How To Say “Happy Birthday” in Ancient Greek

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….):

ὄλβιον
μακάριον γενέθλιον ἦμαρ [sc. εἴη σοι]
εὐτυχὲς
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!
or

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?

Or Youtube:

13 thoughts on “How To Say “Happy Birthday” in Ancient Greek

  1. I know modern Greek uses the expression χρονια πολα! which is short for “God grant you many years!” I suspect it has roots in Byzantium, but I don’t know for sure. This also might be more common on saints’ days than birthdays, but I have heard it used for both.

  2. Athenians didn’t name their children until ten days after the birth (to give them time to expose them if they didn’t like the look of them??) so I wonder if they regarded the actual birthday as important. The modern Greek is καλά γενέθλια – maybe the ancients would have used a similar phrase. But of your versions I prefer μακαριον as it does sound more euphonic. I found this in the Greek anthology.

    Crinagoras

    χάλκεον ἀργυρέῳ με πανείκελον, Ἰνδικὸν ἔργον,
    ὄλπην, ἡδίστου ξείνιον εἰς ἑτάρου,
    ἦμαρ ἐπεὶ τόδε σεῖο γενέθλιον, υἱὲ Σίμωνος,
    πέμπει γηθομένῃ σὺν φρενὶ Κριναγόρης.

    Krinagoras with a joyful heart is sending me, a bronze flask like silver, a work of India, as a gift to the house of his dearest friend since this is your birthday, son of Simon

    Anth. Gr. 6.261

  3. I also think that καλά γενέθλια is great if we think about the sacrifices themselves serving as a metonym for the experience of a birthday and then the phrase growing from that metonym to a general blessing. Thanks for this again. I am going to edit the post to include it.

  4. In a most un-scholarly fashion (sapere aude!), I am inclined to rely on intuition alone and suggest that perhaps the phrase we want (a general “happy birthday!”) would not be rendered into Greek with such a noun-dependent phrase accusative phrase. It is true that Latin would wish someone a felicem diem natalem, but they would also begin letters with “salutem plurimam dicit,” which I don’t imagine is consistent with the Greek epistolographic practice. More simply, I imagine that Greek and Latin might not have employed parallel constructions in this case, though I do like a lot of the suggestions here.

    I propose that εὐτυχοίης or some verb of similar significance in the optative, perhaps coupled with a temporal expression. Consider Euripides’ Medea, line 688: ἀλλ’ εὐτυχοίης καὶ τύχοις ὅσων ἐρᾶις.

  5. That was just fun!
    Culturally-speaking of course, and as ‘platosparks’ comments, birthdays may have been unimportant for the Ancient Greeks due to the possibility of child exposure (I have usually read the naming ceremony was done at eight days old, though) and, I would add, mortality rates. The birth of a god is much more likely to have been celebrated, and even that entailed research had to be push forward into the Hellenistic period and Roman domination of the world to find a possible example of the phrase.
    I think we have concluded, and rightly so, that the Ancient Greeks did not celebrate children’s birthdays. However, ‘everydayasceticism’ makes a fantastic point as well; perhaps there is some extant record in late Byzantium that can provide us with an example, albeit somewhat ‘modern,’ of the phrase. In all honesty, I love your “καλόν δή γενέθλιον ήμαρ!” I think it is the more likely of the two if ever any one King or Tyrant decided to congratulate one of his sons for the fact of having been born – I suppose children of these individuals would have survived more often, giving rise to the possibility of the phrase even in the Ancient World.
    All that aside, fun, fun!

  6. OK, cool! So here we go in Latinized Linear B:(1) didosi de qeneterio dosi
    (2) poiqe onoma qe eke paronumo. But there is no point my translating the commentaries, as the Linear B scribes never wrote commentaries on anything. But I love this post & I just have to reblog it to Linear B,Knossos & Mycenae: https://linearbknossosmycenae.wordpress.com And for the rest of you folks here at Sententiaae Antiquae, if you wish to see many more translations from Mycenaean Greek into English, check out our blog. SA and I follow one another assiduously. .

  7. Pingback: “Let it Go” from Frozen is now μέθες τό: How Do you Say “O Tempora” in Ancient Greek? | Sententiae Antiquae

  8. Pingback: εἰ γὰρ καλὸν γενέθλιον ἦμαρ! Sententiae Antiquae is Four Years Old | Sententiae Antiquae

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