I don’t know about you but I just love the history of words and phrases and how they come to be in our language. I’m pretty sad because I actually do read word encyclopedias but if I find out why Americans say fit to be tied or what a night on the tiles means then I’m happy to continue. One subject that not only provides some of our common words but also inspires Hollywood blockbusters is Greek Mythology. Here are some of my favourite stories from Ancient Greece.
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If you ever wondered where the pattern on a peacock’s tail comes from it’s all down to a randy Greek god and a jealous wife. Old Zeus was playing away with Io and Hera found out. Zeus turned Io into a white heifer to protect her but Hera sent her faithful watchman Argus to spy on them with his one hundred eyes. Zeus retaliated and sent his mate Hermes into the mix. Hermes played a flute and as each of Argus’s eyes closed in sleep Zeus sealed them shut. Then Hermes slew Argus. Io ran away and that was the end of the affair. Hera then commemorated the death of Argus by imposing the eye pattern onto the tail of her favourite bird, the Peacock. This is also thought to be the origin of the saying – sleep with one eye open.
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Winter is apparently all the fault of a goddess named Demeter. Zeus (him again) had to bargain with Hades the King of the Underworld after he had kidnapped Demeter’s daughter Persephone. Demeter was so distraught that she had laid waste to the Earth and desolated it. Hades was reluctant to let her return topside so Zeus had to agree that Persephone would return to Hades for four months each year. Once Demeter was reunited with her daughter she made the earth fertile again but every four months that Persephone once again returned to Hades, Demeter would grieve and withdraw her bounty from the Earth thereby causing winter. And there was us thinking it was meteorology that created the weather.
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Daedalus and his son Icarus were about to be imprisoned by King Minos so the secret of the fantastic labyrinth they had built would remain protected but Daedalus had an escape plan. They made wings from wooden frames, feathers and wax and learned how to fly. Daedalus knew not to go too turn the sun but when they were making their flight of escape Icarus got too excited and soared upwards and upwards. The sun melted the wax holding his wings together and bang, Icarus fell to the ground. So now you know. If you play with fire you get burnt and fall to earth with a bump. This would make a good episode of Prison Break don’t you think?
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Poor Cassandra. Apollo fell in love with one of his priestesses who resisted his advances. Apollo promised Cassandra the gift of prophecy in return for one kiss. Cassandra obliged but during the kiss spat in his mouth. Apollo was pretty miffed but couldn’t take away his gift so he changed the rules on her and from then on, even though she knew exactly what was going to happen nobody would ever believe her. Cassandra prophesized the Wooden Horse of Troy but nobody listened and look what happened there.
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Want to know where the word tantalize comes from? Well Tantalos was a very naughty Greek King. He started off as a petty thief stealing ambrosia and nectar from the Gods on Mount Olympus to treat his friends but his nefariousness soon grew. He invited the Gods for dinner at his place, killed his own son and served him up as stew. Wise old Zeus figured it out and killed Tantalos who went straight to the Underworld. But that wasn’t the end of it, for his crime Tantalos had to stand forever in his afterlife, waist deep in a pool of water under a tree which dangled ripe fruit over his head. Whenever he reached for a drink of water it magically drained away and if he tried to pick fruit, the branches would move beyond his reach. That is – he was being tantalized.
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Beware of Greeks bearing gifts. The story of the Trojan Horse is a familiar one. Man falls in love (Paris) with beautiful woman (Helen), steals her from husband (Menelaus) and flees home (Troy). Enraged husband follows with big army and fights to get her back. Despite the heavyweights, Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon and Odysseus (in other words, Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom etc) the war rages on for 10 years until someone has the bright idea of the Horse. A giant wooden horse is presented as a gift to the Trojans under the guise of a tribute to the gods but when the city sleeps, the Greek soldiers led by Ulysses leave the horse, murder the troops and nick back Helen. The journey home is retold as The Odyssey. It’s why some computer viruses that attack when a certain condition is met are called Trojan horses.
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When we describe someone’s particular weakness or vulnerability we use the term Achilles Heel and this is derived from the fact that invincible Greek warrior Achilles was killed by an arrow to his heel. His mum had decided to make Achilles invulnerable by dipping him in the river Styx when he was a baby. She held him by his heel which of course escaped the powers of the waters. Shame she didn’t think about double dipping him by holding the other foot.
I wanted to share the story of Dionysus because apparently that’s the origin of my name (Denise) but his tale is too long. Dionysus was the god of wine and feasting.
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