A Mother’s Day Reminder: We Have Two Ears, but one Mouth

In honor of mother’s day and missed parents everywhere, a repost inspired by Paul’s Mom. 

“To a youth talking nonsense, he said “We have two ears, but one mouth so that we may hear more but speak less.”

πρὸς τὸ φλυαροῦν μειράκιον, “διὰ τοῦτο,” εἶπε, “δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν, ἵνα πλείονα μὲν ἀκούωμεν, ἥττονα δὲ λέγωμεν.”

A few years ago now I noticed the Paul Holdengraber‘s 7-word autobiography from brainpickings.org.: “Mother always said: Two Ears, One mouth.” The phrase bounced around in my head a bit–it has that aphoristic perfection of brevity and familiarity. So, I reached out to Paul over twitter and told him it sounded like something from a Greek philosopher like Heraclitus.

Proverbs have a special place in language and society cross-culturally–they strike a promise of insight that demands  contemplation or explanation. They also have an air of authority and antiquity, even when they actually possess neither. And, unlike longer, less anonymized forms of language, they are repeated, borrowed, and stolen without end.

My late father was a great aphorist–perhaps missing him is part of why Paul’s tweet stuck with me. Most of my father’s words, however, were far more Archie Bunker than Aristotle. Those I can repeat were likely taken from his own father, a Master Sargent in WW2 who died a decade before I was born. The tendency to inherit and pass down proverbs is something I only really noticed when I had children and found myself ‘quoting’ (or becoming?) my father (“if you take care of your equipment it will take care of you”) or my grandmother (cribbing Oscar Wilde: “Only boring people get bored”).

So, when Paul thought it would be a gas if we actually translated his mother’s words into ancient Greek (and eventually Latin), I was ready. I got help from some great Classicists too. We came up with a few versions.

First, I went with classical rhetoric, a close antithesis: μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα μὲν δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα. But our friend the Fantastic Festus argued that Heraclitus or Hesiod would not use use μὲν and δὲ so, so he suggested losing them for something like this:

μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν στόμα [“mother always used to say two ears, one mouth”]

This gave us Paul’s mother’s advice in seven Greek words and his mother’s advice. But this didn’t get us out of trouble. The critic, author and Classicist Daniel Mendelsohn suggested hexameters and from across the Atlantic the extraordinary Armand D’Angour obliged with a composition of his own:

ῥᾴδιόν ἐστι Λόγον τε νοεῖν ξυνετόν τε ποιῆσαι·
τοῦτο γάρ ἐστι βροτῶν, ἓν στόμα τ᾽, ὦτα δύο.

[Literally, this is “it is easy to know the Logos and make it understood: Mortals have this [character]: one mouth and two ears” Go to the full post for all the compositional glory and an appearance from Salman Rushdie].

At this point, I felt like I had entertained myself on a Saturday morning, involved my internet friends in a silly, though somewhat academic caper, and done a favor for a new friend to please the spirits of parents no longer with us. But the world wide web had a a plot twist I should have thought of.

Ancient Greek and Roman authors and scholars loved proverbs. Writers like Zenobius and Photius made collections and interpretations of them. The Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Suda, uses the word for proverb (in Greek paroimia) over 600 times and presents nearly as many distinct proverbs. (Many of which are wonderful.) And in the modern world, we have an entire academic field dedicated to the study of proverbial sayings: paroemiology. Let me tell you, we could have used en expert last fall.

While we were playing around with translations, one of our ‘players’, the grand Gerrit Kloss, let us know we were, to use a proverbial saying, reinventing the wheel. Zeno, the Cynic philosopher, was credited with this saying over two thousand years ago:

Continue reading “A Mother’s Day Reminder: We Have Two Ears, but one Mouth”

Dedicating What To Your Stepmother? Mother’s Day With Some Ancient Greek

Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess 16

“These things seem quite entertaining to me, but they are not true. I have also heard another reason for the bit, much more credible.  I am happy with what is said by those who generally agree in Greece, who believe that the goddess is Hera and the work was made by Dionysus. For Dionysus went into Syria on the road that goes to Ethiopia. There are many signs left by Dionysus in the Shrine, among them are foreign clothing and Indian stones and Elephant horns which Dionysus brought from Ethiopia. There are also two really big phalluses that stand up at the entrance gates. This epigram has been inscribed upon them. ‘Dionysus dedicated these phalluses to Hera, his stepmother.’

This remains enough for me, but I will tell you of another oddity in the temple of Dionysus. The Greeks bear phalloi in honor of Dionysus, and they carry something in front of it, a little man carved out of wood which has huge genitals. These are called puppets. There is also one of these in the temple. On the right side of the temple, there is a small bronze man that has giant genitals.”

[Thanks to the commander of trash for making me look at this passage]

Τὰ δέ μοι εὐπρεπέα μὲν δοκέει ἔμμεναι, ἀληθέα δὲ οὔ· ἐπεὶ καὶ τῆς τομῆς ἄλλην αἰτίην ἤκουσα πολλὸν πιστοτέρην. ἁνδάνει δέ μοι ἃ λέγουσιν τοῦ ἱροῦ πέρι τοῖς ῞Ελλησι τὰ πολλὰ ὁμολογέοντες, τὴν μὲν θεὸν ῞Ηρην δοκέοντες, τὸ δ’ ἔργον Διονύσου τοῦ Σεμέλης ποίημα· καὶ γὰρ δὴ Διόνυσος ἐς Συρίην ἀπίκετο κείνην ὁδὸν τὴν ἦλθεν ἐς Αἰθιοπίην. καὶ ἔστι πολλὰ ἐν τῷ ἱρῷ Διονύσου ποιητέω σήματα, ἐν τοῖσι καὶ ἐσθῆτες βάρβαροι καὶ λίθοι ᾿Ινδοὶ καὶ ἐλεφάντων κέρεα, τὰ Διόνυσος ἐξ Αἰθιόπων ἤνεικεν, καὶ φαλλοὶ δὲ ἑστᾶσι ἐν τοῖσι προπυλαίοισι δύο κάρτα μεγάλοι, ἐπὶ τῶν ἐπίγραμμα τοιόνδε ἐπιγέγραπται, “τούσδε φαλλοὺς Διόνυσος ῞Ηρῃ μητρυιῇ ἀνέθηκα.” τὸ ἐμοὶ μέν νυν καὶ τόδε ἀρκέει, ἐρέω δὲ καὶ ἄλλ’ ὅ τι ἐστὶν ἐν τῷ νηῷ Διονύσου ὄργιον. φαλλοὺς ῞Ελληνες Διονύσῳ ἐγείρουσιν, ἐπὶ τῶν καὶ τοιόνδε τι φέρουσιν, ἄνδρας μικροὺς ἐκ ξύλου πεποιημένους, μεγάλα αἰδοῖα ἔχοντας· καλέεται δὲ τάδε νευρόσπαστα. ἔστι δὲ καὶ τόδε ἐν τῷ ἱρῷ· ἐν δεξιῇ τοῦ νηοῦ κάθηται μικρὸς ἀνὴρ χάλκεος ἔχων αἰδοῖον μέγα.

Some Fragments on mothers to make up for this atrocity

Sophocles, Fr. 685 (Phaedra)

“Children are the anchors of a mother’s life”

ἀλλ’ εἰσὶ μητρὶ παῖδες ἄγκυραι βίου

Euripides’ Meleager Fr. 527

“The only things you can’t get with money
Are nobility and virtue. A noble child
Can be born from a poor woman’s body.”

μόνον δ’ ἂν ἀντὶ χρημάτων οὐκ ἂν λάβοις
γενναιότητα κἀρετήν• καλὸς δέ τις
κἂν ἐκ πενήτων σωμάτων γένοιτο παῖς.

Euripides, fr. 358 (Erechtheus)

“Children have nothing sweeter than their mother.
Love your mother children, there is no kind of love anywhere
Sweeter than this one to love.”

οὐκ ἔστι μητρὸς οὐδὲν ἥδιον τέκνοις•
ἐρᾶτε μητρός, παῖδες, ὡς οὐκ ἔστ’ ἔρως
τοιοῦτος ἄλλος ὅστις ἡδίων ἐρᾶν.

Sophocles, Electra 770-771

“Even if she suffers terribly, a mother cannot hate her child.”

οὐδὲ γὰρ κακῶς
πάσχοντι μῖσος ὧν τέκῃ προσγίγνεται.

And a somewhat nicer passage

According to the Greek Anthology there was a temple to Apollônis, the mother of Attalos and Eumenes, at Cyzicos. The temple had at least nineteen epigrams inscribed on columns with accompanying relief images. All of the epigrams have mothers from myth and poetry as their subjects. The Eighth Epigram is on Odysseus’ mother Antikleia.

On the eighth tablet is the underworld visit of Odysseus. He addressed is own mother and asked her for news of his home (Greek Anthology 3.8)

“Wise-minded mother of Odysseus, Antikleia
You didn’t welcome your son home to Ithaka while alive.
Instead, he is shocked when his glance falls upon his sweet mother
Now wandering along the banks of Akheron.”

᾿Εν τῷ Η ἡ τοῦ ᾿Οδυσσέως νεκυομαντεία• καθέστηκεν τὴν ἰδίαν μητέρα ᾿Αντίκλειαν περὶ τῶν κατὰ τὸν οἶκον ἀνακρίνων

Μᾶτερ ᾿Οδυσσῆος πινυτόφρονος, ᾿Αντίκλεια,
ζῶσα μὲν εἰς ᾿Ιθάκην οὐχ ὑπέδεξο πάιν•
ἀλλά σε νῦν ᾿Αχέροντος ἐπὶ ῥηγμῖσι γεγῶσαν
θαμβεῖ, ἀνὰ γλυκερὰν ματέρα δερκόμενος.

Of course, this scene plays upon book 11 of the Odyssey doubly: the image recalls Odysseus describing his mother in the Odyssey and it also plays upon the Odyssey’s catalogue of heroic mothers motif, which it in turn shares with the fragmentary Hesiodic Catalogue Of Women.

11.84-89

“Then came the spirit of my mother who had passed away,
The daughter of great-hearted Autolykos, Antikleia
Whom I left alive when I went to sacred Troy.
When I saw her I cried and pitied her in my heart,
But I could not allow her to come forward to touch
The blood before I had learned from Teiresias.”

ἦλθε δ’ ἐπὶ ψυχὴ μητρὸς κατατεθνηυίης,
Αὐτολύκου θυγάτηρ μεγαλήτορος ᾿Αντίκλεια,
τὴν ζωὴν κατέλειπον ἰὼν εἰς ῎Ιλιον ἱρήν.
τὴν μὲν ἐγὼ δάκρυσα ἰδὼν ἐλέησά τε θυμῷ•
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς εἴων προτέρην, πυκινόν περ ἀχεύων,
αἵματος ἄσσον ἴμεν πρὶν Τειρεσίαο πυθέσθαι.

Attalos, Eumenes and Apollônis? These were members of the Attalid clan who ruled from Pergamon during the Hellenistic period (after 241 BCE). Attalus I married Apollônis who was from Cyzicos.

Image result for Ancient Greek mother
Achilles and his mom–a story for a different day.

Baby Plato and Buzzing Bees

Aelian, Varia Historia 10.21

“Know that Perictione used to carry Plato around in her arms. When Ariston, his father, was sacrificing to the Muses or the Nymphs on Hymêttos, the rest of the family was present for the worship and Perictione placed Plato in the nearby myrtles because they were thick and lush. While he slept, a swarm of bees placed some Hymêttian honey on his lips and buzzed their song around him, thus foretelling Plato’s eventual power of speech.”

  1. Ὅτι τὸν Πλάτωνα ἡ Περικτιόνη ἔφερεν ἐν ταῖς ἀγκάλαις· θύοντος δὲ τοῦ Ἀρίστωνος ἐν Ὑμηττῷ ταῖς Μούσαις ἢ ταῖς Νύμφαις, οἱ μὲν πρὸς τῇ ἱερουργίᾳ ἦσαν, ἡ δὲ κατέκλινε Πλάτωνα ἐν ταῖς πλησίον μυρρίναις δασείαις οὔσαις καὶ πυκναῖς. καθεύδοντι δὲ ἐσμὸς μελιττῶν, Ὑμηττίου μέλιτος ἐν τοῖς χείλεσιν αὐτοῦ καθεῖσαι, ὑπῇδον τὴν τοῦ Πλάτωνος εὐγλωττίαν μαντευόμεναι ἐντεῦθεν.

 

Perictione (from here)

Dedicating What To Your Stepmother? Mother’s Day With Some Ancient Greek

Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess 16

“These things seem quite entertaining to me, but they are not true. I have also heard another reason for the bit, much more credible.  I am happy with what is said by those who generally agree in Greece, who believe that the goddess is Hera and the work was made by Dionysus. For Dionysus went into Syria on the road that goes to Ethiopia. There are many signs left by Dionysus in the Shrine, among them are foreign clothing and Indian stones and Elephant horns which Dionysus brought from Ethiopia. There are also two really big phalluses that stand up at the entrance gates. This epigram has been inscribed upon them. ‘Dionysus dedicated these phalluses to Hera, his stepmother.’

This remains enough for me, but I will tell you of another oddity in the temple of Dionysus. The Greeks bear phalloi in honor of Dionysus, and they carry something in front of it, a little man carved out of wood which has huge genitals. These are called puppets. There is also one of these in the temple. On the right side of the temple, there is a small bronze man that has giant genitals.”

[Thanks to the commander of trash for making me look at this passage]

Τὰ δέ μοι εὐπρεπέα μὲν δοκέει ἔμμεναι, ἀληθέα δὲ οὔ· ἐπεὶ καὶ τῆς τομῆς ἄλλην αἰτίην ἤκουσα πολλὸν πιστοτέρην. ἁνδάνει δέ μοι ἃ λέγουσιν τοῦ ἱροῦ πέρι τοῖς ῞Ελλησι τὰ πολλὰ ὁμολογέοντες, τὴν μὲν θεὸν ῞Ηρην δοκέοντες, τὸ δ’ ἔργον Διονύσου τοῦ Σεμέλης ποίημα· καὶ γὰρ δὴ Διόνυσος ἐς Συρίην ἀπίκετο κείνην ὁδὸν τὴν ἦλθεν ἐς Αἰθιοπίην. καὶ ἔστι πολλὰ ἐν τῷ ἱρῷ Διονύσου ποιητέω σήματα, ἐν τοῖσι καὶ ἐσθῆτες βάρβαροι καὶ λίθοι ᾿Ινδοὶ καὶ ἐλεφάντων κέρεα, τὰ Διόνυσος ἐξ Αἰθιόπων ἤνεικεν, καὶ φαλλοὶ δὲ ἑστᾶσι ἐν τοῖσι προπυλαίοισι δύο κάρτα μεγάλοι, ἐπὶ τῶν ἐπίγραμμα τοιόνδε ἐπιγέγραπται, “τούσδε φαλλοὺς Διόνυσος ῞Ηρῃ μητρυιῇ ἀνέθηκα.” τὸ ἐμοὶ μέν νυν καὶ τόδε ἀρκέει, ἐρέω δὲ καὶ ἄλλ’ ὅ τι ἐστὶν ἐν τῷ νηῷ Διονύσου ὄργιον. φαλλοὺς ῞Ελληνες Διονύσῳ ἐγείρουσιν, ἐπὶ τῶν καὶ τοιόνδε τι φέρουσιν, ἄνδρας μικροὺς ἐκ ξύλου πεποιημένους, μεγάλα αἰδοῖα ἔχοντας· καλέεται δὲ τάδε νευρόσπαστα. ἔστι δὲ καὶ τόδε ἐν τῷ ἱρῷ· ἐν δεξιῇ τοῦ νηοῦ κάθηται μικρὸς ἀνὴρ χάλκεος ἔχων αἰδοῖον μέγα.

Some Fragments on mothers to make up for this atrocity

Sophocles, Fr. 685 (Phaedra)

“Children are the anchors of a mother’s life”

ἀλλ’ εἰσὶ μητρὶ παῖδες ἄγκυραι βίου

Euripides’ Meleager Fr. 527

“The only things you can’t get with money
Are nobility and virtue. A noble child
Can be born from a poor woman’s body.”

μόνον δ’ ἂν ἀντὶ χρημάτων οὐκ ἂν λάβοις
γενναιότητα κἀρετήν• καλὸς δέ τις
κἂν ἐκ πενήτων σωμάτων γένοιτο παῖς.

Euripides, fr. 358 (Erechtheus)

“Children have nothing sweeter than their mother.
Love your mother children, there is no kind of love anywhere
Sweeter than this one to love.”

οὐκ ἔστι μητρὸς οὐδὲν ἥδιον τέκνοις•
ἐρᾶτε μητρός, παῖδες, ὡς οὐκ ἔστ’ ἔρως
τοιοῦτος ἄλλος ὅστις ἡδίων ἐρᾶν.

Sophocles, Electra 770-771

“Even if she suffers terribly, a mother cannot hate her child.”

οὐδὲ γὰρ κακῶς
πάσχοντι μῖσος ὧν τέκῃ προσγίγνεται.

And a somewhat nicer passage

According to the Greek Anthology there was a temple to Apollônis, the mother of Attalos and Eumenes, at Cyzicos. The temple had at least nineteen epigrams inscribed on columns with accompanying relief images. All of the epigrams have mothers from myth and poetry as their subjects. The Eighth Epigram is on Odysseus’ mother Antikleia.

On the eighth tablet is the underworld visit of Odysseus. He addressed is own mother and asked her for news of his home (Greek Anthology 3.8)

“Wise-minded mother of Odysseus, Antikleia
You didn’t welcome your son home to Ithaka while alive.
Instead, he is shocked when his glance falls upon his sweet mother
Now wandering along the banks of Akheron.”

᾿Εν τῷ Η ἡ τοῦ ᾿Οδυσσέως νεκυομαντεία• καθέστηκεν τὴν ἰδίαν μητέρα ᾿Αντίκλειαν περὶ τῶν κατὰ τὸν οἶκον ἀνακρίνων

Μᾶτερ ᾿Οδυσσῆος πινυτόφρονος, ᾿Αντίκλεια,
ζῶσα μὲν εἰς ᾿Ιθάκην οὐχ ὑπέδεξο πάιν•
ἀλλά σε νῦν ᾿Αχέροντος ἐπὶ ῥηγμῖσι γεγῶσαν
θαμβεῖ, ἀνὰ γλυκερὰν ματέρα δερκόμενος.

Of course, this scene plays upon book 11 of the Odyssey doubly: the image recalls Odysseus describing his mother in the Odyssey and it also plays upon the Odyssey’s catalogue of heroic mothers motif, which it in turn shares with the fragmentary Hesiodic Catalogue Of Women.

11.84-89

“Then came the spirit of my mother who had passed away,
The daughter of great-hearted Autolykos, Antikleia
Whom I left alive when I went to sacred Troy.
When I saw her I cried and pitied her in my heart,
But I could not allow her to come forward to touch
The blood before I had learned from Teiresias.”

ἦλθε δ’ ἐπὶ ψυχὴ μητρὸς κατατεθνηυίης,
Αὐτολύκου θυγάτηρ μεγαλήτορος ᾿Αντίκλεια,
τὴν ζωὴν κατέλειπον ἰὼν εἰς ῎Ιλιον ἱρήν.
τὴν μὲν ἐγὼ δάκρυσα ἰδὼν ἐλέησά τε θυμῷ•
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς εἴων προτέρην, πυκινόν περ ἀχεύων,
αἵματος ἄσσον ἴμεν πρὶν Τειρεσίαο πυθέσθαι.

Attalos, Eumenes and Apollônis? These were members of the Attalid clan who ruled from Pergamon during the Hellenistic period (after 241 BCE). Attalus I married Apollônis who was from Cyzicos.

Image result for Ancient Greek mother
Achilles and his mom–a story for a different day.

Two Romans Speak of Mothers

Sidonius, Letters 4.21

“The first place in explaining someone’s heritage is usually given to the father’s line, but we still owe much to our mothers. So it is not right that we give some smaller honor to the fact that we were our mothers’ burdens than that we were our father’s seeds.”

Est quidem princeps in genere monstrando partis paternae praerogativa, sed tamen multum est,quod debemus et matribus. non enim a nobis aliquid exilius fas honorari quod pondera illarum quam quod istorum semina sumus.

Image result for Ancient Roman Mothers

Vergil, Aeneid 2.796-798

“And here, I was shocked to find an overwhelming
Flood of new companions, mothers and men,
A band assembled for exile, a pitiable crowd.”

“Atque hic ingentem comitum adfluxisse novorum
invenio admirans numerum, matresque virosque,
collectam exsilio pubem, miserabile vulgus.

Awkward Mother’s Day Gifts from Lucian

Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess 16

“These things seem quite entertaining to me, but they are not true. I have also heard another reason for the bit, much more credible.  I am happy with what is said by those who generally agree in Greece, who believe that the goddess is Hera and the work was made by Dionysus. For Dionysus went into Syria on the road that goes to Ethiopia. There are many signs left by Dionysus in the Shrine, among them are foreign clothing and Indian stones and Elephant horns which Dionysus brought from Ethiopia. There are also two really big phalluses that stand up at the entrance gates. This epigram has been inscribed upon them. ‘Dionysus dedicated these phalluses to Hera, his stepmother.’

This remains enough for me, but I will tell you of another oddity in the temple of Dionysus. The Greeks bear phalloi in honor of Dionysus, and they carry something in front of it, a little man carved out of wood which has huge genitals. These are called puppets. There is also one of these in the temple. On the right side of the temple, there is a small bronze man that has giant genitals.”

[Thanks to the commander of trash for making me look at this passage]

Τὰ δέ μοι εὐπρεπέα μὲν δοκέει ἔμμεναι, ἀληθέα δὲ οὔ· ἐπεὶ καὶ τῆς τομῆς ἄλλην αἰτίην ἤκουσα πολλὸν πιστοτέρην. ἁνδάνει δέ μοι ἃ λέγουσιν τοῦ ἱροῦ πέρι τοῖς ῞Ελλησι τὰ πολλὰ ὁμολογέοντες, τὴν μὲν θεὸν ῞Ηρην δοκέοντες, τὸ δ’ ἔργον Διονύσου τοῦ Σεμέλης ποίημα· καὶ γὰρ δὴ Διόνυσος ἐς Συρίην ἀπίκετο κείνην ὁδὸν τὴν ἦλθεν ἐς Αἰθιοπίην. καὶ ἔστι πολλὰ ἐν τῷ ἱρῷ Διονύσου ποιητέω σήματα, ἐν τοῖσι καὶ ἐσθῆτες βάρβαροι καὶ λίθοι ᾿Ινδοὶ καὶ ἐλεφάντων κέρεα, τὰ Διόνυσος ἐξ Αἰθιόπων ἤνεικεν, καὶ φαλλοὶ δὲ ἑστᾶσι ἐν τοῖσι προπυλαίοισι δύο κάρτα μεγάλοι, ἐπὶ τῶν ἐπίγραμμα τοιόνδε ἐπιγέγραπται, “τούσδε φαλλοὺς Διόνυσος ῞Ηρῃ μητρυιῇ ἀνέθηκα.” τὸ ἐμοὶ μέν νυν καὶ τόδε ἀρκέει, ἐρέω δὲ καὶ ἄλλ’ ὅ τι ἐστὶν ἐν τῷ νηῷ Διονύσου ὄργιον. φαλλοὺς ῞Ελληνες Διονύσῳ ἐγείρουσιν, ἐπὶ τῶν καὶ τοιόνδε τι φέρουσιν, ἄνδρας μικροὺς ἐκ ξύλου πεποιημένους, μεγάλα αἰδοῖα ἔχοντας· καλέεται δὲ τάδε νευρόσπαστα. ἔστι δὲ καὶ τόδε ἐν τῷ ἱρῷ· ἐν δεξιῇ τοῦ νηοῦ κάθηται μικρὸς ἀνὴρ χάλκεος ἔχων αἰδοῖον μέγα.

Some Fragments on mothers

Sophocles, Fr. 685 (Phaedra)

“Children are the anchors of a mother’s life”

ἀλλ’ εἰσὶ μητρὶ παῖδες ἄγκυραι βίου

Euripides’ Meleager Fr. 527

“The only things you can’t get with money
Are nobility and virtue. A noble child
Can be born from a poor woman’s body.”

μόνον δ’ ἂν ἀντὶ χρημάτων οὐκ ἂν λάβοις
γενναιότητα κἀρετήν• καλὸς δέ τις
κἂν ἐκ πενήτων σωμάτων γένοιτο παῖς.

Euripides, fr. 358 (Erechtheus)

“Children have nothing sweeter than their mother.
Love your mother children, there is no kind of love anywhere
Sweeter than this one to love.”

οὐκ ἔστι μητρὸς οὐδὲν ἥδιον τέκνοις•
ἐρᾶτε μητρός, παῖδες, ὡς οὐκ ἔστ’ ἔρως
τοιοῦτος ἄλλος ὅστις ἡδίων ἐρᾶν.

Sophocles, Electra 770-771

“Even if she suffers terribly, a mother cannot hate her child.”

οὐδὲ γὰρ κακῶς
πάσχοντι μῖσος ὧν τέκῃ προσγίγνεται.

And a somewhat nicer passage

According to the Greek Anthology there was a temple to Apollônis, the mother of Attalos and Eumenes, at Cyzicos. The temple had at least nineteen epigrams inscribed on columns with accompanying relief images. All of the epigrams have mothers from myth and poetry as their subjects. The Eighth Epigram is on Odysseus’ mother Antikleia.

On the eighth tablet is the underworld visit of Odysseus. He addressed is own mother and asked her for news of his home (Greek Anthology 3.8)

“Wise-minded mother of Odysseus, Antikleia
You didn’t welcome your son home to Ithaka while alive.
Instead, he is shocked when his glance falls upon his sweet mother
Now wandering along the banks of Akheron.”

᾿Εν τῷ Η ἡ τοῦ ᾿Οδυσσέως νεκυομαντεία• καθέστηκεν τὴν ἰδίαν μητέρα ᾿Αντίκλειαν περὶ τῶν κατὰ τὸν οἶκον ἀνακρίνων

Μᾶτερ ᾿Οδυσσῆος πινυτόφρονος, ᾿Αντίκλεια,
ζῶσα μὲν εἰς ᾿Ιθάκην οὐχ ὑπέδεξο πάιν•
ἀλλά σε νῦν ᾿Αχέροντος ἐπὶ ῥηγμῖσι γεγῶσαν
θαμβεῖ, ἀνὰ γλυκερὰν ματέρα δερκόμενος.

Of course, this scene plays upon book 11 of the Odyssey doubly: the image recalls Odysseus describing his mother in the Odyssey and it also plays upon the Odyssey’s catalogue of heroic mothers motif, which it in turn shares with the fragmentary Hesiodic Catalogue Of Women.

11.84-89
“Then came the spirit of my mother who had passed away,
The daughter of great-hearted Autolykos, Antikleia
Whom I left alive when I went to sacred Troy.
When I saw her I cried and pitied her in my heart,
But I could not allow her to come forward to touch
The blood before I had learned from Teiresias.”

ἦλθε δ’ ἐπὶ ψυχὴ μητρὸς κατατεθνηυίης,
Αὐτολύκου θυγάτηρ μεγαλήτορος ᾿Αντίκλεια,
τὴν ζωὴν κατέλειπον ἰὼν εἰς ῎Ιλιον ἱρήν.
τὴν μὲν ἐγὼ δάκρυσα ἰδὼν ἐλέησά τε θυμῷ•
ἀλλ’ οὐδ’ ὧς εἴων προτέρην, πυκινόν περ ἀχεύων,
αἵματος ἄσσον ἴμεν πρὶν Τειρεσίαο πυθέσθαι.

Attalos, Eumenes and Apollônis? These were members of the Attalid clan who ruled from Pergamon during the Hellenistic period (after 241 BCE). Attalus I married Apollônis who was from Cyzicos.

Image result for Ancient Greek mother
Achilles and his mom–a story for a different day.

Now More than Ever: We Have Two Ears, but one Mouth

In public discourse–especially this week–we probably all need a reminder to listen more and talk less. This advice goes far back to a proverb attributed to Zeno “we have two ears, but one mouth” (δύο ὦτα ἔχομεν, στόμα δὲ ἕν). Here’s a story about the proverb

A few years ago now I noticed the Paul Holdengraber‘s 7-word autobiography from brainpickings.org.: “Mother always said: Two Ears, One mouth.” The phrase bounced around in my head a bit–it has that aphoristic perfection of brevity and familiarity. So, I reached out to Paul over twitter and told him it sounded like something from a Greek philosopher like Heraclitus.

Proverbs have a special place in language and society cross-culturally–they strike a promise of insight that demands  contemplation or explanation. They also have an air of authority and antiquity, even when they actually possess neither. And, unlike longer, less anonymized forms of language, they are repeated, borrowed, and stolen without end.

My late father was a great aphorist–perhaps missing him is part of why Paul’s tweet stuck with me. Most of my father’s words, however, were far more Archie Bunker than Aristotle. Those I can repeat were likely taken from his own father, a Master Sargent in WW2 who died a decade before I was born. The tendency to inherit and pass down proverbs is something I only really noticed when I had children and found myself ‘quoting’ (or becoming?) my father (“if you take care of your equipment it will take care of you”) or my grandmother (cribbing Oscar Wilde: “Only boring people get bored”).

So, when Paul thought it would be a gas if we actually translated his mother’s words into ancient Greek (and eventually Latin), I was ready. I got help from some great Classicists too. We came up with a few versions.

First, I went with classical rhetoric, a close antithesis: μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα μὲν δύο, ἕν δὲ στόμα. But our friend the Fantastic Festus argued that Heraclitus or Hesiod would not use use μὲν and δὲ so, so he suggested losing them for something like this:

μήτηρ ἀεὶ ἔφη ὦτα δύο, ἕν στόμα [“mother always used to say two ears, one mouth”]

This gave us Paul’s mother’s advice in seven Greek words and his mother’s advice. But this didn’t get us out of trouble. The critic, author and Classicist Daniel Mendelsohn suggested hexameters and from across the Atlantic the extraordinary Armand D’Angour obliged with a composition of his own:

ῥᾴδιόν ἐστι Λόγον τε νοεῖν ξυνετόν τε ποιῆσαι·
τοῦτο γάρ ἐστι βροτῶν, ἓν στόμα τ᾽, ὦτα δύο.

[Literally, this is “it is easy to know the Logos and make it understood: Mortals have this [character]: one mouth and two ears” Go to the full post for all the compositional glory and an appearance from Salman Rushdie].

At this point, I felt like I had entertained myself on a Saturday morning, involved my internet friends in a silly, though somewhat academic caper, and done a favor for a new friend to please the spirits of parents no longer with us. But the world wide web had a a plot twist I should have thought of.

Ancient Greek and Roman authors and scholars loved proverbs. Writers like Zenobius and Photius made collections and interpretations of them. The Byzantine Encyclopedia, the Suda, uses the word for proverb (in Greek paroimia) over 600 times and presents nearly as many distinct proverbs. (Many of which are wonderful.) And in the modern world, we have an entire academic field dedicated to the study of proverbial sayings: paroemiology. Let me tell you, we could have used en expert last fall.

While we were playing around with translations, one of our ‘players’, the grand Gerrit Kloss, let us know we were, to use a proverbial saying, reinventing the wheel. Zeno, the Cynic philosopher, was credited with this saying over two thousand years ago:

Continue reading “Now More than Ever: We Have Two Ears, but one Mouth”