Why did the Greeks use to say “Fire, Women, and Sea” (Πῦρ, γυνὴ καὶ θάλασσα)? What’s the history behind this phrase?

As it happens, I’ve already answered this question in the context of another question, a year ago:

Nick Nicholas’ answer to Why do some languages assign a gender to each noun (e.g., table is feminine in French)?

The pioneering work on the kinds of cognitive categories underlying noun classes is George Lakoff’s. His acknowledged classic takes its title from the membership of one of the noun classes of Dyirbal language, an Australian Aboriginal language.

The noun classes of Dyirbal are:

  • I – most animate objects, men
  • II – women, water, fire, violence, and exceptional animals
  • III – edible fruit and vegetables
  • IV – miscellaneous (includes things not classifiable in the first three

Lakoff’s classic was thus titled: Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things.

Mind blown, Dimitra (who A2A’d)?

Greeks’ minds will be blown be the fact that πῦρ, γυνή, καὶ θάλασσα, “fire, woman, and the sea”, have been lumped together in an Ancient Greek maxim. (It has been attributed to Aesop: Πῦρ γυνὴ καὶ θάλασσα, δυνατὰ τρία, “Fire woman and the sea, these are the three strong things.” And Menander: Θάλασσα καὶ πῦρ καὶ γυνὴ τρίτον κακόν “Sea and fire, and woman is the third evil.”)

My mind is blown (though it shouldn’t be) by the fact that Lakoff had no idea about the Greek maxim when he wrote the book.

I’ll add that the only misogynistic thing about the saying is that it is hetero-andro-centric. Intimate partners, male, or female, are a source of emotional risk, just as fire and water are a source of physical risk, which can turn to good or evil. (Hence Aesop’s wording: not ‘evils’, but ‘strong things’.)

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