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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For more on this subject, try Another Ten Words Derived from Greek and Roman Mythology