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Timeless Greek Mythology
Mythology and religion were fundamental aspects of daily life in Ancient and Classical Greece, imbedded in the values and conduct of the citizens to an extent that today renders it virtually impossible to study the country’s history without also examining the rich stories around which it was based. Greek religion and mythology explained phenomena that science often couldn’t, and was perhaps maintained out of tradition and reverence even if knowledge of formerly inexplicable matters was later gained. Often depicted in the literature and theatre of the time and having survived through the ages to be told and taught by current societies, it’s also no surprise that a number of modern words and ideas have their roots in Ancient Greece. Colourful and exciting, here are a few of the Ancient Greek explanations for the surrounding world, along with the modern day words and ideas that they may have inspired.
Arachne, the young mortal weaver, took to boasting that her tapestry skills were superior to those of Athena, the goddess of wisdom and battle, refusing (foolishly) to even acknowledge the provision of her talents by the goddess. As such, Athena organised a competition in which the two would both put their skills to the test. Unable to fault Arachne’s work upon the conclusion of the contest, however, and envious of her weaving abilities, Athena destroyed the tapestry and ultimately turned the woman into a spider, explaining the animal’s capability to weave intricate webs. Another version of the myth has Arachne losing the competition and being turned into a spider following her suicide as a result of failure, but either depiction highlights her foolishness through her apparent inability to do the one thing that Greeks were surely taught from birth: respect the gods or pay the price. Arachne meant ‘spider’ in Ancient Greek and is obviously the foundation for the class name Arachnida and its encompassment of creatures labelled as arachnids.
According to Greek mythology, Aphrodite, the Olympian goddess of love, discontent with her marriage to the ugly, malformed Olympian god of metallurgy, Hephaestus, chose to indulge in an extramarital affair with the (presumably far more rugged and rebellious) god of war, Ares. The two were perfectly content to enjoy their trysts behind the unsuspecting back of Hephaestus, who apparently never dreamed that the goddess of love and beauty and pleasure would forsake her vows and indeed seek love and beauty and pleasure, until Helios, the sun, observed the scandalous affair and reported back to Hephaestus. Furious, he sought and obtained revenge, catching the pair in a humiliatingly compromising position that he then put on display for all the Olympians to see. Embarrassed but undeterred, Aphrodite and Ares were careful to have their subsequent liaisons guarded by a youth known as Alectyron. This might have worked, had he not, much to the displeasure of everyone involved, one day fell asleep on the job, allowing Helios to once again observe the couple and report the continued affair to Hephaestus. Irate, Ares turned the boy into a rooster, preventing him from ever again failing to signal the arrival of the sun.
This myth, centring around the young Niobe, again explores the gods’ punishment for and the Greek hatred of hubris (excessive pride). When Niobe and her husband, Amphion, gave birth to fourteen children, seven sons and seven daughters, the former, overjoyed with her fertility, boasted to Leto, the divine mother of the Olympian twins Apollo and Artemis, suggesting that the goddess was inferior due to the mere two children that she had reared. Apparently forgetting that these children, far from being ordinary, were all-powerful gods, Niobe was undoubtedly left unprepared for the vengeful, brutal murder of each and every one of her own children by the twin deities. With her distress accentuated by the suicide of her husband (some versions claim that he was also killed by Apollo following attempts at retribution), Niobe, unable to even bury her children, fled to Mt. Sipylus, begging for an end to her pain. Zeus, pitying the woman, turned her into stone, endeavouring to harden her emotions. However, even as a stone, Niobe continued to cry, shedding tears for her slaughtered children in a manner indicative of the fountain.
Zeus (remember him, the king of the Olympian gods who pitied Niobe by turning her to stone?) was married to his sister, Hera, but like most Olympians didn’t let his vows prevent him from dappling in numerous extramarital affairs. In fact, if his conduct was held up as a standard by which the other Olympians followed, it’s no wonder that their behaviour was utterly questionable. Utilising the nymph Echo (who loved to talk) to distract and entertain his wife with lengthy stories whilst he engaged in adultery, Zeus failed to so much as raise an eyebrow when Hera, finally recognising the nymph’s deception, took away her voice, leaving her with the annoying ability of merely repeating another’s words. When Echo fell in love with Narcissus, a beautiful youth who cared for only himself and who was ultimately punished by being made to fall in love with the one thing he couldn’t obtain: his own reflection (and yes, this is how the word narcissistic evolved), she was distraught both by her inability to properly address him and his ultimate rejection of her feelings. Retreating to isolated glens, she pined for her unrequited love until only her voice remained.
The Myth of Hermaphroditus
The nymph Salmacis became infatuated with the youthful Hermaphroditus, intent on seducing him and fulfilling her lust. Upon her rejection, however, she hid behind a tree, springing out as Hermaphroditus bathed in a pool and surprising him by wrapping herself around his naked body, praying to the gods with a demand for them to never be parted. As such their bodies merged, blending into a human of both sexes in a story that provides the basis for the modern word hermaphrodite.
The Myth of Psyche
Psyche, one of the most beautiful mortal maidens, found herself the subject of Aphrodite’s intense jealously due to her infinite captivation of men. In order to recapture men’s adoration, Aphrodite asked her son Eros to force Psyche to fall in love with a hideous monster, however, upon falling in love with her himself, Eros left the task unaccomplished, instead asking the god Apollo to tell the Oracle that Psych would marry a hideous beast atop a mountain, the face of which she would never see. Distraught when they heard the news but nevertheless complying with the prophecy, Psyche’s family left her atop the mountain, where she was wedded unknowingly to Eros, with whom she quickly fell in love. However, following her firm belief that her husband was intent on killing her (a lie provided by her jealous sisters) Psyche took a knife and lantern in order to beat him to the task, raising the lantern in time to catch sight of his face and realise that her beast husband was actually the beautiful Eros (she was presumably quite relieved). Eros, discovered, left Psyche with the insistence that they could never be reunited. Distraught, she begged Aphrodite to allow her to see Eros, with the goddess promising to grant her wish only after the accomplishment of three tasks. These tasks achieved, Zeus turned Psyche into the goddess of the soul so that her and Eros could be together for eternity. Her name gives the modern day prefix for words pertaining to the mind and emotion, such as psychology.
The Myth of Tantalus
Tantalus was loved by Zeus and welcomed to Olympia to share in the feasting of the gods. This was until he had the bright idea to offer up his son, Pelops, as a sacrifice, cutting, boiling and serving him at the gods’ table. Alerted to the atrocity of this act, however, the gods refused to consume the food, instead resurrecting Pelops and casting Tantalus into Tartarus, the deepest realm of the Underworld, reserved for evildoers. There he was subjected to the eternal punishment of standing submerged in a pool of water that drained every time he stooped, preventing him from satisfying his insatiable thirst. Similarly, the fruit tree just above his head withdrew every time he endeavoured to reach for its branches, rendering him perpetually unable to receive nourishment. It is from this myth that the word tantalise originates.
From these myths alone the influence of the Greek world and the origin of many modern day words and concepts becomes clear, highlighting our lengthy and likely infinite fascination with ancient civilisation and the stories upon which they built themselves. Mythology like this will hopefully continue to be passed down throughout the ages, enriching society’s view of the modern world and adding depth to our current understanding of ancient life and concepts.