Monday, April 8, 2013

Greek Mythology and Etymology

I love Greek mythology.

Okay, I admit it: Rick Riordan got me obsessed with it. The Percy Jackson series is nothing short of ingenious, with the beautiful way in which the myths are woven into the modern world, fast-paced plots and lovable characters who force you to care about them. Before I started the series, I only had a basic idea of Greek myth; after it, my knowledge of the subject grew exponentially.

I also happen to love the English language. I have a little fixation with etymology, thanks to Norman Lewis, which just grew after I read a brief piece on the evolution of English in my last year's textbook. And now, combining both, I love digging out the link between English words and Greek mythology.

The credit for this new hobby also goes to Rick, who piqued my interest with the myth of Tantalus in the second book of PJO, The Sea of Monsters. It goes thus:

Tantalus was a king who invited the gods to a feast. But the dishes actually consisted of the flesh of the king's son Pelops, who was murdered by his father. (I should have warned you: some Greek myths give a whole new meaning to the word gross.) In the afterlife, Tantalus was punished for this gruesome act: he was placed near a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low branches, but he could neither eat nor drink. This myth becomes the source for the English word tantalize.

Here are some links I figured out:
  • In the system of scientific classification of organisms that is followed currently, spiders belong to the Class Arachnida. Arachne was a mortal weaver who boasted that her skill was greater than even the goddess Athena's; she was turned into a spider for her arrogance. 
  • Phobos, the Greek god of fear and also the son of Ares (god of war), gives rise to a very familiar word: phobia
  • Narcissus was a vain hunter who was cursed to fall in love with his own reflection.... and voilĂ !  we have narcissistic.
  • The drug morphine gets its name from Morpheus, the god of dreams.
  • Gaea, the Earth goddess, is likely to be the source of the root geo- in words like geology and geography
One last piece of trivia: words associated with time, like chronology, are derived from Kronos – the evil Titan who's also the Lord of Time.

I consider this to be just the tip of the iceberg. Greek myths also give rise to countless phrases like Achilles heel and Midas touch, not to mention the common usage 'bearing the weight of the sky upon your shoulders' which is a reference to Atlas, the Titan of the West, who was condemned by Zeus to hold up the sky after the gods' war with the Titans.

Interestingly, the first bone in our backbone is named Atlas, because it has to bear the weight of our head.


  1. Great post Zainab! I love Greek mythology (though my knowledge is a bit rusty. I haven't read a book for ages. Blame competetion exams and after twelfth crisis)
    But wow. Loved reading this.

    Sania at Embracing Dawn

    1. Thank you, fellow Greek-myth-lover :)

      After-twelfth crisis? Say no more. I'm heading towards it and I'm scared.

  2. zainab ---- my J poem's inspiration came from one of your post. :)

    1. Oh my god, I just saw it now and it is wonderful. Perfect 'J' :)

  3. I love etymology! I like how you've linked it with Greek mythology for a nice little vocabulary history lesson. So fun!

    #atozchallenge, Kristen's blog:

    1. Delighted that you found this post interesting! :)