Last weekend I was doing a general knowledge crossword with my parents (because I know how to party), and they were both very impressed when I knew the name of the blacksmith of the Greek gods (Hephaestus). They were not so impressed when it turned out the reason I knew it was because I’ve been playing too much ‘Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey’ on the PS4, rather than through any reading I’ve done (although I do have a book on Greek mythology by my loo).
My horse in ‘Odyssey’ is called Phobos, which I’ve learnt from my toilet-reading (sorry), is where we get the word ‘phobia’ from – Phobos being the Greek personification of fear. And this got me thinking (thankfully not on the loo this time) about other words we get from Greek myth. So here are my top 10 Greek-y words, along with the myths behind them. (I’ve skipped some of the more well-known mythological Greeks/words like Atlas, Narcissus and Nemesis. Because otherwise this would be a top 13 and that’s just silly.)
The word ‘panic’ is derived from the Greek god Pan, who you’ve probably heard of because he has a bit of a reputation for debauchery and general naughtiness. So it seems odd that we get a word about uncontrollable fear or anxiety from him. It turns out that cloven-hoofed Pan wasn’t just about cavorting around forests with nymphs – he was said to have the power to send people fleeing from him in fear, which is where we get ‘panic’ from.
Interestingly (kinda), ‘panic’ in English started out as an adjective. So you’d use it to describe other nouns about being scared. Plutarch, for example, wrote about ‘Panique fear’. (You can find out more about this here – if you really want to.)
When he wasn’t scaring/boning people, Pan is also said to have invented panpipes. That must have been a short brainstorming session in the naming department.
This comes from Hygeia, one of the daughters of Asclepius, the god of medicine, and Epione, the goddess of healing. Hygeia’s associated with cleanliness and sanitation, lucky her. One of her four sisters is called Panacea, a word we still use today for a cure-all medicine.
This one seems obvious now I know it. The word ‘museum’ comes from ‘mouseion’ which is the name for a place or temple dedicated to the Muses. The nine Muses were goddesses of literature, science and the arts. I used to be able to name them all (because I’m really cool). Okay, I’m going to have a go. There’s Calliope (epic poetry), Clio (history), Polyhymnia (religious music or something), Erato (porn, maybe?)… nope, that’s all I got. Hang on a second.
Right, so the ones I missed are Euterpe (flutes and lyric poetry), Thalia (comedy and pastoral poetry), Melpomene (tragedy), Terpsichore (dance – I’m annoyed I forgot that one, ’cos it’s nice to say) and Urania (astronomy). Oh, and Polyhymnia is actually the muse of ‘sacred poetry’ while Erato looks after ‘love poetry’. Which is probably porn.
Poor old Echo. She was an oread (a mountain nymph – a divine nature spirit-type thing, usually depicted as a nubile, naked young woman, obvs). Zeus, the horny old bastard, loved cavorting with the nymphs. Echo wasn’t even part of the cavorting – she had a lovely voice, and just used to chat (commentate?) while everyone else was doing the nasty. Hera, Zeus’ long-suffering wife, was understandably annoyed and came down from Mount Olympus to open a can of whupass. Zeus ordered Echo to protect him, which she did. Hera punished her for this by taking away her ability to speak, leaving her only able to repeat the last thing someone said to her. Then Echo died, leaving only her voice behind. I’m not sure why Hera punished Echo when all she was doing was talking and Zeus got away scot-free, but there it is.
Bet you’ve got that Madonna song in your head now, right? ‘Erotic’ comes from ‘Eros’, the Greek god of love and sexy time (the Roman equivalent is Cupid, he of chubby man-baby bow and arrow fame). The myths can’t decide whether Eros was one of the ‘primordial gods’ (i.e. one of the first four gods along with Chaos, Gaia and Tarturus), or if he came along a bit later. Some say he was the son of Ares, the god of war, and Aphrodite (even though she was married to crossword clue Hephaestus).
Which brings us on to…
As I’m sure you know, the word ‘psychology’ means the study of the psyche, or the human mind. In Greek myth, Psyche was a beautiful woman, so hot that people stopped worshipping Aphrodite and starting worshipping her instead. This pissed off Aphrodite, so she sent her son Eros down with the mission to make Psyche fall in love with someone hideous. Long story short, Eros fell in love with her himself. Unlike most of the other Greek myths, this one has a happy ending – after making her do various tasks, Aphrodite got over her jealousy and granted Psyche immortality.
Look into my eyes… ‘Hypnosis’ is named for Hypnos, the personification of sleep. He was the son of Nyx (goddess of night) and Erebus (god of darkness). Hypnos and his brother Thanatos (AKA Death – cheery) lived in a cave in the underworld which the sun couldn’t reach. He did get to marry one of the Charites, or Graces, though (minor goddesses of charm, beauty and other nice stuff) so it’s not all bad.
The Roman equivalent of Hypnos is Somnos, which is where we get the word ‘insomnia’ from.
The name of the drug morphine comes from Morpheus. Nope, not the bloke from The Matrix – Morpheus is the son of Hypnos and his wife Pasithea, and the god of dreams.
Morphine is a naturally occurring opiate, most famously extracted from poppies. It was first isolated from opium in the early 1800s by one Friedrich Sertürner. He called it ‘morpheum’ in honour of the god of dreams because it made people fall asleep. Poor old Fred experimented on himself, and ended up addicted to morphium and suffering from chronic depression.
Chronology comes from the god Chronos, the personification of time. Over time, Chronos has been confused with the Titan Cronus/Kronus who was Zeus’ dad. One of his claims to fame is that he ate his children and castrated his father (can you tell that it’s much easier to find info on Cronus and not so much on Chronos?).
Other words we get from Chronos include chronic, anachronism and chronicle.
So this word comes from Tantalus, a half god, half nymph (apparently there were male nymphs, but I don’t know if they were scantily clad or nubile). Tantalus got an invite to dinner with the gods up Mount Olympus, the lucky bastard. He said thanks by nicking a bunch of stuff, including ambrosia and nectar, which he gave to us mortals. He then, for reasons which I can’t quite fathom but possibly by way of an apology for all the stealing, decided to cook and serve up his son at a banquet for the gods. They found out about it and refused to eat it (and you’ll be pleased to hear they then brought the son back to life, minus a bit of shoulder that a goddess accidentally ate). Tantalus’ punishment for this was to be made to stand in a pool of water under a fruit tree for all eternity. Whenever he tried to take a fruit, the branches raised up so he couldn’t get it. And when he bent down to drink from the pool, the water receded before he could have any. Hence, tantalising. Blimey, that took a long time, didn’t it?
So, there you have it. Right, I’m off to learn some more about Greek mythology. Where’s my controller?