Many of us talk the language of myth without even realizing it. Myth encompasses a tradition, a repository of images, themes, motifs, and archetypes that can serve to give human speech resonance beyond its immediate context. When Hamlet says his murdered father was to his uncle as Hyperion to a satyr, he speaks a powerful shorthand; the images conveyed by these two personages do more to express his inner state than if he were simply to speak admiringly of the one and disparagingly of the other. Often we use mythological references in our everyday speech, blissfully unaware that many of our common everyday expressions find their origin in the mythic traditions of Greece and Rome; one can use the word chaotic without knowing its ultimate source. The following list briefly explains the original mythological meaning of some of the more common terms that have entered our language.
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 grasped 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 to Achilles’ heel. An Achilles heel refers to the one assailable feature or weakness a person may have; in anatomy the Achilles’ tendon stretches from the heel bone to the calf muscle.
Adonis 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 ferocious boar 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.
aegis The aegis is the shield of Zeus (originally a goatskin), 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; the strings vibrate when wind passes across them.
AmazonThe 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 breasts to become better archers. A vigorous and aggressive woman today might be deemed an amazon, with enormous physical stature perhaps implied, as well. 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.
ambrosia/ambrosial 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 is 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 that 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.
aphrodisiac 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.
apollonian 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 aspects 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 (“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 the decision 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 Menelaüs, 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. “Apple of Discord” describes any action or situation that causes dissension and turmoil and is more trouble than it is worth.
arachnid 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 is any of the various arthropods of the class Arachnida, including the spider.
Arcadia/arcadian 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, where human beings lived in contentment and harmony with the natural world. The word arcadian refers to any place or time signifying the simple, rustic, pastoral life of a golden age lost.
Argus/argus-eyed 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 evervigilant or watchful can be called an argus or be described as argus-eyed.
Atlas/Atlantic/atlantes/Atlantis 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 refers 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 Gibraltar, 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.
Augean stables/Augean 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. Augean Stables has since become a byword for squalor. Augean describes anything that is extremely filthy or squalid.
aurora australis/borealis 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 that 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.