Mythological Dictionary
Letter: C


Dictionary of Mythological Definitions and Terms.
Mythological | C

 

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Cadmean Victory
Cadmus was informed by the oracle at Delphi that he would establish a great city. When he eventually found the site of the future Thebes, he prepared to sacrifice to the gods in thanksgiving. He soon discovered that the local spring from which he needed to draw water for a proper sacrifice, was guarded by a serpent. He sent his men to dispatch the monster and bring back the ritual water. All of his men failed in the attempt and Cadmus eventually took it upon himself to kill the serpent. Though Cadmus was ultimately victorious, he now found himself bereft of his comrades and dispaired of establishing his realm. A Cadmean Victory has come to mean a victory won at great loss to the victor.
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Caduceus
In Latin the herald's staff was known as the caduceum, derived from the Greek word keryx or herald, and his staff the kerykeion. Hermes, as divine messenger, was invariably depicted with the caduceus, which was represented as a staff with white ribbons or intertwined snakes. The white ribbons may have indicated the inviolability of his office. The image of intertwined snake may have been drawn from the near eastern use of copulating snakes as a symbol of fertility, for Hermes was a fertility god. The staff of Hermes became confused with the staff of Asclepius, the renowned mythic physician and son of Apollo because some stories about Asclepius involved snakes and the reptile has the ability to slough its old skin and seemingly be "reborn," and so had associations with healing.
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Calliope
Calliope was one of the nine muses, who gives her name to the musical instrument, the calliope, made up of tuned steam whistles and played like an organ; it is also the name for the California hummingbird. See muse.
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Calypso or Calypso music
Calypso ("she who hides or conceals") was the daughter of Thetis and either Atlas, Nereus, or Oceanus. Odysseus was detained on her island home of Ogygia for seven years with the promise that she would make him immortal. Though he enjoyed her bed, each day he would weep and look longingly over the sea to his homeland Ithaca. Eventually Zeus sent Hermes to inform Calypso that she must give up Odysseus. Calypso music, derived from the name of the nymph, originated on the islands of the West Indies and treats of topical or amusing themes.
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Cassandra
Trojan Cassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, was amorously pursued by the god Apollo. Having at first agreed to succumb to his advances, she was awarded the gift of prophecy, but later, when she changed her mind and refused him, Apollo punished her. She would remain a prophetess, but would never be believed. Cassandra's predictions were invariably of disaster, foretelling the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra or the destruction of Troy through the ruse of the Wooden Horse. A Cassandra today is anyone who utters dire warnings of the future, regardless of their truth.
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Catamite
Zeus was so impressed with the beauty of the Trojan youth Ganymede that he took the form of an eagle and brought him to Olympus to become the cupbearer of the gods. The Latin rendering of Ganymede's name was Catamitus, and his relationship with Zeus (or Jupiter) was interpreted by some as overtly homosexual to lend divine authority to ancient pederastic practices; today a catamite is still the designation for a boy used for pederastic purposes.
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Cerberus
Cerberus, the hound of the underworld, stood guard at the gates of Hades and prevented those not permitted from entering. He is usually described as a beast with three heads and the tail of a dragon. When Aeneas journied to the lower regions under the guidance of the Sibyl, he brought along a medicated cake to drug the animal and insure their safe passage. To throw a sop to Cerberus means to give a bribe and thereby ward off an unpleasant situation.
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Cereal
Ceres (the Roman counterpart of Demeter) was goddess of grain and the fertility of the earth. From her name is derived the Latin adjective Cerealis (having to do with Ceres and the grain), from which comes our English word, cereal.
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Chaos or chaotic
Whether Chaos is to be understood as a void or a primordial, formless, undifferentiated, and seething mass out of which the order of the universe is created, it is the starting point of creation. This unformed beginning is contrasted with later creation, a universe called the cosmos, a desgination meaning, literally, harmony or order. The sky and the stars, the earth and its creatures, and the laws and cycles which direct and control creation seem to exhibit the balance, order, and reason which the mind discerns in the natural world. For us chaos, together with its adjective chaotic, simply means a state of confusion. See cosmos.
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Chimera or chimerical or chimeric
A wild, hybrid creature, the Chimera had the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent and it breathed fire. It was killed by the Corinthian hero Bellerophon on one of his journeys. Today a chimera is a fantastic delusion, an illusory creation of the mind. It can also refer to a hybrid organism, usually a plant. Chimerical and Chimeric refer to something as unreal, imaginary, or fantastic. These adjectives can also signify that one is given to fantasy.
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Cornucopia
The Latin cornucopia means "horn of plenty." There are two stories about this horn, which bestows upon the owner an endless bounty. Zeus, in his secluded infancy on Crete, was nursed by a goat named Amalthea, which was also the name of the goddess of plenty. One of the horns of this goat was broken off and became the first cornucopia. The horn of plenty is also associated with Hercules. In order to win Deianira as his bride, he had to defeat the horned river-god Achelous. In the struggle, Hercules broke off one of the horns of the river-god but after his victory returned the horn and received as recompense the horn of Amalthea. Ovid, however, relates that the horn of Achelous became a second horn of plenty. Today the cornucopia is a sign of nature's abundance, and the word comes to mean a plenteous bounty.
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Cosmos
Cosmos or cosmic or cosmology or cosmetic or cosmetician.
Cosmos refers to the universe, and all that is ordered and harmonious. The study of cosmology deals with the origin and structure of the universe. The adjective, cosmic, may designate the universe beyond and apart from the earth itself, or it may in a generalized sense describe something of vast significance or implication. Akin to the word cosmos are various English words derived from the Greek adjective cosmeticos. Cosmos not only means order and harmony, but also arrangement and decoration; thus cosmetic is a substance which adorns or decorates the body, and cosmetician, the person involved with cosmetics. See chaos.
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Cupidity
The Latin word cupidus (desirous or greedy) gave rise to Cupido, Cupid, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god of love, Eros. In early representations he is a handsome youth, but becomes increasingly younger and develops his familiar attributes of bow and arrow (with which he rouses passion both in gods and mortals) and wings, until he finally evolves into the Italian putti or decorative cherubs frequently seen in Renaissance art. From the same root is derived cupiditas to denote any intense passion or desire, from which we derive cupidity (avarice or greed). See erotic.
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Cyclopean
Here were two distinct groups of giants called the Cyclopes, whose name means circle-eyed and indicates their principle distinguishing feature, one round eye in the center of their forehead. The first, offspring of Uranus and Ge, were the smiths who labored with Hephaestus at his forge to create the thunderbolt for Zeus, among other masterpieces. The second group of Cyclopes were a tribe of giants, the most important of whom is Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon, encountered by Odysseus. The word cyclopean refers to anything that pertains to the Cyclopes or partakes of their gigantic and powerful nature. Thus the Cyclopes were said to be responsible for the massive stone walls which surround the palace-fortresses of the Mycenaean period. And so cyclopean is used generally to describe a primitive building style, which uses immense, irregular, stone blocks, held together by their sheer weight without mortar.
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Cynosure
The constellation Ursa Minor ("little bear") was called Kunosoura ("the dog's tail") by the astronomer Aratus, who saw in it one of the nymphs who raised the infant Zeus. Long a guiding star for seafarers, it has given us the word cynosure which can describe anything that serves to focus attention or give guidance.
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