Greek debt

 Joe Mc Kay’s “Crazy About Words”
…toasting our language since 2003!

If each of us English speakers paid back a penny each time we used a word that originated as a proper name in Greek mythology, Greece would be solvent in no time. When you say you’re headed east, you owe Eos, the goddess of Dawn. If you wax poetic on the magic of night, you’re beholden to Nyx, the god of Night. You’re indebted to Vulcan, the god of Fire, when you use the word volcano. And when you take your daily aphrodisiac, you must thank Aphrodite, the goddess of Love.

The Greeks could make a national industry of their rich mythology. And generating new myths is something they’re pretty good at too. For years, Athenian plutocrats succeeded in declaring only 3% of the actual number of residential swimming pools to the government. Recently, tax collectors used Google Earth satellite photography to prove that there were 180,000 not 6,000 pools subject to tax. Oops! Science trumps the myth of Ploutos, god of Wealth, Greed, and Worldly Goods.

The idea for this column came as I read Swim…Why we Love the Water, Lynn Sherr’s wonderful brief anthology of swimming lore, written in conjunction with her preparation to swim the Hellespont (now known as the Dardanelles) from Europe to Asia in 2011. She relates the legendary tale of Leander, an ordinary laboring man, who trysted with Hero, a virgin priestess of Aphrodite, by swimming the Hellespont each night and back the next morning. One night a storm doused Hero’s lamp; Leander lost his way and drowned. Overwhelmed with grief, Hero jumped from her tower to join him in the afterlife, and lent her name forever to those who perform heroic acts. Let’s not forget that the first hero was female!

The myths galore that comprise “Greek Mythology” were stories made up to relate the unknown to the known, to explain natural phenomena, and to guide moral behavior. Most of these stories centered around gods and those closest to them.

When you talk about the hyacinths in your garden, you are indebted to Hyacinthus, the handsome youth loved by the god Apollo, who accidentally kills him with a discus, and in whose memory Apollo grows a new flower.

For his role in the unsuccessful revolt of the Titans against the Olympians, Atlas was condemned by Zeus to stand at the edge of Gaia…the Earth, and carry the heavens on his shoulders, to prevent them from re-entering their primordial embrace with earth. For his forbearance, Atlas got to give his name to the top vertebra of the spine, the point where the weight was concentrated. Later, the myth got confused; Atlas was depicted bearing the weight of Earth on his shoulders, and his name lent to a compilation of terrestrial maps. (The bronze Atlas sculpture at Rockefeller Center in NYC has it right, depicting celestial spheres, not a solid orb.) Angelo Siciliano (1892-1972) was born again in 1929 as bodybuilder, Charles Atlas, whose strength evoked that of the original Atlas. His memorable ad, “Give me 15 minutes a day, and I’ll give you a new body,” was one of the longest running of all time. He is the god of Skinny Men who want to look more muscular.

The story of Tantalus is that of another son of a god, condemned to stand knee-deep in water in Hades, for betraying the trust of the gods at the dinner table. When he bends down to drink, the water recedes, and when he reaches up for fruit from the tree above him, it is just beyond his grasp. Every time we say "tantalizing," we owe a penny!

My personal favorite is “the weaver’s tale,” the story of Arachne, a maiden who was transformed into a spider by Athena, the goddess of the Arts, for challenging her to a weaving contest. That was a major no-no, another Eve Harrington gone awry, for which she earned a permanent place in entomology as an arachnid. And this is a point where entomology, the study of insects, meets etymology, the study of the origin of words.

With plots like Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, a cast of characters longer than forty years’ worth of All My Children, and with such incredible logogenesis…word creation, Greek Mythology is well worth exploiting for fun and profit.

Joe Mc Kay
July 2012

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