Saturday, November 18, 2000

Words from myths

GREEK and Roman myths have given many words to English. Myths hold a compelling fascination and maybe, that is why the true myth is quite like a flexible mould into which any version can be poured. While retaining its archetypal shape, a myth adapts itself to the time, place and circumstances. This also means that myths often give rise to new words which may sometimes diverge, from the original context even.

Nemesis was the Goddess of Retribution, famed for punishing the proud and arrogant. So, a successful person feared to offend her, for, if he became too haughty, his downfall could follow. Today, the word is used for an avenger or punisher and also the punishment itself, usually a just one. The field of sports has taken the word to another direction. An athlete who consistently beats an opponent is also called that opponentís nemesis.

Apollo, physician of the gods, was also called Paean. To seek deliverance from evil influences, hymns of thanksgiving to Apollo began with the invocation to Paean. The prayer songs themselves came to be called paeans, a name which was extended to songs of triumph after victory, addressed to Apollo and other gods. For us, a paean is a song of praise or gratitude, a shout of great exultation or even a complimentary speech.

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Mercury, or Hermes, was the patron God of Magic. Alchemy, the predecessor of chemistry, was known as a hermetic art in the Middle Ages. To put the seal of Hermes, or the hermetic seal on a bottle in the laboratory meant to twist the neck with flame and thereby seal it air-tight. Hermetic and hermetically sealed, therefore, meant an impenetrable barrier. Today, the words also denote that a personís mind is shut, willingly or unwillingly, against the infiltration of ideas or news from the outside.

The Harpies were flying monsters with the heads of women and the bodies and claws of vultures. Their name comes from a Greek verb that meant to snatch. The Harpies swooped down upon their victims and snatched away their food. These days, the word harpy is also used to denote a shrewish woman or, a greedy, grasping person.

The aegis was the mantle and shield of Zeus, for even the king of the gods sometimes needed protection! Zeus lent the aegis to his daughter when she fought on the side of the Greeks in the Trojan war. Whether it was a cloak or shield, it undoubtedly had protective powers, since on it were serpents and the head of a Gorgon, which turned those who looked at it into stone. In usage now, aegis has become a popular term to mean sponsorship, auspices, guidance.

To chase a chimera means to look for something that does not exist and, hence, is impossible to acquire. The actual chimera was a monster that breathed fire, had the head of a lion, the body of a goat and the tail of a serpent. Such an incongruous creature obviously could not exist, so the notion of the illusion continues in the adjective chimerical, that is, unreal or extremely fanciful.


In Hindi, if we take into account the various synonyms of a word, we can recover all that was in the mind of the first users of the word when they formulated it. Often, many a myth or legend comes to light through a careful look at these words. For instance, chhaya is also called suryapriya or beloved of the Sun due to an old story linking the two.The Moon is mrgank, one with a mark of a deer, and shashdhar, one bearing a hare.This needs no explanation, as all of us have grown up with stories of chandamama.

ó Deepti

This feature was published on November 11, 2000