This is our first post from an airplane. And it is a re-post. It is my wife’s birthday. Thanks to the insanity of this site, I can now wish her happy birthday in Ancient Greek.
After tweeting in desperation last night, I awoke with a mission: to learn more about birthdays in ancient Greek (whether they observed them, how and what, if anything, they said). I sent some emails and then started in two logical places: a Greek phrase book and the Oxford Classical Dictionary.
H. W. Auden’s Greek Phrase Book provides a phrase for observing birthday sacrifices: τὰ γενέθλια ἑστιᾶν (1963, 44)
Oxford Classical Dictionary. 3rd Edition (s.v. Birthday): γενέθλιος ἡμέρα: The ancient Greeks celebrated the birthdays of some of the Olympian gods during the days of the month. Birthdays, according to this entry, became more significant along with ruler-cults and biographical traditions. The Romans seem to have celebrated birthdays from an early period.
Then the Homerist and all-around good-guy Erwin Cook told me via email that we know little about the birthday sacrifices held in the Archaic and early Classical periods, but he pointed me to Aeschylus’ mention in the Eumenides of giving a birthday gift to Apollo (8-9):
Φοίβη• δίδωσι δ’ ἣ γενέθλιον δόσιν
Φοίβῳ• τὸ Φοίβης δ’ ὄνομ’ ἔχει παρώνυμον.
Euripides also mentions birthday sacrifices (Ion 805): παιδὸς προθύσων ξένια καὶ γενέθλια. Our friend, Platosparks, tells me that modern Greeks use καλά γενέθλια as a benediction, which seems like a nice derivation from the sacrifice. But multiple respondents have reported something like the following for modern Greek usage:
All of which is good to know. Phrynichus tells us a little about the Athenian practice–but not enough (Eklogai, 75.1-3):
“Genesia are not strictly speaking on the day of birth. Among the Athenians, the genesia are a festival. It is better to call them days of birth or birth-day sacrifices.”
Γενέσια οὐκ ὀρθῶς τίθεται ἐπὶ τῆς γενεθλίου ἡμέρας• Γενέσια γὰρ ᾿Αθήνησιν ἑορτή. λέγειν οὖν δεῖ τὰς γενεθλίους ἡμέρας ἢ γενέθλια.
But, as with many rituals from the ancient world, we know little about what they entailed and what they meant to the individuals who practiced them. The historian Appian gives us the kernel of the phrase ‘birthday’ (γενέθλιον ἦμαρ) as well:
εἰσὶ δ’ οἳ καὶ λέγουσιν αὐτὸν εἰσηγήσασθαι τὴν ἡμέραν θέσθαι τῇ πόλει γενέθλιον
Plato (Alcibiades 121c7) notes that all of Asia celebrates the birthday of the great King:
ὧν ἂν ἄρχῃ, εἶτα εἰς τὸν ἄλλον χρόνον ταύτῃ τῇ ἡμέρᾳ βασιλέως γενέθλια πᾶσα θύει καὶ ἑορτάζει ἡ ᾿Ασία• ἡμῶν
Lucian, Gallos 9.10 writes of gathering together to celebrate a daughter’s birthday:, “Μίκυλλε,” φησί, “θυγατρὸς τήμερον ἑστιῶ γενέθλια καὶ παρεκάλεσα τῶν φίλων μάλα πολλούς• ἐπεὶ δέ τινά φασιν αὐτῶν. See also Hermotimus 11.12 for a daughter’s birthday feast.
But nowhere could I find an indication of how to wish good fortune on the birthday. We know then that a birthday gift was a thing; that birthday sacrifices and eventually feasts were also culturally recognized phenomena. But no benediction was to be found. (which doesn’t mean that there isn’t one somewhere!)
So, using the Latin Felix Dies Natalis as a model (and the phrase γενέθλιον ἦμαρ from Appian, paralleled in the Greek Anthology as PlatoSparks notes in the comments) and choosing the neuter form to hedge as to whether this is accusative (in an absolute sense) or nominative, I decided to make it up myself (and I take Palaiophron’s comments below to heart, this is an anachronistic somewhat silly exercise, but once down the rabbit-hole….):
μακάριον γενέθλιον ἦμαρ [sc. εἴη σοι]
καλὸν (based on καλά γενέθλια)
Of the three, I think I like this combination the most: γενέθλιον ἦμαρ εὐτυχὲς
I also like the rhythm of this one: μακάριον γενέθλιον ἦμαρ.
But with the parallel καλά γενέθλια from PlatoSparks, perhaps καλὸν γενέθλιον ἦμαρ is good too
And we can add particles for flavor and force:
εἰ γὰρ μακάριον γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!
μακάριον δὴ γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!
εἰ γὰρ καλὸν γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!
καλὸν δὴ γενέθλιον ἦμαρ!
To be sure, it is highly unlikely that any Ancient Greek ever said this. But no ancient Greek used twitter either. Any suggestions for improvement?