In parties and get-togethers, it’s common to hear the phrase “I come bearing gifts” from the guests arriving. It’s a simple way to say they brought gifts to grace the occasion and celebrate the day’s theme. At a birthday party, they get gifts suited for a birthday party. A baby shower attracts gifts related to the baby. But, is there a meaning to “come bearing gifts” other than the presumed obvious meaning?
The phrase “come bearing gifts” is associated with the Greeks, and it’s used to warn of an ulterior motive of someone bringing a gift. It means that the gift could be an excuse for the enemy to get close to you and attack. Therefore, don’t trust your enemy, even when they try to befriend you and bring you gifts.
The phrase is proverbial and is used to show mistrust in the present world. The Roman Poet, Virgil, tells of the Trojan horse’s tale and the Greeks’ cunning plan to besiege Troy in his Aeneid, which clearly explains this phrase’s origin and its widespread use. This article explains further the meaning of ‘I come bearing gifts and looks at its use in the past.
What Does “I come bearing gifts” Mean?
The Greeks from the mainland (called Danaans) and the Trojans indulged in a war for nine long years on the Troy beaches. The Greeks could not conquer the Trojans, so they had to devise a cunning plan to get ahead.
The Greek seer, Calchas, advised the leaders to build a giant wooden horse and leave it to the Trojans as an offering of accepting defeat. The plan was to go some Greek soldiers inside the hollow horse. They would attack Troy from inside once the Greeks brought the horse into the city. The Greeks built the hollow wooden horse and sailed away as those defeated.
The Trojan priest, Laocoὄn, suspected this move from the Greeks and warned the Trojans. He said, “Do not trust the horse, Trojans! Whatever it is, I fear the Danaans, even when bringing gifts.” But snakes from the horse attacked him, and so the Trojans thought it was a sign from the gods for them to accept the gift.
Once they brought the horse into the city, the hidden soldiers crept out and opened the gates to the Greek soldiers who had sailed back to Troy in the darkness of the night. The town was destroyed that night.
Culling from Laocoὄn’s words, the phrase has been paraphrased in English to become the commonly used proverb, “Beware of Greeks bearing gifts,” and now in the modern era, it’s used as “I come bearing gifts.”
It means that a gift is not just a gift, especially if it comes from an enemy or someone who has always been against you. It would be better not to trust in their sudden good actions because there could be something they want in return.
The phrase may not mean such antagonism in modern-day English usage. As mentioned earlier, this is a phrase you’re likely to hear among teenagers as they visit each other or enjoy parties.
The plain meaning of bringing gifts with no other motive behind it tends to overrule the original sense associated with mistrust and betrayal. That doesn’t mean you should trust anybody who comes bringing gifts. It’s okay to have doubts, especially with people who have always been against you and shouldn’t be wishing you well.
Who Said I Come Bearing Gifts?
From the Greek history and the Trojan horse mythology, we know that these were the Trojan priest’s words, Laocoὄn, when he warned the Trojans against trusting the Danaans and accepting their gift. His words have since been paraphrased and used in different instances to warn of impending betrayal from those presenting as good with friendly actions like bringing gifts.
There have been other references to this phrase and showing people in history that may have used it. A famous example is from the Bible in the Gospel, according to Matthew. He describes the wise men that came to visit the baby Jesus as ones “bearing gifts.” Different Bible translations paraphrase this phrase in different ways, and so its usage is unclear.
It has also been poetically described in the 1857 Christmas Carol, popularly known as ‘We Three Kings.’ The first lines of the Christmas Carol read, ‘We three kings of Orient/ Bearing gifts we come from afar.’ Such uses of the phrase associate it with the wise men and so alluding its origin from the story.
This phrase’s most relevant origin is the Trojan horse’s tale described in Virgil’s Aeneid, and other references like the wise men bearing gifts are associated with its poetic and archaic nature.
Is It Bearing or Baring Gifts?
We say “bearing gifts” and not “baring gifts.” “Bearing,” in this context, is the progressive verb form of the word “bear,” which means to carry. Therefore, it would be used to mean “carrying gifts.”
The Danaans built the horse and gave it to the Trojans as a gift. They came to them carrying the gift as a sign of defeat and an indication of their retreat.
“Baring gifts” would be used to mean “exposed gift” because “bare” in itself means to open or expose. Even though the Greeks’ gift was revealed and everyone knew it was a wooden horse, they hid soldiers inside the horse and tricked the Trojans.
In the modern use of the phrase, “bearing gifts” would be more suited to mean that the guests are “carrying gifts” for the occasion.
One More Thing
The use of the phrase “Come bearing gifts” is gaining traction in popular culture as it is being used as a theme in films. An example of a film where the phrase has been quoted is ‘The Three Musketeers,’ which is celebrated worldwide.
Other than in films, the popularity of the phrase in today’s English use is taking away the harsh meaning behind it and replacing it with a more fun meaning. It’s a good thing you now understand its origin and intended use, so you can use the phrase as you prefer.