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German Idioms: Greeks Bearing Gifts

About “Greek gifts” and Trojan horses

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Ein Danaergeschenk
Both German and English have expressions related to “Greeks bearing gifts” (i.e., the Trojan horse), but they don't use the same idioms. While English concentrates on warning against Greeks with gifts, German emphasizes the gift itself. Ein Danaergeschenk is a “fatal gift” that brings misfortune or causes problems. For some reason, English doesn't normally speak of a “Greek gift” and German doesn't warn against “Greeks bearing gifts.”

The common English expression “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” is derived from Virgil's Aeneid. Although many people think that the story of the Trojan horse comes from Homer, his Iliad ends before Odysseus comes up with the Trojan horse deception. The Odyssey takes place after the fall of Troy. It is Virgil's Aeneid, written in Latin, that fills the gap between those two events earlier described by the Greek Homer.

While “beware of Greeks bearing gifts” is the usual English phrasing, the original quotation from Virgil is quite different: “Whatever it is, I fear Greeks even when they bring gifts.” (Spoken by Laocoon, “Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.”) The popular English “beware” idiom shortens the original and gives the phrase a bit more punch. German has no equivalent warning based on Virgil, although the German saying, “Vorsicht vor falschen Freunden,” comes closest to the English. (“Beware of false friends.”)

Caesar Augustus commissioned Publius Vergilius Maro (70-19 BC) to author a national epic for Rome. Virgil's Aeneid was written sometime between 29 BC and the poet's death in 19 BC. It tells the story of a minor character from Homer's Iliad who founded a “New Troy” (Rome). It is in the Aeneid that we find the Trojan horse and Laocoon's warning about Greeks and gifts: “I fear Dardanians [Greeks] even when they bear gifts.“ It is these Dardanians, the Greeks, from which German gets the word Danaergeschenk (Dardanian gift).

The Trojan horse wasn't Trojan
In reality, the “Trojan” horse was a Greek horse. It was the Trojans who fell for the ruse by the Greeks. The Greeks' wooden horse was filled with Greek fighters who overpowered the drunken Trojans. German and English both use the expression for that horse, ein Trojanisches Pferd in German.

MORE > Knoten: Getting Tied Up in Knots - in German

BOOKS

The Aeneid by Virgil, translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Paper.

The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Paper.

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fitzgerald. Paper.

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