Italian EXPRESSIONS derived from GREEK MITOLOGY

In this article we will talk about Greek mythology! No, we will not talk about Ulysses, Aeneas, or Achilles – we’re still focusing on the Italian language, but in this article, we will see how Greek mythology has influenced it. In case you didn’t know, there plenty of idiomatic expressions that we use daily that have originated right from the tales of ancient Greek characters and heroes, the kind of stories we hear in school.

GREEK MYTHS THAT HAVE INFLUENCED THE ITALIAN LANGUAGE

In the article below you will find eight expressions that were originated in Ancient Greece and that later reached Italy, influencing the language forever. For each expression, there is an explanation and some examples.

PIANTARE IN ASSO

This expression means “abandoning somebody at any moment, without explaining why or without notice“.
Originally, the expression was “piantare in Nasso” (leave somebody at Naxos) and it derived from the myth of the Minotaur: Ariadne, the Cretan princess, helped Theseus defeat the Minotaur thanks to her string and they left the labyrinth together. But once they got out and left the island, Theseus abandoned (the Italian verb “piantare” is a colloquial way of saying “abandon/leave” and could be translated and “dump/ditch”) her on the Island of Naxos (Greek island whose name is translated as Nasso, in Italian) when she was asleep.

Example:

Sofia mi aveva invitata a cena, ma poi mi ha piantata in asso all’ultimo momento! Che figuraccia! Ero da sola nel ristorante a un tavolo per due!

Translation:

Sofia had invited me to dinner, but then she left me in the lurch at the last moment! So embarrassing! I sat alone in the restaurant at a table for two!

VIVERE UN’ODISSEA

It means living an experience full of difficulties, accidents, misfortune or, more in general, lead a troubled and hard life.
This is a clear reference to the Odyssey, the great epic poem written by Homer. We all know it, right? It follows the Greek hero Odysseus, king of Ithaca, and his journey home after the Trojan War. Obviously, in Italian we use this expression when referring to difficulties and unforeseen events.

Example:

Speravo che il viaggio fosse piacevole, invece è stata una vera odissea: prima la ruota bucata, poi l’aria condizionata rotta, Paola si è sentita male e infine ci stavano per rubare la macchina!

Translation: I hoped that the trip would be pleasant, instead it was a real Odyssey: first, the flat tire, then the Air Conditioning broke, Paola felt sick and lastly, our car almost got stolen!

AVERE LA SPADA DI DAMOCLE SULLA TESTA/SUL CAPO

It means “feeling like something really bad is going to happen to you, a threat or a great danger“, or “Get the feeling that something horrible might happen at any moment“.

The origins of this expression come from the myth whose protagonist is Damocles, an courtier in the court of Dionysius I, tyrant of Syracuse (Sicily). So the story goes, Damocles envies the privileged position of the tyrant, because he lives a comfortable and luxurious life. So, Dionysius offers him to live in his place for a day. Damocles accepts but he soon realizes that the tyrant’s life is more than just luxury and ease – at the end of a rich banquet, he notices a sword hanging right over his head: Dionysius had it put there to make Damocles understand how dangerous his position as ruler was, since his life is constantly exposed to great threats.

Example:

A lavoro ho troppe responsabilità, è come avere costantemente una spada di Damocle sulla testa.

Translation:

I have too many responsibilities at work, it’s like having Damocles’ sword constantly hanging over my head.

ESSERE UNA FATICA DI ERCOLE

When something is labelled as “a Herculean effort“, it means that it’s an extremely hard challenge, something that requires a lot of dedication and effort.

Once again, the reference is pretty obvious: Hercules ( whose name, in Greek, was Heracles) was the greatest of the Greek heroes – the reason why he had to carry out the famous twelve labours changes based on the mythology (Greek or Roman), but in both cases he is trying to atone for having killed somebody near him, like friends or family. In one case, he has killed the family of his cousin Eurystheus.

Example:

Trasferirmi in una nuova città, ambientarmi e trovare subito un lavoro è stata una fatica di Ercole, ma ne è valsa la pena perché mi ha dato tante soddisfazioni!

Translation:

Moving to a new city, settling in, and immediately finding a job was a Herculean effort, but it was worth it because it gave me so much satisfaction!

ESSERE UN CAVALLO DI TROIA

In reference to a person, it means a mole, somebody who acts in secret or incognito, within a group of any kind, with the intent to compromise it, harm it. In general, the expression can be used to indicate a deception, a fraud, that is, a situation that apparently seems harmless, but that in reality hides shady ends.

In Italian, the reference might not be as clear…but what if I told you it has something to do with the Iliad and the city of Troy? In the epic poem attributed to Homer a group of Greek soldiers hid inside of the big wooden horse and left it in front of the city as a gift – the Trojans brought it inside their city because they were led to believe it was a divine gift, and they got defeated.

Example:

Abbiamo un cavallo di Troia all’interno dell’azienda, perché i nostri concorrenti conoscono tutti i nostri accordi segreti!

Translation:

We have a Trojan horse (a mole) inside the company, because our competitors know all our secret agreements!

TALLONE DI ACHILLE

The expression “tallone di Achille” indicates the weak point of a person, or a system, institution etc.

To explain this expression, we have to refer to Greek mythology and, in particular, to the invincible hero Achilles. According to mythology, when he was a kid, it was foretold that he would perish at an early age; so, to prevent his death, his mother took him to the River Styx which would supposedly make him unbeatable and invulnerable. So… why did he have a weak point and why exactly was it his heel? Well, because his mother dipped his body in the water, but she had to hold him by his heal, which was the only part of his body that did not touch the miraculous waters of the river… hence why his heal was his weakness!

Example:

A scuola, il mio tallone d’Achille era la matematica, ma amavo l’italiano.

Translation:

In school, my Achilles’ heel was math, but I loved Italian.

CADERE/ABBANDONARSI/ESSERE TRA LE BRACCIA DI MORFEO

This expression means falling into a deep sleep (cadere, abbandonarsi — ) or being peacefully asleep (essere — ). Who’s Morpheus, you ask? In Greek mythology, Morpheus is a god associated with sleep and dreams, and even prophetic dreams, meaning the sorts of dreams through which Gods and Goddesses could talk to humans, unable to manifest themselves.

Example:

Dopo una giornata di lavoro stancante, Luca è caduto tra le braccia di Morfeo appena ha appoggiato la testa al cuscino.

Translation:

After a tiring day of work, Luca fell into Morpheus’ arms as soon as he rested his head on the pillow.

APRIRE IL VASO DI PANDORA

It means bringing to light hidden circumstances or situations, not well known, dangerous, harmful, but also illicit or criminal.

What was this box, in Greek mythology? It was a box (it’s actually a vase or jar in Italian, but any sort of receptacle is just as fine) that contained all the evils of the world, such as aging, jealousy, sickness, madness and vice. Zeus had locked them all in the box, who he later entrusted to the first mortal woman, Pandora. She couldn’t tame her curiosity and decided to open it, pouring all the evils in the world, and condemning all humanity to sufferance.
This is why this idiom has kept the meaning of doing or starting something that will cause many unforeseen problems; there is a modern and more colloquial equivalent, which is probably more common and more understandable at first sight: “to open a can of worms”.

Example:

Certo, aprire il vaso di Pandora potrà rovinare il nostro rapporto, ma ho deciso di raccontarti finalmente tutta la verità.

Translation:

Of course, opening Pandora’s box could ruin our relationship, but I decided to finally tell you the whole truth.

I hope that you enjoyed this article and that you learned new expressions – if you already knew some of them, tell me in the comments which! Well, after learning things about Greek mythology and past actions that concluded a long time ago… how about studying the formation of the passato remoto in Italian?

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