The One With Divine Retribution And Narcotics
Janus, the god of beginnings, gateways and transitions in ancient Roman mythology, is usually depicted as having two faces, since he looks to the future and to the past. January truly lives up to it’s reference to the god by being a contradiction in itself- a month of critical retrospection but also, futuristic optimism.
Roman and Greek mythology are, simply put, every etymology enthusiast’s wet dream. The etymological explanation of some of the words that owe their origin to mythologies, can be found in simplistic references and the beauty of these words lies in just how literal they are. Take India’s leading brand of baby food, Cerelac, for example. With Ceres being the goddess of agriculture and grain crops and lac meaning milk, I am bound to admire how literal and self-explanatory the nomenclature of this product is.
Similarly, Hermaphrodite, a word defined as “denoting a person, animal, or plant having both male and female sex organs or other sexual characteristics” is derived from Hermaphroditus, who becomes joined in one body with a nymph while bathing, but is only so named because he was the son of Hermes and Aphrodite.
Made by Harshi Lal
Others among these types of words, however, entail entireties of legends. The thrill that comes with the realization that everyday simple three syllable words could have derived their existence from complex, wholesome stories is unmatched, in my opinion.
Narcissism, in psychology, means having a grandiose view of oneself and is a direct reference to Narcissus, a youth of the town of Thespiai in Boiotia. He was celebrated for his beauty and attracted many admirers but, in his arrogance, spurned them all.
One such admirer was the youth Ameinias who became distraught when Narcissus cruelly rejected him. He killed himself calling on the goddess Nemesis, the goddess of revenge and retribution, to avenge him. His prayer was answered when Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool. Gazing endlessly at the image, he pined and moped and brooded away and was transformed by the nymphs into a flower, that came to be known as Narcissus.
Narcissus is a type of bulbous flowering plant, from Greek narke meaning “numbness” because of the sedative effect of the alkaloids in the plant. An obvious relation can be drawn from here to narcotics. Who knew drugs and narcissism could have anything in common? Turns out, heroin, a derivative of morphine, is so called because of the euphoric hero-like feeling the drug provides leading to a boost in the user’s self-esteem.
But clearly, Greek mythology takes unrequited love and the resulting inevitable catastrophic retribution to a whole new level.
Consider the story of Ondine, a beautiful free spirited nymph, who like all nymphs and mermaids, was leery of men, for valid reasons, of course, as if a nymph ever falls in love with a man and bears his child, she will begin to age like a mortal woman, losing her eternal youthfulness.
Nonetheless, Ondine’s priorities went a little haywire when she saw the handsome young Palemon who too was taken by her beauty. Eventually they fell in love and when they exchanged their wedding vows, Palemon said, “My every waking breath shall be my pledge of love and faithfulness to you.”
If only someone had shown Palemon one of those fake deep Tumblr quotes about empty promises.
Long story short, the following year Ondine gave birth to their son. From that moment on, her beauty began to fade, her body suddenly susceptible to the effects of age. As her youthful attractiveness gave way to a more mature beauty, Palemon’s eye began to wander to the younger women he met at court. One day she found her beloved Palemon lay sleeping in the haystack, his arms wrapped around his former fianceé Berta, with discarded garments littering the floor.
Kicking her sleeping husband, she woke him and uttered her curse, “You pledged faithfulness to me with your every waking breath and I accepted that pledge. So be it. For as long as you are awake, you shall breathe. But should you ever fall into sleep, that breath will desert you.”
Today, Ondine’s curse is another name for a rare respiratory illness called congenital central hypoventilation syndrome (CCHS) in which the affected individual loses the ability of automatic breathing. You might easily be mistaken to think that the affected individual dies when they are asleep. Only, consider this, every time they try falling asleep they’re on the brink of asphyxiation, so they wake up, only to ultimately die of sleep deprivation.
Ghastly, I know. In my defense, this column bears the promise of all things etymology, the exclusion of morbidity, however, is not my concern.
Remember kids, be it congenital respiratory disorders or enthralling tales of unrequited love and divine retribution, every word has a story to tell.
Aditi Wakhlu, The First Of Her Name, Breaker of Societal Norms, Queen of Sarcasm, Master of Puns, etymology freak, debater, videographer, violinist. This spoken-word-fanatic, who is an unusual combination of a lazy perfectionist, has a wonderfully appeasing sense of aesthetics. Her sense of political correctness and taste in music is in its most literal sense of the term, award-worthy.
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