Some English Words and Phrases Taken from Greek Mythology

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8th Grade – World History & Cultures
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Some English Words and Phrases Taken from Greek Mythology
The stories and characters of Greek mythology are also the source for many words and phrases in the English
language. You might be wearing sneakers with the name of the goddess of victory (Nike). The last time you
moved, your family might have used Atlas Van Lines. Perhaps you listen to music on Pandora. (Pandora,
meaning all-gifted, was the first woman. She received the gift of music from Apollo). Or maybe your favorite
place to shop online is, named after a race of superior warrior women. Whatever the word or
phrase, you have learned about a number of Greek mythological characters in class that have influenced our
language. Hopefully your notes match the summaries below!
Achilles heel: (n.) a fault or weakness that causes or could cause someone or something to fail. From
Achilles, the greatest Greek warrior at Troy, whose only mortal part of his body was his heel.
adonis: (n.) a very handsome young man. From Adonis, the Greek god of beauty and desire.
aegis: (n.) the protection, backing, or support of a particular person or organization. From the shield of
Zeus that offered safety and security.
Amazon: (n.) a tall, strong, often masculine woman. From the Amazons, a warrior-race of women from
the North who joined battle with a terrifying war cry. They were the equal of men in battle.
aphrodisiac: (n.) something that increases physical desire. From Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty & love.
atlas: (n.) a bound collection of maps or one who bears a heavy burden. The strongest god, Atlas, was
punished for his part in the revolt against the Olympians by being forced to hold the celestial bodies on his
shoulders for eternity.
Cassandra: (n.) one that predicts misfortune or disaster. Cassandra, the daughter of the king of Troy,
was given the gift of prophecy by Apollo. But after she spurned Apollo’s advances, he later cursed her to
ensure that no one would believe her warnings.
Delphic utterance: (n.) a response to a question or a comment that is ambiguous and therefore hard to
understand. From Delphi, where the oracle of gave ambiguous answers due to fumes beneath the temple.
Gordian knot: (n.) an intricate problem, not solved on its own terms. From Gordius, the king of Phrygia,
who tied a knot deemed to be capable of being untied only by the future ruler of Asia – later cut by
Alexander the Great with his sword.
halcyon: (adj.) denoting a period of time in the past that was idyllically happy and peaceful. From
Halcyon, a mythical bird said by ancient writers to breed in a nest floating at sea at the winter solstice,
charming the wind and waves into calm.
hector: (v.) to talk to someone in a bullying way. From Hector, a prince of Troy and the bravest of the
Trojan warriors.
Herculean effort: (n.) an extraordinary effort (similarly, a Herculean task is a task of great difficulty).
From Hercules (in Greek, Herakles), the greatest hero of the ancient world, renowned for his great
strength (and anger management issues).
hypnosis: (n.) an artificially induced condition resembling sleep. From Hypnos, the god of sleep.
labyrinth: (n.) A maze, and the adjective labyrinthine describes something winding, complicated, and
intricate. In Crete, King Minos had a maze built in which to imprison the monstrous Minotaur. This maze
was known as the labyrinth. Excavations of the complex and vast palace of Knossos in Crete with its
network of rooms seem to substantiate elements of this legend.
mentor: (n.) a trusted guardian and teacher. When Odysseus left for the epic Trojan War, he gave Mentor
the responsibility of looking after his son, Telemachus. When Athena visited Telemachus, she herself took
the guise of the old man to “mentor” Telemachus in the ways of values, willpower and courage.
Midas touch: (n.) an unusual ability for making money. From King Midas, who was given the power to
turn everything he touched into gold.
mnemonic: (adj.) aiding or designed to aid the memory or (n.) a device – such as an abbreviation or
rhyme – that aids the memory. From Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory.
narcissist: (n.) a person who is overly self-involved, and often vain and selfish (and who suffers from
narcissism). From Narcissus, a beautiful youth in Greek mythology who fell in love with his own reflection
in a pool and, unable to tear himself away from his image, he wasted away and died.
nemesis: (n.) a longstanding rival or archenemy, or a downfall caused by one. From Nemesis, the Greek
goddess of retributive justice.
odyssey: (n.) a long wandering, adventure, or voyage (both literally and spiritually) usually marked by
many changes of fortune. From Odysseus, a king of Ithaca and Greek leader in the Trojan War. When the
war ended, Odysseus forgot to thank the gods for helping him. This made them angry, and they punished
him with a long voyage home. What was to be a 2-week trip ended up taking 10 years.
[Note from Ms. Sweeney: The moral of Odysseus’s story is never, ever forget to say “thank you!” J]
Oedipus complex: (n.) the desirous loving feelings of a son toward his mother and hostile or jealous
feelings toward his father that may be a source of a personality disorder. From Oedipus, who – as fate
predicted – unknowingly killed his father and married his mother.
Olympian feat: (n.) a difficult task, as one befitting the immortals. From Olympus, the mountain in
Greek mythology that was the home of the gods.
panic: (n. and v.) sudden uncontrollable fear, often causing wildly unthinking behavior. From the
shepherd demigod, Pan, who had the legs and horns of a goat and a shrill voice. A mischievous forest
sprite, he liked to scare those traveling the lonely stretches of wilderness that separated Greek city-states.
Pandora's box: (n.) a source of troubles. From the first woman, Pandora, whose curiosity unleashed all
the troubles of the world when she disobeyed instructions and opened a jar. Only hope was left behind.
Promethean: (adj.) describing a daringly creative or defiantly original act. From Prometheus, a Titan
who created humankind out of clay sculptures to which he gave life – without seeking the permission of
Zeus. He also stole fire from Olympus and gave it to humankind, for which Zeus chained him to a rock and
sent an eagle to eat his liver, which grew back daily.
siren song: (n.) an alluring utterance or appeal, especially one that is seductive or deceptive. From the
Sirens, mythological Greek sea nymphs, part woman and part bird, who lured sailors to their destruction
by their seductive singing.
Sisyphean: (n.) such that is endless, difficult, and impossible to complete. From Sisyphus, a famous
resident of Hades, who was condemned to roll an enormous rock up a hill only to have it fall back down.
tantalize: (v.) holding something desirable just out of reach. From Tantalus, who was condemned to the
Underworld, where he stood in fresh water that receded whenever he tried to drink and under a tree filled
with ripe fruit always just beyond reach.
titanic: (adj.) exceptional size, power, or influence; and titan: (n.) one that is gigantic in size, power, or
influence. From the Titans, a family of giants who ruled the Earth until overthrown by the Olympians.
Trojan horse: (n.) any thing or person that appears harmless but is designed to destroy or attack from
within. The original Trojan Horse was conceived of by Odysseus and used by the Mycenaeans to defeat
Troy, as told in Homer’s epic, The Iliad.

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