Mythology in Everyday Life
--Bernice L. Fox
Associate Professor of ClassicsEvery day of an ordinary person’s life, he makes some reference to classical mythology. If you think that you do not, you either are not as observant as you should be, or you do not recognize mythology when you meet it. For instance, when you ask for your morning cereal, you are asking for a grain product so named because Ceres was the goddess of grain. Likewise, the month of January was named after Janus because he had two faces and could look both forward and backward. If you take the Burlington railroad Zephyr, you are riding a train named after the West Wind, and the coaches on various Zephyr trains are the names of gods and goddesses.
Some bodies of water commemorate the death of mythological figures. The Hellespont is the body of water where Helle fell in; the Icarian Sea is where Icarus fell when the sun melted the wax as he was trying to fly with his do-it-yourself wings; the Aegean Sea is where Aegeus committed suicide. The city of Athens acquired its name from its patron goddess, Athena, who won the city in a contest with Poseidon. Incidentally, the voting of the judges in this contest ran purely along"party" lines – the women voting for Athena and the men for Poseidon. Since Zeus did not vote, Athena won by one vote.
Some of our stock phrases have been taken over from mythological stories: An"Achilles heel" means a person’s most vulnerable point, because Achilles could be injured only in the heel. For similar reasons, the Achilles tendon in biology is between the calf muscles and the heel bone. And "cleaning the Augean stables" was a phrase heard in many political speeches when one national political party was struggling to get their opponents out of the White House. These ancient Augean stables were filled with filth which had collected over a long period of time, and it was a "Herculean task" to clean them out.
A Procrustean statistic, such as the statement that the average family consists of 3.6 members, is derived from the fact that Procrustes had a bed into which he made every one fit, cutting down or stretching those who were too long or too short.
Atlas, the Titan, held the heavens on his shoulders to keep them from crashing down upon the earth. So Atlantes are human figures, used in place of pilasters or pillars, which support a roof. But, because technically it is easier to represent, Atlas is most often shown holding the world itself on his shoulder. Thus the vertebra at the base of the skull becomes the Atlas vertebra, and an atlas contains maps of the entire world. Atlas’ strength has made him a trademark name for everything from tires and batteries to underwear. Also, one of our space rockets is given his name, as others are given other mythological names, such as Jupiter and Mercury.
A countless number of trademark names comes from classical mythology. Perhaps Atlas, and Hercules (associated with every kind of product from work clothes to luggage), and Mercury (from outboard motors to florists’ telegraphs) have attracted the most companies.
Mercury, the swift messenger of the gods, also gave his name to a chemical element which is remarkable for its fluidity. The names of other chemical elements are also taken from mythology because of their characteristics. For instance, Tantalus was punished by having water just touch his lips while he starved eternally of thirst. So we have the chemical element tantalum, which cannot absorb acid. And Tantalus had a daughter Niobe. Thus we get the chemical element niobium– because it is found in connection with tantalum.
But chemistry is not the only science that draws heavily from mythology. We have already mentioned some biological terms. In psychology such designations as the Oedipus complex and narcissism are lifted directly from mythological stories. Geology contains such terms as pluton for a rock surface underground (Pluto was the god of the underworld) and neptunian rock which is produced by the action of water on a substance (Neptune was a god of the seas).
Names in astronomy are pure mythology. Almost all the known constellations and all the twelve signs of the Zodiac are named from mythological stories, as are the planets and their satellites.
Such a listing of places where you simply can’t help bumping into classical mythology could go on indefinitely. But this is enough to show that whoever you are, you can’t avoid contact with this subject. And if you know the stories from which the words and names developed, you have added some colorfulness to what otherwise is simply a group of letters stuck together to form a word.
And we have not even mentioned the pleasure to be derived from the beautiful mythological designs in such work as Wedge-wood china and Steuben glass, the extensive use of mythology in poetry, in drama, and in art– from Michelangelo to Paul Manship and Picasso. As for opera – there are at least twenty-six operas based on one mythological character, Orpheus.
The person who has not read his classical mythology simple never knows how much he has missed that could have removed some of the drabness from his contacts with the everyday items around him.