Ancient Proverbial Expressions in Pictures

01
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The Sword of Damocles

The Sword of Damocles (1539) by Francesco Xanto Avelli
The Sword of Damocles "Het zwaard van Damocles", 1539 by Francesco Xanto Avelli, Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam, Netherlands. Sour Grapes | Lion's Share | Gordian Knot | Weight of the World | Achilles' Heel | Dionysus' Ear

The Sword of Damocles & Cicero on Damocles | Illustrated Proverb - The Sword of Damocles

Dionysius II was a 4th century B.C. tyrant of Syracuse, a city in Magna Graecia, the Greek area of southern Italy. Not all Greek tyrants were what we think of when we hear the word, but he and his father, Dionysius I, were about as tyrannical as they get. This is a legend about the powerful tyrant. [Here's another: Damon and Pythias.] The Story of the Sword of Damocles is unlikely to be true, but it is used to show why that person you wish you could be may actually be more miserable than your are, but you'll never know until you walk a mile in his shoes.

To all appearances, Dionysius II was very rich and comfortable, with all the luxuries money could buy, tasteful clothing and jewelry, and delectable food. He even had court flatterers to inflate his ego. One of these was the official court sycophant, Damocles. Damocles used to make comments to the king about his wealth and luxurious life. One day, when Damocles complimented the tyrant on his abundance and power, Dionysius turned to Damocles and said, "If you think I'm so lucky, how would you like to try out my life?"

The painted platter shows what happens after Damocles eagerly took up the ruler's offer. He was stuck on the throne underneath a sword that was suspended by so fine a thread, it was in imminent danger of breaking and, in this painting, stabbing him in the heart. Other illustrations have it aimed at his head.

Legend or not, Damocles must have survived, quaking in his own rundown shoes.

Image: CC Flickr User www.flickr.com/photos/artshooter/3664817892/ Artshooter

  1. Sword of Damocles
  2. Sour Grapes
  3. The Lion's Share
  4. Cut the Gordian Knot
  5. Weight of the World
  6. Achilles' Heel
  7. Ear of Dionysus
02
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Sour Grapes

Sour Grapes. From The Aesop for Children, by Aesop, illustrated by Milo Winter
Sour Grapes. From The Aesop for Children, by Aesop, illustrated by Milo Winter. Sword of Damocles | The Lion's Share | Cut the Gordian Knot | Weight of the World | Achilles' Heel

The expression sour grapes is used when someone wants something, finds he can't attain it, and then decides it must not have been be worth it, in the first place. While the expression "sour grapes" is used contemptuously, against someone who is bitter because he or she failed, it is a coping mechanism to avoid what's called cognitive dissonance.

Aesop wrote a fable about a fox who wanted to eat some grapes hanging from a lofty vine. When he found he couldn't reach them, he said they must have been sour, anyway; hence, sour grapes.

"A famished fox saw some clusters of ripe black grapes hanging from a trellised vine. She resorted to all her tricks to get at them, but wearied herself in vain, for she could not reach them. At last she turned away, hiding her disappointment and saying: 'The Grapes are sour, and not ripe as I thought.'"
The Fox and the Grapes, by Aesop, translated by George Fyler Townsend

Image: PD Courtesy of Wikipedia

  1. Sword of Damocles
  2. Sour Grapes
  3. The Lion's Share
  4. Cut the Gordian Knot
  5. Weight of the World
  6. Achilles' Heel
03
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The Lion's Share

The Lion's Share
The Lion's Share. Sword of Damocles | Sour Grapes | Cut the Gordian Knot | Weight of the World | Achilles' Heel

The Lion's Share is an expression meaning 'the largest portion' that comes from Aesop's fable The Lion's Share. In it, four animal predators go on a successful stag hunt. When they started out, it was a group endeavor and each of the four thought he would get a quarter of the prize, but that was not to be, since the animals were not equal in power. In the story, the biggest, strongest animal of the group takes far more than a quarter. The lion takes either the whole carcass of the stag or 3/4 of it, leaving either nothing for his helpers or one quarter of the quarry for the other three to divide.

Image: CC Flickr User laurakgibbs.

  1. Sword of Damocles
  2. Sour Grapes
  3. The Lion's Share
  4. Cut the Gordian Knot
  5. Weight of the World
  6. Achilles' Heel
04
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To Cut the Gordian Knot

Alexander Slashing the Gordian Knot.
Alexander Slashing the Gordian Knot. 1692-1700. Augsburg Marx Weinold. Silver repoussé. Warsaw National Museum. Sword of Damocles | Sour Grapes | The Lion's Share | Weight of the World | Achilles' Heel

One oracle had told a troubled town in Phrygia, in Asia Minor, that their civil unrest would end when their new king arrived riding on an oxcart.

When Gordius, his wife, and his son, Midas, arrived on such a cart, the people of the city, trusting in the oracle, proclaimed Gordius king.

In gratitutde, Gordius dedicated his cart to Zeus and tied it with a knot named Gordian for the new king.

Another oracle foretold that the person who undid the Gordian Knot would rule Asia.

Many years later, when Alexander the Great came to the city in Phrygia, which had been named Gordium in honor of this ancient king, he determined to undo the knot. He could have spent time trying to figure out which way the ropes were wrapped or tried to pry out an end, as eager ambitious hopefuls may have done before him, but instead Alexander made one quick, decisive move.

Normally, it is said that Alexander sliced the knot with a sword, but an equally probable method is that he removed the pin around which the knot was bound.

Today to say that someone cut the Gordian Knot means the person made a quick, decisive move or took drastic action.

  • "The Legend of Midas," by Lynn E. Roller; Classical Antiquity, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Oct., 1983), pp. 299-313
  • "Midas and the Gordian Knot," by Lynn E. Roller; Classical Antiquity, Vol. 3, No. 2 (Oct., 1984), pp. 256-271

Image: CC Flickr User covilha

  1. Sword of Damocles
  2. Sour Grapes
  3. The Lion's Share
  4. Cut the Gordian Knot
  5. Weight of the World
  6. Achilles' Heel
05
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Carrying the Weight of the World on Your Shoulders

Atlas in Rockefeller Center
Atlas. Rockefeller Center. Sword of Damocles | Sour Grapes | The Lion's Share | Cut the Gordian Knot | Achilles' Heel

In Greek mythology, Zeus punished the Titans for waging war against him. This 10-year battle is known as the Titanomachy. Some versions of the story make Atlas the leader of the Titans. His punishment was harsh. Zeus forced Atlas to hold up an extraordinarily heavy weight. There is disagreement among the sources as to what this weight was.

Usually, Atlas is said to hold up the Heavens, but the proverbial version has him holding the world on his shoulders. To hold the weight of the world on one's shoulders is to be burdened with too much responsibility for a single person.

Not all versions of the story of Atlas have him carrying the Heavens or the world on his shoulders. In some, he is supporting the pillars that separate the Heavens and the Earth. Atlas may be partially submerged.

Who Carried the World on His Shoulders (And Did He)?

Image: © Corinne Gill

  1. Sword of Damocles
  2. Sour Grapes
  3. The Lion's Share
  4. Cut the Gordian Knot
  5. Weight of the World
  6. Achilles' Heel
06
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Achilles' Heel

Christophe Veyrier Sculpture of Dying Achilles (1683)
Sculpture of Dying Achilles (1683) Christophe Veyrier. Sword of Damocles | Sour Grapes | The Lion's Share | Cut the Gordian Knot | Weight of the World

To say someone has an Achilles' heel means that there is a weak spot -- and everybody has one (or two, since most of us have two legs). It's part of what makes us mortal.

Achilles was the son of a mortal father and an immortal mother, the nymph Thetis.

It wasn't common for immortal females to mate with mortal men, although Aphrodite is a notable exception here. Thetis wasn't happy when she realized that was her fate. Instead of getting to marry and/or mate with the head honcho, Zeus, or his slightly lower-in-status brother, Poseidon, she was paired off with a Thessalian king named Peleus.

Peleus had proven himself honorable to the gods and deserving of a reward, but not of an unambiguous sort. Poseidon and Zeus had turned against Thetis because they had learned that whoever fathered her son, would prove to be much less of a man than the son.

The gods couldn't handle it. They knew from personal experience of a couple of generations of similarly ever-enhanced genetics just how dangerous a son could be. Zeus had overthrown his father, and his father had overthrown his own by an act of castration. Neither the promiscuous Zeus nor Poseidon had any desire to be unmanned and Zeus was quite happy to be king of the heavens and head god.

So Peleus was selected as husband for Thetis partly because he deserved an honor, but also because the gods really didn't care what happened to him.

Thetis wasn't happy. She was a shape-shifter and tried to get away from Peleus, but Peleus kept hanging on. Perhaps Thetis was impressed with his endurance. Perhaps she got tired. Whatever the reason, Thetis agreed to marry Peleus and produced a son and possible heir, Achilles.

In a moment of maternal bonding, to keep her new-born infant safe, Thetis decided to make him immortal. There were various ways of doing this, but to observers they seemed likely to kill the child. Thetis chose to dunk her baby boy in the Underworld's River Styx (also note that in other non-Achilles' heel versions of Thetis' actions, she thrust him into boiling water, or, like Demeter, tried to make the baby immortal by putting him in fire). So that he wouldn't drown or float away, she held him by his left ankle. Why she didn't take turns and hold him for a second dunk by the right ankle we'll never know, but that's what Thetis did and the result was that Achilles was impervious to assault, except in the one spot that hadn't been made immortal -- his heel or more specifically, his Achilles' heel.

Although this is a sort of back story, it doesn't fit too well with the details about Achilles' career. In the stories, Achilles suffers wounds elsewhere on his body, despite the early baptism. Writers tend not to specify that an arrow pierced his ankle. Even when his ankle is named, it takes a bit of a leap to believe that as great a man as Achilles would be killed by such a relatively insignificant wound.

Also see: "Achilles' Heel: The Death of Achilles in Ancient Myth," by Jonathan Burgess Classical Antiquity , Vol. 14, No. 2 (Oct., 1995), pp. 217-244.

Image: CC Flickr User ketrin1407

  1. Sword of Damocles
  2. Sour Grapes
  3. The Lion's Share
  4. Cut the Gordian Knot
  5. Weight of the World
  6. Achilles' Heel