I worked an estate sale a few years ago and the experience has never left me. The man who passed away left this note on a chalk board and I found a photo of it the other day. I have wondered what it says ever since! I took Latin in college, but it was so long ago and I don't have my books anymore. I believe it says something about speaking or praying to God.

"ora deo sed ab saxis remiga"

Any help?

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    Related question that may have to do with the sense of the phrase
    – Rafael
    Apr 6, 2018 at 0:11
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    Similar to "Praise the Lord and pass the ammo" . Apr 6, 2018 at 12:02

2 Answers 2


Pray to God but row away from the rocks.

You are correct in that ora means "pray" (it is the singular imperative of oro). Deo (dative of Deus) is the "to God" bit. Sed means "but," ab saxis (ablative plural) means "away from the rocks," and finally remiga is the singular imperative of remigo meaning "row."

Now, the meaning of the quote, as I take it, is thus: look to God if you are in trouble, but do not expect a sudden, divine intervention to occur. You have to take matters into your own hands if you have a problem (row away from the rocks). I cannot find if this comes from somewhere specific, so if someone does find that, it would be interesting to hear.


The user Jay says this, which is what I was trying to get at in my original answer:

This seems a pretty routine Christian belief. There's a common saying among Christians today, "Pray as if everything depended on God; work as if everything depended on you." In the Bible, God routinely expected people to do all they could even if he performed a miracle. Like he would promise victory in battle, but the soldiers still had to go out and fight. Even if there was nothing practical a person could do, God often demanded a token effort. Like Naaman had to dunk himself in the Jordan River before God would cure his leprosy. Etc.

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    Thanks very much! What a huge help you've been. I would be very interested to know if it is from somewhere specific – that might shed more meaning on it. Many many thanks.
    – Nicocurio
    Apr 6, 2018 at 0:14
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    Although the adversative sed might have been put there intentionally to twist the sense of the original meaning, I find more likely that the intention was to just go with it. If the deceased man who left the note was a believer, he probably meant that even if God does not need our help, he expects us to do our part while asking Him for help. (See the question I linked for more detail.)
    – Rafael
    Apr 6, 2018 at 0:20
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    "remigo ab" +s 'away from' is the primary meaning in my dictionary. Example: Historia Salonitanorum Atque Spalatinorum Pontificum (p.240) Thomas (Spalatensis, Archdeacon), 1666; '...ab insula versus Almisium remigabat.'
    – Hugh
    Apr 6, 2018 at 0:33
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    @Rafael Interesting take on it. I added your interpretation to my answer.
    – Sam K
    Apr 6, 2018 at 1:04
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    Derived from your answer one could think of another, slightly different meaning: You can always pray to god for help, but don't bring yourself into dangerous situations foolishly and expect him to help.
    – Mario Maus
    Apr 6, 2018 at 11:47

Many details show that this sentence cannot be ancient (and in fact there is no trace of it in the usual places). While there are no obvious mistakes, it is clear that it is a literal translation from English with no attempt to produce idiomatic Latin. This does not mean that the translator didn’t know enough Latin: the purpose might have been humoristic.

In fact, it is the translation of Call on God but row away from the rocks.

As you can see, it is a rather popular quote whose origin might prove hard to trace. Some sites claim it is an American Indian proverb. I seriously doubt it, because, as other users have explained marvelously, the idea is deeply rooted in Christianity. I don’t think it is of Southern European origin either: on our shores, the one to pray for safety at sea is Maria, Stella Maris.

There is one particular point which I’d like to discuss in this context. In English (and many related languages), the normal way to express motion is to choose a verb which shows the mode of displacement, while the direction is expressed by a complement. In English you walk down the hill. In Latin (and in Romance languages) pedibus a colle descendis, with a directional verb and a complement of manner. So, when translating row away from the rocks, it is not idiomatic to use the very specific verb remigo, which is meant for a situation with a very strong focus on rowing. My own translation of the same sentence would be something like

Precibus Deum invocans remis a rupibus navem averte.

The OP asked in a comment:

He canoed all the time and even invented a canoe paddle... so I wonder if he specifically chose that verb remigo for this translation given his love of canoeing?

Well, it’s difficult to say. Most probably his love of canoeing influenced his choice of a quote, but no, I don’t think his literal translation was also influenced.


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