10 Words Derived from Greek Mythology

Some words have a distinct pedigree. These words hail from Mt. Olympus itself. Godly in origin, use them to spice up your conversation or writing.

1 Antaean

Antaeus was a gigantic and powerful wrestler, son of Gaea, goddess of the Earth, and Poseidon, the sea god. Whenever Antaeus touched his mother, his strength renewed. He always kicked butt when people threw him to the ground. Heracles, always a crafty fellow, bested him by lifting Antaeus off the ground. Then Heracles crushed the god to death.

In English, this word means mammoth, for Antaeus’ size, and superhuman strength.

2 Caduceus

The Greek god Hermes served as a herald and messenger for the other gods. He carried a winged staff with two snakes twisting around it. There is also another staff, that of Aesculapius, the god of healing. This had only one snake and no wings attached.

The Latin translation for herald is karyx, modified into karykeion. Is should only refer to the winged staff with two snakes, but in practice is also refers to the one snake healing staff as well. The staff of Aesculapius as well as the staff of Hermes are used as medical symbols.

3 Chimera (pronounced Kymera)

This was a fearsome beast with a lion’s head, goat’s body, and dragon’s tail. It breathed fire and terrified the people of Lydia. Finally, their king, Iobates, called in the hero Bellerophon. He didn’t actually want Bellerophon to win. The king’s son-in-law wanted the hero killed and the king thought the chimera would be the trick. Trouble was, Bellerophon summoned reinforcements: the winged horse Pegasus (not at all related to Perseus). Bellerophon then took down the creature from above.

Chimera lives on in Enlglish as an illusion or fabrication of the mind. It’s also an impossible dream.

4 Cornucopia

Zeus wasn’t always master of all the gods. In fact, he once was a baby too. As an infant, he was suckled from the horn of a goat. Later, this horn was filled with flowers and fruits and given as a present to Zeus. This filled horn then served as a symbol for abundance.

Besides as serving as a climactic battle scene in the Hunger Games, the word now means an inexhaustible store of something or simply abundance. That’s why it so often appears during Thanksgiving.

5 Halcyon

Alkyone, the daughter of the god of the winds (Aeolus), learned that her husband had been killed in a shipwreck. Her grief was unbearable, so she threw herself into the sea and was changed into a kingfisher. The Greeks call these birds alkyon or halkyon. Legend also has it that kingfishers build floating nests on the sea. Because of their heritage, the wind god clams the sea until the eggs have hatched.

The legend prompted people to associate calm and peaceful with the word halcyon. (Actual kingfishers make nests in tunnels dug into the ground).

6 Nemesis

Nemesis was the goddess of vengeance. She doled out rewards for noble deeds and cruel punishments for evil acts. She didn’t punish offenders instantly. Rather she might wait generations, inflicting her wrath on a descendant to avenge the crime.

In English, the word originally referred to someone who doled out just retribution, much like the goddess herself. Modern usage has transformed the word into someone (or something) that frustrated another person’s efforts (much like a curse or an adversary).

7 Paean

The Apollo sometimes disguised himself as Paean, the physician of the gods. Later, musical hymns were sung at to praise Apollo. These were called paeans. They evolved into songs sung at events ranging from  funerals to drinking festivals, as well as traditional marching songs for armies.

Now a paean is any song mean to celebrate joy, praise, or thanksgiving. It can also mean a tribute.

8 Promethean

Probably one of the most recognizable Greek myths is that of Prometheus. One of the Titan giants, he modeled humans from clay and taught them agriculture and how to live together. His final gift was fire that he stole from the gods so that humans could cook and have warmth and light. Zeus, however, wanted the humans to perish, so he punished Prometheus by tying him to a rock. An eagle tore at the giant’s liver every day for eternity.

The modern word bears out its heritage. Promethean means daringly original and creative (in the way that Prometheus helped create civilization). The word can also mean defiant of authority or limits (because Prometheus stole from the gods). Finally, Promethean signifies suffering on a grand scale (to represent the torture inflicted on Prometheus by Zeus).

9 Rhadamanthine

Three judges hold court in the the underworld: Minos, Aeacus, and Rhadamanthus. Minos was the son of Zeus and Europa. He had been the kind of Crete before dying and becoming supreme judge of the underworld. Aeacus, another son of Zeus (he got around) was king of Aegina before shuffling off the mortal coil and doning judges robes. Rhadamanthus was brother to Minos and king of the Cyclades Islands. He was known for being especially inflexible when handing down his judgements.

The word in English means rigorously strict or just.

10 Thanatology

Thanatos was the personification of death. His twin brother, Hypnos, was the personification of sleep (the root for hypnosis). The ancient Greeks began to use thanatos as a generic word for death.

Thanatology is the study of a description of death. It’s also the psychological methods for coping with death. In 1935, Thanatos came back to describe people with an unconscious tendency toward self-destruction.

Tim Kane

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Did the Greek Gods Eat Mini Marshmallows?

Ambrosia. The word either inspires dread or joy from the coconut and marshmallow concoction. But the origin of this word leads to a recipe for immortality.

Now, why the interest in the snack food of a defunct pantheon? Besides the fact that mythology is plain cool, I’m doing research for a new novel. What better way than to blog about it. Now, I’ve really dug how Rick Riordan handled the Greek gods in Lightning Thief. But I feel he could have done more with ambrosia and nectar. (Maybe he has in subsequent books). So, I’m here to explore these mythical foods, as well as what makes a god immortal.

It seems that the Greeks interchanged ambrosia and nectar. Ambrosia could be eaten or drunk. Nectar was mostly drunk, but sometimes eaten. Me, I always thought of ambrosia as the food (maybe because of the fruit salad) and nectar as the drink.

There’s little information on how ambrosia and nectar are made. Apparently doves carried the food to the gods on Olympus. Ambrosia is described as being nine times sweeter than honey and its fragrance guards against disagreeable speech. I take this last part to mean that arguments won’t break out over the dinner table—good idea when you’re dealing with the Olympian family dynamic. (My guess, they weren’t serving Ambrosia when Eris plunked her golden apple on the table.)

What is clear is that eating the stuff makes you a god. Right after Apollo had been born, he climbed up to mount Olympus (a stunning feat for a newborn) where he received ambrosia and nectar to make him immortal.

A version of the Tantalus myth has the fellow dining at the table of the gods. Tantalus slips some nectar and ambrosia in his toga, and then shares the stuff with his friends on Earth. Not a cool move. Sure you get immortality, but is that really going to help you when Zeus hurls a thunderbolt at your butt?

My first exposure to the stuff (not literally, but in literature) was with the 1904 novel The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth by H. G. Wells. In this story these scientists, Bensington and Redwood, create a new chemical food called Herakleophorbia IV, which makes things grow to ginormous size. Being responsible nineteenth century scientists, they feed this stuff to their kids and the result is 40 foot babies. Kind of a weird story, but it falls in line with the Greek myths. The gods and titans were supposed to be gigantic.

The interesting thing I stumbled on was the gods’ blood, or lack thereof. It seems that the Greek gods bleed ichor. I only knew this stuff from Dungeons and Dragons and H. P. Lovecraft, so in my mind, I saw this black oily liquid. However, the ichor of the gods is a golden and resplendent. The theory goes that since the gods do not eat mortal food (food that rots and dies) neither do they. After all, the word ambrosia derives from the root of mbrotos, meaning mortal. Add the prefix “a” prefix to get “not mortal”. The food won’t rot, so neither will the consumer.

So what happens when these immortal gods don’t get their food fix? Well, they can’t die. Instead, the godly ones lie down, breathless, and sleep. They loose all power until they get more ambrosia and nectar.

Now eating (or drinking) ambrosia changes mortals. I’m assuming a human’s blood would transmute to ichor. I don’t know how much you need to ingest. Did Tantalus eat enough? Who’s to say.  After Achilles died, Thetis anointed him with ambrosia to destroy the human side he inherited from his mortal father, Peleus. This implies that simply rubbing the stuff on your skin transforms you, killing your mortality.

Bottom line, you start sipping from the nectar cup, there might be no turning back. It’s like the forbidden apple. One taste is too much. No wonder the gods were irked when someone stole the stuff. There were too many bickering brothers and sisters in Olympus already. Why add a few interlopers?

Ambrosia serves as the ultimate class division between mortals and immortals. Gods have it. Men yearn for it. And no, the recipe for immortality does not include marshmallows.

Tim Kane