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Headword: Ὄνου σκιὰ
Adler number: omicron,400
Translated headword: a donkey's shadow
Vetting Status: high
['A donkey's shadow'] and 'About a donkey's shadow'; Sophocles in Cedalion[writes]: "whatever might happen, it is all a donkey's shadow."[1] Aristophanes in Daedalus [writes]: "because for you the war is now about what? About a donkey's shadow."[2] And Aristotle in Didaskaliai [writes] of a certain drama that it bears the title Donkey's Shadow.[3] But others [sc. say that] this was first uttered by Demosthenes, who, while speaking in defense of someone accused of capital offenses, noticed that those listening were becoming distracted. Calling out to them to pay a little attention, he began to detail how a man bound for Megara had taken out a donkey for hire, but from the coming of the day's heat, had wished to take relief under the shadow of the donkey, for there was no tree nor anything else nearby. But he was prevented by the donkey-driver, who asserted that the donkey alone had been hired out to him, not the shadow; and so for them there arose much preoccupation and contentiousness about this. Having said these things, as he [sc. Demosthenes] saw the Athenians having become very much intrigued, excited, and anxious to hear more things, he rebuked them, [sc. pointing out that] although they are feeling a need to hear and are beseeching about a donkey's shadow, yet concerning a man risking his life, they do not deign to listen. Clearly Demosthenes made use of him who said this.[4] Hence in the Philippics he also says that the Athenians are in a struggle about the shadow at Delphi, alluding to the proverb.[5]
Greek Original:
Ὄνου σκιὰ καὶ Περὶ ὄνου σκιᾶς: Σοφοκλῆς Κηδαλίωνι: ὅ τι ἄν τι γίνηται, τὰ πάντ' ὄνου σκιά. Ἀριστοφάνης Δαιδάλῳ: περὶ τοῦ γὰρ ὑμῖν ὁ πόλεμος νῦν ἐστι; περὶ ὄνου σκιᾶς. Ἀριστοτέλης δ' ἐν Διδασκαλίαις καὶ δράματός τινος φέρει ἐπιγραφὴν Ὄνου σκιάν. οἱ δὲ πρῶτον φθέγξασθαι τοῦτο Δημοσθένην, ἀπολογούμενον ὑπέρ τινος ἐπὶ μεγάλαις αἰτίαις κρινομένου, ὡς ἑώρα θορυβοῦντας τοὺς ἀκροωμένους. παρακαλέσας γὰρ αὐτοὺς μικρὰ προσέχειν ἤρξατο διηγεῖσθαι, ὡς Μεγαράδε ἀπιὼν μισθώσαιτο ὄνον, καύματος δὲ ἐν τῇ ὁδῷ γενομένου, ὑπὸ τὴν σκιὰν τοῦ ὄνου βουληθείη ἀναπαύσασθαι, οὐ παρεῖναι γὰρ οὔτε δένδρον οὔτ' ἄλλο τοιοῦτον οὐδέν: τὸν δὲ ὀνηλάτην κωλύειν φάσκοντα, ὄνον αὐτῷ μεμισθωκέναι μόνον, οὐ μὴν καὶ σκιάν: ὥστε διατριβὴν αὐτοῖς καὶ φιλονεικίαν πολλὴν περὶ τούτου γενέσθαι. ταῦτα δ' εἰπών, ὡς εἶδε τοὺς Ἀθηναίους προσέχοντας σφόδρα καὶ ἡδομένους καὶ ποθοῦντας τὰ ἑξῆς ἀκοῦσαι, ἐπέπληξεν αὐτοῖς, εἰ περὶ ὄνου μὲν σκιᾶς ἀκροᾶσθαι δέονται καὶ παρακαλοῦσιν, ὑπὲρ δὲ ἀνδρὸς περὶ τοῦ ζῆν κινδυνεύοντος οὐκ ἐθέλουσιν ἀκούειν. δῆλον δὲ ὅτι λεγομένῳ τούτῳ ἐχρήσατο Δημοσθένης. διόπερ καὶ ἐν τοῖς Φιλιππικοῖς παρῳδῶν τὴν παροιμίαν φησὶ διαφέρεσθαι τοὺς Ἀθηναίους περὶ τῆς ἐν Δελφοῖς σκιᾶς.
The twin headword phrases are generated by the two quotations given; and the entire entry occurs almost verbatim in Photius' Lexicon (omicron364 Theodoridis).
The proverbial ὄνου σκιά was a common C5 BCE metaphor for something completely worthless (Pearson, pp. 11-2); cf. omicron 401, upsilon 327 (on which see further below, n. 4). This explanation for the expression is also given by the scholia to Plato, Phaedrus 260C (web address 1), where Socrates compares a rhetorician's endorsing evil under the name of good to praising the shadow of a donkey under the name of a horse; cf. the scholion to Lucian, Hermotimus 71 (Rabe, pp. 245-6), which is the same. See generally Tosi [cited under alpha 378] no.1939.
[1] Sophocles fr. 331 Radt. (Cedalion was evidently a lost satyr play; cf. Lloyd-Jones, pp. 182-3, whose selection, however, omits this fragment.) [In her critical apparatus Adler reports that ms A (= Parisinus 2626, before correction) transmits γίνεται , the present indicative middle/passive, third person singular form of the verb γίγνομαι (see LSJ s.v.), instead of the subjunctive: whatever happens.]
[2] Aristophanes fr. 199 K.-A. (192 Kock). The expression appears again at Aristophanes, Wasps 191 (web address 2), when Bdelycleon ("Loathes-Kleon") asks Philocleon ("Loves-Kleon") what he is fighting about, and the latter replies that it is "about the shadow of a donkey". On Kleon (Develin person no. 1659), see OCD(4) s.v. Cleon and kappa 1731. [Adler reports that ms G reads ἡμῖν : for us.]
[3] Aristotle fr. 625 Rose. Aristotle's Didaskaliai (Production Records or Rehearsals) contains the first systematic record of Athenian theatrical productions (Csapo and Slater, p. 22; OCD(4) s.v. didaskalia). Evidently correlated with Aristotle's recorded entry, Zenobius 6.28.20-1 identifies the Old Comedy poet Archippos (alpha 4115 and OCD(4) s.v. Archippus) as the author of a play entitled Ὄνου σκιά .
[4] With divergent details in the account, see also upsilon 327. The story is told again at Photius, Bibliotheca 495a17-30. [Adler reports that mss AS and M (before correction) all read τοῦτον and Photius' Lexicon omits τοῦτο (they are first to credit Demosthenes); also that ms G substitutes ἀπὸ for περὶ : from this; also that that ms S deleted τὰ (to hear more only) reads αὐτοὺς , the accusative case, which can also follow the verb ἐπιπλήσσω (I chastise, rebuke; see LSJ s.v.), and replaces δέονται καὶ παρακαλοῦσιν with λέγονται (they are asking about).]
[5] Demosthenes 5.25 (web address 3). Harpocration and Photius' Lexicon pi787 Theodoridis (s.v. περὶ τῆς ἐν Δελφοῖς σκιᾶς ) cite Didymus as having suggested that Demosthenes used the expression to describe the political intrigues of Philip II of Macedon (reigned 359-336 BCE; cf. phi 354 and OCD(4) s.v. Philip(1)) within the Delphic Amphictiony (cf. iota 182, iota 183, pi 3161, and OCD(4) s.v. amphictiony). Against this, recent commentary generally argues that the orator was gesturing at the futility of Athens' participation in the Amphictiony (Gibson, pp. 172-4). [The text of ms S reads τοῖς Ἀθηναίοις : to the Athenians (so Adler).]
A.C. Pearson, The Fragments of Sophocles, vol. II, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1917
H. Rabe, ed., Scholia in Lucianum, Stuttgart: Teubner, 1971
H. Lloyd-Jones, ed. & trans., Sophocles: Fragments, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996
R. Develin, Athenian Officials 684-321 BC, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989
E. Csapo and W.J. Slater, The Context of Ancient Drama, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1995
C.A. Gibson, Interpreting a Classic: Demosthenes and His Ancient Commentators, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002
Associated internet addresses:
Web address 1,
Web address 2,
Web address 3
Keywords: comedy; daily life; imagery; law; philosophy; politics; proverbs; rhetoric; stagecraft; tragedy; zoology
Translated by: Ronald Allen on 1 February 2010@00:28:37.
Vetted by:
Catharine Roth (betacode capitalization) on 1 February 2010@00:51:59.
David Whitehead (more keywords; tweaks and cosmetics; raised status) on 1 February 2010@03:50:31.
David Whitehead (cosmetics) on 1 February 2010@12:13:58.
David Whitehead (added Tosi) on 17 August 2012@06:41:20.
David Whitehead (updatings and adjustments) on 4 July 2013@05:48:11.
Catharine Roth (coding, upgraded links) on 4 July 2013@22:36:25.
David Whitehead (updated some refs) on 6 August 2014@03:12:49.
Catharine Roth (coding) on 30 December 2014@23:21:13.


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