“You ate some lotus”: [this proverb is applied to those] who are forgetful of things in the household and are slow in matters of hospitality. It is based on the lotus which imbues one who eats it with forgetfulness.”
“Agamemnon’s sacrifice”: [a proverb] applied to the difficult to persuade and the stubborn. For when Agamemnon was making a sacrifice, the bull was scarcely caught after it fled.” Or, it is because Agamemnon wanted to sacrifice his daughter. And she fled.”
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:
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:
“To be a Cretan: People use this phrase to mean lying and cheating. And they say it developed as a proverb from Idomeneus the Cretan. For, as the story goes, when there was a disagreement developed about the greater [share] among the Greeks at troy and everyone was eager to acquire the heaped up bronze for themselves, they made Idomeneus the judge. Once he took open pledges from them that they would adhere to the judgments he would make, he put himself in from of all the rest! For this reason, it is called Krêtening.”
There is another tradition too for why Cretans are liars:
Medeia’s Beauty Contest: Fr. Gr. Hist (=Müller 4.10.1) Athenodorus of Eretria
“In the eighth book of his Notes, Athenodorus says that Thetis and Medeia competed over beauty in Thessaly and made Idomeneus the judge—he gave the victory to Thetis. Medeia, enraged, said that Kretans are always liars and she cursed him, that he would never speak the truth just has he had [failed to] in the judgment. And this is the reason that people say they believe that Kretans are liars. Athenodorus adds that Antiokhos records this in the second book of his Urban Legends.”
Of course, in the Odyssey Idomeneus shows up in Odysseus’ lies
“I heard of Ithaca even in broad Krete
Far over the sea. And now I myself have come
With these possessions. I left as much still with my children
When I fled, because I killed the dear son of Idomeneus,
Swift-footed Orsilokhos who surpassed all the grain-fed men
In broad Krete with his swift feet
Because he wanted to deprive me of all the booty
From Troy, over which I had suffered much grief in my heart,
Testing myself against warlike men and the grievous waves.
All because I was not showing his father favor as an attendant
In the land of the Trojans, but I was leading different companions.
I struck him with a bronze-pointed spear as he returned
From the field, after I set an ambush near the road with a companion.
Dark night covered the sky and no human beings
Took note of us, I got away with depriving him of life.
But after I killed him with the sharp bronze,
I went to a ship of the haughty Phoenicians
And I begged them and gave them heart-melting payment.”
This is the first ‘lie’ Odysseus tells upon his arrival on Ithaca. He does not know that he is speaking to Athena and a scholiast explains his choices as if he were speaking to a suitor or one who would inform them.
Scholia V ad. Od. 13.267
“He explains that he killed Idomeneus’ son so that the suitors will accept him as an enemy of dear Odysseus. He says that he has sons in Crete because he will have someone who will avenge him. He says that the death of Orsilochus was for booty, because he is showing that he would not yield to this guy bloodlessly. He says that he trusted Phoenicians so that he may not do him wrong, once he has reckoned that they are the most greedy for profit and they spared him.”
“20. As soon as the masses are compelled to love or hate people excessively, every excuse is sufficient for them to complete their plans.
21 But I worry that I might overlook the fact that the oft-cited saying applies to me: “who is the greater fool, the one who milks a male-goat or the one who holds the bucket* to catch it?”
For, I also seem, in reporting what is agreed upon as a lie and in dragging out the process to do something very similar. For this reason, it is pointless to talk about these things, unless someone also wants to write down dreams and examine the fantasies of someone who is awake.”
*koskinos here actually means “sieve”, which makes the whole process even more futile. I simplified to “bucket” to make it easier to understand…
“To milk a he-goat”: this is applied to those who do something incongruous and ignorant. From this we also get the saying from Diogenianus: “Who is the greater fool, the one who milks a male-goat or the one who holds the bucket to catch it?”
“An enemy’s gifts are not gifts, and bring no benefit.” This proverb is mentioned by Sophokles in his Ajax. Euripides also says something similar in the Medea: “the gift of a wicked man brings no benefit”.
“You come, bearing sleepover gifts.” This proverb is applied to those who give many things. That are called sleepover gifts from the practice where on the day after a wedding gifts are carried from the bride’s father to the bridegroom and the bride in procession. A child leads, bearing a white cloak and a burning lamp and a basket-bearer follows him. After them come the rest of the women in order carrying golden items, basins, perfumes, litters, combs, alabaster jars, sandals, chests. Sometimes they take the dowry at the same time.”