10 Words You Didn't Know Were From Greek Mythology

by on January 16, 2010

Greek is not just a root language of English, it’s a root language of most European languages, including Latin. So there can be no surprises then that many English words are just Greek words, written in a different alphabet with a few letters changed. For example we have lots of ;“philes” (loves of), “phobias” (fears), “manias” (madnesses), “ologies” (subjects of study), “mancies” (means of prophecy) and so on. Indeed, it seems to be a sport in academia to attach Greek endings to Greek beginning words and dump them in the English language.

There are also less obvious words that come from Greek, like panic (from the Greek god Pan), titanic (from the Titans) and aphrodisiac (from the lovely Aphrodite). Right there, you can see that there are quite a few words in English that come crawling out of Greek mythology. Here, I am providing a list of 10 such words, many of which you will not have met with.

1. Kathenotheism. It’s hard to know whether the Greeks truly believed in their pantheon of gods in the way that, for example, Christians believe in their one God or Muslims believe in Allah. If they did, they were kathenotheists, a kathenotheist being someone who believes that there are many gods with a single leader. However that Greek belief was nuanced. They believed that the God in charge could and sometimes did lose his job.

In the beginning, there was a golden age when the Titans ruled the heavens. The Titans consisted of Gaia and Ouranos (Uranus to the Romans) and their twelve children Oceanos, Coeus, Crius, Hyperion, Iapetos, Theia, Rhea, Themis, Mnemosyne, Phoebe, Tethys, and Kronos. Gaia was clearly very fertile and a loving mother. But Ouranos took a dislike to his children and imprisoned them in Tartarus, the nastiest region of Hades, where even on Fridays there is no happy hour.

Gaia, as you probably know, is the Earth itself, and Ouranos’ behavior sorely grieved her. So she made a sickle and gave it to Kronos, her youngest son, telling him to castrate Ouranus. This he did, ambushing Ouranus, severing his testicles and throwing them in the sea.

From that moment on, Kronos (Saturn to the Romans) became the leader of the gods and Gaia stopped producing children. It could have ended there, but, gods will be gods, so it didn’t. Kronos decided to keep his  brothers and sisters confined in Tartarus, except for his sister and wife Rhea. He should have known this would upset his mom. And it did. Gaia, who had the gift of prophesy, prophesied that Kronos would be overthrown by his children just as Ouranus had been.

Rather than remaining celibate, which would have torn a hole through Gaia’s prophesy, Kronos continued to have relations with Rhea, but simply ate all his children as they were born. (It sounds bizarre, but remember that Titans weren’t renowned for their smarts and contraception wouldn’t be invented for thousands of years). Kronos’ scheme would have worked if Rhea hadn’t taken it into her head to preserve at least one of her children.

One day, when she was giving birth, as she did every now and then, instead of passing Kronos the baby to chew on, she passed him a rock wrapped in a blanket. The baby was Zeus, whom Rhea took to a cave in Crete where he was raised by locals until he was old enough to confront Kronos. Metis, another Titan, gave Zeus a mixture of mustard and wine, which he gulled Kronos into drinking. Low and behold, Kronos vomited up all of Zeus’ brothers and sisters. (Kronos really should have chewed his food properly before digesting it).

After that, all hell broke loose in heaven with the Titans fighting with Zeus and the other Johnny-come-lately gods. Zeus won and hence became the third god to rule the pantheon.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Nina Fabri January 28, 2014 at 20:48

please correct the “put a saddle ON its back” (fourth paragraph.)
Fun explanation of a misunderstood or mostly unknown word. Also you might refer to Joan Breton Connelly’s book “The Parthenon Enigma.”

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