The ancient Greeks and Romans felt intimately connected to the natural world. They created a rich, mythological tapestry to explain the otherwise unexplainable. These myths contained gods, demigods and humans who often interacted with each other on a personal level. The stories of these interactions left a lexicon that has survived to this day. Here are a some of our favorites:
To the Greeks, the god, Pan, represented wanton sexual conduct. Numerous humans and minor deities were transformed into trees and flowers to avoid his advances. He is often rendered with an oversized phallus in recognition of the same attribute in goats. His predilection for procuring sexual partners for himself and for anyone and everyone else has led to the use of his name in the word pander.
The phoenix is a fantastical bird that lives for a thousand years. At the end of its life,, it builds a nest and lays in it. The nest and bird are then immolated in a fiery extravaganza from which arises a newly born phoenix. The cycle of life and death were never so poetically explained. Its current meaning of an upstart born from nothing slightly corrupts its original meaning but still remains true to its connotations.
Not a word in general use, procrustean affords the benefit if sounding as horrific as its definition. The origin of the word hearkens back to a Greek metal smith turned bandit. Ostensibly hospitable, Procrustes would always offer his bed to a weary traveler on the condition that it should suit them to a tee. Ignorant of his literal meaning, most would gladly accept his offer. Once the proportions of the guest were measured against the bed, Procrustes would either lengthen or shorten, by the most gruesome means possible, the dimensions of his guest.
In modern parlance, a Procrustean bed is an arbitrary standard to which exact conformity is required. A perfect example is political correctness with the added benefit that the arbiters change the standard regularly and with complete and hypocritical disregard for their own misguided views.
From time immemorial, the Sirens would lure mortal sailors to their deaths with their ineluctable songs. In fact, their voices were so captivating that even the redoubtable Odysseus had to be tied to the mast of his ship in order to listen to them without succumbing to their enticements. Though he screamed in torment, his steadfast crew refused to untie him and he is the only mortal to have heard the Siren’s call and not be destroyed. Once he had passed unmolested, the Sirens were so distraught that they flung themselves upon the shore rocks and were drowned. Their voices have been immortalized as a warning call. Not just to mariners, but to everyone.
Sisyphus was a king of ancient Corinth with a reputation as a particularly unscrupulous and ruthless tyrant. In addition, his renown for cunning was reputedly unmatched by any other mortal. His treatment of his fellow mortals was of no concern to the Greek gods but his claim that he was shrewder than Zeus drew the great king of the god’s ire. Though Sisyphus enjoyed a long and successful life,
Zeus took his revenge upon the death of the Corinthian king. While his machinations in life brought him great wealth and power, he was fated to perpetually push a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down as he neared the summit. Sisyphus would then start the process all over again. In modern times, Sisyphean now describes a task that is all but impossible to perform.
The word “Titanic” lives on as a reminder of the ship that was considered unsinkable. However, its original meaning described creatures just as monumental as the ocean liner herself. In Greek mythology, the Titans were the original descendants of Uranus and Gaia, that is, Heaven and Earth. These creatures and their offspring ruled the universe until their internecine wars allowed the more well-known Olympians to overthrow them. Despite their removal as masters of the universe, their prodigious strength and stamina live on in our vocabulary today.
Variously described as a king of Phrygia or Lydia, Tantalus was renowned for his rashness in the face of the Gods. He was reputed to have stolen nectar and ambrosia from the table of Zeus himself and to have revealed other secrets of the gods. More horrifically, Tantalus killed his infant son and served the body at a banquet for the gods.
For his troubles, Tantalus was sent to the deepest reaches of the Underworld, a region known as Tartarus. There, he was fated to spend eternity in a continual state of thirst and hunger. To further extend his torment, Tantalus was placed in a pool of water underneath a low hanging fruit tree. When he bent down to drink, the water receded and when he reached for a fruit the limbs of the tree drew back. Thus, we are tantalized by something when it so close but yet so far.
The power of an erupting volcano is as unmistakable now as it was for the ancients. The Earth seems to concentrate its vast potential in one particular place. For the ancients, this focused power could mean only one thing, the presence of the god, Vulcan. Vulcan was the god of fire and smithy to the gods. He created the thrones upon which they sat and many of their precious armaments. It is somewhat ironic that Vulcan, himself, was always portrayed as a calm and somewhat restrained character as his namesake words, define the essence of volatility and intemperance.
The English language and its own mythologies owe a deep debt of gratitude to the Greek and Roman worlds. The tenets of our society and philosophy are deeply interwoven with those of this ancient democracy and republic. Our continued use of their words is a but a shadow of the true impact that the beliefs and myths of these cultures have had upon modern, Western civilization.
For more on this subject, please visit the first article, Ten Words Derived from Greek and Roman Mythology.