were siblings, was explained by Ovid who claimed that gods are a law unto themselves, and are thus allowed to do what mere mortals (and cows ) are not.

However, all these semantic-cultural ruminations do not explain why I saw a connection between this particular Latin proverb and the story of Dr. Loewy and his life in Israel.

It occurs to me that the same proverb has two different meanings, depending on who utters it, Jupiter or the ox. From Jupiter's point of view, the situation is straightforward and self-evident: He who has the might has the right, and the privileged are allowed to do whatever they wish. As seen through the cow's (or ox's ) eyes, however, things are not as simple. The other, bovine side of the coin is while the ox and Jupiter may possess the same qualities and abilities, due to circumstances over which the ox has no control - but Jupiter does - things are the way they are: The ox philosophically resigns itself to what it is permitted to have, and tries to make the most out of it.

Like so many refugees from Europe who came to Israel did, and some still do, to this very day.