Brick-Washing: Some Cherished Ancient Greek Proverbs

From Photius:

“A Donkey’s death”: A saying for those who tell stories about strange things

“A Tipping Donkey”: When a donkey leans in suddenly, hens are frightened and bust out of their pen. The owner of the birds brings a suit against the owner of the donkey. This is where the proverb comes from.

“Donkey Shearings”: A saying applied by Attic writers to endless and impossible things. These following sayings are similar: “washing a brick”; “plucking a wineskin”; “decorating a pot” and “fumigating an outhouse”. Aristarchus says that this saying developed because Cratinus imagined a man braiding a rope in Hades and a donkey eating it as he did so.”

῎Ονου θάνατος: ἐπὶ τῶν ἀλλόκοτα διηγουμένων

῎Ονου παρακύψεως: ὄνου παρακύψαντος, ὄρνιθες πτοηθεῖσαι ἱστὸν ἀνέρρηξαν· ὁ δὲ δεσπότης τοῦ ἱστοῦ τοῦ ὄνου δεσπότηι ἐνεκάλεσεν· ὅθεν ἡ παροιμία.

῎Ονου πόκαι: ἐπὶ τῶν ἀνηνύτων καὶ τῶν μὴ ὄντων λέγεται ἡ παροιμία ὑπὸ τῶν ᾿Αττικῶν· ὥσπερ αἱ τοιαῦται· πλίνθον πλύνειν· ἀσκὸν τίλλειν· χύτραν ποικίλλειν· εἰς κοπρῶνα θυμιᾶν· ᾿Αρίσταρχος δὲ διὰ τὸ Κρατῖνον ὑποθέσθαι ἐν Αἵδου σχοινίον πλέκοντα· ὄνον δὲ τὸ πλεκόμενον ἀπεσθίοντα·


From the Suda

s.v. Agnoei d’arakhnê paidas hôs paideuetai: “A spider doesn’t know how she teaches her children”. This is because after she feeds them, she dies at their hands. This is a proverb about taking care of something against your own interest.”

Ἀγνοεῖ δ’ ἀράχνη παῖδας ὡς παιδεύεται. θρέψασα γὰρ τέθνηκε πρὸς τῶν φιλτάτων: ἐπὶ τῶν καθ’ ἑαυτῶν τι πραγματευομένων.

s.v. Allên drûn balanize: “Shake down a different oak tree”. This is a proverb about those who are constantly asking something or borrowing something from the same people. There is another one too: “enough oak!” This is about those who eat something with difficulty and without pleasure but then find something better.”

Ἄλλην δρῦν βαλάνιζε: ἐπὶ τῶν ἐνδελεχῶς αἰτούντων τι ἢ παρὰ τῶν αὐτῶν ἀεὶ δανειζομένων. καὶ ἑτέρα παροιμία: Ἅλις δρυός. ἐπὶ τῶν δυσχερῶς μέν τι καὶ ἀηδῶς ἐσθιόντων, ἕτερον δὲ βέλτιον εὑρόντων.


Meta Lesbion ôdon: ‘After the Lesbian singer’. A proverb spoken for those who come in second. For the Spartans used to summon Lesbian citharodes. This is because when the city was divided in conflict their oracle instructed them to send for a singer from Lesbos. They summoned Terpander from Antissa—he was in exile for blood-crime—and listened to him in their mess-halls and were reunited. So, the Spartans, when they were divided in strife, summoned the musician Terpander from Lesbos and he brought harmony to their minds and stopped the conflict. Every time the Spartans heard any singer after that, they said he came [second] “after the Lesbian singer.”

Μετὰ Λέσβιον ᾠδόν: παροιμία λεγομένη ἐπὶ τῶν τὰ δεύτερα φερομένων· οἱ γὰρ Λακεδαιμόνιοι τοὺς Λεσβίους κιθαρῳδοὺς πρώτους προσεκαλοῦντο· ἀκαταστατούσης γὰρ τῆς πόλεως αὐτῶν χρησμὸς ἐγένετο τὸν Λέσβιον ᾠδὸν μεταπέμπεσθαι· οἱ δ’ ἐξ ᾿Αντίσσης Τέρπανδρον ἐφ’ αἵματι φεύγοντα μεταπεμψάμενοι ἤκουον αὐτοῦ ἐν τοῖς συσσιτίοις καὶ κατεστάλησαν. ὅτι οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι στασιάζοντες μετεπέμψαντο ἐκ Λέσβου τὸν μουσικὸν Τέρπανδρον, ὃς ἥρμοσεν αὐτῶν τὰς ψυχὰς καὶ τὴν στάσιν ἔπαυσεν. εἴποτε οὖν μετὰ ταῦτα μουσικοῦ τινος ἤκουον οἱ Λακεδαιμόνιοι, ἔλεγον μετὰ Λέσβιον ᾠδόν.


“Drinking water in moderation, but eating bread without end.”: “This line developed into a proverb from an oracle which the god delivered to the men of Sybaris. For they perished at the hands of the men of Kroton because they were sacrilegious and drunkards. This was the prophecy given to the men who fled.”

Μέτρῳ ὕδωρ πίνοντες, ἀμετρίαν δὲ μᾶζον ἔδοντες:οὗτος ὁ στίχος εἰς παροιμίαν περιέστη ἔκ τινος χρησμοῦ, ὃν ἀνεῖλεν ὁ θεὸς Συβαρίταις· ὑβρισταὶ γὰρ ὄντες καὶ ἀμετροπόται ἀπώλοντο ὑπὸ Κροτωνιατῶν. τοῖς οὖν διαφυγοῦσιν αὐτῶν οὕτως ἐχρήσθη.


“Khamai: on the ground.  There is also a proverb: ‘to trace water on the ground’—which is the same as accomplishing nothing. Another example of this is “washing a brick”. These are uttered for tasks that have no end.”

Χαμαί: ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς. καὶ παροιμία· Χαμαὶ ἀντλεῖν, ἐν ἴσῳ τῷ οὐδὲν ἐργάζεσθαι. οἷον καὶ τὸ πλίνθον πλύνειν. ἐπὶ τῶν ἀνηνύτων λέγεται.


To learn pottery on a wine-jar”: A proverb concerning students who jump beyond their first lessons, grasping at greater things. This is for those who miss out on their first lessons because they are eager for the last.”

Ἐν πίθῳ τὴν κεραμίαν μανθάνειν: παροιμία ἐπὶ τῶν τὰς πρώτας μὲν μαθήσεις ὑπερβαινόντων, ἁπτομένων δὲ τῶν μειζόνων. τουτέστι τῶν παριέντων τὰς πρώτας μαθήσεις καὶ ἐφιεμένων τῶν τελευταίων.


You control a lentil’s corner”: A proverb used for weak people. There is also this proverb: “you are chopping a lentil”—something said of things that are endless and imaginary.”

Φακοῦ γωνίαν κρατεῖς• ἐπὶ τῶν ἀδυνάτων. παροιμία• Φακὸν κόπτεις• ἐπὶ τῶν ἀνηνύτων καὶ μὴ ὄντων λέγεται.

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