Feb 17, 2016

Etymology Expeditions: Classical Heroes

Let's explore some classical heroes this week. Ever wonder where Hercules got his name? You're about to find out.

Okay, Hercules. The name comes from the Greek Herakles, meaning "glory of Hera." (You remember Hera, wife and sister of Zeus? Or if you're a Roman, you know her as Juno.) So Hera + kleos "glory."

Then there's James Joyce's favorite, Ulysses, Latin version of Greek Odysseus. The origin is unknown, perhaps from odyssasthaia "to be grieved/angry at." If you read The Odyssey, the name makes total sense.

Perseus is the one who slew Medusa. (Yeah, you remember, the old shiny shield trick. Have you noticed that the goddess Athena is depicted with Medusa's head on her shield? That's because Perseus gave it to her. The head still retained the power to turn people to stone. Nice of him to give it away, huh? Or was it? I wouldn't want it lying around the house, either.) The origins of the name are uncertain, but one possibility is that it's derived from Greek περθω (pertho), "to destroy."

And here's a personal favourite, Aeneas, the guy who traveled to the underworld and later founded the Roman state.The name comes from Greek Αινειας (Aineias), from Greek αινη (aine), "praise."

Theseus, the slayer of the Minotaur, gets his name from Greek τιθημι (tithemi) meaning "to set, to place." I don't get it. Wikipedia says the name is from the same root as θεσμός ("thesmos"), meaning "the gathering." As Theseus was a great reformer, this kind of fits, right?

The warrior Achilles, of Iliad fame, was invulnerable in battle, because his mother dipped him into the river Styx as a child, trying to make him immortal. The only part not invulnerable? The heel by which she held him. (I don't get why she didn't just dip the foot in afterwards, but, hey, whatever ... ) The name comes from Greek Αχιλλευς (Achilleus), of unknown meaning, perhaps derived from Greek αχος (achos) "pain" or the name of the river Achelous.

That just goes to show you, names matter. Writerly folk, think about the names you're giving to your characters. Do they have layers of meaning? Shouldn't they? Nomen est omen, right?


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