Myths in Everyday Life

One way that the ancient myths of Greece and Rome live on is in the English language. Many words and phrases have their origins in classical mythology. Earlier sections have mentioned some of these terms; this section describes others you might recognize.

Words and Phrases

Here are a few words and phrases that originated in classical mythology:

  • An odyssey is a long, often difficult journey filled with adventures — just like Odysseus's trip home from Troy.

  • The word panic, which means a sudden, overwhelming fear, traces its origins back to the god Pan. During battle, Pan would let out a terrifying shriek that made the enemy frantic with fear.

  • An arachnid is a spider. This word comes from Arachne, the mortal woman who foolishly challenged Athena to a weaving contest and was transformed into a spider.

  • A phobia is a fear, often an irrational one. The word comes from Phobos, a son of Ares who caused terror on the battlefield.

  • The word aphrodisiac refers to a food or potion that causes sexual desire. Chapter 15 described how Aphrodite liked to stir up sexual desire among both mortals and immortals.

  • An Adonis is a handsome young man — just like the Adonis who was loved by Aphrodite.

  • When someone is consistently lucky, that person is said to have the Midas touch. As in the myth of King Midas, everything the person touches turns to gold.

  • Hermaphroditus, a son of Hermes and Aphrodite, merged physically with a nymph, becoming both male and female. Today, the word hermaphrodite refers to an animal or person born with both male and female sex organs.

  • The element titanium, which takes its name from the Titans, is known for its strength. Titanic means gigantic and powerful, just like the ancient Titans.

  • Another element with a mythological name is mercury (the Roman name for Hermes). A person with a mercurial nature is quick-witted, lively, and volatile.

  • The names of several months come from Roman mythology: January is named for Janus, a double-faced god of doorways and beginnings; March is named for Mars, the god of war; April may come from a variant of Aphrodite; May's name comes from Maia, an earth goddess; and June is named in honor of Juno. Although many of the days of the week take their names from Norse mythology, Saturday is named in honor of the Roman god Saturn.

Psychology draws some of its terms from classical mythology. For example, narcissism, a personality disorder characterized by excessive self-love, draws its name from the story of Narcissus. Psychoanalysis teaches that people have two drives, one toward life and one toward death; these drives are sometimes referred to as the Eros instinct (life) and the Thanatos instinct (death).

The word psychology has its roots in Greek myth. Psyche means mind, soul, or spirit, but Psyche was also a mythological character who had a love affair with Eros, the god of love.

Probably the most famous psychological term derived from classical mythology came from Sigmund Freud, the Austrian neurologist who founded psychoanalysis. Freud coined the phrase Oedipal complex based on the myth of Oedipus. An oracle proclaimed that Oedipus would kill his father and marry his mother, and Freud believed that these feelings of jealousy toward the same-sex parent and love for the opposite-sex parent were a phase that all children go through.

The world of sports also has references to classical mythology. The Olympic Games, which began in ancient Greece, are the most obvious example. Nike, a popular brand of athletic shoes, is the name of the Greek goddess of victory. And the word marathon comes from the myth of Pheidippides, an Athenian messenger. During the Battle of Marathon, Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta to ask the Spartans to join the Athenians in repelling an invasion. To get from Athens to Sparta (and then back to Athens again with the Spartans' reply), Pheidippides ran more than 250 miles in just three days.

Today's Olympic Games are a variation on the festivals held in ancient Greece to honor the gods. During these festivals, sports and artistic contests were held. Even then, winning an event in the Olympic Games was an admirable and respected feat.

References to myths can appear where you least expect them, such as in the world of computer science. In general usage, a Trojan horse — just like the one that led to the defeat of Troy — is something that appears desirable but in fact presents a threat. In computer science, a Trojan horse (often called a Trojan for short) is a computer program that looks useful and innocent, such as a free computer game, but allows unauthorized access to your computer.

Written in the Stars

Throughout this book are stories of heroes and other mortals who were honored by the gods after death by being turned into constellations. For example, after the great hunter Orion was slain, he was placed in the sky. Other constellations include Ursa Major and Ursa Minor (Callisto and her son Arcas); Andromeda, Perseus, and Cetus; and Heracules.

The zodiac signs also come from classical mythology:

There are Roman equivalents for the names of Greek gods and goddesses. Most of the planets in the solar system are named after these Roman deities. Other celestial bodies, such as some asteroids and several of Jupiter's moons, are also named for mythological figures.

  • Aries is the golden-fleeced ram.

  • Taurus is the white bull who carried Europa to Crete.

  • Gemini is Castor and Pollux, twin sons of Zeus and Leda.

  • Cancer is the crab that Heracles faced.

  • Leo is another enemy of Heracles, the Nemean Lion.

  • Virgo is Astraea, the Roman goddess of justice.

  • Libra represents Astraea's scales.

  • Scorpio is the scorpion that killed Orion.

  • Sagittarius is the centaur Chiron, a great archer.

  • Capricorn is the goat Amalthea, who nursed Zeus.

  • Aquarius is Ganymede, the gods' cupbearer.

  • Pisces is the fish that served as a disguise for both Aphrodite and Eros.

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