An Etymological Dictionary of Classical Mythology - Preface

"Arachne...has no equal as a weaver. People say that she must have been taught by Pallas (Athene) herself, but Arachne denies this, and declares that Pallas can come and compete against her, if she wants. If the goddess should prove the better, Arachne declares, she is prepared to suffer any penalty.

An old woman visits her and advises her to reconsider her words -- there is still time to avert the goddess's wrath. Arachne rudely tells her that she has lived too long.... The old woman stands up, her guise of decrepit old age vanishes, and she is revealed as Pallas herself.

The contest follows, and Arachne's work is flawless, but she has chosen as her theme the amours of the gods, and the squalid tricks they resorted to when they wanted their way. Pallas is furious at Arachne's mockery: she tears the work to pieces and destroys the loom. Arachne, in despair, tries to hang herself but Pallas' revenge is not quite complete; she turns Arachne into a spider, so that she will spin and weave for ever" (Stapleton 32). And so is created the arachnid [NL Arachnida, fr. Gk arachne spider].

Etymology is a branch of linguistics in which the origin of a word can be traced through its transmission from one language to another, generally by its cognates in an ancestral language. While it is widely known that the Greek and Latin tongues have contributed many words to the English language, through etymolgical study it is also clear that there are hundreds of words in our vocabulary derived specifically from myths of gods and heroes like the one above. The weaver's tale, found in both Greek and Roman texts, illustrates just how a word might come into the English language from ancient mythology.

In addition to Arachne's story of transformation, there are numerous tales from which we draw words that tell of humans becoming animals, be this change a punishment by a god or gradual acclimatization to the situation in which that person is put. One such myth is that of Cygnus, a mortal king: after mourning for his dead cousin too long his regal voice becomes a hollow honk and he is transformed into a swan. Today, a young swan is called a cygnet [ME sygnett, fr. MF cygne swan, fr. L cycnus, cygnus, fr. Gk. kyknos].

Several words pertaining to the wolf are derived from the story of Lycaeon, a boastful mortal man who doubts Zeus' identity and is turned into a wolf for attempting to kill the king of the gods. From Lycaeon's name comes the adjective lupine [L lupinus, fr. lupus, Gk lykos], brought into English in 1660 to mean "wolfish," and the noun lycanthropy [lykos wolf + anthropos man], which is found in folktales and fiction as "the state of being a werewolf."

A final tale explaining the origin of an animal name is not one of transformation, but one of conquest: "When Apollo finds Delphi [future site of his shrine] and wishes to claim the area as his own, his first duty is to slay the guardian she-dragon. Thereafter, the site is called Pytho, from the Greek verb meaning 'to rot,' because the sun's rays caused the body of the snake to rot" (Griffin, "Apollo at Delphi"). Since 1836, when the word was first introduced into English, any large constricting snake has been called a python [L, fr. Gk Python, fr. Pytho Delphi].

Borrowing from mythology is especially notable in names of some plants and animals. For instance, in the tragic story of Hyacinthus, the handsome youth is loved by the god Apollo, who accidentally kills him with a discus. In memorial, the grieving Apollo grows a new flower, a hyacinth [L hyacinthus a flowering plant, fr. Gk hyakinthos] (1553), from the boy's blood.

One genus of Eurasian shrub, Daphne [NL, genus name, fr. L, laurel, fr. Gk. daphne], was named in 1862 for another character in a Greek myth whom Apollo loved: Daphne is a fair nymph who, upon being chased through the forest and caught by the god, is transformed into a laurel tree to save her virginal body from Apollo's lascivious games.

A third example is found in the story of Narcissus, who is such a handsome lad that when he first sees his face mirrored on the surface of a pond, he pines for his own reflection. He sits so long at the edge of this pond that he begins to take root, changing finally into a flower -- a narcissus [NL, genus name, fr. L, narcissus, fr. Gk. narkissos]. From this story we also take the adjective narcissistic, telling of a person bearing the egotistical qualities of Narcissus.

There are, in fact, many adjectives in English that originated in legends. For instance, the term mercurial is used to describe a person having the qualities of eloquence or ingenuity that the god Mercury, patron of thieves, possessed; atlantean, meaning "strong," comes from the name of the strongest god, Atlas; and jovial describes an individual of markedly good-humor, named after Jove, an alias for the Roman god Jupiter, parallel to the Greeks' Zeus.

Yet another adjective comes from a tale of mankind's creation: "Prometheus championed man.... He stole fire from heaven and brought it back to earth hidden in a fennel stalk where it smoldered long enough to be blown to life again" (Stapleton 183); first seen in 1588, the English adjective promethean means "daringly original or creative." Also meaning "creative," as well as "artistic and skillful," is the term daedal [L daedalus], after Daedalus, the legendary builder of the fantastic Cretan labyrinth.

Not all adjectives gleaned from mythology are complimentary. For instance, stygian [L stygius, fr. Gk stygios, fr. Styx] describes anything extremely dark and gloomy; the word comes from the name of the river surrounding the Underworld, Styx. Another unflattering adjective is delphic, meaning "ambiguous or obscure," as in the prophecies of the oracle of Delphi, the fabled home of a shrine to the Greek god of music, poetry, and prophecy, Apollo.

Mythology has also made a vast contribution to the world of natural science in the names of winds, minerals, planets, and constellations. Bearing in mind the gods of the four cardinal directions and those of day and night, for example, one can see the mythological significance of many modern words, such as zephyr [ME Zephirus, fr. L Zephyrus, fr. Gk Zephyros], a breeze from the west; the word was brought into English in 1611 from the Greek name of the west wind, Zephyrus.

From the name of Auster, the Roman god of the south wind, comes the adjective austral [ME, fr. L australis, fr. Auster], referring to anything "of, or related to, the southern hemisphere," and thus the southern continent name, Australia. On the other hand, Boreas, the Greek god of the north wind, gives his name to the adjective boreal [ME boriall, fr LL borealis, fr. L boreas north wind, north, fr. Gk Boreas], meaning "of, related to, or found in the northern regions," such as boreal waters.

The Roman goddess of dawn, Aurora, along with Boreas, gives her name to the light show seen often in the northern skies, the aurora borealis [NL, lit., northern dawn]. Similarly, the southern lights are called the aurora australis [NL, lit., southern dawn], for Aurora and Auster.

The Greek goddess of dawn, Eos, also provides a well-known word, east [ME est, fr. OE east, L aurora dawn, Gk eos, heos]. The opposite direction, west [ME, fr. OE, L vesper evening, Gk hesperos], gets its name from the Greek god of evening, Hesperus.

Moving past dawn, one finds the words night [ME, fr. OE niht , L noct-, nox, Gk nykt-, nyx] and nocturnal [ME, fr. MF or LL; MF, fr. LL nocturnalis, fr. L nocturnus of night, nocturnal, fr. noct-, nox night], both derived from the name of the Greek god of night, Nyx.

Many chemical elements were also named in honor of ancient deities. A few examples of this are mercury [L Mercurius], taken directly from the name of the Roman god Mercury, the messenger of all the immortals as well as god of thieves; cerium [NL, fr. Ceres], after the Roman patroness of agriculture, Ceres; and helium [NL, fr. Gk helios], for the Greek sun god, Helios. Yet another element name, drawn not from a god's appellation but from that of the legendary founder of Thebes, is cadmium [NL, fr. L cadmia zinc oxide, fr. fem. of Gk kadmeios Theban, fr. Kadmos], from the name Cadmus.

The tale of at least one gemstone is of particular interest here as well. In a story told by Aristotle, Amethyst was a gorgeous nymph loved by Dionysus. In order to save the girl from this god of wine and revelry, Artemis transformed the girl into a precious gem; out of love for Amethyst, Dionysus then honored her by giving the stone its color and quality of shielding its wearer from the intoxicating influence of wine (Webster's Dictionary of Word Origins). Known today as a variety of quartz, amethyst is still considered precious in the making of jewelry.

Upon lifting one's thoughts back to the heavens, one will see mythology's influence there as well. For instance, eight of the nine planets in the Milky Way are named after gods or goddesses. Two illustrations of this are Jupiter [L], the largest planet in the Milky Way, named for the most powerful Roman god, and Pluto [Pluton-, Pluto, fr. Gk Plouton], the planet farthest from the sun, named after the Roman god of the Underworld.

Often when a great character of myth dies, he or she is sent up to the heavens as a constellation, to be forever remembered by mortals. An example of this is in the story of the constellation Orion [L, fr. Gk Orion]: "Orion is a mighty hunter and the one love of Artemis' [the goddess of the hunt] life. She neglects her duties to be with him and so Apollo tricks her into a shooting match, giving her the distant target of Orion; being a superb shot, Artemis unknowingly kills her beloved. To honor and remember him, she puts the hunter in the stars with his belt, sword, lion s skin, and club" (Griffin, "The Story of Orion").

Another instance of individuals being immortalized in the stars is in the legend of Perseus [L, fr. Gk], the son of Zeus and slayer of Medusa: Perseus saves the beautiful princess Andromeda [L, fr. Gk Andromede] from a sacrificial death, winning her hand in marriage. At the end of their lives, both are changed into constellations and put in the northern sky.

Some constellations, however, were created not in proud memory of a character, but in shame: "Callisto, daughter of the impious... Lycaeon, is a huntress-companion of the goddess Artemis. Although she has vowed a life of chastity, Zeus persuades her to his embraces and, in order to conceal his illicit amour from Hera, changes her into a she-bear" (Barthell 207). Callisto is later deposited in the heavens in her bear-form, creating what is known today as the Great Bear constellation, or Ursa Major.

Considering the enormous number of words remaining from which it is possible to draw examples of mythological derivations, this final category of miscellany will cover only a few common terms. One such familiar word comes from a story of everlasting love: "When Hermaphroditus, son of Hermes and Aphrodite [hence the boy's name], was fifteen years old, he...went swimming in a clear pool which was the dwelling place of the nymph Salmacis. She had previously seen the handsome youth...and, falling in love with him, now seized the opportunity to embrace him with both arms and legs. Concurrently, she prayed they might never be separated, and their entwined bodies miraculously merged into a single form which combined both of their sexes into one" (Barthell 260). Today, a hermaphrodite [ME hermofrodite, fr L hermaphroditus, fr. Gk hermaphroditos, fr. Hermaphroditos] is an animal or plant bearing both male and female reproductive organs.

Also from the name of Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, comes the word aphrodisiac [Gk aphrodisiakos sexual, fr. aphrodisia heterosexual pleasures, fr. neut. pl. of aphrodisia of Aphrodite, fr. Aphrodite], first used in English in 1719 to title any agent that arouses sexual desire. The Roman parallel to Aphrodite, Venus, is remembered in such words as venereal [ME venerealle, fr. L venereus, fr. vener-, venus love, sexual desire], describing anything relating to sexual indulgence, and venerate [L veneratus, p. of venerari, fr. vener-, venus], meaning "to regard with reverential respect."

Cupid, son of Venus and god of love, gives his name to a parcel of words as well: cupidity is the term for extreme greed or lust, and concupiscence [ME, fr. MF, fr. LL concupiscentia, fr. L concupiscere to desire ardently, fr. com + cupere to desire] is strong sexual desire.

After the Olympians defeat the Titans at the beginning of time for power over creation, Atlas is punished for his part in the revolt by being forced to uphold perpetually both the heavens and the earth (Barthell 16). From this story comes the word atlas [L Atlant-, Atlas, fr. Gk], which is a collection of maps, as well as the clever name for the first vertebra of the neck -- the point of the shoulders upon which Atlas' mythological burden rests.

"When Achilles was born [to] his mother [Thetis], daughter of the sea god Nereus,...she bathed him in the river Styx to make him invulnerable, holding him by the heel..." (Stapleton 8). The Achilles tendon is a strong ligament that joins the calf muscles of the leg to the bone of the heel. Achilles later met his death when he took a blow to that vulnerable portion of his heel where his mother had held onto him, thus giving birth to another phrase, Achilles' heel, meaning "a vulnerable point."

The history of several more English words is illustrated by the story of Mnemosyne and her daughters, the Nine Muses, Greek sister goddesses of poetry, song, and the arts and sciences. Mnemosyne, goddess of memory, contributed to modern vocabulary the word mnemonic [Gk mnemonikos, fr. mnemon mindful], relating to anything assisting in the memorization of information. Following in their mother's footsteps, the muses themselves provided many English words: calliope [L, fr. Gk Kalliope], a musical instrument, from the name of the Muse of epic poetry, Calliope; cliometrics [Clio + -metrics], the application of methods from other fields of study to history, after Clio, the Muse of history; terpsichorean, first used in 1825 to describe anything related to dancing, honors the Muse of dancing and choral song, Terpsichore; hymn [ME ymne, fr. OE ymen, fr. L hymnus song of praise, fr. Gk hymnos], after Polyhymnia, Muse of mime; and uranography [Gk ouranographia description of the heavens, fr. ouranos sky + -graphia -graphy], for the Muse of astronomy, Urania, who herself is named after Uranus, father of the Titans. In addition to individual names, the group of Muses is honored with the familiar word museum [L Museum place for learned occupation, fr. Gk Mouseion, fr. neut. of Mouseios of the Muses, fr. Mousa], an institution dedicated, as were the Muses, to the care and display of objects of lasting value and interest.

Also bearing names alluding to mythology are two well-loved days of the week, Friday [ME, fr. OE frigedaeg, fr. (assumed) Frig Frigga + daeg day, prehistoric trans. of L dies Veneris Venus' day] and Saturday [ME saterday, fr. OE saeterndaeg, fr. L Saturnus Saturn + daeg day]. Both are named for Roman deities, as are the months of the year January [ME Januarie, fr. L Januarius, 1st month of Roman year, fr. Janus], for the two-faced god of beginnings, Janus; March [ME, fr. OF, fr. L martius of Mars, fr. Mars], after the war god Mars; and May [ME, fr. OE & L; OF mai, fr. L Maius, fr. Maia], named for Maia, mother of Hermes.

Delving into mythology for inspiration is nothing new. In fact, most words in our language derived from these ancient tales, other than those dealing with space and space exploration, were brought into English long before the twentieth century. Mythology's influence is in no threat of dying out, either: it is constantly alluded to in science fiction literature and movies, including such familiar series as Star Trek and Wonder Woman, and many terms in this growing pop-culture are derived from these ancient legends.

The word mythology [F or LL; F mythologie, fr. LL mythologia interpretation of myths, fr. Gk], borrowed from the compound of the Greek words mythos (story) + logos (speech), in itself tells a story of ancient times, as myths were once passed from person to person only through the spoken word. This verbal narrative of the tales of gods and men began the remarkable tapestry of mythology that still remains in the English language today.

Elizabeth W. Kraemer

Table of Contents

Notes on Textual Abbreviations


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