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How to use Mythology to Improve our Children's Vocabulary

By Edited Jun 28, 2016 3 8

Pokemon Commercialized Mythology

Storytelling: Best Selling and Best Educational Tool

Why are concepts like Pokemon and Age of Mythology so successful? They have a story, intricate stories with defined characters that sometimes contradict themselves or oppose one another in an eternal battle for power or simple rivalry.

Stories have a way to stay in our psyche.  If Santa Claus name was Asteroid B-612 and he still climbed down a chimney, we would still remember him. If Santa Claus was only a name without a story and no character, it didn't matter if we called him Asteroid B-612, no one will remember him.  Without a fantasy, an illusion or a story, concepts find it impossible to cling to the brain and become part of our psyche... no learning process.  There is a tale related to Asteroid B-612, but that's another story.

60% of the words used in the English language on a daily basis not only come from Latin (or Greek inherited through Latin) but have interesting stories attached to their origin... myths.  The days of the week, the months of the year, are mainly Latin. Most words used in science have Greek roots. Here is a sample list of words along with their myths to help parents enhance their children's vocabulary using it as part of their bedtime stories.


The Story Behind a Word

Etymology is a Lot More Fun Than it Sounds

Some technicalities for us adults before we go into the list. Etymology is the study of the origin of words, it pertains to the root of words.  Sometimes etymology relates to the prefix (beginning of), others to the suffix (ending of) the words.

This is what I find fascinating, once you know the meaning of the root you can apply it to so many other related words.  The easiest way to improve vocabulary is by addressing the root of the word. 

The noun janitor and the month of January, for example, derive from the Roman god Janus.  This is the related myth:  Janus, venerated as the "God of doors, gates, beginnings and endings" is depicted with two faces. Some could interpret two-face as a hypocrite, not the case here. This is a vigilant god looking in opposite directions, one looking towards the past and another to the future, that is why we place it at the beginning of the year.  This deity holds the key to the gates and guarded doors, the janitor.  The two faces relate to doors, which also have two faces and protect either way.  The janitor is the keeper of this doors.  The Latin form of Janus, Ianus, means "passing gateway".  The main reason we celebrate New Year is because we pass a threshold.

Get it? OK, it's on now!

Mythical Words

Include These in Your Bedtime Stories!

1. Plumber- Lead was used in Ancient Rome to build pipes.  The word for lead in latin is plumbum. In Chemistry, the source in the table of elements for the symbol Pb.  A lead weight is a plummet.

2. Hermaphrodite- In Roman mythology, Hermaphrodite is the son of Hermes and Aphrodite. He blackmailed her into sex (go figure). When Hermaphrodite turned 15 he met a water nymph called Salmacis, who fell madly in love with him. Hermaphrodite at first resisted her love, so she backed off.  Once he came back to the clear water pond where they first met but did not see her.  He jumped into the pool searching for her.  She went after him clenching around his body and praying to the gods that they never be separated.  The gods answered her prayer and made them into a single form, both male and female in the same body.

3. Gaia- In Greek mythology, Gaia is the mother goddess who rules over earth. She was Uranus companion. Also known as Mother Earth.  Words like geography, geology, geometry and geode have their origin on Gaia and their meaning will relate to Earth. Geometry was invented to aid in Earth measurements, widely used in the early stages of astronomy (astro means "star", and nomy means "name"... naming the stars).

4. Muses- In Greek mythology, the muses are nine female divinities, each daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, the Titan/Goddess of memory.  The Muses are in charge of a specific literary or poetic genre as follows: Calliope (Epic Poetry), Polyhimnia (Hymns), Terpsichore (Dance), Thaleia (Comedy), Urania (Astronomy), Melpomene (Tragedy), Euterpe (Music), Erato (Love Poetry).  Notice erato and  erotica.  Words like music, museum and of course muse, have this common denominator.  The mission of the Muses is to "make people forget their sorrows" so we study to be happy!

5. Europe- The name for this continent, Europa, originally belonged to a mythical Phoenician princess, according to Greek mythology.  Zeus saw beautiful Europa gathering flowers and wanted her immediately.  To seduce her, Zeus transformed himself into a white bull and started to court her.  Europa ended climbing on his back and Zeus took her to the island of Crete where she became the mother of King Minos of Crete, King Rhadamanthus, and Prince Sarpedon.

6. Easter- Of Anglo-Saxon origin, or an original English word. Easter stands for Eostre or Ostara, a fertility goddess celebrated during Springtime, the season when flowers bloom asking for their bees.  Easter also refers to east, eastern, means "rising" or "starting".  In the Old Testament and for many other cultures BCE, the year started during March, or by Spring, because then everything around signaled a new beginning.  Eostre is also considered the goddess of dawn.

7. Calypso- In Greek mythology, Calypso was a sea nymph that lived in the island of Ogygia (orgy). In the Iliad, Calypso retained Homer for seven years with the most exquisite care.  A nymph that will not argue, or fret or get old, a tough temptation to resist, even the gods feared her power.  Calypso literally means "to hide" or "to conceal".  From the Greek kalyptein.  Words like Apocalypsis derive from this word (in this case meaning the opposite, "to uncover" or "to reveal"). Apo in Greek means "off".

Hermaphrodite and Salmacis

Salmacis and Hermaphrodite
Credit: MediaStoreHouse

Mythology Aids Education

The Secret of Great Cultures and Civilizations

Since 4000BCE storytelling has been the best method to educate and keep both the history and explain the Universe around us.

Storytelling adds meaning to the learning process. Storytelling provides concrete examples that improve vocabulary.  Concrete examples are more effective than sterile generalizations or dry facts, especially with children.  They appeal to the emotional aspect of intelligence.

The listener gains better knowledge by relating to personal experiences. It creates "a more ordered sense of the world" (Robert D. Friedberg, 1994).

There are many secrets to be rediscovered by our children and future generations. Mythology promotes cultural literacy. (Prof. E.D. Hirsch, Jr.).  There is a reason these myths have survived this long, is time we find out why. Let's take our children with us in this journey.

If it Can Entertain, It Can Educate

Commercial Titans


Feb 20, 2012 5:09am
Thanks for sharing. Words are so important. Words can kill or edify people.
Feb 20, 2012 8:58am
May ours build, construct, connect, teach, illuminate, inspire, heal and make others laugh! Thank you for your comment!
Mar 30, 2012 1:58am
Interesting article! Humans certainly seem to need myths and stories for some reason.
Mar 30, 2012 7:42am
Indeed. Stories are what make the world go round! Thank you very much for reading and posting.
Mar 31, 2012 10:48am
Great minds think alike...I write lots about myths and etymology. Funny, we both have features related to the myth. Congratz, and I totally agree that mythology aids education.
Mar 31, 2012 9:51pm
Thank you very much... I'll make sure to pay you a visit then!
Aug 15, 2012 1:06pm
I'm sort of new to IB. But I write on other sites, and got really involved with Greek Mythology. I wrote a bit for a contest, but was so interested I kept reading and writing. Anyway, I had articles on many gods and goddesses, and noticed that a Middle School group of kids must have been studying for a paper on Greek Myth. A whole group of them thanked me for writing, that they learned a lot. I was touched (and warned them about putting it in their own words)! Nice article.
Oct 8, 2014 10:38am
This is an outstanding article and I'm a fan of using mythology and early literature to educate children and young adults. Well done.
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  1. William F. Russell Classic Myths to Read Aloud The Great Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology. New York, New York: Three Rivers Press, 1989.
  2. Nancy Hathaway The Friendly Guide to Mythology. New York, New York: Penguin Group, 2001.

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