Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

November 11, 2023

First published October 29, 2023

 in Mid-Day

Greek Gods, English Words

In the Devanagari script, there is no upper and lowercase. So, the name of God can become a proper noun and a common noun. Shakti can mean both power and a goddess. Dharma can refer to an idea as well as a god called Dharma. Ganga is both the river, and the river goddess, Ganga. The earth, Prithvi, is both the Earth itself and the goddess Prithvi, mother of Sita.

In the English language, there is uppercase and lowercase, and so it is easy to distinguish a proper noun from a common noun. We find that there are many Greek gods whose names lend themselves to common nouns in English. For example, Atlas, the titan, who holds up the sky, becomes an atlas, a book of maps. In Greek mythology, the word fate comes from the three Fates who spin the thread of life. The youngest of these is called Clotho, from where the word clothing comes from. The word chronology comes from the Titan Cronus, father of Zeus. Cronus eats his own children and thus represents time, in Greek mythology. The word erotic comes from the God of love, the word echo comes from a Greek myth of a nymph, who is cursed to repeat the words she hears. Narcissus is a character who is obsessed with himself.

The word Europe comes from the princess Europa, who was abducted by Zeus, king of the gods. The word fury comes from the Greek goddess of vengeance. The word hermaphrodite, someone who is a mix of masculine and feminine principles, comes from the union of two gods, Hermes, the god of traders and tricksters and Aphrodite, the goddess of love.

The word iridescent comes from the word Iris who is linked to colours. Morphine comes from the god of sleep, Morpheus. Hypnosis comes from the god of dreams, Hypnos. Music comes from the Muses, who inspire poets. The word Nemesis comes from the Greek goddess of revenge, the goddess who brings about the downfall of the proud and the arrogant. The words panic and pandemonium come from the Greek god with goat legs called Pan.

Phobia comes from the Greek word used for fear, Fobus. Psychology comes from the Greek goddess of the soul psyche. Tantalising comes from the king, who was cursed to stand in water, under a branch of trees. Every time he tries to drink the water, the water moves away, every time he tries to eat the fruit, the fruit goes away. This is the punishment given to him because he killed his own son and offered his flesh to the gods.

The presence of these words indicates the impact of Greek mythology on Britain via the Roman Empire. Britain is on the western edge of the Roman Empire, an island, while Greece is on the eastern end. But the Roman empire controlled much of the Mediterranean. So, these words gradually slipped into the English language especially since all educated people were exposed more to Greek myths than to local British, Irish and Celtic myths. Also, English aristocrats learnt French which had close ties to Latin. Knowledge of Greek myths was an indicator of intellectual superiority especially after the Renaissance as well as colonial times as Greek was seen as the mother of civilisation.

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