Back to Reading Suggestions
Achillean/Achilles' heel/Achilles' tendon
Achilles was the son of the mortal Peleus and the nymph Thetis. A warrior of legendary prowess in battle, and the hero of Homer's Iliad, he was essential to the Greek war effort against Troy. To describe someone as Achillean is to mark that person as invincible or invulnerable, or nearly so. Achilles himself had one vulnerable spot. His mother dipped the infant Achilles in the magical waters of the river Styx in a vain attempt to render him immortal; she g.htmled him by the heel in order to submerge him in the stream, thereby leaving one spot on his body susceptible to injury. Paris took advantage of this weakness and with Apollo's help delivered the fatal arrow. An Achilles' heel refers to the one assailable feature or weakness a person may have, and in Anatomy the Achilles' tendon stretches from the heel bone to the calf muscle.
Adonis was such a handsome youth that Aphrodite herself found him irresistible. A capable hunter, he disregarded the warnings of the goddess to retreat in the face of a boar which stood its ground and sustained a fatal injury from a charging boar's tusk. A grieving Aphrodite sprinkled nectar on the blood-soaked ground and the anemone blossomed forth. To call a man an Adonis is to draw attention to his beauty.
The aegis is the shield of Zeus (originally a "goat-skin"), which thunders when he shakes it. Athena also bore the aegis, often tasseled and with the head of Medusa affixed, its petrifying power still intact. This divine shield afforded safety and security and so to be under the aegis of an individual or of an institution is to be favored with protection, sponsorship, or patronage.
Aeolian harp or lyre
Aeolus was put in charge of the winds by Zeus. He kept watch over his subjects in a cave on the Island of Aeolia. An Aeolian harp is a box-shaped musical instrument across which strings are strung, which vibrate when wind passes across them.
The Amazons were a warrior-race of women from the North who joined battle with a terrifying war-cry. They were the equal of men in the field. They came to be seen as haters of men, women who sought foreign husbands, only to kill their sons and raise their daughters as Amazons. Later tradition has it that they cut off their right breast to become better archers. A vigorous and aggressive woman today might be deemed an amazon, while also conveying the idea of enormous physical stature. Often it is a derogatory term. The Amazon ant is a species of red ant that captures the offspring of other species and turns them into slaves.
The Greek gods on Olympus took food and drink as mortals do. But since the gods are of a different order from mortals, so too their sustenance. Ambrosia, culled from the regions beyond the Wandering Rocks, served variously as food for the gods, as unguent or perfume, or as fodder for horses. It is often coupled with nectar, which provided drink for the Olympians. Both words derive from roots which indicate their power to bestow immortality and stave off death. Today ambrosia can refer to a dessert of fruit and whipped cream or, especially when joined with nectar, any gourmet masterpiece. Generally, ambrosial has come to indicate anything fit for the gods or of divine provenance, or anything delicious or fragrant. See nectar.
According to Hesiod, Aphrodite was born of the foam around the severed genitals of Uranus, a fitting beginning for a divinity whose concern is the sexual. From her name comes the noun aphrodisiac, denoting anything that has the power to excite the sexual passions.
Apollo had as his purview the arts, prophecy, and healing. At his chief shrine at Delphi the watchword was "know thyself," the beginning and principal aim of human understanding. He is the god of rationality, harmony, and balance, known by the epithet Phoebus, "bright" or "shining," by which he is equated with the sun and more broadly the order of the cosmos. The adjective apollonian describes that which partakes of the rational and is marked by a sense of order and harmony. Its opposite is dionysian, which describes unbridled nature, the frenzied and the irrational. These polarities, the apollonian and the dionysian were recognized by the Greeks as twin.htmlects of the human psyche. See bacchanal.
apple of discord
All the gods and goddesses were invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, save one, Eris or "Strife." To avenge this slight, this goddess of discord tossed into the wedding hall a golden apple with the inscription "For The Fairest." It was immediately claimed by three rival goddesses: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Zeus refused to decide the issue, but instead gave it to Paris, the son of Priam, king of Troy, to settle. The Judgment of Paris, as it has come to be known, bestowed the apple on Aphrodite, who had promised to Paris, the most beautiful woman in the world, namely Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. The abduction of Helen by Paris was the cause of the ten-year siege and destruction of Troy under the onslaught of the Greek forces, pledged to wreak vengeance on the seducer. The apple of discord describes any action or situation that causes dissension and turmoil and is more trouble than it is worth.
Arachne was a common girl with a remarkable skill in weaving. She won such fame that Athena, slighted and envious, challenged Arachne to a contest. Athena wove themes, including the fate of foolish mortals who dared to vie with the gods. Arachne depicted the gods' compromising love-affairs. Outraged, Athena struck the girl with her shuttle and, after Arachne hanged herself, in remorse transformed Arachne into a spider, so that she and her species might practice her art of weaving, forever. An arachnid refers to any of the various arthropods of the class Arachnida, including the spider.
Arcadia is the central mountainous region of the Peloponnese. Often it is described in idyllic terms: the ideal land of rustic simplicity, especially dear to Hermes, the home of Callisto (the favorite of Artemis), the usual playground of Pan; for the bucolic poets, Arcadia is a place where life is easy, where shepherds leisurely tend their flocks and pursue romantic dalliances. Thus Arcadia becomes that imagined primeval terrain, when human beings lived in contentment and harmony with the natural world. Arcadian refers to any place or time signifying the simple, rustic, pastoral life of a golden age lost.
One of Zeus' sexual escapades involved the maiden Io. In an attempt to keep Hera from discovering the truth of his dalliance, Zeus transformed Io into a cow. Hera, not easily thrown off the scent of her husband's affairs, prevailed upon Zeus to give her the cow as a present and an assurance of his good faith, after which Hera enlisted the aid of Argus, a giant with one hundred eyes, to keep a close watch over the poor girl. In English one who is ever-vigilant or watchful can be called an Argus or be described as argus-eyed.
Atlas was a titan who opposed Zeus in the battle between the Olympians and the earlier generation of Titans. The defeated Titans were condemned to Tartarus but Atlas was punished with the task of supporting upon his shoulders the vault of the heavens, thereby keeping the earth and sky separate. Through a mistaken notion that this vault, sometimes depicted as a sphere, was actually the earth, Atlas has given his name to that particular kind of book which contains a collection of geographical maps. It was not until the Flemish cartographer Gerhardus Mercator (1512-1594) depicted on the frontispiece of his atlas the titan carrying the earth that the association became fixed. The plural of atlas has given us the architectural term atlantes, which refer to support columns formed in the shape of men, corresponding to the maiden columns known as caryatids. Atlas endured his torment at the western edge of the world and so has given his name to the ocean beyond the straits of Gibralter, the Atlantic, as well as to the Atlas mountains in northwest Africa. The mythical island of Atlantis was located, according to Plato, in the western ocean.
One of Heracles' labors, performed in service to King Eurystheus, was to clean the stables of King Augeas of Elis. King Augeas had not cleaned his stalls for some years and the filth and stench had become unbearable. Heracles agreed to the task and succeeded in diverting the course of two rivers to achieve his aim. The term Augean Stables has since become a byword for squalor. Augean describes anything that is extremely filthy or squalid.
Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn (the Greek Eos). The sons of Aurora and the titan Astraeus were the four winds: Boreas, who blows from the north, Notus, the southwest, Eurus, the east, and Zephyrus, the west. The spectacular streaks of light which appear in the sky at night are a result of the effect of the particles of the sun's rays on the upper atmosphere. Seen especially at the poles, in the northern hemisphere they are called the northern lights or the aurora borealis, and in the south, the aurora australis, Auster being the Roman name of the southwest wind.
Dionysus, the Roman Bacchus, was the god of wine, frenzied music and dance, and the irrational. He presided over ecstatic, sometimes orgiastic rites, which involved initiation and drove the participants into another plane of perception, as they became possessed by the deity. He is usually represented in the midst of a retinue of female worshippers, known as maenads, bacchae, or bacchantes (the feminine singular is bacchante; a male follower is a bacchant, plural bacchants); he is also attended by male satyrs, mischievous and lecherous creatures, half-human and half-animal. Wine proved a powerful conduit to the ineffable, amidst rituals that included the rending of a sacrificial victim and the eating of its raw flesh. Dionysiac rites among the Romans became known as Bacchanalia and the sometime extreme behavior of the initiates provoked the Roman Senate to outlaw them in 186 B.C. Thus we derive the words bacchanal and bacchanalia to refer to any debauched party or celebration. Bacchanal, bacchant, bacchante, and bacchae can be used to characterize an overzealous party-goer. The adjectives bacchanalian and bacchic describe any exuberant, drunken revelry. See dionysian and apollonian.
Beware of Greeks bearing gifts/I fear Greeks even when they bear gifts
The fall of Troy was finally accomplished by a ruse of the Greeks. They constructed an enormous, hollow, wooden horse, into which they hid some of their best fighters. The horse was left behind as the rest of the Greek host sailed off to the nearby island of Tenedos and waited. The treacherous Sinon convinced the Trojans to drag the gift into the city, despite the warnings of Laocoon, a priest of Poseidon. In Vergil's account, Laocoon implored his countrymen not to bring the treacherous horse into Troy, crying "I fear Greeks even when they bear gifts" (Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis). Two serpents emerged from the sea to strangle Laocoon and his two sons. The Trojans were convinced that they should accept the horse and thus wrought their own destruction. Laocoon's utterance has become a warning to beware of treachery and look for the hidden motives behind even the most fair-seeming generosity.
Boreas, the north wind, has given us this adjective, which refers to the region of the world from which his blasts come. See aurora.
by Jupiter/by Jove/jovian/jovial
Jupiter was the Roman counterpart of Zeus, the supreme god and father. He was a god of the sky and his name is derived from Indo-European roots dyaus/pitr, which literally mean god/father. In Latin the common oath "by Jupiter" would be rendered "pro Jove" (Jove being a different form of his name). In the Christian tradition there is no religious significance to this exclamation but English writers, by using it as an expression of surprise or pleasure, avoided taking God's name in vain; thus "by Jupiter" or "by Jove" was used to replace the offensive "By God." To describe someone or something as jovian means that one partakes of that awe-inspiring majesty that is particular to a supreme god. Many mythological names also found a new existence in the field of astrology. Since it was felt that the heavenly bodies influence the life of humans on earth, celestial bodies were given appellations drawn from mythology, for example Jupiter became the name not only of a god but a planet. Those who were born under the influence of the planet Jupiter were said to be of a cheerful disposition, hence the meaning of the adjective, jovial
Cadmus was informed by the oracle at Delphi that he would establish a great city. When he eventually found the site of the future Thebes, he prepared to sacrifice to the gods in thanksgiving. He soon discovered that the local spring from which he needed to draw water for a proper sacrifice, was guarded by a serpent. He sent his men to dispatch the monster and bring back the ritual water. All of his men failed in the attempt and Cadmus eventually took it upon himself to kill the serpent. Though Cadmus was ultimately victorious, he now found himself bereft of his comrades and dispaired of establishing his realm. A Cadmean Victory has come to mean a victory won at great loss to the victor.
In Latin the herald's staff was known as the caduceum, derived from the Greek word keryx or herald, and his staff the kerykeion. Hermes, as divine messenger, was invariably depicted with the caduceus, which was represented as a staff with white ribbons or intertwined snakes. The white ribbons may have indicated the inviolability of his office. The image of intertwined snake may have been drawn from the near eastern use of copulating snakes as a symbol of fertility, for Hermes was a fertility god. The staff of Hermes became confused with the staff of Asclepius, the renowned mythic physician and son of Apollo because some stories about Asclepius involved snakes and the reptile has the ability to slough its old skin and seemingly be "reborn," and so had associations with healing.
Calliope was one of the nine muses, who gives her name to the musical instrument, the calliope, made up of tuned steam whistles and played like an organ; it is also the name for the California hummingbird. See muse.
Calypso ("she who hides or conceals") was the daughter of Thetis and either Atlas, Nereus, or Oceanus. Odysseus was detained on her island home of Ogygia for seven years with the promise that she would make him immortal. Though he enjoyed her bed, each day he would weep and look longingly over the sea to his homeland Ithaca. Eventually Zeus sent Hermes to inform Calypso that she must give up Odysseus. Calypso music, derived from the name of the nymph, originated on the islands of the West Indies and treats of topical or amusing themes.
Trojan Cassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, was amorously pursued by the god Apollo. Having at first agreed to succumb to his advances, she was awarded the gift of prophecy, but later, when she changed her mind and refused him, Apollo punished her. She would remain a prophetess, but would never be believed. Cassandra's predictions were invariably of disaster, foretelling the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra or the destruction of Troy through the ruse of the Wooden Horse. A Cassandra today is anyone who utters dire warnings of the future, regardless of their truth.
Zeus was so impressed with the beauty of the Trojan youth Ganymede that he took the form of an eagle and brought him to Olympus to become the cupbearer of the gods. The Latin rendering of Ganymede's name was Catamitus, and his relationship with Zeus (or Jupiter) was interpreted by some as overtly homosexual to lend divine authority to ancient pederastic practices; today a catamite is still the designation for a boy used for pederastic purposes.
Cerberus, the hound of the underworld, stood guard at the gates of Hades and prevented those not permitted from entering. He is usually described as a beast with three heads and the tail of a dragon. When Aeneas journied to the lower regions under the guidance of the Sibyl, he brought along a medicated cake to drug the animal and insure their safe passage. To throw a sop to Cerberus means to give a bribe and thereby ward off an unpleasant situation.
Ceres (the Roman counterpart of Demeter) was goddess of grain and the fertility of the earth. From her name is derived the Latin adjective Cerealis (having to do with Ceres and the grain), from which comes our English word, cereal.
Whether Chaos is to be understood as a void or a primordial, formless, undifferentiated, and seething mass out of which the order of the universe is created, it is the starting point of creation. This unformed beginning is contrasted with later creation, a universe called the cosmos, a desgination meaning, literally, harmony or order. The sky and the stars, the earth and its creatures, and the laws and cycles which direct and control creation seem to exhibit the balance, order, and reason which the mind discerns in the natural world. For us chaos, together with its adjective chaotic, simply means a state of confusion. See cosmos.
A wild, hybrid creature, the Chimera had the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent and it breathed fire. It was killed by the Corinthian hero Bellerophon on one of his journeys. Today a chimera is a fantastic delusion, an illusory creation of the mind. It can also refer to a hybrid organism, usually a plant. Chimerical and Chimeric refer to something as unreal, imaginary, or fantastic. These adjectives can also signify that one is given to fantasy.
The Latin cornucopia means "horn of plenty." There are two stories about this horn, which bestows upon the owner an endless bounty. Zeus, in his secluded infancy on Crete, was nursed by a goat named Amalthea, which was also the name of the goddess of plenty. One of the horns of this goat was broken off and became the first cornucopia. The horn of plenty is also associated with Hercules. In order to win Deianira as his bride, he had to defeat the horned river-god Achelous. In the struggle, Hercules broke off one of the horns of the river-god but after his victory returned the horn and received as recompense the horn of Amalthea. Ovid, however, relates that the horn of Achelous became a second horn of plenty. Today the cornucopia is a sign of nature's abundance, and the word comes to mean a plenteous bounty.
Cosmos refers to the universe, and all that is ordered and harmonious. The study of cosmology deals with the origin and structure of the universe. The adjective, cosmic, may designate the universe beyond and apart from the earth itself, or it may in a generalized sense describe something of vast significance or implication. Akin to the word cosmos are various English words derived from the Greek adjective cosmeticos. Cosmos not only means order and harmony, but also arrangement and decoration; thus cosmetic is a substance which adorns or decorates the body, and cosmetician, the person involved with cosmetics. See chaos.
The Latin word cupidus (desirous or greedy) gave rise to Cupido, Cupid, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god of love, Eros. In early representations he is a handsome youth, but becomes increasingly younger and develops his familiar attributes of bow and arrow (with which he rouses passion both in gods and mortals) and wings, until he finally evolves into the Italian putti or decorative cherubs frequently seen in Renaissance art. From the same root is derived cupiditas to denote any intense passion or desire, from which we derive cupidity (avarice or greed). See erotic.
here were two distinct groups of giants called the Cyclopes, whose name means circle-eyed and indicates their principle distinguishing feature, one round eye in the center of their forehead. The first, offspring of Uranus and Ge, were the smiths who labored with Hephaestus at his forge to create the thunderbolt for Zeus, among other masterpieces. The second group of Cyclopes were a tribe of giants, the most important of whom is Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon, encountered by Odysseus. The word cyclopean refers to anything that pertains to the Cyclopes or partakes of their gigantic and powerful nature. Thus the Cyclopes were said to be responsible for the massive stone walls which surround the palace-fortresses of the Mycenaean period. And so cyclopean is used generally to describe a primitive building style, which uses immense, irregular, stone blocks, held together by their sheer weight without mortar.
The constellation Ursa Minor ("little bear") was called Kunosoura ("the dog's tail") by the astronomer Aratus, who saw in it one of the nymphs who raised the infant Zeus. Long a guiding star for seafarers, it has given us the word cynosure which can describe anything that serves to focus attention or give guidance.
In Greek daimon was a word of rather fluid definition. In Homer the Olympians are referred to as either gods (theoi) or daimones ("divine powers"). In later literature the daimones became intermediate beings between gods and men or often the spirits of the dead came to be called daimones, especially among the Romans. Daimon could also denote that particular spirit granted to each mortal at his birth to watch over its charge. This corresponds to the Roman Genius, a vital force behind each individual, originally associated with male fertility and particularly with the male head of a household. Later it became a tutelary spirit assigned to guide and shape each person's life. With the triumph of Christianity, all pagan deities were suspect, and daimon, viewed solely as a power sprung from the devil, became our demon (any evil or satanic spirit). As an adjective demoniac or demonic suggests possession by an evil spirit and can mean simply fiendish. As a noun demoniac refers to one who is or seems possessed by a demon. Demonology is the study of evil spirits. As for genius, it has come to denote a remarkable, innate, intellectual or creative ability, or a person possessed of such ability. Through French we have the word genie, which had served as a translation of Jinni, spirits (as in the Arabian Nights) which have the power to assume human or animal form and supernaturally influence human life.
The dionysiac or dionysian experience is the antithesis of the apollonian, characterized by moderation, symmetry, and reason. See apollonian and bacchanal.
There are two major myths which tell how the acoustic phenomenon of the echo arose. According to one, Echo was originally a nymph who rejected the lusty advances of the god Pan. In her flight she was torn apart by shepherds, who have been driven into a panic by the spurned god, Pan. The second version involves the mortal Narcissus. Echo had been condemned by Hera to repeat the last utterance she heard and no more. It was in this state that Echo caught sight of the handsome Narcissus. Narcissus, a youth cold to all love, rejected the amorous advances of Echo, who could now only mimic Narcissus' words. Stung deeply by this rebuff, she hid herself in woods and caves and pined for her love, until all that remained of the nymph was her voice. As for Narcissus, too proud in his beauty, he inevitably called down upon himself the curse of a spurned lover. Narcissus was doomed to be so captivated by his own reflection in a pool that he could not turn away his gaze, even to take food and drink. He wasted away and died. From the spot where he died sprang the narcissus flower. Narcissism has come to mean an obsessive love of oneself. As used in psychoanalysis it is an arrested development at an infantile stage characterized by erotic attachment to oneself. One so afflicted with such narcissistic characteristics is a narcissist. See panic and narcissism.
Comparable in the development of the female is the electra complex, a psychotic attachment to the father and hostility toward the mother, a designation also drawn from myth. Electra was the daughter of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra, a young woman obsessed by her grief over the murder of her beloved father and tormented by unrelenting hatred for her mother who killed him. See oedipus.
In Vergil's conception of the Underworld there is a place in the realm of Hades reserved for mortals who, through their surpassing deeds and virtuous life, have won a blessed afterlife. It is named the Elysian Fields or Elysium, and the the souls who inhabit this paradise live a purer, more carefree and pleasant existence. The adjective Elysian has come to mean blissful.
In cultic ritual, particularly Dionysiac, the initiate was often thought to become possessed by the god and transported to a state of ecstatic union with the divine. The Greeks decribed a person so exalted as being entheos, "filled with the god," which gave rise to the verb enthousiazein. Thus the English word enthusiasm, meaning an excited interest, passion, or zeal. See Bacchanal.
Eris was the goddess of "strife" or "discord," responsible for all the dissension arising from the Apple of Discord, which she threw among the guests at the wedding banquet of Peleus and Thetis. Thus is derived the term eristic, which as an adjective means pertaining to argument or dispute, as a noun it refers to rhetoric or the art of debate. See Apple of Discord.
To the Greeks Eros was one of the first generation of divinities born from Chaos; he was also said to be the son of Aphrodite and Ares. From the Greek adjective eroticos, we derive erotic, which describes anyone or anything characterized by the amatory or sexual passions. Erotica is a branch of literature or art whose main function is the arousal of sexual desire. Erotomania is an obsessive desire for sex. See cupidity.
Europa was the daughter of Agenor, king of Tyre in Phoenicia. Zeus, disguised as a white bull, enticed the girl to sit on his back and then rushed into the sea and made his way toward Greece. When they reached Crete, Zeus seduced Europa, who bore a son named Minos and gave her name to a foreign continent. The word Europe itself may be of semitic origin, meaning the land of the setting sun.
Faunus, whose name means one who shows favor, was a Roman woodland deity. He was thought to bring prosperity to farmers and shepherds and was often depicted with horns, ears, tail, and sometimes legs of goat; therefore he was associated with the Greek god Pan and also Dionysiac satyrs. A faun comes to be another name for a satyr. Faunus' consort was Fauna, a female deity like hiim in nature. Flora was another, though minor, agricultural deity, a goddess of flowers, grain, and the grape vine. When we talk of flora and fauna, we refer respectively to flowers and animals collectively.
The Erinyes (Furies) were avenging spirits. They sprang from the severed genitals of Uranus, when drops of his blood fell to the earth. They pursued those who had unlawfully shed blood, particularly within a family. They were said to rise up to avenge the blood of the slain and pursue the murderer, driving the guilty to madness. As chthonic deities they are associated with the underworld and are charged with punishing sinners; they are usually depicted as winged goddesses with snaky locks. In English fury can refer to a fit of violent rage or a person in the grip of such a passion, especially a woman. The Latin adjective furiosus has given us our adjective furious as well as the musical term furioso, which is a direction to play a piece in a turbulent, rushing manner.
Gaia (or Ge), sprung from Chaos, is the personification of the earth. Her name has been employed in a recent coinage called the Gaia Hypothesis, a theory that views the earth as a complete living organism, all of its parts working in concert for its own continued existence.
The Latin word Genius designated the creative power of an individual which was worshipped as a mythological and religious concept. See demon.
The Gorgons were three sisters who had snakes for hair and a gaze so terrifying that a mortal who looked into their eyes was turned to stone. Medusa, the most famous of the three, was beheaded by Perseus, aided by Athena and Hermes. Perseus gave the head to Athena, who affixed it to her shield (see aegis). The head of the gorgon was often depicted in Greek art in a highly stylized manner; this formalized depiction is called a gorgoneion. Today a gorgon can mean a terrifying or ugly woman. There is also a species of coral known as gorgonian with an intricate network of branching parts. The verb to gorgonize means to paralyze by fear.
The mythical bird, the halcyon, is identified with the kingfisher. Ceyx and Alcyone were lovers. Ceyx, the king of Trachis, was drowned at sea. Hera sent word to Alcyone in her sleep through Morpheus, the god of dreams, that her husband was dead. Alcyone in her grief was transformed into the kingfisher; as she tried to drag the lifeless body of Ceyx to shore, he too was changed into a bird. The lovers still traverse the waves, and in winter she broods her young in a nest which floats upon the surface of the water. During this time, Alcyone's father, Aeolus, king of the winds, keeps them from disturbing the serene and tranquil sea. Today, the halcyon days are a period of calm weather during the winter solstice, especially the seven days preceding and following it. Halcyon days can also describe any time of tranquillity.
The Harpies ("snatchers"), daughters of Thaumas and Electra, were originally conceived of as winds, but eventually came to be depicted as bird-like women who tormented mortals. The Argonauts rescued Phineus, the blind king and prophet of Salmydessus, whose food was "snatched" away by these ravenous monsters. Today when we call someone a harpy we evoke images of these vile, foul-smelling, predatory creatures; or harpy simply means a shrew.
Hector was the greatest warrior of the Trojans, who was defeated by his counterpart on the Greek side, Achilles. To hector means to bluster and bully. The noun hector denotes a bully. The connection between the noble Hector and this later conception originated in the Middle Ages, when Hector was portrayed as a braggart and bully.
Helius was god of the sun. The Greek root trop- refers to a turning in a certain direction. Heliotropism is a biological term which refers to the growth or movement of an organism towards or away from sunlight. A heliotrope is a genus of plant that behaves in that manner. Several scientific or technical words derive for the name of the sun-god, for example: a heliostat is an instrument that uses a mirror to reflect sunlight; heliotherapy, treatment by means of the sun's rays; heliotype, a photomechanical process of printing a plate, or the printing plate itself produced in this fashion; heliograph is an instrument used to photograph the sun; and heliocentric refers to anything that has the sun as a center or is relative to the sun.
Hercules, in Greek Heracles, was the greatest hero in the ancient world, who wore a lion skin and brandished a club. He achieved countless remarkable exploits, and is most famous for twelve canonical labors. To describe someone as herculean is to liken him to Hercules in strength and stature. Any effort that is herculean requires a tremendous exertion or spirit of heroic endurance. The Hercules is a constellation in the northern hemisphere near Lyra and Corona Borealis. A shrub, indigenous to the Southeastern United States and characterized by prickly leaves and large clusters of white blossoms, is known as Hercules' club.
The god Hermes became associated with the Egyptian god Thoth and received the appellation Trismegistus ("thrice-greatest"). A number of works on occult matters, known as the Hermetic Corpus, were attributed to Hermes Trismegistus; today hermetic refers to occult knowledge, particularly alchemy, astrology, and magic. From this notion of secret or sealed knowledge hermetic comes to mean completely sealed; a hermetic jar is one closed against outside contamination. From Hermes' primary function as a bearer of messages came the Greek hermeneus ("interpreter") and the phrase hermeneutike techne ("the art of interpretation"). Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation and hermeneutic, as adjective or noun, connotes an interpretive or explanatory function. Hermaphroditus, the beautiful son of Hermes and Aphrodite, was bathing in a pool, when the nymph Salmacis caught sight of him and was filled with desire. She plunged into the water and entwined her limbs around him. He fought her efforts to seduce him but her prayer to the gods that they might become united into one being was granted. A hermaphrodite has the genitalia and secondary sexual characteristics of both male and female.
Heracles' second labor was to encounter the Hydra, a nine-headed serpent, which would grow back two heads for every one that was severed. Every time he clubbed off one of the heads he cauterized the stump so that another could not grow. A hydra is a polyp with a cylindrical body and tentacles surrounding an oral cavity and it has the ability to regrow itself from cut off parts. A hydra can also be a destructive force that does not succumb to a single effort. The Hydra is a constellation in the equatorial region of the southern sky near the constellation Cancer.
Hymen was the god of marriage and invoked during the wedding ceremony with the chant "O Hymen, Hymenaeus"; thus he was the overseer of hymeneal or marriage rites. Originally the Greek word hymen referred to any membrane, but today the hymen is a membranous fold of tissue which covers the outer orifice of the vagina.
The Hyperboreans were a mythical race that inhabited a paradise in the far north, at the edge of the world, "beyond" (hyper) the reach of the north wind (Boreas) and his arctic blasts. In English hyperborean merely means arctic or frigid.
Hypnos, son of Nyx (Night) and brother of Thanatos (death), was the god of sleep and father of Morpheus, the god of dreams. Hypnosis is a sleep-like condition in which the person becomes susceptible to suggestion. Hypnotic, as an adjective, means to pertain to or induce hypnosis. As a noun it refers to the person hypnotized, something that promotes hypnotism, or means simply a soporific, that which induces sleep. Hypnogogic refers to a drug that produces sleep or describes the state immediately preceding sleep, while hypnopompic refers to the state immediately preceding awakening; both states may be marked by visual or auditory hallucination as well as sleep-induced paralysis. Hypnophobia is a pathological fear of sleep.
Daedalus had crafted out of wax and feathers two pairs of wings to escape from the imprisonment imposed by King Minos of Crete, one pair for himself, and one for his young son, Icarus. Heedless of his father's advice, the young Icarus flew too close to the sun. The wax of the wings melted and the boy fell into the sea. That part of the Mediterranean along the coast of Asia Minor into which he fell ever after carried his name and would be known as the Icarian Sea. Icarian denotes acts which are reckless and impetuous and lead to one's ruin.
Gods, although immortal, can suffer wounds. Human blood does not flow from those wounds but instead a clear, rarefied liquid -- divine ichor. In English ichor can refer to a fluid, like blood, or, in pathological terms, a watery substance discharged from wounds or ulcers.
Iris was the goddess of the rainbow (the meaning of her name). The adjective iridescent describes anything which gleams with the colors of the rainbow. The iris is the colored portion of the eye which contracts when exposed to light. It is also a genus of plant which has narrow leaves and multi-colored blossoms.
Juno was the mighty and majestic queen of the Roman Pantheon, wife and sister of Jupiter, identified with the Greek Hera. To describe someone as junoesque is to liken her to the goddess in stature and stately bearing.
In Crete, King Minos had Daedalus construct a maze in which to imprison the monstrous Minotaur. Theseus' greatest achievement was to kill the Minotaur and, with the help of Ariadne's thread, find his way out of the maze, which was known as the labyrinth. Excavations of the complex and vast palace of Cnossus in Crete with its network of rooms seem to substantiate elements of this legend. A labyrinth is a maze and the adjective labyrinthine describes something winding, complicated, and intricate. Labyrinth can also denote anatomical features marked by connecting passages, in particular the structures of the internal ear.
Lethe was the river of "forgetfulness" in the underworld. From it souls would drink and forget their experiences upon being reincarnated. Lethe refers today to a state of oblivion or forgetfulness; lethargy and lethargic denote a state of persistent drowsiness or sluggishness; Lethean characterizes anything that causes forgetfulness of the past.
Odysseus was driven to North Africa and the land of the Lotus Eaters, who consumed the fruit of the lotus and lived in a continual state of dreamy forgetfullness and happy irresponsibility. Today a lotus eater is anyone who succumbs to indolent pleasure. The lotus, a small tree of the Mediterranean, produces the fruit supposedly consumed by the Lotus Eaters; it is also an aquatic plant indigenous to southern Asia.
A meanad is a female worshipper of Dionysus. See bacchanal.
Mars was the Roman god of war, equated with the Greek Ares. He personified the conflict of battle in all its brutality and bloodshed. The adjective martial means of or pertaining to battle; when the military authority usurps the power of civil authority, the population is said to be under martial law. Also the name of the month March is derived from Mars.
Matuta was a minor Roman deity, the goddess of the dawn (in Latin dawn is tempus matutinum). Through French, we have matinee, a theatrical or cinematic performance given in the daytime, and matins (also called Morning Prayer), the first division of the day in the system of canonical hours of the monastic tradition.
In Book One of Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus' palace is ravaged by suitors for the hand of his wife, Penelope. His son Telemachus, day dreaming of his father's return, is incapable of action. Athena, in the guise of Odysseus' trusted counselor, Mentor, comes to Ithaca to rouse Telemachus and give him advice and hope. Thus mentor means a trusted guardian and teacher.
Mercury was the Roman equivalent of the Greek Hermes (see Herm). This fleet-footed messenger of the gods has given us the word mercury, a silver metallic element, which at room temperature is in liquid form, also called "quicksilver" because of the nature of its movement. In astrology, Mercury is the name given to the planet closest to the sun, around which it completes one revolution in 88 days. In botany, it refers to a genus of weedy plant. To describe someone as mercurial is to impart to the individual craftiness, eloquence, cunning, and swiftness, all attributes of the god. It can also simply mean quick or changeable in temperament, either from the nature of the god or the influence of the planet.
Midas' ass's ears/Midas touch/the golden touch
Apollo and Pan entered into a musical contest. When Apollo was judged victorious by the mountain-god Tmolus, Midas, the king of Phrygia, disagreed. For his lack of perception Apollo transformed Midas' offending ears into those of an ass. To have ass's ears means that one lacks true musical judgment and taste. On another occasion, the god Dionysus granted Midas' wish that whatever he might touch be turned into gold. To his despair, Midas found that even as he put food and drink to his mouth it was transmuted into gold. Dionysus granted him relief by telling him to bathe in the river Pactolus, whose bed become golden. To have the golden touch or Midas' touch means to be successful in any endeavor.
In the Temple of Juno Moneta ("money," "mint") was housed the Roman mint. The epithet Moneta means "the warner" and refers to an important legend regarding her temple. When Rome was threatened in 390 B.C. by an invasian of Gauls, the sacred geese in Juno's temple began to squawk, rousing the Romans to battle. Moneta, through the Old French moneie, has given us the word money; the adjective monetary, "pertaining to money," comes from the stem monet-.
Morpheus was the god of dreams, or more particularly the shapes (morphai) that come to one in dreams. Later he became confused with the god of sleep and it is from this confusion that the meaning of morphine comes. Morphine, an addictive compound of the opium plant, is used as an anaesthetic or sedative. The compounds which include the stem morph-, such as metamorphosis (a transformation into another shape or state of being), are drawn from the Greek word morphe ("shape" or "form") and not the god Morpheus.
The nine muses were the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne ("memory"), whose province was inspiration in the arts, particularly poetry and music; from muse we derive the word music. The Greek word mouseion ("place of the Muses"), in Latin museum, has given us museum, a place for the displaying works of artistic, historical, or scientific interest. From the adjective mousaicos ("pertaining to the Muses") comes mosaic, a picture or design made up of small colored tiles or stones.
Narcissism refers to a psychological state in which the person has a pathalogical attachment to oneself. See Echo
Nectar is the special drink of the gods, usually paired with their food, ambrosia. Nectar has come to mean any refreshing drink, the pure juice of a fruit, or the liquid gathered by bees from the blossoms of flowers, used in making honey.
Nemesis is the goddess of vengeance who brings retribution on those who have sinned, especially through hubris ("over-weaning pride"). A nemesis denotes the following: the abstract idea of retributive vengeance; the agent of retribution; an invincible rival in a contest or battle; or a necessary or inevitable consequence.
Nestor, the oldest and wisest of the Greek kings at Troy, lived to see three generations of heroes. A brave and strong warrior when young, in old age he was prized for his good counsel and his oratory. Homer tells us that his speech flowed more sweetly than honey. When a politician or statesman today is called a nestor, it is these qualities of wisdom, good counsel, and oratory that are emphasized.
Nymphs are beautiful, idyllic goddesses of wood and stream and nature, often the objects of love and desire. A nymph today may simply mean a remarkably attractive young woman, but if she were to suffer from nymphomania ("nymph-madness"), she would be suffering from sexual promiscuousness. Nympholepsy (from lepsis, "a seizing"), on the other hand, refers to the madness which assails one who has glimpsed a nymph. It can also denote a strong desire for what is unattainable. (Cf. satyr/satyriasis)
In mythology the world is a disc circled by a stream of water, the god Oceanus, who is the father of the Oceanids, i.e. all the lesser rivers, streams, brooks, and rills that flow over the earth. Today ocean can refer to the entire body of salt water or any of its major divisions covering the globe.
Homer's Odyssey recounts the return of Odysseus to Ithaca, his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus. After ten years of war at Troy, Odysseus found the day of his return postponed for another ten years by the god Poseidon. On his extended travels he overcame many challenges before winnning his homecoming. An odyssey has come to mean a long, tortuous period of wandering, travel, and adventure, often in search of a quest, both literally and spiritually.
King Laius of Thebes was given a prophecy that his wife, Jocasta, would bear a son who would kill his father and marry his mother. They did have a son whose name was Oedipus and when he grew up he killed his father and married his mother, despite all that was done to avert the prophecy and destiny. Sophocles' masterpiece, Oedipus the King, inspired Sigmund Freud to crystallize one of his major, defining ideas on the nature of the human psyche (q.v.) and infantile sexual development; the Oedipus Complex is the term he used to describe the natural progression of psycho-sexual development in which the child has libidinal feelings for a parent of the opposite sex and hostility for the parent of the same sex. The term oedipus complex refers to the male child. See Electra complex.
The Greek gods had their homes on the heights of Mt. Olympus in northern Greece, and so were called the Olympians. The term olympian carries with it notions of the new order ushered in by Zeus and his family and also distinguishes these gods in their sunlit heights from the chthonic ("of the earth") deities, who have associations with the gloom of the underworld. Therefore olympian means towering, awesome, and majestic, akin to the gods of Olympus. The adjective can also refer to one who competes in or has won a contest in the Olympic Games, but this designation is derived from the ancient Olympic games, celebrated at Olympia, which was a major sanctuary of Zeus in the Peloponnese.
Paean was an epithet of the god Apollo, invoked in a cry for victory in battle or for deliverance from sickness. A paean thus became a song of thanksgiving. Today it refers to a song of joy or praise, whether to a god or a human being.
As a child Athena had a special girl friend named Pallas, with whom she used to play at war. During one of their skirmishes Athena inadvertently killed Pallas and to her memory she built a wooden statue of the girl. This statue was thrown down to earth by Zeus, where it became known as the Palladium, and became for the Trojans a talisman for their city; so long as they had possession of it, the city would stand. Thus the English palladium means a protection from harm for a people or state, a lucky charm.
Pandora was the first woman, given to men as punishment for Prometheus' theft of fire. Sent with her was a jar, which, when opened, released all the ills that now plague human beings. Later this jar became a box and now pandora's box refers to something that should be left unexamined, lest it breed disaster.
Panic describes a state of great fear and anxiety with an attendent desire for flight, which was considered inspired by the god Pan. See Echo
Helius, the sun-god, assured Phaethon that he was truly his father and swore an oath that his son could have anthing he desired. Phaethon asked that he be allowed to drive his father's chariot across the sky. Helius could not dissuade the boy, and Phaethon could not control the horses and drove to his death. A phaeton has come into English as a four-wheeled chariot drawn by two horses or an earlier type of convertible automobile.
Priapus was the ithyphallic son of Aphrodite. He is most often depicted with an enormous and fully erect penis. Priapic is an adjective referring to priapian characteristics. Priapism is a pathological condition in which the penis is persistently erect.
Procrustes (the "one who stretches") was encountered by Theseus. He would make unwitting travelers lie down on a bed. If they did not fit it exactly, he would either cut them down or stretch them out to size. The adjective procrustean refers to someone or something that aims at conformity through extreme methods. A procrustean bed decribes a terrible, arbitrary standard against which things are measured.
The god Prometheus ("forethought"), son of the titan Iapetus, was the creator of humanity and its benefactor. He bestowed upon mortals many gifts that lifted them from savagery to civilization. One of his most potent benefactions was fire, which he stole from heaven in a fennel stalk to give to mankind a boon expressly forbidden by Zeus. As a punishment for his championship of human beings in opposition to Zeus, Prometheus was bound to a rocky crag and a vulture ate at his liver, which would grow back again for each day's repast. Thus the name Prometheus becomes synonymous for the archetypal champion, with fire his symbol of defiance and progress. The adjective Promethean means courageous, creative, original, and life-sustaining. Beethoven's music may be called Promethean and Mary Shelley subtitled her gothic horror novel Frankenstein, A Modern Prometheus.
Proteus was a sea god who could change shape and who possessed knowledge of the future. To obtain information, one had to grapple with him until his metamorphoses ceased. Protean means of changeable or variable form, or having the ability to change form.
The Greek word for the soul was psyche. The myth of Cupid and Psyche can be interpreted as the soul's longing for an eventual reunification with the divine through love. For Freud psyche means mind and psychic refers to mental activity; many English derivatives describe the study of the mind and the healing of its disorders: psychology, psychiatry, etc. In psychoanalytic terms, the soul is the mind, the seat of thoughts and feelings, our true self, which seeks to orient our lives to our surroundings.
Apollo established the major sanctuary for his worship and his oracle at Delphi, but to do so he had to kill the serpent which guarded the site. He named his new sanctuary Pytho, from the rotting of the serpent after it had been killed (the Greek verb pythein means to rot); or the serpent's name was Python. A python today belongs to a particular family of non-venomous old world snakes.
Rhadamanthus/Rhadamanthine or Rhadamantine
Rhadmanthus, along with Minos and Aeacus, is one of the judges in the Underworld. Rhadamanthus and Rhadamanthine describe anyone who is rigidly just and strict.
rich as Croesus
Croesus was the king of Lydia who possessed great wealth that became legendary. Thus to emphasize their possession of extreme riches we describe a person as "rich as Croesus."
The titan Saturn (equated with the Greek Cronus) castrated his father, hated his children, devoured them, and was castrated and overthrown by his son Zeus. After his defeat, Saturn ruled over the Golden Age of the world; according to Roman mythology, he fled to the west and brought a new golden time to Italy. Originally Saturn was an old Italic diety of the harvest; the Roman's built a temple to Saturn on the Capitoline hill and each December celebrated the winter planting with the Saturnalia, a time of revelry and the giving of presents. Saturnalia today denotes a period of unrestrained or orgiastic revelry. Saturn gives his name to the sixth planet from the sun, the second largest planet in the solar system after Jupiter. Anyone born under the influence of Saturn may have a saturnine temperament, which is to say gloomy or melancholy, characteristics of the god who castrated his father and was overthrown. Saturnian simply means pertaining to the god or the planet Saturn. The planet Saturn was also associated with the element lead, and so the term for lead poisoning is saturnism.
Satyrs were male woodland deities with the ears and legs of a goat, who worshipped Dionysus (Bacchus) god of wine, often in a state of sexual excitement. A satyr today is nothing more than a lecher. A man who has an excessive and uncontrollable sexual drive suffers from satyriasis.. See nymph/nymphomania/nympholepsy.
Scylla and Charybdis
Scylla was once a beautiful maiden, who was transformed into a hideous creature, with the heads of yapping dogs protruding from her midriff. Charybdis was a terrible whirlpool. Both these dangers were said to lurk in the Strait of Messina between Southern Italy and Sicily, a terror to sailors who endeavored to navigate these waters. The phrase between Scylla and Charybdis is much like the English between a rock and a hard place; it denotes a precarious position between two equally destructive dangers.
The Sirens were nymphs (encountered by Odysseus) often depicted with bird-like bodies, who sang such enticing songs that seafarers were lured to their death. A siren has come to mean a seductive woman. It can also denote a device which uses compressed steam or air to produce a high, piercing sound as a warning. A siren song refers to something bewitching or alluring that also may be treacherous.
Sisyphus was a famous resident of Hades who was condemned to roll an enormous rock up a hill only to have it fall back down, a punishment for revealing the secret of one of Zeus' love affairs. A sisyphean task has become a term for work that is difficult, laborious, almost impossible of completion. See tartarean and tantalize..
The sphinx terrorized Thebes before the arrival of Oedipus (see Oedipal Complex). She was a hybrid creature with the head of a woman, body of a lion, wings of an eagle, and the tail of a serpent. She punished those who failed to answer her riddle with strangulation (the Greek verb sphingein means to strangle). At some point the Greek sphinx became associated with Egyptian iconography, in which the sphinx had a lion's body and a hawk's or man's head. When we liken someone to a sphinx, we have in mind the great riddler of the Greeks and not the Egyptian conception. A sphinx is an inscrutable person, given to enigmatic utterances (the Greek word ainigma means a riddle).
Stentor was the herald of the Greek army at Troy, who could speak with the power of fifty men. Today we may liken a powerful orator to Stentor and designate the effect of his voice as stentorian.
Across the river Styx, the "hateful" river that circles the realm of the underworld, the ferryman Charon transports human souls to Hades. The gods swear their most dread and unbreakable oaths by invoking the name of the river Styx. Stygian describes something to be linked with the infernal regions of hell, something gloomy, or inviolable.
Syrinx ("pan-pipes") rejected the god Pan and was turned into a bed of reeds from which he fashioned his pan-pipes. A syringe is a device made up of a pipe or tube, used for injecting and ejecting liquids. Syringa is a genus of plants used for making pipes or pipestems.
Tantalus, who through hybris tried to feed the gods human flesh, is punished by being in a state of perpetual thirst and hunger, food and drink always just beyond his reach. To tantalize is therefore to tease and tempt without satisfaction. See sisyphean and tartarean.
Tartarus is the region in the realm of Hades reserved for the punishment of sinners, among whom are those who have committed the most heinous crimes and suffer the most terrible punishments. The adjective tartarean refers to those infernal regions. See sisyphean and tantalize.
From Terpsichore, one of the nine muses comes the adjective, terpsichorean, which refers to her special area of expertise, dancing. See Muse.
The twelve Titans, the second generation of gods, born of Ge and Uranus, were of gigantic stature, most of them conceived of as natural forces, and although defeated and punished by Zeus, virtually invincible. Their massive strength is preserved in the adjective titanic, which was also the name given to an ocean vessel thought to be unsinkable. To call someone a titan is to emphasize one's enormous mastery and ability in any field or endeavor.
Zeus' struggle with the dragon Typhon (also named Typhaon or Typhoeus) was the most serious battle that he had before finally consolidating his rule. Typhon had one hundred heads and tongues, fire shot out of his eyes, and terrible cries bellowed from his throats. The word typhoon, meaning a severe tropical hurricane which arises in the China sea or the western Pacific ocean, comes from the Chinese ta ("great") and feng ("wind"), but the form of the word is influenced by the name Typhon.
Venus was the powerful Roman goddess of love, equated with the Greek Aphrodite, who was born from the foam around Uranus' castrated genitals. Her dominant sexual.htmlect is made clear by the nature of her origin. The adjective venereal denotes a sexually transmitted disease, and the noun venery is indulgence in sexual license. Veneration, however, is the act of showing respectful love, adoration, or reverence.
(each of these words may also be spelled with vul-): The Roman god Vulcan, identified with the Greek Hephaestus, was the supreme craftsman of the gods. His helpers were three Cyclopes and his forge was located in various places, but most often under Mt. Etna in Sicily, or similar volcanic regions, which betray its presence. A volcano is a vent in the earth's crust, which spews forth molten material and thereby forms a mountain. Volcanism or Vulcanism refers to any volcanic force or activity. To volcanize is to subject a substance, especially rubber, to such extremes of heat that it undergoes a change and thereby becomes strengthened. Volcanology is the scientific study of volcanic phenomena.
Wheel of Fortune
Fors or Fortuna was an Italic fertility goddess who controlled the cycles of the seasons and became associated with the Greek conception of good or bad fortune (tyche). She is often represented holding the cornucopia in one hand and a wheel in the other, to signify the rising and falling of an individual's prospects. From that iconography comes wheel of fortune, a device used in a game of chance. See cornucopia.
Zephyrus is the west wind (see Aurora Borealis), which signals the return of spring. Today a zephyr is a pleasant, gentle breeze, as well as a reference to any insignificant or passing thing.
Back to Reading Suggestions