Paroimiai: Proverbs from Ancient Greece to Star Trek

Diogenianus, On Proverbs, Introduction 1.1-14

“Some say that the proverb is named from paths [oimai]. This is what roads used to be called. And men, however many things they found to be useful in common, they wrote these things along crowd-bearing roads so that the many people  who pass by might get some profit from them. They also say that [proverbs] this way the sayings of wise men may be known, like the passed-down words of the Pythagoreans. But some say that they are called proverbs from the fact that they illustrate something similar to what they are saying, that they happen to be parallels. There is also then the proverb that it a kind of allegory. Similar to this are the Aesopic fable, the Subaritic story, the Kuprion, the Libyan fable, the Scythian proverb. A fable, then,is that adaptation of advice for human beings through a story-telling remodeling from speechless animals and natural events.”

Διογενιανοῦ περὶ παροιμιῶν.

     Τὴν παροιμίαν ὀνομάζεσθαί φασί τινες ἀπὸ τῶν οἴμων· οὕτω δὲ αἱ ὁδοὶ ἐκαλοῦντο. Οἱ δ’ ἄνθρωποι, ὅσα κοινωφελῆ εὕρισκον, ταῦτα κατὰ λεωφόρους ὁδοὺς ἀνέγραφον ὑπὲρ τοῦ πλείονας ἐντυγχάνοντας τῆς ὠφελείας μεταλαμβάνειν· οὕτω καὶ τὰ τῶν σοφῶν ἀποφθέγματα γνωθῆναί φασι, καὶ τὰ Πυθαγορικὰ παραγγέλματα.  ῎Ενιοι δέ φασι προσηγορεῦσθαι τὰς παροιμίας ἀπὸ τοῦὅμοιόν τι ἐφ’ οἷς λέγονται δηλοῦν παροιμίας τυγχανούσας. ῎Εστι δὲ ἡ παροιμία τρόπος καὶ τῆς καλουμένης ἀλληγορίας· παράκειται δὲ αὐτῇ λόγος αἶνος Αἰσώπειος, Καρικὸς αἶνος, Συβαριτικὸς λόγος, Κύπριος, Λιβυκὸς αἶνος, Μαισωνικὴ παροιμία· μάρσιπος. Αἶνος μὲν οὖν ἐστὶ κατ’ ἀνάπλασιν μυθικὴν ἀναφερόμενος ἀπὸ ἀλόγων ζώων ἢ φυτῶν ἐπὶ ἀνθρώπων παραίνεσιν.

In an episode from the fifth season of Star Trek: The Next Generation (102: “Darmok”), the crew of the Enterprise encounter an alien race whose language confounds them—although they understand the individual words, the sentences end up being just beyond their grasp. Over the course of the episode, Captain Jean-Luc Picard realizes that the Tamarians’ communication operates largely through a shared heritage of proverbs—here treated as ‘allegory’—and eventually manages to grasp enough to convey some meaning to his new contact.


Apart from the fact that the episode has Picard quoting from Gilgamesh and brandishing a copy of the Homeric Hymns near its end (one of the  episode’s writers earned a BA in Classics!), it is most fascinating for the explanatory exchange presented in the clip above.

Commander Data: “They seem to communicate through narrative imagery, a reference to the individuals and places which appear in their mythohistorical account.”

Counselor Troi: “Imagery is everything to the Tamarians. Tt embodies their emotional states, their very thought processes, it’s how they communicate and how they think.

Commander Data: “The situation is analogous to understanding the grammar of a language but not the vocabulary.”

This is all pretty cutting edge linguistic material for the time and for television at any time. The comments on imagery and emotion and their integral connection to communication draw on the work of Lakoff and Johnson on cognitive metaphor, similar work by Mark Turner on image schemas, and a whole range of modern studies on the way that language works in the human brain.  At the same time, it also reflects an adaptation of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the basic idea that language shapes the thought processes of its speakers at a cognitive level—in its strongest form, that the language we speak shapes the way we see the world.

Turner 1996, 4-5:  “narrative imagining—story—is the fundamental instrument of thought. Rational capacities depend upon it. It is our chief means of looking into the future, of predicting, of planning, and of explaining. It is a literary capacity indispensable to human cognition generally. This is the first way in which the mind is essentially literary.”

This might seem pretty heady for an episode of science fiction television, but it speaks to a general understanding that to know a culture in part requires knowing its language and, further, that knowing a language is more than just knowing its syntax and the dictionary definition of words.  Knowing a language and its culture is also about knowing its stories.

It is in the cultural and linguistic intersection that proverbs can be so interesting. Proverbs are powerful cultural artifacts because they are both metonyms—short phrases that stand for larger story structures—and invitations to metaphor—they ask their users to engage in a process of allegory whereby they project a narrative received from a tradition onto current events or circumstances.  This process is a microcosm of what happens with larger narrative patterns all the time.

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle calls a proverb a type of metaphor (1413a: “Proverbs are metaphors for similar situations….” καὶ αἱ παροιμίαι δὲ μεταφοραὶ ἀπ’ εἴδους ἐπ’ εἶδος εἰσίν) and he contrasts proverbs with maxims  (gnômai) which are sententious conclusions. The proverb is akin to both types of Aristotle’s proofs or evidence. First, it is a story like the example [paradeigma] so it is inductive; but, in producing a deduction and judgment, it draws closer to the maxim, a subset of the enthymeme.

I would like to distinguish what I find most interesting about proverbs by talking a little bit more about words for sayings with proverbial status in Ancient Greek. First, what I find most interesting about the paroimia is that it is an invitation to reflect and participate in a narrative tradition that is akin to if not part of language.  It is not a command or declaration. Etymology and some comments from Ancient authors—in conjunction with modern scholarship on cognition—have helped shape my view. The lexicographer Photius presents a simple etymology:

“Proverb: from para [along, against] the oimos [road, way] which shows [or defines, signals] the path or road—hence, paroimia. The Proverb is a useful utterance in part because it conveys its meaning within some measure of occlusion as well as much understanding in its depths.”

Παροιμία: Παρὰ τὸ οἶμος, ὃ σημαίνει τὴν ὁδὸν, οἰμία καὶ παροιμία. ῎Εστι δὲ παροιμία λόγος ὠφέλιμος μετ’ ἐπικρύψεως μετρίας αὐτόθεν ἔχων τὸ χρήσιμον, καὶ πολλὴν τὴν ἐν τῷ βάθει διάνοιαν.

Photius’ emphasis on the utility of a proverb consisting in part in its obscurity is echoed by other authors as well:

Synesius, Calvitii Encomium 22

“Really, the proverb is a type of wisdom. How could it not be when, as Aristotle says of them, they are remains of ancient philosophy lost in the greatest calmaties of mankind, preserved thanks to their concision and cleverness? Certainly a proverb is wise in part as a phrase which possession the basic truth of the philosophy from which it sprang in the most ancient past with the result that one considers it very intently. For, on the whole, the ancients were much cleverer than those who live now.”

     Εἰ δὲ καὶ ἡ παροιμία σοφόν· πῶς δ’ οὐχὶ σοφόν, περὶ ὧν ᾿Αριστοτέλης φησίν, ὅτι παλαιᾶς εἰσι φιλοσοφίας ἐν ταῖς μεγίσταις ἀνθρώπων φθοραῖς ἀπολομένης ἐγκαταλείμματα, περισωθέντα διὰ συντομίαν καὶ δεξιότητα; παροιμία δήπου καὶ τοῦτο, καὶ λόγος ἔχων ἀξίωμα τῆς ὅθεν κατηνέχθη φιλοσοφίας τὴν ἀρχαιότητα, ὥστε βόειον ἐπιβλέπειν αὐτῇ. πάμπολυ γὰρ οἱ πάλαι τῶν νῦν εἰς ἀλήθειαν εὐστοχώτεροι

Michael Apostolius, Collection of Proverbs, Introduction 3-4

“A proverb is a saying that occludes its wisdom by means of a lack of clarity, either making affairs known through matters that are already understood or imparting truth in an obscure way.

And this is its way: The proverb is an indirect kind of a narrative, either a saying worn-well by common use, capable of transferring meaning from small and minor things to similar affairs of grander and better merit; or it is also a saying fit to the characteristics and human life according to the standards of those living.  It is also like this: A useful saying or one profitable for life hides in a proverb and has much that is useful in itself. It is an exhortative saying providing guidance along every road in life.”

Παροιμία μὲν οὖν ἐστὶ λόγος ἐπικαλύπτων τὸ σαφὲς ἀσαφείᾳ· ἢ δι’ αἰσθητῶν πραγμάτων σημαίνων πράγματα νοητά· ἢ ἐπικεκρυμμένως τὴν ἀλήθειαν ἐπεμφαίνων.

Καὶ ἔτι τόνδε τὸν τρόπον· παροιμία ἐστὶ διήγημα παροδικὸν, ἢ ῥῆμα τετριμμένον ἐν τῇ χρήσει τῶν γε πολλῶν, ἀπό τε μικρῶν τινῶν καὶ ὀλίγων ἐφ’ ὅμοια πλείω καὶ μείζω μεταληφθῆναι δυνάμενον· ἢ λόγος ἐπιτετηδευμένος τοῖς ἤθεσι καὶ τῇ ἀνθρωπίνῃ ζωῇ κατὰ τὸ ἔθος τῶν ζώντων. καὶ ἔτι γε οὑτωσί· Παροιμίᾳ ἐστὶ λόγος ὠφέλιμος, ἤτοι βιωφελής, ἐπικρύψει μετρίᾳ πολὺ τὸ χρήσιμον ἔχων ἐν ἑαυτῷ· ἢ λόγος προτρεπτικὸς παρὰ πᾶσαν τοῦ βίου τὴν ὁδὸν χρησιμεύων.

There are other terms for sayings that achieve proverbial status, by which I mean they are repeated by people and applied outside of their original context, but they are not paroimiai in the same way.

Apophthegm: (ἀπόφθεγμα) “saying”, usually attributed to a specific person or people as in the “sayings of Chrysippus” (᾿Αποφθέγματα Χρυσίππου ἀπόρρητα, Suda s.v. apophthegmata) or those attributed to a people (e.g. Plutarch’s “Spartan Sayings”) or a tradition (e.g. “Sayings of the Pythagoreans”, Suda s.v Theanô, line 4). Sometimes sayings achieve proverbial status. The lexicographer Hesychius notes that an apophthegm is often concise (ἀπόφθεγμα· σύντομος λόγος)

Suda, s.v. Γνῶθι σαυτόν Know thyself: “A saying of Khilon. The proverb is used for those who boast beyond what they are.” Γνῶθι σαυτόν: ἀπόφθεγμα Χίλωνος. τάττεται δὲ ἡ παροιμία ἐπὶ τῶν ὑπὲρ ὅ εἰσι κομπαζόντων.

Hupothêkê: “advice”. This term usually refers to some type of “instructions” as in the alleged “Instructions” provided by Kheiron the centaur to Achilles. Often the term refers to a composition of longer form (according to the Suda [s.v. Drakôn], Drako wrote a 3000 line hexameter “instructions”). At times such instructions are also referred to as gnomologia (as in the poems of Theognis), but they almost always refer to collections written down (or passed down) with an explicit advisory or educational content (Hesychius glosses hypothêkê as “advice, education…” (παραίνεσις, διδασκαλία).

Gnômê: (Γνώμη) “opinion, judgment”. This word is used widely in Greek to denote an opinion or judgment. When used to transmit received or assumed wisdom it can overlap with proverbs. Aristotle discusses gnômai on several occasions in his Rhetoric and at times pairs it with proverbs, conceding that “Some proverbs [paroimia] are also maxims [gnômai]…” (ἔτι ἔνιαι τῶν παροιμιῶν καὶ γνῶμαί εἰσιν, οἷον παροιμία). But he separates the use of gnômai from storytelling and has some negative things to say (Rhetoric 1395a):

“A use of maxims (gnômai) is appropriate to old age and those things in which someone is experienced; their use before that age is inappropriate as is story-telling. To speak about things one has no experience in is silly and uneducated. A sign of this is that bumpkins are especially fond of maxims and eager to show them off.”

ἁρμόττει δὲ γνωμολογεῖν ἡλικίᾳ μὲν πρεσβυτέρων, περὶ δὲ τούτων ὧν  ἔμπειρός τίς ἐστιν, ὥστε τὸ μὲν μὴ τηλικοῦτον ὄντα γνωμολογεῖν ἀπρεπὲς ὥσπερ καὶ τὸ μυθολογεῖν, περὶ δὲ ὧν ἄπειρος, ἠλίθιον καὶ ἀπαίδευτον. σημεῖον δὲ ἱκανόν· οἱ γὰρ ἀγροῖκοι μάλιστα γνωμοτύποι εἰσὶ καὶ ῥᾳδίως ἀποαίνονται.

As an example, Aristotle provides a line from the Iliad that is a general assertion that through wide use became what we might call “proverbial”. An example of a maxim (gnômai):  “One bird-omen is best: defend your fatherland” εἷς οἰωνὸς ἄριστος ἀμύνεσθαι περὶ πάτρης. Aristotle adds more later about the general use of a gnômai.

“Concerning maxim use, it will be clear about what, concerning what types of things, when and by whom it is natural to use maxims in speeches when we define what a maxim is. A maxim is a declaration, not at all about matters particular to a person, such as what kind of a man Iphicrates is, but about a general idea. It does not, however, deal with all general things, such as the fact that straightness is opposite to the crooked, but instead about the goals of human action and what should be done or avoided when it comes to action. In the same way, the enthymeme is a syllogism about these things, maxims are the conclusions of enthymemes or their introductions with the syllogism subtracted. For example, “no man who is prudent should want to educate his children to be too wise.” This is a maxim. When the explanation and context are added it is an entire enthymeme.

     Περὶ δὲ γνωμολογίας, ῥηθέντος τί ἐστιν γνώμη μάλιστ’ ἂν γένοιτο φανερὸν περὶ ποίων τε καὶ πότε καὶ τίσιν ἁρμόττει χρῆσθαι τῷ γνωμολογεῖν ἐν τοῖς λόγοις. ἔστι δὴ γνώμη ἀπόφανσις, οὐ μέντοι οὔτε περὶ τῶν καθ’ ἕκαστον, οἷον ποῖός τις ᾿Ιφικράτης, ἀλλὰ καθόλου, οὔτε περὶ πάντων, οἷον ὅτι τὸ εὐθὺ τῷ καμπύλῳ ἐναντίον, ἀλλὰ περὶ ὅσων αἱ πράξεις εἰσί, καὶ <ἃ> αἱρετὰ ἢ φευκτά ἐστι πρὸς τὸ πράττειν, ὥστ’ ἐπεὶ τὸ ἐνθύμημα ὁ περὶ τοιούτων συλλογισμός ἐστιν, σχεδὸν τὰ συμπεράσματα τῶν ἐνθυμημάτων καὶ αἱ ἀρχαὶ ἀφαιρεθέντος τοῦ συλλογισμοῦ γνῶμαί εἰσιν, οἷον

               χρὴ δ’ οὔ ποθ’ ὅστις ἀρτίφρων πέφυκ’ ἀνήρ
παῖδας περισσῶς ἐκδιδάσκεσθαι σοφούς.

τοῦτο μὲν οὖν γνώμη· προστεθείσης δὲ τῆς αἰτίας καὶ τοῦ διὰ τί ἐνθύμημά ἐστιν τὸ ἅπαν…

We have many collections of proverbial sayings from the ancient world, often mixing up the types I have outlined above based on a reverence of things past, a preference for a concise turn of phrase, and a love of anecdote. What I really prize though, and emphasize in the proverbs I select, is the way the compressed narrative can provide an introduction into a different way of thinking and a lost world.

Go here for a narrative of a search for the saying “Two Ears, One Mouth.”

And here is a selection of some Greek proverbs

Ancient Collections of Proverbs (and online links!)

Historians Demon, Aristedes

Zenobius Sophista (2nd Century CE)  google books scan 

Plutarch’s Spartan Sayings (he also wrote a book On Alexandrian Proverbs, now lost)

Michael Apostolius (15th Century CE)


Corpus paroemiographroum graecorum (edited by Leutsch et al.)

Other paroemiographers include:

Diogenianus, 2nd Century CE 

Marcellus of Ancyra (4th Century CE), wrote a treatise on Greek Proverbs 

Gregorius, 13th Century CE (Cyprus)

Arsenius, Apophthegmata 15th Century CE


A Starter Bibliography

Jonathan Gottschalk. The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. Boston: Mariner Books, 2012.

George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. Metaphors We Live By. 2nd Edition. Chicago, 2006.

F. Kindstrand. “The Greek Concept of Proverbs.” Eranos 76 (1978) 71-85.

Joseph Russo. “Prose Genres for the Performance of Traditional Wisdom in Ancient Greece: Proverb,

Maxim, Apothegm.” In Poet, Public and Performance in Ancient Greece, ed. R. W. Wallace,and  L. Edmunds. 1997.

Susan Shapiro. “Proverbial Wisdom in Herdotus.” TAPA 130 (2000) 89-118.

Mark Turner. The Literary Mind: The Origins of Thought and Language. Oxford: 1996.

Everett L. Wheeler. “Πολλα κενα τοῦ πολέμου. The history of a Greek proverb.” GRBS 29 (1988) 153-184)

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