‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’, an echo of a safety valve or a hinder?

June 11, 2019 10:05 am

 

The Latin phrase ‘Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes’ (Aeneid, II, 49) is the phrase known to have been said by Laocoön, a priest of Ancient Troja during the legendary Trojan war. The phrase appears in the second- of the 12 in total- books of the epic poem Aeneid, on verse 49. Aeneid is the epic poem of 9,896 lines, written by Virgil, the Roman poet, between 29 and 19 BC, and narrates the adventurous story of Aeneas, a Trojan warrior who survived the destruction and defeat of Ancient Troy in the 12th century B.C. and managed to escape to Italy where he fulfilled his fate of becoming the founder of the Roman nation.
According to the Greek legend of the Trojan War (12th century B.C), on the 10th year of the war, both the Greeks and the Trojans exhausted by the incessant fights and the outnumbered dead warriors, reached the point of ongoing despair. No sign of the war ending appeared. Nevertheless, the Greeks acquired the victory. How? They pretended to have taken the road back home. So, the Trojans woke up that fatal morning and saw nothing but a wooden horse left at the beach. Suddenly, one of the most famous debates in mythology started. The majority thought that this horse was the gift of Gods to honor them for their dignity and heroism during the war and should be taken into the town of Troy. But according to the Roman poet Virgil and his poem the Aeneid, Laocoön, one of the Trojan priests, was passionately against it.
«Equo ne credite, Teucri / Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentes» (Aeneid, II, 48-49, Virgil 29-19BC), Laocoön said which literally can be translated into the words «Don’t trust the horse Trojans/ Whatever it is, I fear the Danaans (the Greeks), even when they bring gifts.
The myth has it though that Laocoön was not trusted on behalf of the Trojans. Such was their passion to celebrate their victory, which seemed undoubtful to them, both to their minds and their hearts that any potential dangers could exist.
Laocoön turned out to be right since according to the ancient myth the belly of the wooden horse was filled with the Greek warriors. Once the horse put into the city, that same night during the celebratory victory festival, Greeks went out, destroyed everything and conquered the up-to-that moment unconquerable city of Troy.
Laocoön was not alive to see his prophecy come true. The moment he had tried to warn his fellow citizens Trojans against trusting the gift of their enemies, two giant sea serpents sent by Poseidon, the God of sea, crashed him and both his twin sons, Antiphas and Thymbraeus to death.
Centuries have certainly passed by, and Laocoön is just a mythical figure, remembered by people when they admire the statue ‘Laocoön and his sons’ in the Vatican museum. But his phrase has been part of our lives ever since, taking the role of a safety valve within humans’ need to feel protected against the unknown or what seems suspicious.
The Latin phrase, either in Latin or in its English paraphrase ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ has turned out to a phrase used metaphorically as an indication of precaution against any kind of implicit danger. Every time people happen to experience receiving an unexpected ‘gift’, they seem to be remembering that they ought to be afraid or at least suspicious of the gift donors, in terms of their implicit motivation.

 

References

Virgil’s Æneid, books I-VI; the original text with a literal interlinear translation : Virgil : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming. (1970, January 01). Retrieved from https://archive.org/details/virgilsneidboo00virg


Written by Maria Papamargariti, Greek and English Philologist, Teacher, Study Visitor at the Terminology Coordination Unit of the European Parliament in Luxembourg.

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