Posts Tagged ‘mythology’

The Language of the Gods, part 1

February 1, 2010

Greek mythology has influenced the world for millennia and much of it survives in our everyday language. For example, when someone predicts something bad (rain, failed exams, relationship break ups) we reply ¨Don’t be such a Kassandra¨. The Kassandra story goes back to Homer who tells us that Kassandra was a princess of Troy whom the god Apollo fell in love with. He gave her the power of prophecy but when she rejected him, he turned the blessing into a curse by making her prophecies incredible to anyone that heard them. When Kassandra saw what the Greeks were up to in creating the Trojan Horse no one believed her, with the fall of Troy as a tragic consequence.

¨Trojan Horse¨, incidentally, is another expression borrowed from Greek mythology. Used in computer language, it describes a virus that creeps into your system disguised as a friendly email, for example, just like the wooden horse the Greeks made the Trojans as a ¨peace offer¨. From Homer we also get the expression ¨Achilles’ Heel¨. Achilles was a young hero made immortal by his sea nymph mother who submerged him into a magic river. Because she held him by the heel this was the only body part that was not touched by the water and so, this became Achilles’ only weak spot. Today, we do not only use the expression about physical weaknesses but also about things we are touchy about or just really bad at.

The creation myths are full of names that we have borrowed into our own languages:

In the beginning was Chaos out of which Gaia, the Earth, was born. Gaia gave birth to Okeanos, the Ocean, and Uranos, the Sky and after an eternal embrace with Uranos she bore Chronos, Time. Chronos hated his father and severed the embrace between his parents by cutting off Uranos’ limb, which fell into the sea. Out of the foam that was created when it hit the surface, Aphrodite rose.

This is just a short summary of the creation myth but in it, we have a myriad of names that need attention. Chaos is the word for ¨nothing and everything¨ in Greek and we use it when describing something that is completely out of order: chaos, chaotic.

Gaia, the Earth, is called Ge in Greek and from her we have a huge amount of words and names, all to do with earth and origins: geography (charting/study of earth), geology (logic of earth), geometry (measuring of earth), George/Georgina (worker of earth/farmer), genuine (original, real), Genesis (origins), genitals (reproductive organs), generate (to create, bring forth) and progeny (offspring). The list could go on forever…

Mother Earth’s son Okeanos has given us the word for great sea, ocean and an oceanographer is someone who charts/studies the sea (compare with geography). Her husband/son Uranos still gives his name to the sky in Greek: Uranos, even though it only lives on in western languages as a planet.

Chronos is another good example of our languages’ mythological origins. Chronos means time (or year) in Greek and when we describe something in chronological order we are putting it in a certain line of events according to when they happened. If you have a chronic condition it is permanent as opposed to temporary. A chronometer is a machine that measures time.

For now, we will end with Aphrodite, the goddess of love. Her name means ¨born out of foam (afros)¨ and when we speak of an aphrodisiac, we mean something that enhances our sexual desires. All thanks to Aphrodite!

Studying Greek is not just about grammar and vocabulary; it is also about mythology, history, philosophy and science. Much of it has survived in various western languages and as you learn it, you will discover how much of it you actually use on an everyday basis. If you have comments or questions about certain expressions or words, please get in touch. More about the Greek language next Monday!

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Note: I have intentionally used the Greek spelling for the names rather than the Latin (Kassandra instead of Cassandra, Chronos instead of Chronus etc.)