Mythological Dictionary


Dictionary of Mythological Definitions and Terms.
Mythological [1] [2] [3] [4]

 

Definition


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Achillean
Achilles was the son of the mortal Peleus and the nymph Thetis. A warrior of legendary prowess in battle, and the hero of Homer's Iliad, he was essential to the Greek war effort against Troy. To describe someone as Achillean is to mark that person as invincible or invulnerable, or nearly so. Achilles himself had one vulnerable spot. His mother dipped the infant Achilles in the magical waters of the river Styx in a vain attempt to render him immortal; she held him by the heel in order to submerge him in the stream, thereby leaving one spot on his body susceptible to injury. Paris took advantage of this weakness and with Apollo's help delivered the fatal arrow. An Achilles' heel refers to the one assailable feature or weakness a person may have, and in Anatomy the Achilles' tendon stretches from the heel bone to the calf muscle.
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Adonis
Adonis was such a handsome youth that Aphrodite herself found him irresistible. A capable hunter, he disregarded the warnings of the goddess to retreat in the face of a boar which stood its ground and sustained a fatal injury from a charging boar's tusk. A grieving Aphrodite sprinkled nectar on the blood-soaked ground and the anemone blossomed forth. To call a man an Adonis is to draw attention to his beauty.
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Aegis
The aegis is the shield of Zeus (originally a "goat-skin"), which thunders when he shakes it. Athena also bore the aegis, often tasseled and with the head of Medusa affixed, its petrifying power still intact. This divine shield afforded safety and security and so to be under the aegis of an individual or of an institution is to be favored with protection, sponsorship, or patronage.
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Aeolian harp or lyre
Aeolus was put in charge of the winds by Zeus. He kept watch over his subjects in a cave on the Island of Aeolia. An Aeolian harp is a box-shaped musical instrument across which strings are strung, which vibrate when wind passes across them.
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Amazon
The Amazons were a warrior-race of women from the North who joined battle with a terrifying war-cry. They were the equal of men in the field. They came to be seen as haters of men, women who sought foreign husbands, only to kill their sons and raise their daughters as Amazons. Later tradition has it that they cut off their right breast to become better archers. A vigorous and aggressive woman today might be deemed an amazon, while also conveying the idea of enormous physical stature. Often it is a derogatory term. The Amazon ant is a species of red ant that captures the offspring of other species and turns them into slaves.
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Ambrosia or ambrosial
The Greek gods on Olympus took food and drink as mortals do. But since the gods are of a different order from mortals, so too their sustenance. Ambrosia, culled from the regions beyond the Wandering Rocks, served variously as food for the gods, as unguent or perfume, or as fodder for horses. It is often coupled with nectar, which provided drink for the Olympians. Both words derive from roots which indicate their power to bestow immortality and stave off death. Today ambrosia can refer to a dessert of fruit and whipped cream or, especially when joined with nectar, any gourmet masterpiece. Generally, ambrosial has come to indicate anything fit for the gods or of divine provenance, or anything delicious or fragrant. See nectar.
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Aphrodisiac
According to Hesiod, Aphrodite was born of the foam around the severed genitals of Uranus, a fitting beginning for a divinity whose concern is the sexual. From her name comes the noun aphrodisiac, denoting anything that has the power to excite the sexual passions.
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Apollonian
Apollo had as his purview the arts, prophecy, and healing. At his chief shrine at Delphi the watchword was "know thyself," the beginning and principal aim of human understanding. He is the god of rationality, harmony, and balance, known by the epithet Phoebus, "bright" or "shining," by which he is equated with the sun and more broadly the order of the cosmos. The adjective apollonian describes that which partakes of the rational and is marked by a sense of order and harmony. Its opposite is dionysian, which describes unbridled nature, the frenzied and the irrational. These polarities, the apollonian and the dionysian were recognized by the Greeks as twin.htmlects of the human psyche.
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Apple of discord
All the gods and goddesses were invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, save one, Eris or "Strife." To avenge this slight, this goddess of discord tossed into the wedding hall a golden apple with the inscription "For The Fairest." It was immediately claimed by three rival goddesses: Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite. Zeus refused to decide the issue, but instead gave it to Paris, the son of Priam, king of Troy, to settle. The Judgment of Paris, as it has come to be known, bestowed the apple on Aphrodite, who had promised to Paris, the most beautiful woman in the world, namely Helen, wife of Menelaus, king of Sparta. The abduction of Helen by Paris was the cause of the ten-year siege and destruction of Troy under the onslaught of the Greek forces, pledged to wreak vengeance on the seducer. The apple of discord describes any action or situation that causes dissension and turmoil and is more trouble than it is worth.
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Arachnid
Arachne was a common girl with a remarkable skill in weaving. She won such fame that Athena, slighted and envious, challenged Arachne to a contest. Athena wove themes, including the fate of foolish mortals who dared to vie with the gods. Arachne depicted the gods' compromising love-affairs. Outraged, Athena struck the girl with her shuttle and, after Arachne hanged herself, in remorse transformed Arachne into a spider, so that she and her species might practice her art of weaving, forever. An arachnid refers to any of the various arthropods of the class Arachnida, including the spider.
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Arcadia or arcadian
Arcadia is the central mountainous region of the Peloponnese. Often it is described in idyllic terms: the ideal land of rustic simplicity, especially dear to Hermes, the home of Callisto (the favorite of Artemis), the usual playground of Pan; for the bucolic poets, Arcadia is a place where life is easy, where shepherds leisurely tend their flocks and pursue romantic dalliances. Thus Arcadia becomes that imagined primeval terrain, when human beings lived in contentment and harmony with the natural world. Arcadian refers to any place or time signifying the simple, rustic, pastoral life of a golden age lost.
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Argus or argus eyed
One of Zeus' sexual escapades involved the maiden Io. In an attempt to keep Hera from discovering the truth of his dalliance, Zeus transformed Io into a cow. Hera, not easily thrown off the scent of her husband's affairs, prevailed upon Zeus to give her the cow as a present and an assurance of his good faith, after which Hera enlisted the aid of Argus, a giant with one hundred eyes, to keep a close watch over the poor girl. In English one who is ever-vigilant or watchful can be called an Argus or be described as argus-eyed.
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Atlas or Atlantic or atlantes or Atlantis
Atlas was a titan who opposed Zeus in the battle between the Olympians and the earlier generation of Titans. The defeated Titans were condemned to Tartarus but Atlas was punished with the task of supporting upon his shoulders the vault of the heavens, thereby keeping the earth and sky separate. Through a mistaken notion that this vault, sometimes depicted as a sphere, was actually the earth, Atlas has given his name to that particular kind of book which contains a collection of geographical maps. It was not until the Flemish cartographer Gerhardus Mercator (1512-1594) depicted on the frontispiece of his atlas the titan carrying the earth that the association became fixed. The plural of atlas has given us the architectural term atlantes, which refer to support columns formed in the shape of men, corresponding to the maiden columns known as caryatids. Atlas endured his torment at the western edge of the world and so has given his name to the ocean beyond the straits of Gibralter, the Atlantic, as well as to the Atlas mountains in northwest Africa. The mythical island of Atlantis was located, according to Plato, in the western ocean.
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Augean Stables or Augean
One of Heracles' labors, performed in service to King Eurystheus, was to clean the stables of King Augeas of Elis. King Augeas had not cleaned his stalls for some years and the filth and stench had become unbearable. Heracles agreed to the task and succeeded in diverting the course of two rivers to achieve his aim. The term Augean Stables has since become a byword for squalor. Augean describes anything that is extremely filthy or squalid.
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Aurora australis
Aurora was the Roman goddess of the dawn (the Greek Eos). The sons of Aurora and the titan Astraeus were the four winds: Boreas, who blows from the north, Notus, the southwest, Eurus, the east, and Zephyrus, the west. The spectacular streaks of light which appear in the sky at night are a result of the effect of the particles of the sun's rays on the upper atmosphere. Seen especially at the poles, in the northern hemisphere they are called the northern lights or the aurora borealis, and in the south, the aurora australis, Auster being the Roman name of the southwest wind.
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Bacchanal or baccanalia or bacchanalian or bacchant or bacchante or bacchic
Dionysus, the Roman Bacchus, was the god of wine, frenzied music and dance, and the irrational. He presided over ecstatic, sometimes orgiastic rites, which involved initiation and drove the participants into another plane of perception, as they became possessed by the deity. He is usually represented in the midst of a retinue of female worshippers, known as maenads, bacchae, or bacchantes (the feminine singular is bacchante; a male follower is a bacchant, plural bacchants); he is also attended by male satyrs, mischievous and lecherous creatures, half-human and half-animal. Wine proved a powerful conduit to the ineffable, amidst rituals that included the rending of a sacrificial victim and the eating of its raw flesh. Dionysiac rites among the Romans became known as Bacchanalia and the sometime extreme behavior of the initiates provoked the Roman Senate to outlaw them in 186 B.C. Thus we derive the words bacchanal and bacchanalia to refer to any debauched party or celebration. Bacchanal, bacchant, bacchante, and bacchae can be used to characterize an overzealous party-goer. The adjectives bacchanalian and bacchic describe any exuberant, drunken revelry. See dionysian and apollonian.
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Beware of Greeks bearing gifts or I fear Greeks even when they bear gifts
The fall of Troy was finally accomplished by a ruse of the Greeks. They constructed an enormous, hollow, wooden horse, into which they hid some of their best fighters. The horse was left behind as the rest of the Greek host sailed off to the nearby island of Tenedos and waited. The treacherous Sinon convinced the Trojans to drag the gift into the city, despite the warnings of Laocoon, a priest of Poseidon. In Vergil's account, Laocoon implored his countrymen not to bring the treacherous horse into Troy, crying "I fear Greeks even when they bear gifts" (Timeo Danaos et dona ferentis). Two serpents emerged from the sea to strangle Laocoon and his two sons. The Trojans were convinced that they should accept the horse and thus wrought their own destruction. Laocoon's utterance has become a warning to beware of treachery and look for the hidden motives behind even the most fair-seeming generosity.
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Boreal
Boreas, the north wind, has given us this adjective, which refers to the region of the world from which his blasts come. See aurora.
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By Jupiter or by Jove or jovian or jovial
Jupiter was the Roman counterpart of Zeus, the supreme god and father. He was a god of the sky and his name is derived from Indo-European roots dyaus/pitr, which literally mean god/father. In Latin the common oath "by Jupiter" would be rendered "pro Jove" (Jove being a different form of his name). In the Christian tradition there is no religious significance to this exclamation but English writers, by using it as an expression of surprise or pleasure, avoided taking God's name in vain; thus "by Jupiter" or "by Jove" was used to replace the offensive "By God." To describe someone or something as jovian means that one partakes of that awe-inspiring majesty that is particular to a supreme god. Many mythological names also found a new existence in the field of astrology. Since it was felt that the heavenly bodies influence the life of humans on earth, celestial bodies were given appellations drawn from mythology, for example Jupiter became the name not only of a god but a planet. Those who were born under the influence of the planet Jupiter were said to be of a cheerful disposition, hence the meaning of the adjective, jovial.
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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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Mythological [1] [2] [3] [4]

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