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Commentary: Words From The Gods

By Paula LaRocque, KERA 90.1 Commentator

Dallas, TX –

I recently read of a lawyer whose talent was "untying the Gordian knots typical in tangled legal matters." That was good alliteration, but bad metaphor. The point of the Gordian knot was that it could not be untied.

The Gordian knot myth concerns a knot so complicated that a prophecy arises: Whoever can undo the knot will rule Asia. Many try and fail. But when Alexander encounters the Gordian knot, he undoes it by simply drawing his sword and cutting it.

Another common expression from myth is "Achilles' heel," which means a weak spot. The legend is that the mother of the infant Achilles dipped him into the magical river Styx to make him invulnerable. She held him by the heel, however, which left it unprotected - and the adult Achilles was killed by an arrow to his heel.

Two other handy myth expressions are "Herculean task" and "Augean stables." Hercules was the son of Zeus and a mortal woman. The legend goes that Zeus' wife was so jealous of Hercules that she sent him a dozen impossible tasks which he nevertheless accomplished.

One of Hercules' tasks was cleaning King Augeas' stables which housed 3,000 oxen and hadn't been cleaned in 30 years. Well, I mean! Hercules diverted two rivers through the stables and voil ! Today, we liken any awesome cleanup often one that involves massive corruption to "cleaning the Augean stables."

The mortals Pandora and Cassandra also left valuable allusions. Pandora's curiosity was the source of all misfortune. The gods gave her a box into which each had put something harmful, forbidding her ever to open it. But her curiosity got the better of her, and she lifted the lid. Out flew all evil. References to "opening Pandora's Box" are common. Here's a clever headline about lawyer advertising: "Lawyers open Pandora's briefcase."

Cassandra's mistake was spurning the god Apollo. He cursed her with a so-called gift of prophecy: She would predict the future accurately, but her curse would be that no one would believe her. Warren Buffet who has repeatedly and accurately predicted an unhappy end to various stock market euphorias has been called a "Wall Street Cassandra."

From Eros, god of love, we get the word erotic, while from his counterpart, Aphrodite, comes aphrodisiac. From Mars, god of war, comes martial. From the Titans comes titanic. From the eternal task of Sisyphus that of rolling a large stone up a hill, only to see it roll down again comes Sisyphean, an adjective we give to endless and thankless effort. From Hector, a figure in the Trojan army, comes the verb hector, meaning to bully or badger.

Dionysian and bacchanalian describe drunken celebration and derive from the gods of revelry and wine, Dionysus and Bacchus.

Junoesque comes from Juno, wife of Jove. Junoesque once suggested a stately, matronly beauty but is now just a euphemism for "queen-sized."

Jovial, meantime, derives from Jove although he seemed far from jovial when he was lobbing thunderbolts at Earthlings.

Maybe that was a myth.

Paula LaRocque is the author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well.

If you have opinions or rebuttals about this commentary, call (214) 740-9338 or email us.