It is amazing how much the English language owes to mythology. The new words of today spring from technology and do not tease the imagination with the varicolored legends that the words of yore have behind them. One is quite accustomed to the phrases like ‘Achilles’ Heel’, ‘Pandora’s box’, ‘handsome as Adonis’ or ‘Labors of Hercules’ which definitely refer back to mythological characters. But the extent to which mythos pervades words of ordinary usage is still obscure to most.
Take for example the names of the days of the week. Saturday is based on Saturn, Sunday is based on the Sun and Monday is based on the Moon. What, then, are the other four days of the week based upon? Strangely, the Gods of Norse/Germanic mythology have lent their names to these days. Tuesday is based on Tiu/Tyr the Germanic God of war. Wednesday is Odin/Woden’s day – the King of the Germanic Gods. Thursday is Thor’s day – the Thunderer of Germanic mythos. (The Germanic myth divorces the king of the gods from the God of thunder unlike the Aryan, Greek and Roman mythologies) Friday is the day of Freya, the Venus-equivalent of Germanic myth.
The months of the year originate in Rome. It is reasonably well-known, I think, that the year originally started in March and had only ten months- thus September to December are merely the 7th to the 10th month and named as such. March is named after Mars; April is reputed to be based on ‘Apru’ a short form of Aphrodite, the goddess of love; May is based on Maia the Spring Goddess; June is based on Juno the wife of Jupiter; July and August are based on Julius and Augustus Caesar and the fact that both months have the same number of days is reputedly because Augustus had to be shown as equal to Julius in every way. February is not related to any God but is reputed to be the month of purification. January is named after Janus, the two-headed gatekeeper of the Gods. The word janitor, also, owes its origin to Janus – since the janitor was supposed to be the gatekeeper.
The language of love – or lust, if you will – is replete with mythological significance. Aphrodisiac is based on Aphrodite the goddess of love. Erotic and all the words associated with it arise from Eros, Aphrodite’s son and the Greek equivalent of Cupid. Psyche is Eros’ lover/wife. Satyrs – the term used for the sexually hyper-active and hyper-inventive - are demi-gods of the woods.
When you use the word tantalizing, spare a thought for hapless Tantalus. The poor chap was punished with an eternal hunger and thirst while standing neck-deep in a river under a tree with boughs bearing ripe fruit. Every time he bent to take a drink the river would recede from him and every time he made an attempt at the fruits the boughs would recede from him. When you talk of the protean uses of nano-technology, think of the Old Man of the Sea – Proteus – who was reputed to be capable of changing shapes.
When you view things from an Olympian height, as the king of the gods does, the world is under your aegis (shield of Zeus, who rules Olympus - the abode of the gods). The cornucopia or ‘Horn of Plenty’ is reputed to be the horn of the goat Amalthea, which fed the infant Zeus. The other version has Hercules fighting a river god who changes shape into a bull and concedes defeat after Hercules breaks off one horn – which then becomes the ‘Horn of Plenty’. Narcissus’ obsession with his own beauty immortalized his character in the English word narcissistic. The nymph Echo, cursed by Juno to repeat the last words of whatever is uttered by others, pines away in love of Narcissus while the chap falls in love with his reflection in the water till he wastes away and becomes a flower. Arachne, who challenged Pallas Athene to a weaving contest and was cursed to become a spider, lent her name to – you guessed it – the Arachnidae (spiders).
What with the ‘Labors of Hercules’, cleaning the Augean stables, facing the real Hydra (the monster which grew three heads where one head was cut – hydra-headed problems mean the same thing where solving one problem gives rise to new problems) etc Hercules has been the source of a lot of the English language. The Jason story, of course, yielded the quest for the Golden Fleece, between Scylla and Charybis (eq. of between the devil and the deep blue sea) and the song of the sirens. Of these, only the last has lasted till date. The Gorgon’s head from the tale of Perseus has lapsed with disuse. The Athenian Theseus with his destruction of the Minotaur and abandonment of Ariadne may not have contributed much to the language but the god who took up Ariadne certainly contributed to conviviality - how could you have a bacchanalian orgy without Bacchus? Pan the forest God, on the other hand, contributed only panic – the unreasoning fear of animals.
Apart from ‘Achilles’ heel’, the tale of the war for Helen of Troy contributes ‘Trojan horse’ or ‘Beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ as well as ‘being a Cassandra’ as applied to someone who prophesies unpleasant things and is disbelieved. The Odyssey, which follows the travails of Odysseus (or Ulysses) after the Trojan War contributes ‘Lotus-eaters’ and ‘Circe’ as applied to witches.
In the arms of Morpheus, you can dream for he is the god of dreams but you could not be somnolent without Somnus, the God of sleep - in whose merciful rule I leave you now!