97, 98 out of 410 days: Unknown Proverbs

Nicolo gem engraved with an elephant emerging from a snail-shell.

This isn’t the gem I wanted to post. There is another type. I took notes on it when working through the German gem publications, but can’t seem to find an image to share here. It has a stork (or a crane) holding a set of scales in its beak. The scales hold an elephant and a mouse, but the balance is tipped heavily towards the mouse, not the elephant. It feels like it must represent a parable or proverb, something familiar and funny and prosaic, just out of grasp.

I did find a stork with scales, but those balance pans are empty.

Like the much more common elephant-coming-out-of-a-snail-shell motif, the out-of-balance-scale motif seems both to derive its humor from the unexpected and also to convey a message about proportions:

  • good things come is small packages
  • don’t make a mountain of of a molehill

Then there are sayings about specks and logs if we want slide into Jesus sayings.

Human misperception of proportions is a site of collective and individual anxiety. We know yesterday we misjudged the relative size of some matter in our lives and know that today we are just as likely to be doing the same, just as obliviously.

And sometimes even when all reasonable measurements (the scales) and the testimony of trusted outside observers (the stork), we still want to insist the ‘elephant’ in the room MUST be weightier than that damn mouse.

Reflecting last night on the past few days and my skewed perceptions of reality over that same time frame, I felt a bit like a wobbly stork who by shifting from leg to leg can upset the reading of the balance pans. One moment publication deadlines seem like the most important thing in the world, the next its a social and bureaucratic minutia of leaving the country for 10 months.

Friday I took a day away from writing and went to the Herodotus conference at Columbia and got to be a historiographer for a day. Fabulous conversations. No fisticuffs, as the inimitable Tom Harrison entreated at the opening. But hugely enjoyable cross theatre debate on whether Herodotus is lying at 2.143.

Friday Night/Saturday Morning we hosted dear friends and helped them book their tickets to see us for the passover break. If this were only a food blog, I could tell you about the menu. Alas.

Saturday I wrote late into the evening.

Sunday we went cycling with Turkish friends and then to PA for a huge family send off.

Monday we spent more time with SDA’s family and friends as I started to twitch from lack of academic engagement and an impending sense of doom. Not my finest moment.

From this precise moment I have six hours of uninterrupted work time until we must begin a hideous afternoon of travel shots, medical consultations, bank branch visits and other horrors. I can do something with six hours. Time for the stork to switch legs.


What does the Elephant in the Snail Shell mean? I’ve no idea. Maybe a mash up of

  • Don’t judge a book by its cover.


  • Mighty oaks from little acorns grow

I ILL-ed M. Henig, “The Elephant and the Sea-shell”, Oxford Journal of Archaeology 3 (1984), 243-247 out of pure curiosity. There are however other things crawling out of snail shells on antique gems besides elephants, including sea monsters, and humans:


This image reminds of all the hilarious Diogenes the cynic gems.

Anyway. Enough fun. Just one final proverb for today:

Worry often gives a small thing a big shadow.

Update 27 February 2014: see also newer post on similar iconography.

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