Feb 24, 2016

Etymology Expeditions: Classical Crime and Punishment

I thought we'd explore a few villains from classical mythology this week. You might argue that some of the greatest villains of Greek mythology are the gods, but I decided to explore the ones stuck in Tartarus for their crimes.

King Sisyphus got sent to Tartarus for being a poor host. No really, he killed his guests. He also seduced his niece and gossiped about Zeus' romantic affairs, so down he went. Being a clever sort, Sisyphus tricked Thanatos (death) and escaped, leaving Thanatos in chains. Without death, all sorts of wackiness ensued, but Sisyphus ended up back where he belonged in the end. He did trick Persephone into releasing him again, because his wife hadn't given him a proper burial. Hermes dragged him back, though. Then he had the gall to brag he was cleverer than Zeus. His punishment was to roll a boulder up a hill for all eternity, with the boulder always rolling away from him. The etymology of his name is unknown, though a replication of syphos "crafty" is one possibility.    

Another king, Tantalus, decided it would be fun to chop up his son and serve him to the gods. He also stole the ambrosia from them. Big mistake. He was condemned to stand in a pool of water beneath a fruit tree with low-hanging branches. Whenever he reached for the fruit, the branches pulled away, and the water receded before he could drink. His name, literally "the bearer" or "the sufferer," comes from tal*talos, from PIE root *tele "to carry, support."

King Ixion got pissed at his father-in-law and pushed him onto a bed of burning coals, committing the first kin-related murder. Zeus pitied him and invited him up for a meal in Olympus. There the ungrateful wretch tried to seduce the goddess Hera, Zeus' wife. Ixion ended up strapped to a winged, flaming wheel that was always spinning. I couldn't find an etymology for this one.

The Titan Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to men, and was punished by being chained to rock and having vultures peck on his liver for all eternity. His name means "forethought," from Greek pro "before"+ mathein "to learn."

Boy, the Greek gods sure knew how to hold a grudge!


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