Seven Quasi-Religious Sayings To Annoy Your Children With

The Admonitions of St Stephen

It’s 20th of August, the day of St Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary (ruled 997-1038). One of the things he’s famous for, in addition to the founding of the Christian state of course, is that he left behind a book titled Admonitions for his son, telling him how to do pretty much everything as a king. We don’t know what Prince Imre thought of all of this, or whether he would have followed any of the advice because he predeceased his parent but my efforts to pass on wisdom to my children invariably elicit the rolling of eyes!

Be obedient to me, my son. You are a child, descendant of rich parents, living among soft pillows, who has been caressed and brought up in all kinds of comforts; you have had a part neither in the troubles of the campaigns nor in the various attacks of the pagans in which almost my whole life has been worn away.

(St Stephen: Admonitions)

Seven Quasi-Religious Sayings To Annoy Your Children With

In the spirit of St Stephen then, here are seven quasi-religious sayings for you to annoy your children with (especially after they argued for half an hour about whose turn it was to empty recycling bin).

Quasi-religious because they're not necessarily come from religious books, although they sound as if they did...

1. Yourself, My Lord, If You Have No Servant

We start with this old Hungarian saying which is my particular favourite, mostly because I’ve never had a servant. It could have been inspired by the Bible but if it was, I never found the original text. The meaning should be obvious: if you haven’t got servants, you’ve got to do it yourself. (Even if you’re Jesus.)

I personally find it a tad more stylish than the standard English “What did your last servant die of?”. And it’s not a bad principle to live by, especially when you consider the following:

2. God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Sounds straight out of the Bible but it isn’t – the idea comes from the Ancient Greeks, although it’s unclear via whom we inherited it. It’s generally attributed to Euripides (the play Hyppolitus) but I couldn’t find the quote.

On the other hand, this is what you do find in Aesop:

A carter was driving a wagon along a country lane, when the wheels sank down deep into a rut. The rustic driver, stupefied and aghast, stood looking at the wagon, and did nothing but utter loud cries to Hercules to come and help him. Hercules, it is said, appeared and thus addressed him: “Put your shoulders to the wheels, my man. Goad on your bullocks, and never more pray to me for help, until you have done your best to help yourself, or depend upon it you will henceforth pray in vain.”

Self-help is the best help.

(Aesop’s Fables: Hercules and the Wagoner)

3. Cleaning the Augean Stables

I don’t remember much of my mother, who died after a long illness when I was thirteen. But one of the few things I do remember was her repeatedly commenting on the state of my bedroom:

It looks like Augeas’s stable.

(Invariably followed by the somewhat despairing injunction to tidy up and pronto.)

The reference, which I had ample occasion to use with both of my own children, is from the Twelve Labours of Hercules, another Ancient Greek myth.

A reminder of the plot: Hercules, the half god, half human hero of the stories killed his wife and children in a fit of madness sent on him by Zeus’s jealous wife, Hera. As a punishment, he had to go to serve King Eurystheus who imposed on him the famous twelve labours. One of these, a task of clearly impossible proportions, was to clean the great cattle stables of King Augeas of Elis in a single day. Augeas had three thousand oxen and their stables had not been cleaned for thirty years…

Hercules solved the problem by diverting the Rivers Alphaeus and Peneus through the stables washing them clean (I often wished I could do the same with my children’s bedroom).

Encyclopaedia Britannica says there is a reference to this story in Homer’s Iliad, but for the life of me I don’t remember anything about that. On the other hand, the story has been illustrated on the temple of Zeus in Olympia:

Photo by Egisto Sani via Flickr [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]
For more details about the sculpture above click here.

4. If The Mountain Will Not Come To Mohammed, Then Mohammed Must Go To The Mountain

You would think this originates with the Koran, but no – it’s from the essays of Francis Bacon (where he got the idea from, I can’t say):

Mahomet cald the Hill to come to him. And when the Hill stood still, he was neuer a whit abashed, but said; If the Hill will not come to Mahomet, Mahomet will go to the hill.

(Francis Bacon: Of Boldness)

The meaning should be obvious – if something is not going to work, you just have to find a working alternative!

5. Never Look A Gift Horse In The Mouth

This tends to mystify people nowadays but that’s because nowadays hardly any of us buys a horse. Looking into the horse’s mouth and checking its teeth was standard procedure to make sure that the horse you were about to buy was healthy…

If I am little eloquent, what is that to you? Read someone more skilful. If I do not translate Greek to Latin properly, either read Greek, if you know the language, or if you know only Latin, do not judge a free gift as the common proverb has it: do not look at the teeth of a horse given to you.

(St Jerome: Commentary on the Epistle of the Apostle Paul to the Ephesians)

Even a saint gets annoyed by ungrateful people…!

6. Not Even Christ’s Tomb Was Guarded For Free

Another old Hungarian saying, this one referencing a story from the Bible, although the Hungarian phrase actually says Christ’s coffin, rather than tomb, which is of course wholly incorrect in itself but does alliterate nicely.

The Jewish priests asked the Romans to set guards on Christ’s tomb to make sure his disciples wouldn’t steal his body and then claim he had resurrected… (But since we’re talking about Christ here, this of course didn’t stop him.)

62 Now the next day, that followed the day of the preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came together unto Pilate,
63 Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said, while he was yet alive, After three days I will rise again.
64 Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest his disciples come by night, and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: so the last error shall be worse than the first.
65 Pilate said unto them, Ye have a watch: go your way, make it as sure as ye can.
66 So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, and setting a watch.

(Matthew 27:62-66, King James Version)

The soldiers of course wouldn’t have guarded the tomb for free; hence the saying. (Really, these soldiers did very well out of the whole affair: they also cashed in later when they were bribed to say that the body had been stolen – Matthew 29:11-15!)

7. Chanting A Prayer to Buddha Into The Horse’s Ear

The meaning of this Japanese proverb should be clear: Buddha might (or might not) hear your prayer and grant your wishes, but the horse surely won’t… In Hungary we actually say “It’s like talking to the wall” – but that wouldn’t fit into the quasi-religious category 🙂 and it’s a lot less picturesque, anyway!

What are some of your favourite sayings to quote at your children?
Links:Szent István király Intelmei (The Admonitions of St Stephen - sorry, only in Hungarian)

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