Dare to Mutmut: Making New Proverbs from Apuleius to Badlands Unlimited

How can you make a new proverb? Aren’t proverbs just old sayings, grounded in common experience, mere nuggets of popular wisdom, without origins, without authors? So when someone claims to make a new proverb, something interesting must be happening. Apuleius of Madauros, writing in the 2nd Century CE, renowned for his novel about a man-donkey, Lucius, was also an expert on proverbs. He wrote a work called On Proverbs, which is completely lost aside from one line that runs as follows:

mutmut non facere audet 

As Apuleius scholar Stephen Harrison notes:

This is clearly not an original Apuleian saying, but a version of a traditional proverb found in Ennius according to Varro LL 7. 101, neque, ut ait, μῦ facere audent, and the De Proverbiis was clearly a paroemiographical compilation in at least two books…Proverbs were clearly useful as convenient rhetorical ornament to Greek writers of the second century AD, especially to those who declaimed extempore. 

Even though we don’t know much about Apuleius’ work on proverbs, this doesn’t stop Harrison’s scholarly tick of adverbial reassurance (‘clearly’, ‘clearly’, ‘clearly’). Furthermore, what we do know is that in his donkey-novel, The Golden Ass (aka the Metamorphoses), Apuleius was all for the fiction of proverbial invention. At the end of Book 9, Lucius’ owner, a gardener, has an altercation with a Roman centurion, whom he first ignores (he doesn’t know any Latin, only Greek) and then defends himself by rugby-tackling him, taking his sword in the process. The gardener runs away on his donkey and hides in a friend’s nearby house. When the centurion arrives in town he gets a group of solders to search the house, on the tip-off of a neighbour, while the friend claims that no one is home:

Then the argument grew more intense, the soldiers swearing time and again, in the Emperor’s name, that they’d received definite information, while the friend called the gods as witness to his rebuttal. Hearing the uproar their violent argument caused, and being inquisitive by nature and an ass with an impulse to restless action, I stuck my head through a little window trying to find the meaning for all the noise. Just then one of the soldiers, chancing to look in the right direction, caught sight of my shadow. He called to the others to look, and instantly a mighty clamour arose. Some of them ran upstairs, grabbed hold of me, and dragged me downstairs as their prisoner. Their perplexity resolved, they now searched inside the house, examining every corner thoroughly, and at last opening the chest found the wretched gardener, pulled him out, and handed him over to the magistrates, who carried him off to the public jail, no doubt for execution.

Lucius the ass then ends his tale with the claim that he invented two new proverbs:

In the meantime the soldiers never ceased from jokes and loud laughter about my peeping from the window. Such is the origin of those well-known proverbs about great quarrels from trivial causes that claim they’re over ‘a peeping ass’, or due to ‘an ass’s shadow’.

If we take this tale back to the sole proverb preserved in On Proverbs, we could see a possible moment of invention rather than the mere repetition of common wisdom. The phrase mutmut non facere audet, could be translated as “He dared not make a mutmut“, whereby the made-up work mutmut seems to be an onomatopoeic sound for garbled or possibly non-human speech. (We could translate it as ‘murmur’). Now, Harrison’s reference to Ennius, as quoted by Varro, neque, ut ait, μῦ facere audent makes the ‘original’ proverb have a reference to the Greek letter MU – “and nor, as the saying goes, did they dare to make a MU“. In spite of Harrison’s certainty, Apuleius’ mutmut offers a novel twist to the proverbial MU, transforming a bilingual play into a non-human babbling. If his donkey can make the proverbs about the look and shadow, what is to say that this author could not have invented the proverbial mutmut?

What Apuleius’ proverbial play points us to is the vital significance of the power of word-play at the heart of proverbial authority. The 100 New Proverbs, protest signs parodying the Westbro Baptist Church hate speech, created by Paul Chan and his press Badlands Unlimited, often make use of such sound and word-play (e.g. HUMANS HATE TRUMP; SPICER SPOUTS SHIT; JABBA THE TRUMP).

Furthermore, when your target is a Nero who speaks like a donkey, these new proverbs hit home all the more forcefully, whether muttered into the ground or shouted from the rooftops. Enjoy thee 100 New Proverbs and look out for them at a protest near you!

For more info on the Badlands Unlimited New Proverbs, click here. For more on Apuleius and proverbs, well, one day I’ll publish my Cambridge MPhil essay on the topic.

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