Monday, April 30th, 2012
Hello California! I’m excited to be starting the CA leg of my tour, and if you’re in LA, San Francisco or San Diego and want to hear me speak here are the details of the events.
Rather than a Myth of the Week, I thought I would do another post on modern words with ancient roots. Below are five more of my favorites.
Philadelphia. When I moved to Philadelphia from New York City, I was thirteen and deeply reluctant. For one thing, I was leaving all my friends behind. For another, the city seemed spookily deserted to me after the bustle of Manhattan. In my terrible teenage way, I was particularly irritated by Philadelphia’s cheery, ever-present slogan: The City of Brotherly Love!
But then I started taking Greek, and realized that the phrase isn’t some pollyanna PR line, it’s the literal translation of Philadephia. Phil—is the Greek root for love, and adelphos is the word for brother. Well. That shut me up. The moral of the story? All sulky teens need is a little ancient Greek.
Psychopomp/Psychopompos. This word doesn’t get very much airtime nowadays, but I think it should. A psychopomp is a being whose job it is to guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife, and in ancient Greece this was the messenger god Hermes, whose epithet was Psychopompos. It comes from the Greek word psyche, meaning soul, which has found its way into English in all sorts of compounds, including psychiatrist—a word which literally means “soul doctor” (iatros is Greek for doctor). In a lovely bit of metaphor, psyche is also the Greek word for butterfly.
The pomp- part comes from the Greek for escort, or guide, and can refer to either a single escort, or an entire cohort, making it the root of our “pomp” in pomp and circumstance. So, psychopomp literally means soul-guide. By the way, this word frequently provokes hilarity among my Greek students: “Dude, that guy was psycho pompous!”
Apocalypse. This word comes from the Greek roots apo (away from, or un-), and calypto (cover, conceal). So it literally means an uncovering, or, in the biblical sense, revelation. The “calyps” part of apocalypse is the exact same root as the name Calpyso, the nymph from the Odyssey who holds Odysseus (sort of) against his will for seven years. She is the opposite of revelation—a being who uses obfuscation and wiles to keep Odysseus with her, rather than helping him on his journey home.
Pachycephalosaurus. What could be better than giant lizards that bonk each other in the head? If you answered “nothing,” then pachycephalosaurus is the dinosaur for you. Pachy- means thick, or stout; cephal- means head and saurus is our old friend lizard. Which makes pachycephalosaurus one hard-headed lizard. These dinosaurs had a domed, extra-thick skull plate that, according to some scientists, they would use to batter each other with, kind of the way rams do.
Both pachy- and cephal- show up elsewhere in English. Pachy- is part of “pachyderm” literally, thick-skin, another word for elephant. Cephal- goes into all sorts of medical diagnoses like “encephalitis.” But the important thing to remember, I think, is that there were dinosaurs who developed extra-thick heads because they liked to whack into things.
Gubernatorial, “relating to a governor,” is one of my favorite words, because its context is almost always serious, yet you’re still saying the word “goober.” As a child it was classed in my mind with avuncular—another intimidating word that turned out to have a really easy meaning (uncle-ish).
Gubernatorial comes from the Greek kubernetes (koo-ber-nay-tays), which originally meant captain of a ship. Over time, the “k” blurred with its close cousin “g” (both sounds made against the palate), and produced the goober sound that we all know and love. Linguistically the “b” in the middle of the word is closely associated with “v” so it was just an easy step to “governor” from there.
By the way, if you’re looking for a factoid for your next cocktail party, try this: the honors society “phi beta kappa” is actually a Greek acronym for the following phrase: philosophia biou kubernetes—“Love of learning is the guide (captain) of life.”
Have a great week!
Monday, February 13th, 2012
In honor of Valentine’s, a love story.
There are two problems with looking for romance in Greek mythology. The first is that many of the so-called “love” myths are anything but. For instance, I’ve often seen Daphne and Apollo classed as a love story. But, of course, Daphne is fleeing from Apollo, and only narrowly escapes being raped by him. So, there’s that.
The second problem is that the stories which are about genuine love are almost uniformly tragic. The list of these is quite long: Hector and his beloved Andromache, Achilles and Patroclus, Pyramus and Thisbe, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hero and Leander, Apollo and Hyacinthus, Atalanta and Meleager, and on, and on.
But there are a few—a very few—stories that are both romantic and happy. The best known ones are Psyche and Eros (more on that soon), and my favorite: the story of Baucis and Philemon.
At first glance, Baucis and Philemon make non-traditional romantic leads. For one thing, when the story begins they are bent over with age. For another, they are poor commoners, while the lovers in Greek myths tend towards aristocrats or divinities. Thirdly, there is no question of “will they or won’t they?” Baucis and Philemon have been married for years, living happily together in the same humble, straw-roofed dwelling.
Their rustic routine is interrupted by two weary strangers, knocking at the door looking for food and shelter—they have been turned away, they say, by all the finer houses in the neighborhood. Baucis, the wife, and Philemon, the husband, welcome the two men warmly. Even though their resources are scant, they set about cheerfully making the best of what they have. One of my favorite parts of this story is the elaborate preparations: Baucis scrubbing the dinner table with mint to make it smell fresh (good idea!), and Philemon carving the meat.
We also get a lovely description of their rustic dinner, which sounds much more appetizing than many of the absurd Greco-Roman dishes that have come down to us (larks’ tongues, eel pastries, jellyfish). Instead there are:
“olives, and cherries preserved in wine…, endive and radish, cheese, eggs roasted in the hearth-embers… nuts, and figs scattered among wrinkly dates, plums and apples fragrant in their broad baskets, grapes collected from their purple vines, and a gleaming honeycomb.”
YUM. But even more important than the food is the care that the old couple uses in preparing it, the generous goodwill they show in laying out the best they have. Hospitality was a virtue in the ancient Greek world—guests were sacred to Zeus himself. Myth texts often note that this is because you never knew when a stranger might prove to be a god. But Baucis and Philemon aren’t so calculating. They are reflexively kind, not fearfully so. There are also some lovely descriptions of the couple working together in practiced synchronicity—carrying the wood, putting a wedge under the wobbly leg of the table, setting out the earthenware plates. Ovid beautifully captures the house’s domestic harmony and contentment—these are people at peace with themselves.
The four sit down to the meal. But as they eat and drink, they notice that the wine bowl, filled with the best humble vintage the couple has, never seems to empty. No matter how often Baucis and Philemon pour for their guests, the bowl is always brimming. Beginning to suspect that their guests may be gods, they are fearful that they haven’t done enough to please them, and decide to kill their beloved pet goose to add to the dinner spread. However, slow with age as they are, they cannot catch him, and end up pursuing him around and around the house.
Many people have seen a sort of humor in this moment—the old couple stumbling after their nimble goose. But to be honest, I have always found it sad. This good old couple is afraid for their lives, and are desperately trying to offer the only thing they have left to appease the gods.
Luckily, all ends well. The goose runs to the two travelers for sanctuary, and they stand to reveal themselves as, yes, gods: Zeus and Hermes himself. They tell the old couple to forget about the goose, and to come with them up the mountain to its top. The couple obeys (Ovid offers a nice detail about them leaning on their walking sticks), and when they reach the top and turn around they see that their old neighborhood, with all its houses and people, has been swept away. Only Baucis and Philemon’s house remains, which—even as they look—is transformed into a beautiful, marble-and-gold temple.
It is a miraculous and upsetting moment. Yes, Baucis and Philemon have been saved but all their neighbors are dead. For the sake of the happy ending, Ovid does not dwell on this, beyond mentioning that the couple grieves for those who have been lost. But it is hard to forget the swift and unforgiving punishment—there is no second chance, if you displease the gods.
Fortunately, the gods are pleased with Baucis and Philemon. Zeus offers to grant the pious, good-hearted pair whatever they wish. The two whisper together for a moment, and then Philemon announces that they would like to live out their lives as servants of the gods in the new temple. Further, because of their great love for each other, they do not wish to have to live alone, without the other. They ask the gods to let them die at the same moment:
“Let the same hour bear us both off; let me never see the tomb of my wife, nor be buried by her.”
Zeus agrees, and the couple spend many joyful years together in their new home. Then, one day, as they stand outside their temple talking of their lives, they notice something strange—branches are beginning to grow from their heads, their hair is transforming into leaves. With their last breaths, they call out their farewells to each other. A moment later, two trees, an oak and a linden tree, stand where the old couple was. And, just as in life, the two are bound together, sprung from the same trunk, their branches entwining into eternity.
A sweet story. May we all be as lucky in love as Baucis and Philemon.
Monday, November 21st, 2011
Happy Myth of the Week! (Also, for US readers, happy Thanksgiving!) Today’s myth comes to you as a suggestion from the terrific Algonquin Books (@AlgonquinBooks). It’s the first of a series about that most famous of love triangles: Echo, Narcissus and…Narcissus.
Since the story ends with Narcissus, I wanted to start with Echo. In mythology, she is best known for her eponymous ability: always repeating another person’s words back to them. But the lesser known story is how she got that way. When the mountain-nymph Echo was born, she could speak just like anyone else. Better, in fact: she was naturally garrulous and loved to entertain others with stories and talk. She was also clever, and noticed that whenever Zeus would sneak down to earth in order to have affairs with nymphs, his jealous wife Hera would inevitably catch him in the act. So the next time Hera came looking for her husband, Echo waylaid her with conversation, delaying her until the nymph and Zeus could escape.
As numerous miserable heroes can tell you, if there is one person you don’t want to make angry in Greek mythology, it’s Hera. When the queen of the gods discovered Echo’s trick, she cursed her, robbing her of her power to speak for herself, and decreeing that hereafter the girl could only echo the words of others. I always felt that this was a deviously cruel punishment for someone who loved to express herself—doomed to never again voice an original thought.
But why would Echo try to stop Hera in the first place? The stories don’t really say. Some seem to imply that she was trying to curry favor with Zeus. But if I were writing the myth (and today I am), I like to give her a more noble motivation: she was trying to help her poor nymph sisters. Whenever Hera caught her husband with another woman, it wasn’t Zeus she punished, but the girl, who ended up as a cow, a bear, dead, or living in eternal torment. This seems additionally unfair given how often the girl in question was unwilling. So I like to think that Echo was trying to stop Hera in the hopes that one of her sisters might be spared the great goddess’ ill-aimed wrath.
Given the ancient Greek appreciation for fast-talking heroes like Odysseus, it is interesting to note that none of the ancient sources praise Echo’s clever gift with words. If anything, they seem to feel that she deserved it—she probably shouldn’t have been talking so much in the first place. This unfairness becomes even more apparent when you compare her to another ancient with the gift of the gab: Hermes. When the nymph Io was being held captive by the hundred-eyed watchman Argus, Hermes rescued her by talking endlessly, literally boring Argus to death. Ever afterwards he was given the honorific title “Argus-killer.” So, if we’re really being fair, I think Echo should have gotten at least a “Hera-staller.”
And, while we’re praising Echo, let’s also give her credit for the cleverness of her stratagem—especially since nymphs weren’t generally known for their brains.* Echo came up with a brilliant and perfect trap: social convention. Next time you’re stuck in conversation with someone, maybe it will help to remember that the queen of the gods couldn’t escape either.
*A notable exception is the nymph Sinope, who, about to be ravished by Zeus, begged him for a single wish. He granted it, and she said, “I wish to remain a virgin.” Bound by his oath Zeus was forced to leave her alone. Apparently, she also successfully used this same trick on Apollo and the river-god Halys.
Coming soon: Part II: Narcissus, Narcissus, Narcissus.
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