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4 Medical & Emotional Conditions Named for Mythological Characters

The English language is rich with words and phrases derived from other languages, such as Anglo-Saxon and Latin.  Many terms also come from Greek and Roman mythology. Here are a handful of words that describe physical and emotional states we're all familiar with, and the mythological figures who inspired them.

1. Priapism

Few had ever heard of this condition before reading the small print in the Cialis commercial, but priapism is an extremely long-lasting (over four hours), and sometimes very painful erection.  The condition is named after the Greek god, Priapus.  His mother was Aphrodite (the goddess of love and beauty), but the identity of his father was a bit sketchy.  Different versions of the myth claimed different fathers, but he was probably one of the more influential deities "“ Hermes (god of commerce, boundaries and athletics), Dionysus (god of wine and ecstatic celebration) or Zeus (ruler of the gods and god of thunder). 

Despite this godly pedigree, Priapus' ugliness relegated him to the more marginal parts of the Olympian world.  Even his own mother was appalled by his repulsive appearance when he was born, and abandoned him in the mountains.  In art, he was depicted as a lusty fiend with a small, misshapen body, and an enormous, protruding phallus.  One tradition explained that Priapus' ugliness was the result of a jealous Hera (Zeus' wife) touching Aphrodite's pregnant belly and causing the child to be deformed in utero. 

Although he was cast off as an infant, Priapus did not perish.  Shepherds found and took pity on him and raised him.  When he grew up, Priapus became a member of Dionysus' entourage and his huge phallus earned him the status of a fertility god.  

One of Priapus' claims to mythological fame was that he upset the nymph, Lotis, so much with his molestations that the gods took pity on her and turned her into a lotus.  According to the story, Priapus crept up on a sleeping Lotis, intent on having his way with her.  Priapus was unsuccessful, however, because a donkey brayed and woke up the nymph.  The frightened Lotis fled from Priapus, but didn't have to run too far as she was mercifully turned into a lotus tree before he could catch up with her.
 
It is not surprising that donkeys often featured in the artistic renderings of Priapus.  With his plan to ravish Lotis foiled, Priapus came to despise the animal, and encouraged people to sacrifice donkeys in his honor.  Another version, however, recounted Priapus' hatred of the beast stemming from a heated debate he had with one particular donkey (to whom Dionysius had given the power of speech) about the comparative size of his manhood with his rival's donkeyhood.  When a comparison was made, the donkey won.  Angered at being second best, Priapus beat the animal to death (with his phallus, according to some versions). 

Both Greeks and Romans put statues of Priapus around their homes and gardens.  The Greeks often placed him before doorways as a good luck charm, but also as a guardian against thieves.  In these instances, Hermes and Priapus became almost interchangeable, as Hermes was the god of boundaries and as such could often be found placed in front of people's homes with his phallus exposed.  The Romans placed statues of Priapus in their vineyards where he served double duty as both fertility charm and scarecrow. 

2. Hermaphrodite

According to the Intersex Society of North America, true hermaphrodites are nonexistent because it is impossible for any human being to be completely male and female.  Therefore, the word "hermaphrodite," which traditionally referred to people who have both male and female physical characteristics, is a misnomer, and the word "intersex" is the preferred term for many who have this condition.

hermaphrodite.jpg

The word "hermaphrodite" comes from a Greek mythological figure, Hermaphroditus, the son of Hermes and Aphrodite.  He was raised by the nymphs of Mount Ida, and not surprisingly given his parentage, was very good looking.  When Hermaphroditus was a teenager, he came upon a lake in Caria, located in modern southwestern Turkey.  The guardian of the lake, a water nymph named Salmacis, took a liking to him instantly.  She tried to seduce him, but Hermaphroditus wasn't interested.  Instead, the cool, clear water of the lake attracted him, and he jumped in for a swim. 

Once in the water, however, Hermaphroditus was on the nymph's turf, and Salmacis grabbed him and held him as tightly as she could.  She then begged the gods that she and Hermaphroditus might stay together forever, and so their bodies were fused.  Hermaphroditus thus became both man and woman.  In art he was portrayed as having female breasts and male genitals.  The only consolation for Hermaphroditus was that any man who also bathed in this lake would suffer the same fate. 
  

3. Fury

furies.jpgThe word that describes that uncontrollable anger we all sometimes feel comes from three female creatures "“ the Furies, or furiae as they were called by the Romans.  The Greeks knew them as Erinyes or "the angry ones" and sometimes as Eumenidies or "kindly ones" "“ in the hopes that flattery might keep them away. 

As they were the personification of rage, it's not surprising that their origins were violent "“ when the Titan, Cronus, had castrated his father Uranus, the Furies were born out of his blood.  Other versions of the myth explained the origins of the Furies as the daughters of Nyx (night) or the daughters of Hades. 
 
The Furies were frightful in appearance.  They were winged, had snakes in their hair, carried torches and whips, and had blood pouring from their eyes.  Originally their number was uncertain, but over time a consensus emerged that there was a total of three "“ Alecto meaning "endless," Megaera meaning "grudging" and Tisiphone meaning "avenging murder."
 
Their domain was Hades, but they would often make appearances in the world of the living in order to pursue transgressors.  They punished those who broke the taboo of killing one's parent or other family member, and their chosen form of retribution involved driving the guilty party insane.  The most famous episode illustrating the role of the Furies comes from the Greek playwright Aeschylus and his play Oresteia.  The Furies pursued Orestes to the ends of the earth because he had killed his mother Clytemnestra in vengeance for her killing his father, Agamemnon.  (The Furies finally left Orestes in peace when an Athenian court acquitted him of the charges).
 

4. Narcissist

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Everyone knows at least one.  They're arrogant, selfish, and usually utter bores.  Sigmund Freud identified narcissism as an actual personality trait.  Narcissus was the son of the nymph Liriope and the river god Cephissus.  When Narcissus was a child, the soothsayer, Tiresias, forewarned his parents that their son would live a long life only if he didn't see his own image.  Narcissus was very good-looking and it seems that everyone desired him, both human and supernatural.

In the best known version of the Narsissus myth, Ovid's Metamorphoses, the nymph Echo fell madly in love with Narcissus.  She followed him around everywhere trying to get his attention, but Narcissus simply found her irritating.  Part of Echo's problem was that she could only repeat the last word that anyone said.  Echo had been a chatterbox in the past, but had got on Hera's bad side by distracting her with gossip while Zeus was out playing the field with nymphs.  Having discovered this treachery, Hera altered Echo's speech so that the formerly garrulous Echo could only repeat helplessly.

narcissus-flower.jpgNarcissus finally told Echo to go away.  She was devastated, and spent the rest of her life wandering around lonely in the woods and caves until she faded away and only her voice remained, repeating the words of the occasional passerby.  Seeing that Narcissus had hurt Echo as well as others, the goddess Nemesis cast a spell on Narcissus to avenge those whose hearts had been broken.  One day Narcissus came across a pool and as he started to drink from it, he fell in love with his own image. At first, he didn't realize he was seeing his reflection.  Each time he reached to hold his beloved, the image disappeared.  After a while, Narcissus became aware that he had fallen in love with his own reflection and died of despair.  In his place, a flower grew—the narcissus.  Narcissus did not find peace even in his death.  Once in Hades, Narcissus continued to be taunted by his image in the River Styx.

In another rendering of the story, Narcissus came from the city of Thespiae.  Again, Narcissus was a handsome man with many admirers he ignored.  However, the youth Ameinias  became very distraught at being rejected. After Narcissus sent him a sword as a gift, Ameinias used it to commit suicide in front of Narcissus' house.  Just as in Ovid's version, Narcissus came upon a pool of water, saw his reflection in it, and fell in love.  In this rendering, however, Narcissus killed himself out of frustration when he learned he was in love with an image. (In yet another variation, Narcissus drowned after trying to kiss his image in the water).  Just as in Ovid's version, in the place of Narcissus' demise grew a narcissus flower. 

(An alternative theory claims, however, that the name of the flower has nothing to do with the god, but actually comes from the Greek work narko meaning numbness, which is what happens if one ingests the flower).

In a later version recounted by the Greek geographer Pausanias, who was writing in the second century CE, Narcissus had a twin sister who died.  Heartbroken, Narcissus took comfort gazing at his own reflection in the water, thinking that he was looking at his beloved sister. 

Martha A. Brożyna earned her Ph.D. in history from the University of Southern California where she specialized in the very popular and cutting edge field of medieval Polish history. She has published two books: Gender and Sexuality in the Middle Ages and Contrarian Ripple Trading: A Low-Risk Strategy to Profiting from Short-Term Trades, which she co-authored with her husband. She lives in northern New Jersey with her husband and two children.

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A Founder of Earth Day Looks Back on How It Began
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated
Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for Caruso Affiliated

On the very first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes stood on a stage in Central Park, stunned by the number of people who'd come to honor the planet. Now in his 70s, Hayes remembers it was like looking at the ocean—“you couldn’t see where the sea of people ended.” Crowd estimates reached more than a million people.

For Hayes, who is now board chair of the international Earth Day Network, it was the culmination of a year’s worth of work. As an urban ecology graduate student at Harvard University, he’d volunteered to help organize a small initiative by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson. Nelson was horrified by the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, and wanted to raise awareness about environmental issues by holding teaching events similar to those being held by civil rights and anti-war activists.

Senator Nelson saw a growing disconnect between the concept of progress and the idea of American well-being, Hayes tells Mental Floss. “There was a sense that America was prosperous and getting better, but at the same time, the air in the country was similar to the air today in China, Mexico City, or New Delhi," Hayes says. "Rivers were catching on fire. Lakes were unswimmable.”

Nelson's plan for these environmental teach-ins was for speakers to educate college students about environmental issues. But he had no one to organize them. So Hayes, Nelson’s sole volunteer, took control on a national level, organizing teach-ins at Harvard first and then across the U.S. Initially, the response was tepid at best. “Rather rapidly it became clear that this wasn’t a hot issue at colleges and universities in 1969,” Hayes says. “We had a war raging, and civil rights were getting very emotional after the Nixon election.”

Still, both Hayes and Nelson noticed an influx of mail to the senator's office from women with young families worried about the environment. So instead of focusing on colleges, the two decided to take a different tactic, creating events with community-based organizations across the country, Hayes says. They also decided that rather than a series of teach-ins, they'd hold a single, nationwide teach-in on the same day. They called it Earth Day, and set a date: April 22.

Hayes now had a team of young adults working for the cause, and he himself had dropped out of school to tackle it full time. Long before social media, the project began to spread virally. “It just resonated,” he says. Women and smaller environmental-advocacy groups really hooked onto the idea, and word spread by mouth and by information passing between members of the groups.

Courtesy of Denis Hayes

With the cooperation and participation of grassroots groups and volunteers across the country, and a few lawmakers who supported the initiative, Hayes’ efforts culminated in the event on April 22, 1970.

Hayes started the day in Washington, D.C., where he and the staff were based. There was a rally and protest on the National Mall, though by that point Hayes had flown to New York, where Mayor John Lindsay provided a stage in Central Park. Parts of Fifth Avenue were shut down for the events, which included Earth-oriented celebrations, protests, and speeches by celebrities. Some of those attending the event even attacked nearby cars for causing pollution. After the rally, Hayes flew to Chicago for a smaller event.

“We had a sense that it was going to be big, but when the day actually dawned, the crowds were so much bigger than anyone had experienced before,” Hayes said. The event drew grassroots activists working on a variety of issues—Agent Orange, lead paint in poor urban neighborhoods, saving the whales—and fostered a sense of unity among them.

“There were people worrying about these [environmental] issues before Earth Day, but they didn’t think they had anything in common with one another," Hayes says. "We took all those individual strands and wove them together into the fabric of modern environmentalism.”

Hayes and his team spent the summer getting tear-gassed at protests against the American invasion of Cambodia, which President Nixon authorized just six days after Earth Day. But by fall, the team refocused on environmental issues—and elections. They targeted a “dirty dozen” members of Congress up for re-election who had terrible environmental records, and campaigned for candidates who championed environmental causes to run against them. They defeated seven out of 12.

“It was a very poorly funded but high-energy campaign,” Hayes says. “That sent the message to Congress that it wasn’t just a bunch of people out frolicking in the sunshine planting daisies and picking up litter. This actually had political chops.”

The early '70s became a golden age for environmental issues; momentum from the Earth Day movement spawned the creation of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Environmental Education Act (which was initially passed in 1970 and revived in 1990), and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We completely changed the framework within which America does business, more than any other period in history with the possible exception of the New Deal,” Hayes says. “But our little revolution was brought entirely from the grassroots up.”

In 1990, Hayes was at it again. He organized the first international Earth Day, with about 200 million participants across more than 140 countries. Since then it’s become a global phenomenon.

Despite its popularity, though, we still have a long way to go, even if the improvements Hayes fought for have made these issues feel more remote. Hayes noted that everything they were fighting in the '70s was something tangible—something you could see, taste, smell, or touch. Climate change can seem much less real—and harder to combat—to the average person who isn’t yet faced with its effects.

Hayes also notes that people have become more skeptical of science. “Historically, that has not been a problem in the United States. But today science is under attack.”

He warns, “This [anti-science sentiment] is something that could impoverish the next 50 generations and create really long-term devastation—that harms not only American health, but also American business, American labor, and American prospects.”

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13 Great Jack Nicholson Quotes
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

Jack Nicholson turns 81 today. Let's celebrate with some of the actor's wit and wisdom.

1. ON ADVICE

"I hate advice unless I'm giving it. I hate giving advice, because people won't take it."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

2. ON REGRETS

"Not that I can think of. I’m sure there are some, but my mind doesn’t go there. When you look at life retrospectively you rarely regret anything that you did, but you might regret things that you didn’t do."

From an interview with The Talks

3. ON DEATH

"I'm Irish. I think about death all the time. Back in the days when I thought of myself as a serious academic writer, I used to think that the only real theme was a fear of death, and that all the other themes were just that same fear, translated into fear of closeness, fear of loneliness, fear of dissolving values. Then I heard old John Huston talking about death. Somebody was quizzing him about the subject, you know, and here he is with the open-heart surgery a few years ago, and the emphysema, but he's bounced back fit as a fiddle, and he's talking about theories of death, and the other fella says, 'Well, great, John, that's great ... but how am I supposed to feel about it when you pass on?' And John says, 'Just treat it as your own.' As for me, I like that line I wrote that, we used in The Border, where I said, 'I just want to do something good before I die.' Isn't that what we all want?"

From an interview with Roger Ebert

4. ON NERVES

''There's a period of time just before you start a movie when you start thinking, I don't know what in the world I'm going to do. It's free-floating anxiety. In my case, though, this is over by lunch the first day of shooting.''

From an interview with The New York Times

5. ON ACTING

"Almost anyone can give a good representative performance when you're unknown. It's just easier. The real pro game of acting is after you're known—to 'un-Jack' that character, in my case, and get the audience to reinvest in a new and specific, fictional person."

From an interview with The Age

6. ON MARRIAGE

"I never had a policy about marriage. I got married very young in life and I always think in all relationships, I've always thought that it's counterproductive to have a theory on that. It's hard enough to get to know yourself and as most of you have probably found, once you get to know two people in tandem it's even more difficult. If it's going to be successful, it's going to have to be very specific and real and immediate so the more ideas you have about it before you start, it seems to me the less likely you are to be successful."

From an interview with About.com

7. ON LYING

“You only lie to two people in your life: your girlfriend and the police. Everybody else you tell the truth to.”

From a 1994 interview with Vanity Fair

8. ON HIS SUNGLASSES

"They're prescription. That's why I wear them. A long time ago, the Middle American in me may have thought it was a bit affected maybe. But the light is very strong in southern California. And once you've experienced negative territory in public life, you begin to accept the notion of shields. I am a person who is trained to look other people in the eye. But I can't look into the eyes of everyone who wants to look into mine; I can't emotionally cope with that kind of volume. Sunglasses are part of my armor."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

9. ON MISCONCEPTIONS

"I think people think I'm more physical than I am, I suppose. I'm not really confrontational. Of course, I have a temper, but that's sort of blown out of proportion."

From an interview with ESPN

10. ON DIRECTING

"I'm a different person when suddenly it's my responsibility. I'm not very inhibited in that way. I would show up [on the set of The Two Jakes] one day, and we'd scouted an orange grove and it had been cut down. You're out in the middle of nowhere and they forget to cast an actor. These are the sort of things I kind of like about directing. Of course, at the time you blow your stack a little bit. ... I'm a Roger Corman baby. Just keep rolling, baby. You've got to get something on there. Maybe it's right. Maybe it's wrong. Maybe you can fix it later. Maybe you can't. You can't imagine the things that come up when you're making a movie where you've got to adjust on the spot."

From an interview with MTV

11. ON ROGER CORMAN

"There's nobody in there, that he didn't, in the most important way support. He was my life blood to whatever I thought I was going to be as a person. And I hope he knows that this is not all hot air. I'm going to cry now."

From the documentary Corman's World

12. ON PLAYING THE JOKER

"This would be the character, whose core—while totally determinate of the part—was the least limiting of any I would ever encounter. This is a more literary way of approaching than I might have had as a kid reading the comics, but you have to get specific. ... He's not wired up the same way. This guy has survived nuclear waste immersion here. Even in my own life, people have said, 'There's nothing sacred to you in the area of humor, Jack. Sometimes, Jack, relax with the humor.' This does not apply to the Joker, in fact, just the opposite. Things even the wildest comics might be afraid to find funny: burning somebody's face into oblivion, destroying a masterpiece in a museum—a subject as an art person even made me a little scared. Not this character. And I love that."

From The Making of Batman

13. ON BASKETBALL

"I've always thought basketball was the best sport, although it wasn't the sport I was best at. It was just the most fun to watch. ... Even as a kid it appealed to me. The basketball players were out at night. They had great overcoats. There was this certain nighttime juvenile-delinquent thing about it that got your blood going."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

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