Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov

I read a lot these days, putting all my spare time into it. What I need to catch up on is my reviews. This is an interesting book I read the other day that I'd highly recommend to mythology and language buffs. I mean, look at the cover, wouldn't you like to know where all those words came from?

I had a couple of hours to kill at the university the other day, so I wandered into the Mythology and Religion section of the library, which these days has turned into a default response to free time. A slim book caught my eye, Words from the Myths by Isaac Asimov.

The book is just what the title says, an account of Greek (and Roman) myths and the many words coined from them. The book begins at the beginning, with the first thing that ever came into existence, which the Greeks called Chaos. From the void came the deities, like Gaia (Roman Gaea) and Ouranos (Roman Uranus.) Their children were the Titans. Kronos, the most powerful Titan, revolted against and drove away Uranus. The Titans were followed by the Olympians, when Zeus tricked his father Cronus, defeated the Titans and imprisoned then. The book then retells the stories of demigods and monsters, the tales of men and heroes and lastly, the legend of the siege of Troy. It's a simple but detailed account, nice for those not familiar with the myths and not too long to bore those who already are. 

Asimov spends a long time listing all the planets and stars named after the Greek mythical beings, but since I'm no expert in astronomy, I could only comment that I found it interesting. What I really liked were the little bits of information, from the obvious like all geo- words being derived from Gaea, to the fact that there is an atlas bone in our body, which is aptly the one our head rests on. Eos, sister of Hyperion and goddess of dawn, gave us the word 'east.' The Roman god of sleep was called Somnus, as in somnabulist, and his son was the god of dreams, Morpheus, as in morphine. Pan was a son of Hermes, and had hindquarters, legs, ears and horns of a goat. The Roman equivalent of Pan, the spirit of nature, was Faunus, who gave us both 'fauna' and 'faun.' Pomona was the Roman goddess of fruit trees, which is where pomegranate comes from, as does Pomona Sprout!

In the chapter about the siege of Troy, which obviously was my favourite part, Asimov retold the Iliad myth, pausing to name the many phrases derived from it. I was thrilled, because the only one I ever knew was "Achilles heel." But I did have a feeling that some of them were a bit stilted. Tell me if you've seen any of these used, "the apple of discord," "to sulk like Achilles in his tent," "I fear the Greeks, even when they come bearing gifts." Other phrases not related to the Troy myth that Asimov mentioned included "to cut the Gordian knot" from a story of Alexander the Great and the gorgons, "to throw a sop to Cerberus" inspired from the three-headed dog guarding hell.

Asimov has also written the book Words from History. I can't wait to get my hands on that! 

2 comments:

Viktoria Berg said...

This sounds like a great book (and I´m particularly pleased Asimov wrote it, he is one of my childhood favourites). Mythology and religion should be taught more, I think, as so much of our culture rests on it. I use "fear the Greeks" and refer to the "Gordian knot" all the time. But then I am getting on a bit. ;-)

Priya said...

I have seen the "Gordian knot" in use, the rest just fascinated me, though! It is a great book.

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