A Guide to Beautiful Greek Proverbs and What They Mean

| © Jack Fletcher / Culture Trip
Kim Gregory

Greeks are famously proud of their language and love to tell you so. Who can blame them, when their proverbs are as beautiful and wise as these? Here are Culture Trip’s top nine phrases and the meanings behind them.

Meet any Greek and you’re bound, at some point, to get into a discussion about how English words stem from their language. The culture and history of Greece is rich and many of the foundations of modern Western society have their roots in Ancient Greek learnings and traditions.

Greek people can debate endlessly about art, politics and philosophy, with an equally endless flow of food and ouzo. The old saying goes that “Greeks only agree with each other about going to the toilet”. What a beautiful life to lead!

Thanks to the phenomenal aural and literary output of Greece, there are a host of wise sayings and aphorisms that have been passed down across the generations. You’ll find a phrase to answer any conundrum, and these poignant lines illustrate how beautifully Greeks see the world and those around them.

“A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in”

In today’s world, people are often too preoccupied with themselves to worry about the future of our world and its inhabitants. Climate change, anyone? But this saying is a beautiful reminder that making positive steps now – ones that will impact future generations – is the best way to ensure the world becomes a better place. It’s a traditional Greek proverb, and one of our favourites.

“It is difficult to argue with the belly, as it has no ears”

If you’ve ever dined with a Greek family, you’ll have learned a thing or two about eating – probably with much surprise and delight. A feast can go on for hours and you’ll marvel at the bottomlessness of the stomachs around you as they sink grilled kebabs, pastry parcels, feta salads, pitta and hummus, olives, meatballs, stews, chops… The list of local delicacies is endless and food is truly appreciated in Greece, which is why this quote from philosopher Plutarch is so apt.

“It is not possible to step twice into the same river”

Pocahontas has some explaining to do, as it’s actually Heraclitus – renowned, pre-Socratic Greek philosopher – that coined this famous saying. It links to the philosophical idea that everything is constantly changing: life, people and the world around us are different from one minute to the next. Learn to adapt and appreciate the moment – you’ll never get it again.

“Win by persuasion, not by force”

We weren’t kidding about Greeks loving a good debate. They know how to do it properly too, thanks to wise words like these, adapted from from Bias of Priene. He’s one of the Seven Sages of Greece – who were much revered for their wisdom. This expression extols the virtues of gaining something by rational discussion, exercising your knowledge and wisdom, and taking the higher ground rather than overpowering your opponent.
“One swallow does not make a summer”

For all their romance and fire, Greeks are grounded folk. They use this quote by philosopher Aristotle to remind one another that one shouldn’t get carried away with false hope. Just because one day is good, doesn’t mean all of your problems are solved. Take life in your stride and take each day as it comes.

“The camel does not see her own hump”

Don’t call out others’ faults when you have your own – it’s quite possible that you just can’t see them. It’s sort of a Greek equivalent of English quip “the pot calling the kettle black”, encouraging us not to judge others before considering our own actions and behaviours, for a more conscious way of living.

“How you make your bed is how you are going to sleep”

Greeks are sometimes unfairly stereotyped for being lazy, but this classic proverb on housework is used to remind others that your actions have consequences that reflect on other parts of your life. Live fairly and honestly, and you’ll get the same back.

“It’s sweet to view the sea when standing on the shore”

Early Greek Christian Archippus – who was even mentioned in the Bible – spoke right to our souls when he created this beautiful proverb. It means that once a struggle has passed, you won’t look back at it and feel such pain. Bad times will end, and you will feel better. The saying is thought to have originated from the fuller phrase: “It’s sweet to see the sea from the land when you don’t have to sail any longer.”

“Wine and children speak the truth”

And finally, we bring you this wonderful proverb that needs no explanation. To all Greeks, who’ve coloured this world with their humour, hunger and hearty philosophy, yamas!

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