Latin Words and Grammar

Invita Minerva: Going Against a Goddess

This article has been reviewed in accordance with our editorial policy.

Have you ever done some­thing Invi­ta Min­er­va? Most peo­ple have.

Have you ever said you have a love­ly singing voice, but once on stage, you sound like an angry pig?

Have you ever tried to come up with a les­son plan to end all les­son plans for your class, only to pull your hair out in despair and end up with the same sort of les­son plan you always do? 

Or have you per­haps spent hours in front of an angry-look­ing blank paper, even though, last time you checked, it said “author” on your card? Then maybe you have been try­ing to do things Invi­ta Min­er­va.

LISTEN TO ERASMUS’ Pas­sage about the proverb Down­load a record­ing of Eras­mus’ pas­sage on Invi­ta Minerva. 
THE COMBAT OF MARS AND MINERVA BY JACQUES-LOUIS DAVID CA 1771.

More Latin Proverbs: Auribus Teneo Lupum: Why Emper­or Tiberius and Pres­i­dent Thomas Jef­fer­son Both Held a Wolf by the Ears

Totally Talentless

Some­times we do things that we have no tal­ent for. Some­times we lose a bet and are forced to do some­thing, some­times we are just too igno­rant to real­ize we are unqual­i­fied for some­thing and some­times we find our­selves in sit­u­a­tions we know noth­ing about and have to wing it.

When you try to do some­thing against your bent, some­thing you are total­ly unqual­i­fied for or have no tal­ent what-so-ever for – be it paint, sing, cook, build, knit, write, speak – the Romans would express this with a lit­tle help from the god­dess Minerva:

“Invi­ta Minerva! ”

i.e. “Unwill­ing Minerva!”

Without Wisdom

Min­er­va was the Roman god­dess of wis­dom, art, and tal­ent. So when you try to do some­thing with­out her help, i.e., with­out tal­ent or wis­dom, or with­out a will­ing Min­er­va, that would mean you go against the god­dess her­self, which means going against the heav­ens and so in defi­ance of nature itself.

“MINERVA TEACHES PICTURA” BY ADAM VAN NOORT FROM 1598.

Cicero was fond of this expres­sion and used it sev­er­al times. In De offici­is 1.110.10 he used the proverb to bring home an argu­ment about peo­ples’ gifts and that we must hold on to them and not go against our nat­ur­al genius­es. He wrote:

“Sic enim est facien­dum, ut con­tra uni­ver­sam nat­u­ram nihil con­tendamus, ea tamen con­ser­va­ta pro­pri­am nos­tram sequa­mur, ut, eti­am­si sint alia grav­io­ra atque melio­ra, tamen nos stu­dia nos­tra nos­trae nat­u­rae reg­u­la meti­a­mur; neque enim attinet nat­u­rae repugnare nec quic­quam sequi, quod asse­qui non queas. Ex quo magis emer­git, quale sit deco­rum illud, ideo quia nihil decet invi­ta Min­er­va, ut aiunt, id est adver­sante et repug­nante natura.”

i.e., “For we must so act as not to oppose the uni­ver­sal laws of human nature, but, while safe­guard­ing those, to fol­low the bent of our own par­tic­u­lar nature; and even if oth­er careers should be bet­ter and nobler, we may still reg­u­late our own pur­suits by the stan­dard of our own nature. For it is of no avail to fight against one’s nature or to aim at what is impos­si­ble of attain­ment. From this fact, the nature of that pro­pri­ety defined above comes into still clear­er light, inas­much as noth­ing is prop­er that “goes against the grain,” as the say­ing is—that is if it is in direct oppo­si­tion to one’s nat­ur­al genius.” (transl. Miller, 1913)

MINERVA AND THE NINE MUSES BY HANS ROTTENHAMMER, 1606.

Prudent Poet

The expres­sion has also been used fig­u­ra­tive­ly, where an unwill­ing Min­er­va might not be as harsh as going against the gods and nature, but rather hav­ing a lack of inspi­ra­tion. Or at least not hav­ing the mus­es at your side, be it tem­porar­i­ly or not.

For instance, you need Min­er­va on your side to be a good artist. The great poet Horace lets us know that it is good sense NOT to go against Min­er­va. He wrote:

“Tu nihil invi­ta dices faciesve Min­er­va;
id tibi iudi­ci­um est, ea mens.”

— Hor­atius, Ars Poet­i­ca 385

i.e. “But you will say noth­ing and do noth­ing against Minerva’s will; such is your judge­ment, such your good sense.” (transl. Rush­ton Fair­clough, 1926)

No Help For Hymns

For a long time the expres­sion has had a spe­cial place in the hearts of poets as either an excuse for bad poet­ry or as a way to express a lack of inspi­ra­tion. In Swe­den one could, only a hun­dred years ago, still use the expres­sion as it was. In a book about the Swedish 18th cen­tu­ry hymn writer Samuel Ödmann you can read that Ödmann:

invi­ta Min­er­va.”

i.e. (rough­ly trans­lat­ed) “…often jokes about the bad vers­es he’s cob­bled togeth­er and glad­ly agrees that they have come into being invi­ta Min­er­va.”

SAMUEL ÖDMANN, ENGRAVING BY GUNNAR FORSSELL (1859–1903) AFTER A PAINTING BY JOHAN GUSTAF SANDBERG (1782–1854).

Ödmann him­self opined that you had to be born a poet, and was not con­vinced he had been so lucky.

Minerva The Muse

If the god­dess is unwill­ing, she will not come to you when you need her for inspi­ra­tion or help or edu­ca­tion. Even if you call upon her, she might not come and there you sit in front of you blank paper, or canvas.

With­out the help of Min­er­va your work will be so much heav­ier, it will be a strug­gle, and the out­come might not be so grand. It does not mat­ter that you are tal­ent­ed or skill­ful, with­out her help, there you are feel­ing like an ass try­ing to cut a wet log in half against its grains.

ENGRAVING FROM 1569, MADE AFTER PIETER BRUEGHEL THE ELDER’S DRAWING-ASS IN SCHOOL — FROM 1556. (CAN YOU SPOT THE ASS?)

The 19th cen­tu­ry amer­i­can poet/author Thomas Bai­ley Aldrich even ded­i­cat­ed a poem to Min­er­va and named it ”Invi­ta Min­er­va”, where the will of the Muse, the inspi­ra­tion, rarely comes when you seek it:

“Not of desire alone is music born, 
Not till the Muse wills is our pas­sion crowned; 
Unsought she comes; if sought, but sel­dom found, 
Repay­ing thus our long­ing with her scorn. 
Hence is it poets often are for­lorn, 
In super-sub­tle chains of silence bound, 
And mid the crowds that com­pass them around
Still dwell in iso­la­tion night and morn, 

With knit­ted brow and cheek all pas­sion-pale
Show­ing the baf­fled pur­pose of the mind. 
Hence is it I, that find no prayers avail
To move my Lyric mis­tress to be kind, 
Have stolen away into this leafy dale
Drawn by the flut­ings of the sil­very wind.” 

THOMAS BAILEY ALDRICH

Cicero To Cornificius

The say­ing can also be used negat­ed, mean­ing Min­er­va was with you and every­thing you worked on turned out great!

For instance, Cicero writes in a let­ter to Cornificius:

“Quin­qua­tribus fre­quen­ti sen­atu causam tuam egi, non invi­ta Minerva.”

— Cicero, Fam. 12.25

i.e. “On Minerva’s Day [Quin­qua­tria] I plead­ed your cause at a well attend­ed ses­sion, not with­out the God­dess’ [Minerva’s] good will.” (transl. Shack­el­ton Bai­ley, 2001)

Resources

Cicero. On Duties. Trans­lat­ed by Wal­ter Miller. Loeb Clas­si­cal Library 30. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1913.

Horace. Satires. Epis­tles. The Art of Poet­ry. Trans­lat­ed by H. Rush­ton Fair­clough. Loeb Clas­si­cal Library 194. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 1926.

Cicero. Let­ters to Friends, Vol­ume III: Let­ters 281–435. Edit­ed and trans­lat­ed by D. R. Shack­le­ton Bai­ley. Loeb Clas­si­cal Library 230. Cam­bridge, MA: Har­vard Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2001.

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren

Amelie Rosengren, M.A. and co-founder of Latinitium, is a published author, illustrator and historian. She specializes in daily life, has a soft spot for historic curiosities, and works as a museum educator at the world’s oldest open air museum, Skansen.
Written by Amelie Rosengren

Written by Amelie Rosengren

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