leo agitatus – a tribute to lions

Neither Cyril nor leo. (C) Sarmale / Olga Shared under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Neither Cyril nor leo. (C) Sarmale / Olga

One of my favourite story of the Cambridge Latin Course is pastor et leo. The last story of page 8 is an odd story in many ways, in a way that pleasantly surprises.

It is to this story that my mind turns when I hear of the fall of Cyril the lion. The mighty lion was lured out of its protected environment and harmed by protectors-turn-poacher. Immediate was not death, but the slow torture and agony was endured by many who heard that between the wound and its death, fourty hours have passed.

Growing up the first memorable movie was the Lion King. For me, a lion symbolises authority, but a relaxed authority. It is serious when it needs to hunt (or deal with family feuds and treason, as per the film), but it will always lie down belly-first on a rock. The lion king is a bulwark: it cares, but it won’t be obvious that it cares. It harms, but only when necessary.

And it certainly does not harm when it has a thorn in its paw. “olim pastor in silva ambulabat.” Once upon a time the shepherd was walking in the forest. He was very astonished to see a lion and prepared for the worst. The shepherd expected to be eaten, instead the lion was crying. It cries and it bristles, but it still has a thorn in its paws! The shepherd was scared, nonetheless he removed the thorn from its paws. The lion roared. The lion fled.

The bravery and the honesty of men is to be lauded, although it would be an entirely different cautionary tale had it ended differently. The shepherd is surely to be lauded because he recognises that even beastly animals can be afflicted by issues that it cannot solve. On the other hand it is more difficult to pin down for what reason the lion flees. Indeed it is perhaps less imaginable that it is crying. But in leaving the scene and situation where it was made better, the lion must have recognised that it was helped not by a kinsman. It would normally expect to attack a human being; the lion did not wish to repay its saviour in this way. At a loss of what to do but no longer inhibited, it flees.

Time elapsed and we next meet the shepherd in the arena. It turns out that he was a Christian and was arrested by the Romans. “leones”, “lupos”, all types of animals present every sort of danger to the man. But lo and behold – the shepherd recognises the lion. It was the lion from whose paws he removed a thorn! The lion roared – the repetition of “fremuit” must have been more considered than just restricting the list of vocabulary exposed to a Latin beginner. The lion roared and carried the shepherd out of the arena.

This myth has many key ingredients of a fable, though the lion does not talk. Nor should it – the lack of speech highlights the animalistic nature of the beast. Read in that light the reader is even more surprised by its pain and it repaying the debt of gratitude (and the good-nature and anguish of the shepherd) in the respective halves of the story. The lion may only roar and cry, but within it understands sadness, anguish, gratitude and unfairness – what can often be easily termed human qualities.

The shepherd, then, must be the model human in this fable-like tale. He reaches out to an expected foal without any expectations of reward, but is significantly vitally rewarded.

What the story rightly gloss over – because it is not central to its moral message – is the role of the captors of Christians. They may be conformists of the archetype of ancient-day McCarthyism. They may not be. It doesn’t matter because a moralistic story will always be selective in its content to maximise its message. It is unlikely to explain why a lion may be a risk to human either by listing what food a lion normally eats.

Cyril the lion is much loved by those… interested in such creatures and matters because it is approachable to human. This love must be amplified both by the ferocity and the prowess of a lion and the sense of responsibility and duty that lions seem to have from its portrayal. The shepherd in the story must have been in awe of the lion even as he thought he was staring death in the mane in that road outside the city. The sense of responsibility must be that both Cyril and the fabled lion could have taken the easy option of acting on their aggression. Neither did.

Whatever the message of the story of pastor et leo it is hard to explore, because it is such a rich story for year 7s and 8s. Is it karma? But the image of the boastful Belimicus left soaking in the boat-race is a far more oarsome exemplar (sorry). It sits after a series of story in in arena where animals are hunted around the arena and men fight each other in and out of the arena, so does it counteracts the violent dispositions of these stories? But then it is often left out because all teachers are pushed for time to deliver their syllabus. Does it seek to highlight religious intolerance? But then it is too understated for the younger learners and very unlike Simon in stage 29, the Jew who delivered his own end in triumph. Does it seek to highlight the loyalty and moralistic qualities of animals? But then the small cat’s scratching of Eutychus in the street of the glass-maker is arguably the most memorable act of a cat in all books, especially taking into account that pastor et leo is often not considered for teaching by the time-conscious. Unlike the feles sacra, the big cat did not save Clemens after all – the story of the shepherd is not essential for the story’s progression.

But it is a great story for the unsimple morals it simply portray, made greater by the fact that it is often left unstudied. And it will always be my favorite story.

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