4 Medical & Emotional Conditions Named for Mythological Characters

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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.

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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.

February 9, 2009 - 11:00am
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