Month: April 2012

Greek Etymologies II

Monday, April 30th, 2012

Hello California!  I’m excited to be starting the CA leg of my tour, and if you’re in LA, San Francisco or San Diego and want to hear me speak here are the details of the events.

Rather than a Myth of the Week, I thought I would do another post on modern words with ancient roots.  Below are five more of my favorites.


The Liberty Bell, a Philadelphia symbol

Philadelphia.  When I moved to Philadelphia from New York City, I was thirteen and deeply reluctant. For one thing, I was leaving all my friends behind.  For another, the city seemed spookily deserted to me after the bustle of Manhattan.  In my terrible teenage way, I was particularly irritated by Philadelphia’s cheery, ever-present slogan: The City of Brotherly Love!

But then I started taking Greek, and realized that the phrase isn’t some pollyanna PR line, it’s the literal translation of Philadephia. Phil—is the Greek root for love, and adelphos is the word for brother.  Well.  That shut me up.  The moral of the story?  All sulky teens need is a little ancient Greek.

Psychopomp/Psychopompos.  This word doesn’t get very much airtime nowadays, but I think it should.  A psychopomp is a being whose job it is to guide the souls of the dead to the afterlife, and in ancient Greece this was the messenger god Hermes, whose epithet was Psychopompos.  It comes from the Greek word psyche, meaning soul, which has found its way into English in all sorts of compounds, including psychiatrist—a word which literally means “soul doctor” (iatros is Greek for doctor).  In a lovely bit of metaphor, psyche is also the Greek word for butterfly.

Hermes (at left) on a vase-painting

The pomp– part comes from the Greek for escort, or guide, and can refer to either a single escort, or an entire cohort, making it the root of our “pomp” in pomp and circumstance.  So, psychopomp literally means soul-guide. By the way, this word frequently provokes hilarity among my Greek students: “Dude, that guy was psycho pompous!”

Apocalypse.  This word comes from the Greek roots apo (away from, or un-), and calypto (cover, conceal).  So it literally means an uncovering, or, in the biblical sense, revelation.  The “calyps” part of apocalypse is the exact same root as the name Calpyso, the nymph from the Odyssey who holds Odysseus (sort of) against his will for seven years.  She is the opposite of revelation—a being who uses obfuscation and wiles to keep Odysseus with her, rather than helping him on his journey home.

The nymph Calypso offering Odysseus immortality if he will stay and be her love

Pachycephalosaurus.  What could be better than giant lizards that bonk each other in the head?  If you answered “nothing,” then pachycephalosaurus is the dinosaur for you.  Pachy- means thick, or stout; cephal- means head and saurus is our old friend lizard.  Which makes pachycephalosaurus one hard-headed lizard.  These dinosaurs had a domed, extra-thick skull plate that, according to some scientists, they would use to batter each other with, kind of the way rams do.

Both pachy– and cephal– show up elsewhere in English.  Pachy- is part of “pachyderm” literally, thick-skin, another word for elephant.  Cephal– goes into all sorts of medical diagnoses like “encephalitis.”  But the important thing to remember, I think, is that there were dinosaurs who developed extra-thick heads because they liked to whack into things.

The skull of a pachycephalosaurus. Photo credit to user Ballista from English wikipedia

Gubernatorial, “relating to a governor,” is one of my favorite words, because its context is almost always serious, yet you’re still saying the word “goober.”  As a child it was classed in my mind with avuncular—another intimidating word that turned out to have a really easy meaning (uncle-ish).

Gubernatorial comes from the Greek kubernetes (koo-ber-nay-tays), which originally meant captain of a ship.  Over time, the “k” blurred with its close cousin “g” (both sounds made against the palate), and produced the goober sound that we all know and love.  Linguistically the “b” in the middle of the word is closely associated with “v” so it was just an easy step to “governor” from there.

By the way, if you’re looking for a factoid for your next cocktail party, try this: the honors society “phi beta kappa” is actually a Greek acronym for the following phrase: philosophia biou kubernetes—“Love of learning is the guide (captain) of life.”

Have a great week!

Myth of the Week: Atalanta

Monday, April 23rd, 2012

As a child reading myth-books, I found heroines to be thin on the ground.  I’ve written before about how much I loved the goddess Athena, but I also yearned for powerful female mortals as well.  Unfortunately, my early myth books contained only one such woman.  The good news?  It was Atalanta, and she was straight-up amazing.

Atalanta the huntress

Atalanta was born the daughter of a king, but her father, who had wanted a son, exposed her to die in the wilderness. Instead, she was adopted by a mother-bear, who nursed and raised her.  Atalanta grew up to be a master hunter and athlete, particularly known for her fleetness of foot.  She was supposed to be so simultaneously beautiful and terrifying that all who saw her were struck dumb. She could hold her own against any man, and her name itself is the perfect retort to her father’s prejudice: it means “of equal weight.”

I didn’t have much in common with Atalanta–I was horribly slow when we ran laps in gym class, and the thought of hunting animals horrified me–but that didn’t stop me from loving her.  I especially appreciated the fact that she never went begging back to her ungrateful father, but chose to go off and make her fortune as a free hero. The first proof of her mettle came when she was attacked by two brutal centaurs, and single-handedly killed them both.

A golden Atalanta, with the Calydonian boar's head at her side.

Next she joined the Calydonian Boar hunt, organized for all the greatest heroes of the day.  Atalanta didn’t strike the fatal blow against the monstrous animal, but she was the first to wound it, and in honor of her courage, the hero Meleager awarded her the boar-skin.  Not everyone was pleased with this decision, and it ended up leading to Meleager’s death.  A story for another time!

Thanks to her prowess with arms, Atalanta was also invited to join Jason and his Argonauts in their quest for the Golden Fleece.  Sadly, after being listed as one of the heroes involved, she doesn’t really figure in any of the rest of the adventures.  It would be interesting to read an account of the whole myth from her perspective—there’s a novel in that, for sure!

Atalanta wrestles Peleus, Achilles' father

One of my favorite stories about Atalanta is her famous wrestling match with Peleus, Achilles’ father.  As some of you may know from my book, Peleus was quite the wrestler—strong enough to have beaten the goddess Thetis.  But when Atalanta challenged him?  She defeated him thoroughly, and their bout became a popular scene in art.

Thanks to her growing fame, Atalanta’s father decided that, actually, he wanted his daughter after all.  He formally acknowledged her, then exercised his paternal right to marry her off.  Atalanta, enraged, said that first her suitors would have to beat her in a footrace.  If they lost, they would be put to death.  Atalanta’s ruthless father thought that that sounded just fine—he’d still get to keep their courting gifts, after all.

Several (I can’t help but think foolish) young men decided to try their feet against Atalanta’s.  All of them lost until a young man named Hippomenes (or Melanion in other versions), prayed to the goddess of love, Aphrodite, to aid him.   She gave him three magical, golden apples from the Garden of the Hesperides, and told him that if he threw them to the side during the race, Atalanta would be sure to go after them, allowing him to beat her.

Atalanta, stooping to pick up the golden apple, as Hippomenes runs ahead

When I was really young, this part of the story baffled me, because it seemed so out of character for Atalanta to care about gold.  After all, this is the same woman who grew up roughing it and drinking bear milk, with no need for princess-comforts.  It wasn’t until I got older that I understood that the apples were the ultimate symbol of heroic distinction—retrieving one is even one of the labors of Hercules—and they would have tempted any serious fame-hungry hero.  Her desire to have them is of a kind with her desire to display the Calydonian boar-skin she won.

Aphrodite’s cheat works, and Hippomenes wins the race.  For some reasons, Atalanta doesn’t seem to hold it against him—perhaps she approves of his cleverness, as well as his athleticism.  Further, he seems to appreciate her: rather than trying to turn her into a traditional ancient wife, the two become comrades in hunting together.

In my childhood myth-books, this was where the story always ended, which gave me the impression that Atalanta’s life concluded happily.  Some years later, I was startled to discover that there’s more to the tale—a bizarre and racy ending that goes like this: Atalanta and Hippomenes are out hunting one day when they are overcome by intense desire for each other.  In some versions this is because Hippomenes didn’t properly thank Aphrodite for her help with the golden apples, and the goddess is getting her revenge.  In others it’s simply because they are in love.  They begin coupling, and are so distracted by pleasure that they don’t notice that they are lying together within the bounds of a god’s temple (depending on the version, the god could be Aphrodite, Zeus, or even the Eastern goddess Cybele).  Sex in a sanctuary was considered blasphemous pollution, or miasma, as the Greeks called it, and punishment was swift.  The angry god/goddess turns the two of them into lions as punishment.  The End.

A lion. Photo by Wwelles14

Strange, right?  And hard to parse, I think, beyond the obvious message: don’t have sex in a temple.  The only consolation is that at least the god/goddess picked an appropriate animal–I think the punishment would have been a lot worse if the famous, beloved huntress had been turned into, say, a chicken.

I just can’t close this myth without mentioning Marlo Thomas’ “Princess Atalanta” story from Free to Be You and Me.  I don’t know about you, but I listened to that tape over and over and over again as a child.  Here’s the animated version with Marlo Thomas and Alan Alda (!) doing the voices.

By the way, thanks to everyone for their comments about last week’s Greek etymology post.  I promise there are more like that coming!

T Magazine, The New York Times

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

In a very different vein than the recent Orange news, The New York Times T Magazine featured me in the April 15th issue on Women’s Fashion.  Those of you who know me know that stylishness isn’t really my milieu, so I was VERY grateful that they did all the clothes selection for me!  It was a wild and wonderful experience, and included an interview with the terrific Liza Nelson.


Orange Prize Shortlist!

Thursday, April 19th, 2012

I was absolutely thrilled and bowled over that The Song of Achilles was shortlisted for the Orange Prize.   It is a huge honor for me to be in the company of such amazing authors: Ann Patchett (State of Wonder), Cynthia Ozick (Foreign Bodies), Esi Edugyan (Half-Blood Blues), Georgina Harding (Painter of Silence) and Anne Enright (The Forgotten Waltz).

By total and wonderful coincidence, I was actually with Ann Patchett on the day the shortlist was announced, doing a reading at her bookstore, Parnassus Books.  Ann was so gracious and lovely, and I also got to meet her Parnassus partner, Karen Hayes, and the Parnassus staff, all of whom were just terrific.  A giddy, unforgettable evening!

If you love having signed books, you might want to check out Parnassus’ First Editions club–you don’t have to live in Nashville to join!

Ancient Greek and Modern English

Monday, April 16th, 2012

I’ve had a busy past few weeks on my US booktour, with lots of terrific events, and lots of wonderful things still to come.  In particular, I am thrilled to be going to Ann Patchett’s bookstore, Parnassus, on Tuesday for the kickoff of her First Editions club.  She is fabulous, and getting to see her and visit her store is a literary dream come true.  Then this weekend I get to hang out at the Books on the Nightstand Vermont Booktopia retreat, with a whole bunch of other book-lovers and authors.  After that, it’s on to California!

Unfortunately, amidst all this I haven’t had the chance to give Atalanta, my chosen myth of the week, all the attention she deserved.  So rather than short shrift that eminent lady hero, I thought I would push her off to next week, and have this week’s post be a bit different.

Not very horse-y, but pretty cute. Photo by Frank Wouters

For some time now, I’ve been thinking about doing a series about the delights of ancient Greek-derived English. When I first started studying Greek, one of my absolute favorite parts was realizing that so many English words had these old, secret roots.  Learning Greek was like being given a super-power: linguistic x-ray vision.  Or like in CSI, when they shine the blacklight on the carpet.  A silly, ordinary word like hippopotamus sprang suddenly to life as “river horse.” A terrible description, to be sure,  but a fascinating one.  Is that really how the Greeks thought of them?

I still love these Greek etymologies just as much as I did back then, and thought I would share five of my favorites.

Amazons fight Greeks on the side of a sarcophagus in Thessaloniki. Photo by Anton Lefterov

Sarcophagus. By the time I got to my high school Greek class, this word and I were old friends.  I had been very fortunate as a child to live near the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and to have a mother who was excited to take me there.  My favorite exhibits were the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians, and between the three I saw lots of sarcophagi. I had always assumed that the word was Egyptian, because it sounded mysterious to me, so it was a thrilling moment to realize it was actually Greek: from sark-, meaning flesh, and phag– meaning eating. The sinister name came from the fact that the sarcophagi were often cut from a type of limestone, which was thought to help “devour” the bodies.

When a person in the ancient world was ecstatic, she was actually possessed—so consumed by the god’s presence that she was out of her mind, or standing (stat-) outside (ek-) herself.  It’s interesting to me that the word has been now entirely stripped of those religious associations, and come to mean simply the most extreme and delirious type of happiness.

A female follower of Bacchus, perhaps preparing to enter religious ecstasy.

The ancient Greeks were lovers of the human form, especially when it was fit and naked.  Ancient athletes both worked out and competed in the nude, and the place where they exercised became known as “the naked place,” or gymnasium, from gymnos, the word for naked.  Something to contemplate next time you’re on the elliptical….

Petrichor is one of my favorite words of all time, because it gives a name to something we’ve all experienced: that smoky-mineral scent that rises from the earth after rain.  It’s derived from the Greek for rock (petr-) and divine blood (ichor).  By the way, that “petr-“ shows up elsewhere in English, in the word petrify, and the name Peter.  Jesus makes a clever play on words when he says that the apostle Peter is the rock upon which he will build his church.

An apatosaurus skeleton, from the Carnegie museum. Photo by Tadek Kurpaski

I’m not sure what the cut off age is for growing up with Apatosaurus versus Brontosaurus, but I definitely missed it.  As a child, I loved my “Brontos” and was very sad to learn that they didn’t, in fact, exist.  It’s even sadder because brontosaurus has such a wonderful, evocative name: “thunder lizard.”  It used to make me shiver to imagine a creature so big its steps sounded like a storm.  But the new improved version, apatosaurus, has a pretty good name too: deceiving lizard.  The story goes that this is because paleontologists were “tricked” into mis-identifying it as brontosaurus, but apparently the truth is that the name apatosaurus is actually the older of the two (which is why it won out).  It derived from the fact that some of its bones were deceptively like the bones of other dinosaurs.

Have an ecstatic and etymological week!


Along with the UK paperback release, Bloomsbury has created a short video of me discussing The Song of Achilles.

UK Paperback, and Hay Festival

Thursday, April 12th, 2012

The UK Paperback of The Song of Achilles is officially released today!  Here’s a peek at the new cover:

UK Paperback Cover

In other thrilling news, I will be coming to the UK in June to speak at the Hay Festival.  More details on that and other possible appearances coming soon!

Myth of the Week: Atlas

Monday, April 9th, 2012

As a child in New York City, I had numerous opportunities to walk past the huge statue of Atlas holding up the world in front of Rockefeller center.  I would always wonder: “But what is Atlas standing on?”

Statue of Atlas, at Rockefeller center. Photo by Sami Cetinkaya

Though I didn’t know it at the time, it was an age-old question.  If Atlas, or four elephants, or a turtle (all in various mythologies) are holding up the world, what’s holding them up?  In a possibly apocryphal story from modern physics, a scientist has just finished delivering a lecture about the nature of the cosmos, and an old woman raises her hand and says that he’s wrong, the world is really balanced on the back of a giant turtle. The scientist asks, “Then what’s the turtle balanced on?”  The old lady famously retorts, “It’s turtles all the way down.”  Except in this case, I guess the answer is: “Atlases all the way down.”

As I got older, and read more of the mythology, I realized that the ancient Greek version of this story is a lot more clear than that.  In the original Greek, Atlas isn’t holding up the world at all, he’s holding up the sky.  Ah-ha!  Now that made sense.

Statue of Atlas with the World

Atlas was a second-generation Titan, the race of gods that ruled before Zeus and his Olympian kin took over.  His father was Iapetus, which makes him the brother to one of my favorite mythological figures of all time, Prometheus. From birth Atlas was exceptionally strong, and when war broke out between the Titans and Olympians, Atlas took vigorous part on the Titan side.  Too vigorous, as it turns out, because after the Titans were defeated, Zeus felt threatened by Atlas’ mighty strength, and sentenced him to hold up the vault of the sky for all eternity. No wonder his name is derived from the Greek word for “enduring.”

For aeons, Atlas stood in the garden of the Hesperides, at the far edge of the world, holding up the sky.  He wasn’t entirely alone: there were the nymphs of the garden (the Hesperides), who tended to a golden apple tree, which was also guarded by a fearsome dragon.  And sometime during all of this (probably before the whole holding up the sky thing) Atlas managed to have children, including the goddess Calypso, who would later seduce Odysseus on her enchanted island, and Maia, who was the mother of Hermes.

Hercules holding up the World, with Atlas beside him

Atlas had visitors too, including Heracles, who needed the golden apples to fulfill one of his famous labors.  Heracles managed to slay the dragon guarding the tree, but needed a god to do the actual picking for him.  He offered to take the great weight of Heaven off of Atlas’ shoulders for a few moments, in return for the god retrieving the apple for him.  Atlas gratefully agreed.  But after picking the apples, Atlas realized that he didn’t want to go back to literally carrying the weight of the world.

No problem, Heracles said.  He was happy to keep holding up the heavens, but would Atlas mind taking it back for just one second so he can make a pad for his shoulders with his lionskin?

Oh, Atlas.  The brains of the family definitely went to Prometheus, because the Titan agreed.  I always feel sorry for Atlas at this moment, because his actions, however, foolish, come from empathy.  After all, who understands better the crushing and terrible weight of the sky?  He’s one of those people about which great movies are made—they commit a crime out of desperation, but don’t really have what it takes to follow through.  Heracles picks up the apples, and leaves the Titan to his suffering.

NASA photo of the Atlas Mountains

In a later story,  Perseus uses Medusa’s head to turn the Titan into stone, creating the Atlas mountains.  In many of the retellings this is meant to be Perseus retaliating (Atlas won’t let him pass), but it seems like a kindness to me.  I know if I had to hold up the sky, I’d definitely rather be a mountain than a person.

Because of his association with holding up the sky, Atlas also became linked to the poles and the constellations.  In fact, in some versions of the myth he’s an expert astronomer and map-maker, which is what gives us our word atlas today.  For a modern interpretation of the Atlas story, check out Jeanette Winterson’s “Weight” which is part of the wonderful Canongate Myth series.

I wish you all a good week, without too much extra weight on your shoulders!

Myth of the Week: Arachne

Monday, April 2nd, 2012

One of the earliest Greeks myths I remember is the story of the artist Arachne, whose name means “spider” in Greek.  Back then, it seemed fairly standard: hubris, a confrontation with a god, transformation as punishment (to, unsurprisingly, a spider), with some natural explanation thrown in (this is why spiders spin webs!)

A spider's web, with raindrops on it. Photo by Wusel007

But when I got a bit older, and read Ovid’s full version of the myth, Arachne quickly became one of my favorite heroines.  First of all, she’s one of the few ancient females who isn’t a princess or beautiful nymph.  She’s the daughter of a tradesman, a Lydian dye-merchant, with no noble connections, nor extraordinary looks.  She is famous, Ovid tells us, for her skill in weaving alone.  I particularly love his description of her at her loom—how gracefully and deftly she handles the threads, how the nymphs abandon their fields and forests to come stare in awe.  I have always found it so pleasurable to watch someone do something that they are truly gifted at, and Ovid captures that feeling perfectly.

Arachne is relentlessly proud of her excellence, and defiant in the face of attempts to cow her into modesty.  She is, she says, as skilled as Athena in her work.  Why should she lie and say she is not?  There aren’t too many heroines in ancient literature who are so single-minded and proud–usually those characteristics are identified with men like Achilles and Ajax.  In fact, that comparison does her a bit of a disservice, since her rebelliousness and pride are actually much more deliberate and intellectual than either of those two heroes (much as I love them).  A better comparison might be another favorite of mine, Pentheus, the ill-fated King of Thebes, who loses his life standing up to Dionysus.  Like him, Arachne dares to criticize the gods, and doesn’t back down even when threatened.  Foolish?  Maybe.  But also principled and courageous.

Athena vanquishing the giant Enceladus

The gods, of course, never like to be challenged, and Athena is known for being particularly vicious towards rivals. She decides to pay a visit to Arachne, disguised as an old woman, warning the girl that she must learn to acknowledge the goddess’ superiority.  But Arachne dismisses her–why should she acknowledge Athena?  She hasn’t met the goddess, nor seen her weaving.  And she has supreme faith in her own powers.  “Let her come!” she says.  And Athena (the gods do love their dramatic revelations) throws off her disguise declaring “She is here!”

The contest is on.  And it’s a testament to Ovid’s skill as a poet that what should be exceedingly boring (a long, lingering description of the two women weaving) becomes an edge-of-the-seat fireworks display.  Ovid spends every bit of his prodigious skill evoking the vivid colors and beauty of the materials, before moving on to the astonishing pictures taking shape on the rival tapestries.  Because, of course, this isn’t just about beauty: it’s an intellectual debate about whether humans have the right to challenge gods.

Athena attacking Arachne, after the contest

Athena’s cloth is a gorgeous depiction of the gods in their full glory, looking on at the scene of her triumph over Poseidon in the contest for Athens.  In the four corners of the tapestry, she weaves four admonitory scenes of humans who dared to compare themselves with gods, and the bad ends that each came to.  But Arachne’s cloth shows something else entirely: not the gods in triumph, but the gods as clowns.  Each part reveals the gods behaving badly.  There are several episodes of Zeus in goatish pursuit of nymphs, along with other undignified affairs of the immortals.  Her message is clear: the gods are not all they say they are; they are ignoble, embarrassing, childish. More flawed, in fact, than humans. Arachne had guts.

When it comes time to judge the quality of the two works, it would have been easy for Ovid to simply have Arachne lose. She is human, after all, and so it would be expected that her work would be lesser. But Ovid doesn’t do that.  Arachne’s work, he says, is utterly flawless.  Not even Athena’s envy can find a single error in it.  The girl, if she hasn’t won, has at the very least tied. Athena is utterly enraged–both by the work’s perfection, and by its blasphemous content.   One might think that as the goddess of reason and intelligence, Athena would find a way to teach the girl a lesson, to argue her into submission.  But instead, she only proves Arachne’s point that the gods are imperfect and irrational: she tears Arachne’s beautiful weaving all to pieces.  Can there be a greater testament to Arachne’s intellectual triumph?  The great Athena is speechless, reduced to a tantrum-throwing child.

Arachne as a spider (a particularly creepy depiction, I think)

In the version of the story that I read when I was young, Athena turns the girl into a spider at this point, as punishment.  But the full version is much darker, and more interesting.  Athena, after tearing apart the tapestry, seizes the spindle and beats the girl with it.  Arachne is now herself enraged, and decides to hang herself.  It’s a moment that doesn’t read very well in our modern world, where suicide is often equated with giving up.  But in the context of the ancient world, suicide was what warriors did, when they refused to accept defeat.  It said, in effect: only I can defeat myself.  And in that sense, it is a perfect fit for bold, uncompromising Arachne.

But Athena is a god, so she gets the last word.   She pities the dying girl (I like to think that she finally recognizes the toughness of a kindred spirit), and saves Arachne’s life, transforming her to a spider.  Arachne is allowed to keep her extraordinary skill at weaving–or maybe Athena lacks the power to take it from her.  What Arachne thinks of this we never find out, but Arachne and her descendants continue to spin their beautiful, miraculous creations to this day.

Another famous weaver: Odysseus' wife Penelope at her loom

I recognize that there is, of course, another way to read this story–as a tale of immoderate hubris, of foolish, reckless arrogance.  But even read that way, I still can’t help rooting for Arachne–the ordinary girl with the soul of a warrior, who was able to beat a goddess.