Mercurial, martial, jovial and saturnine are some of the more common words derived from Greek and Roman mythology. Each defines a particular attribute of one of the Classical gods and is in regular use throughout the English-speaking world. Similarly, the coining of the names uranium, neptunium and plutonium for the then newly discovered elements is further evidence that the culture and mythology of ancient Rome and Greece has had an important influence upon modern Western society.
The English language is, in fact, awash in words derived from the mythology of these two cultures. While, through disuse, many of these words have fallen by the wayside over the years, there are still many more that resonate with meaning in contemporary culture. Here are some of the lesser known ones and their origins.
Much of Greek mythology involves the interaction between the gods and mortals. In many cases, the humans show exceptional talents but are ultimately punished for their hubris. In one such case, Arachne, a preternaturally gifted weaver, offended the goddess Athena and was subsequently transformed into a spider for her transgression. Her name has now become synonymous with these creatures.
While Cupid is not wrongly associated with love, his trait is more accurately described as “desire.” The word “cupidity” in the modern world holds to this definition. Eros was a mischievous god who desired to cause trouble between the gods and mortals. His interventions were always self-serving and thus the modern definition of cupidity connotes an extreme lust or greed.
Credit: MussklprozzIn one version of the myth, a chaste and sober woman, known as the Pythia, would arise from a cave and utter unintelligible phrases that were subsequently interpreted by the high priests of the Delphic Oracle. For over a millennia, Greece’s greatest rulers consulted these prophetesses before making any crucial decisions. There is still a robust scholarly debate as to the machinations involved in the ancient workings of the Delphic Oracle but there is little doubt that the modern definition of “vague” or “obscure’ has its origins in its results.
Echo was a beautiful mountain nymph who, at the bidding of Zeus, would keep Hera, Zeus’ wife, occupied while Zeus has his way with Echo’s sisters. Hera, so upset at this deceit, took away Echo’s control of her most prized possession, her voice so that Echo could only repeat what others said to her. Later, Echo fell in love with the self-absorbed Narcissus but was unable to consummate the relationship and, losing Narcissus, finally pined away until all that was left was her voice. The ancient Greeks would maintain that she is still with us today.
The great Trojan prince, Hector, finally meets his doom outside the walls of Troy when the Greek hero, Achilles battles him in a one-on-one battle. The Greek emerges victorious and in a fit of revenge - Hector is wearing the old armor of Achilles’- drags the body of the lifeless Hector around the walls of Troy for twelve days. This “hectoring” f the body has come to us in the present definition of the word.
Sometimes it doesn’t pay to be beautiful. Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite, was chased and seduced by more than his fair share of mortals, demi-gods and other minor deities including the headstrong and tenacious water nymph, Salmacis. Although, Hermaphroditus had repeatedly rebuffed the advances of Salmacis, she ultimately had her way by accosting the young god and praying that “they should never be separated.” Her wish was granted and a two-sexed creature was formed. While often used by the ancients to denote bisexuality and effeminacy, the modern term denotes an organism with both male and female sexual organs.
Credit: Public DomainThe Lethe was one of the five major rivers of the Greek underworld, Hades. As the deceased passed by, they would be forced to walk through the cave of Hypnos and then would drink from the river. The combination of drowsiness and forgetfulness would create a feeling of lethargy. In this way, the dead could forget their earthly lives and accept their fate.
The importance of art in ancient Greek and Roman culture was never more dramatically exemplified than by the myth of Mnemosyne. She was a Titan born of the ancient gods, Gaia and Uranus and she bore the nine Muses by sleeping with Zeus on nine consecutive nights. Her role as the personification of memory demonstrates the regard in which the Muses, and thus the Arts, were held. She also maintained a pool in Hades where those who refused to forget could remember their past lives. In modern times, her name comes to us in the word “mnemonic.”
The renowned hunter, Narcissus, was so taken with his own beauty that he disdained as unworthy anyone who loved him including the aforementioned wood nymph Echo. A goddess, Nemesis, who was charged with dispensing retribution against mortals who exhibited hubris, tricked Narcissus into viewing his own image in a lake. Narcissus, smitten by his own image, never deigned to leave and perished from exposure. His undying love for himself has persisted to this day in the word “narcissism.”
The modern conception of an odyssey as a long and tiresome trek pales in comparison to the original one experienced by Odysseus and his compatriots. After the fall of Troy, the victorious Greek army was faced with making its way home. Some, such as Odysseus, take almost ten years to make the journey. Odysseus faces many trials and confronts many enemies including the Lotus-Eaters, the Cyclops, Circe and the sirens. Upon his return home, he is confronted by even more problems. For Odysseus, his entire life is the odyssey.
Credit: F S ChurchThe origins of evil in society have as many explanations as there are people. The Greeks have a particularly heartfelt version, however. There are many interpretations of the original myth but one of the more ubiquitous is that Pandora, her name means “all-gifted,” was created by all the gods. The gods were not honorable, however, and gave her only ignoble qualities. Finally, the gods entrusted her with a box that contained all the troubles of the world. Pandora wasted no time n opening the box and scattering the evils across the earth and sea. The myth ends with the ambiguous statement that only hope remains in the box.
For more on this subject, try Another Ten Words Derived from Greek and Roman Mythology