Gods and English Words: The Greek Gods 1 (Advanced)

Colosso de rodesThe Colossus of Rhodes (Helios)Thousands of years ago, the Greeks worshipped a diverse bunch of gods and goddesses and developed an intricate tapestry of myths and legends regarding their actions. These deities were busy and were thought to be involved in every aspect of Ancient Greek life. In fact, the gods were so prevalent and so respected in and around Ancient Greece that their names live on, long after faith in their divinity has disappeared. The enduring legacy of these gods and the mythology that surrounds them can be found in a large number of words in many of the world's languages. As we shall see, English is no exception. In this, the first of two blog posts on the Greek gods, the focus will be on the gods themselves and the English words derived from their names. Otherwise, if we delve too deeply into the myths we will be opening a Pandora's Box, and I'll leave myself open to the Furies of the readers...

The Greeks had numerous myths regarding the genealogies of the gods in their pantheon (temple of Gods) and the relationships and family ties that existed between them. It all gets rather chaotic. This is appropriate enough, however, when we see that chaos, the primeval void at the beginning of creation, is generally considered to be the first thing that existed. It was without rhyme or reason, a realm of utter confusion. Yet, Chaos was also personified and regarded as a deity. Out of Chaos came the other primordial deities. Let's take a closer look.


The Primordial Deities


This first group of gods are often portrayed as places or realms and are the basic elemental gods. From the yawning void of Chaos, there came Gaia (Mother Earth), Tartarus (of the Underworld), Eros (Desire), Nyx (Night) and Erebus (Darkness) among others. As with Chaos, the names of a number of these gods live on in the words and expressions of Modern English, not to mention many other contemporary languages.

Eros with a bow HermitageEros: ?Roman copy after the original of 335BCAccording to Ancient Greek sources, including Hesiod (c. 700BC), Eros, the god of love and sexual desire, is one of the first of the primordial deities to have come into existence. Later sources made Eros the son of Aphrodite (see below), and focused on his mischievous propensity to bring about illicit liaisons and carnal relationships. The Romans developed this later version into their equivalent, Cupid. Either way, Eros has left his mark on the language and our sexual proclivities. Eros has given us erotica, (a contemporary version would presumably have him passing on a plain, brown envelope), erotic and erogenous zones

Aether was the personification of the upper air, the purer brighter air breathed by the gods as opposed to the lower air breathed by ordinary mortals. In ancient cosmology and alchemy, ether was considered to be the fifth element after air, fire, earth and water. Ether was beyond the reach of humans and was thought to be the material from which the stars and planets were formed, a substance which did not exert resistance to matter and energy and which allowed electromagnetic forces to pass through it. This belief was finally disproved by Einstein's Theory of Relativity, but not before ether had been adopted as a colloquial term for "radio". Ether is also still used in organic chemistry for various compounds made up of one oxygen atom attached to two hydocarbon groups, as with diethyl ether, an early anaesthetic. Ether also gave rise to ethereal, to mean "delicate, airy, not of this world".

Uranus was the primordial god of the sky and heavens. As Father Sky, Uranus came to cover Mother Earth, the goddess Gaia, every night, thus producing the first generation of Titans, as well as assorted giants, Furies and nymphs. The name Uranus was also eventually given to the seventh planet from the sun, discovered by William Herschel in 1781. Herschel had wanted to call the planet Georgium Sidus, "George's star" after his patron King George III. Fortunately, this idea was not popular outside of Britain and Uranus gradually became universally accepted, saving us from the incongruity of having George between Saturn and Neptune and providing generations of schoolchildren with an endless supply of "your anus" jokes. In 1789, the German chemist Martin Klaproth discovered a new element and decided to name it uranium after the newly-discovered planet.

256px Hypnos British Museum No. 267Hypnos: Henry Beauchamp Walters (1915)Although often confused with the Titan Cronus, the primordial deity Chronos was initially a totally different deity - the god of time. He wasn't exactly a looker, with his serpentine body and three heads - those of a man, a lion and a bull. However, even in antiquity, he was frequently identified with Cronus, the father of Zeus, and was often depicted as Father Time, with a long grey beard and harvester's scythe. From Chronos, English has taken a large number of terms, including chronology - the science of ordering events according to when they happened, chronic - long-lasting, chronicle - record of what happened and at what time, anachronism - something outdated or incongruous with the current time, chronometer - a specialised timepiece, and possibly crony - longstanding friend, contemporary.

The goddess Nyx (Night) later alone produced children parthenogenetically including Nemesis, the goddess of divine retribution and Hypnos, the personification of sleep. Hypnos lived in the Underworld and the river Lethe, or river of forgetfulness, flowed through his cave. At the mouth of the cave, there were poppies and other sleep inducing or hypnotic plants. The 19th century hypnotism pioneer, Dr James Braid, was the first to use the term hypnotise in English to describe "inducing a sleep-like trance". Braid often acted as a hypnotist and was an advocate of using hypnotism and hypnotherapy to treat certain disorders. Also from Hypnos, we have the related terms hypnosis, hypnotic and hypnotically

According to Hesiod, the Oneiroi, or gods of dreams were also produced by Nyx through parthenogenesis, whereas Ovid states in his Metamorphoses that they were Hypnos's sons with one of the Graces, Pasithea, the goddess of hallucinations. One of the Oneiroi who has given rise to a number of English words was the god Morpheus, literally "the maker of shapes", a god who was believed to have the ability to appear in any human form. The opiate drug morphine is derived from Morpheus's name. On top of this, English has adopted numerous terms from the Greek μορφή /morfi:/ - "shape, form", including morpheme, morph, amorphous, zoomorphic and endomorph.



The Titans and Aphrodite


As the descendants of the primordial deities, most notably Gaia, (Mother Earth) and Uranus (Father Sky), the Titans were the second order of divine beings in Greek mythology during the so-called Golden Age. They were giants of incredible strength - a contest between powerful rivals is often billed as a clash of the Titans or a titanic battle. Many large things have been named after the Titans in homage to their strength and size. These include the ill-fated RSS Titanic, the exceptionally strong and durable element titanium and several of Saturn's moons. (The Romans equated Saturn with the Greek Titan Cronus, and adapted the latter's myths to correspond to Latin culture). Saturn's moons include Titan itself and Iapetus, Rhea, Dione and Tethys - all Titans and Titanesses.

Callipygian Venus Barois Louvre MR1999 n2Aphrodite: by Francois Barois (1656-1726)According to Hesiod, Gaia became embittered towards Uranus, the ruler of the universe, after he had imprisoned her youngest children, the hundred-handed giants the Hecatonchires and the one-eyed Cyclopes in the Tartarus, away from the light. Gaia persuaded their son Cronus, who was jealous of his father's powers, to castrate Uranus with a stone sickle she had made for that purpose. Cronus ambushed his father, did the deed, and threw his genitals into the sea. From the blood that Uranus spilled after the castration, the Gigantes (Giants), Erinyes (Furies) and Meliae (Ash Tree Nymphs) were produced. The testicles themselves created a white foam, aphros, from which the goddess Aphrodite emerged.

Aphrodite was the goddess of love, beauty, sex and pleasure. There are several other accounts of her origins aside from that given by Hesiod above. What is agreed is that she lived with the Olympian gods after the end of the Golden Age, and had numerous lovers and consorts from among their number including Hephaestus, Ares, Hermes, Poseidon, Dionysius and Adonis. With this amount of action going on, it is unsurprising that aphrodisiacs are named after this goddess. Aphrodisiacs are substances that stimulate sexual desire or at least induce a placebo effect in those who allege that a mouthful of oysters will turn them into throbbing sexual athletes. On the other hand, antaphrodisiacs are agents that repress or eliminate sexual desire. The Romans identified Aphrodite with their goddess Venus.

There are a number of Titans whose names have been passed down to us from the Greeks. Oceanus was the Titan who personified the ocean, which the Greeks believed was an enormous river that encircled the world. The son of Gaia and Uranus, he had the upper body of a powerful man, and the lower body of either a serpent or a fish. The Atlantic Ocean was known as the Ocean Sea, and this is where Oceanus was assumed to reside. Most Indo-European languages have words for ocean which are derived from this Titan.

Atlas holding up the celestial globe Guercino 1646Atlas: Guercino (1646)The Titaness Mnemosyne was another of the first generation of Titans and was the mother of the nine Muses by Zeus. She was the personification of memory in Greek mythology and is the source of the word mnemonic. As an adjective, mnemonic simply means "pertaining to memory", but it is more commonly used now as a noun. Mnemonics are devices or phrases that aid the memory, for example the first letters of the phrase "Richard of York gave battle in vain" give us r-o-y-g-b-i-v, the first letters of the colours of the rainbow - red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. 

Helios was the Greek personification of the sun, and was the son of the Titan Hyperion and the Titaness Theia. Crowned with the aureole of the sun, Helios was a handsome Titan who would drive the sun's golden chariot across the sky every day, returning through the ocean to the East every night. The element helium is named after Helios as it was first detected as a yellow line in the solar spectrum. It is thought to be the second most abundant element in the universe. Plants which turn their leaves and flowers towards the sun are known as heliotropes.

Whenever we open an atlas, or book of maps, we come across another Titan, who was responsible for holding up the sky. After being defeated by Zeus, (of which more in the next blog), Atlas was made to stand at the western edge of Gaia (the Earth) and hold up the heavens on his shoulders. The western edge of the known Earth at the time was bounded by the Atlantic Ocean and the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, both of which are named after this Titan. The fabled underwater city of Atlantis means "island of Atlas"



256px Gabriel Dante Rosetti MnemosyneMnemosyne: Gabriel Dante Rosetti (1875-1881)Now use the words derived from the Greek gods and goddesses above to complete this tale of woe.


Faded Spanish pop star, Julio Colina was finding the loss of his status and once legendary good looks a bitter pill to swallow. His songs, once widely used as an ______questionmark_____ accompaniment by lovers in the bedroom and considered as "more of an ______questionmark_____ than oysters in lingerie" were now mocked as the seedy ramblings of a child of the seventies. His songs no longer floated across the _____questionmark______ and the paparazzi had long since stopped shadowing him - his movements were no longer _____questionmark______ in the tabloids and popular magazines. It was all a far cry from Julio's heyday when he had been a household name in every country in the ______questionmark______ and when his platinum selling hit "Julio in the Boudoir" had made waves both in Europe and across the ______questionmark_____ in the USA and Latin America. Once he had been compared to the sun surrounded by ______questionmark______ , a Don Juan who had ______questionmark_____ his adoring fans. However, the slim,______questionmark______ beauties that had followed his every footstep had now _____questionmark_____ into big-boned _____questionmark_____ who commented loudly on his receding hairline and expanding gut. He was regarded with amusement and bemusement by modern youth: his time had passed, he was a living ______questionmark____ , an embarrassing relic.


The Golden Age of the Titans came to an end when Cronus was defeated by Zeus and the Third Generation of gods came to power. The Olympian gods and their consorts will be dealt with in the next blog post, as this blog has morphed chaotically from one post to two!




The Colossus of Rhodes (Helios): By No machine-readable author provided. Ycaro G. Ribeiro assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Eros: By Yair Haklai (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons

Hypnos: By British Museum. Dept. of Greek and Roman Antiquities; Walters, Henry Beauchamp, 1867-1944 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Aphrodite:  By François Barois (1656-1726) (Jastrow (2007)) [CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons

Atlas: Guercino [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mnemosyne: Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain, CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons


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