There were three maxims carved into the Temple of Apollo at Delphi:

  1. γνῶθι σεαυτόν (know thyself)
  2. μηδὲν ἄγαν (nothing in excess)
  3. Ἐγγύα πάρα δ'ἄτη (a pledge comes from folly)

The first two maxims make sense to me grammatically. But I have many questions about the grammar of the third. I will list my questions in bullet-point to make them more readable.

  • What dialect is this? Attic? Doric?
  • A cursory search shows that Ἐγγύα comes from ἐγγύη. Is this a first-declension noun? If so, why the -α ending?
  • Why is πάρα accented on the penultimate syllable instead of the ultima?
  • Why is there a contracted δε?
  • Why is ἄτη in the nominative case? παρά does not govern the nominative.
  • Is there an implied ἐστὶν? i.e. "a pledge is from folly"?

I find it likely that my sources are inaccurate. I will list my sources in case this is so:

I would much appreciate any corrections in either my Greek, or my translation and comprehension of the Greek. I suspect there might be problems with both.

Hope I have not inundated you... to use an aptly Latin word.

  • 1
    The Doric and Aeolic dialects kept the original first-declension ending -ᾱ; Attic and especially Ionic tended to turn to η. If the temple was in Delphi, my money would be on Doric.
    – Draconis
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 0:13
  • 1
    And hence ἄτη is not a noun (because of the eta), but a verb: while Attic contracted αε to ᾱ, Doric contracted it to η. So this is the present 2sg of ἀτάομαι "to suffer".
    – Draconis
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 0:20
  • ...this is turning into an answer, just a moment
    – Draconis
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 0:23
  • @Draconis Interesting. What about πάρα? Is not a preposition, as I assumed?
    – ktm5124
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 0:24
  • 2
    When para comes after its object, the accent moves backward. And when it "takes" the nominative it's more like an adverb, meaning "together with".
    – Draconis
    Commented Mar 5, 2017 at 0:25

3 Answers 3


Ἐγγύα πάρα δ' ἄτη appears to have been a proverb; it is apparently quoted (see fn. 3) in a fragment of Cratinus, an Attic comic playwright (though Cratinus's version seems to have been different, ἑγγύα δ' ἄτας θυγάτηρ "a pledge is the daughter of recklessness"), and also in a fragment of Thales (scroll down to ἄτη II.2) in the Doric form ἐγγύα, πάρα δ' ἄτα. The form as you quote it is Attic.

The phrase is two separate clauses, hence the δέ. This is how we know that πάρα is not governing ἐγγύα (even if it could govern a nominative, which it can't) -- if it were, there would be no connecting δέ since we would have just a single clause, and anyway δέ could not stand in that position. Lamb, in the first page linked above, translates the saying as “A pledge, and thereupon perdition", which preserves the structure closely. Ἐγγύα is probably an alternate nominative form of the noun ἐγγύη: there are a number of first-declension nouns ending in -ύα in Attic (not all the words on this list are first declension, but several are), sometimes with an alternant in -ύη; and Plato (in the Charmides passage linked above) actually has the form ἐγγύη. But ἐγγύα could also be taken as an imperative of the verb ἐγγυάω "make a pledge"; Erasmus, in his collection of proverbs (scroll down to line 116), seems to have understood it thus, since he translates the phrase into Latin as Sponde, sed praesto est iactura, with an initial imperative. In the second clause, in any case, a form of "to be" is definitely to be supplied. πάρα is adverbial, or (which comes to the same thing) to be understood with the implied copula as πάρεστι: "folly/recklessness/ruin/etc. is/will be present".

Some more specific thoughts about what exactly ἐγγύα refers to are given in a footnote in the Corpus Paroemiographorum Graecorum link provided by C. M. Weimer: apparently, one interpretation of this in antiquity was that the "pledge" was specifically one of marriage, which the proverb was cautioning against (γάμον ἀπαγορεύειν); but others thought that this made no sense because human life could not survive without marriage, and it was a warning against entering into legal contracts about property and money (περὶ χρημάτων).


For Socrates -- and, one might suppose, also for the priests of Delphi -- false opinion chains prisoners to the cave's wall; and also false opinion results from moral error.

Hence either of these meaning might apply:

  1. Committing yourself (to false opinion) is ruinous.
  2. Committing yourself (to false opinion) comes from folly.

I would seek in any case a nonliteral meaning, and probably a skeptical one per Diogenes Laertius 9.11.71 (Pyrrho).

  • With you. Well it makes huge sense: being stuck to a view (a pledge) despite contrary evidence certainly goes against logic. This relates to all manner of problems including: aligning with a tribe / country / religion etc
    – Mark E K
    Commented Jan 8, 2023 at 1:40

Diodorus Siculus IX 10.1-4 has "ἐγγύα, πάρα δ' ἄτα"

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