Waxing the Greek mythological

As someone who studied the classics (Latin & Greek) at university, I’m occasionally reminded of one of my favorite parts of my studies – the mythology. Some of the greatest stories ever told were immortalized in prose or verse in Greek or Latin by some of the greatest writers ever to have lived: take Virgil’s Aeneid, Ovid’s Metamorphoses, or Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad as prime examples. True, many of these stories had their roots in the folklore of other civilizations, but most are remembered for their epic retellings in Latin and Greek.

There are many words and idioms in English that take their cues from characters and incidents from Greek mythology, a process known as eponymy. English inherits a lot of derivations from Greek and Latin, but some are direct links to the mythologies, and have similar names. Take a few examples:

Herculean: something particularly arduous or laborious. The word stems from the story of the 12 Labors of Hercules. The story is that Hercules was driven temporarily mad by the troublemaking goddess Hera, and in his state of insanity he murdered his wife and children. Once he had recovered and seen what he had done, he asked Apollo how he could ever make up for it, and the oracle told him to go visit the king of Tiryns and Mycenae, King Eurystheus, and serve him for 12 years. The king made a list of 10 seemingly impossible tasks for Hercules to perform, which, with the help of Hermes and Athena, Hercules completed (he was made to do another 2 because Eurystheus claimed he had cheated at two of them).

Promethean: something or someone that is boldly innovative. Prometheus was a Titan who is famous for stealing fire from Zeus (King of the Gods) and giving it to humans. He was then punished by Zeus, and had one of the several ‘eternal punishments’ – bound to a rock and having a giant eagle eat his liver every day, only for his liver to grow back before the start of the next day. The meaning of the word “Promethean” refers to his theft of fire rather than his punishment, but in fact several pharmaceutical companies have taken on his name to emphasize the regenerative nature of their medicine!

Aphrodisiac: something that arouses sexual desire. Most people know what this word means, but don’t associate it with the name of the Greek goddess of love, lust and beauty – Aphrodite.

Echo: a very common word, which takes its roots from a mountain nymph of the same name. Punished by Hera, she could only repeat the last few words of sentences uttered by other people. She also happened to fall in love with someone called Narcissus, which brings us to…

Narcissistic: meaning overly vain or self-obsessed. This stems from a character called Narcissus, who was so vain that he had only disdain for the girls that fell in love with him, but ended up falling in love himself… with his own reflection. In the original myth he was unable to tear himself away from his own beauty, and ended up wasting away and dying.

Mentor: again, a very common word, but with surprising roots. Mentor was actually an old, wise friend of Odysseus who gave him advice. Nowadays it is used to describe someone who is a trusted guide or counselor. But this brings us neatly to…

Odyssey: used these days to mean an epic adventure, this originally comes from the hero of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Odysseus. His certainly was an epic adventure, and with continually changing fortunes.

Siren: generally refers to any loud sound that is supposed to attract attention or give a warning. This word actually derives from the Greek sea nymph, Siren, who would sit on a rock and sing sweetly to attract passing sailors. The sailors would be unable to resist the sweet sounds, and would head towards her. Unfortunately, their boats would usually be scuppered on the rocks.

This is just a small selection of words derived from Greek mythological characters – there are many more!