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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.

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The Sweet Surprise Reunion Mr. Rogers Never Saw Coming
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For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.

Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before being called to the stage, out came a surprise.

The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior in 1980 to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:

Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song, “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.

Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.

Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”

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20 Things You Might Not Have Known About Firefly
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© 2002 Twentieth Century Fox

As any diehard fan will be quick to tell you, Firefly's run was far, far too short. Despite its truncated run, the show still offers a wealth of fun facts and hidden Easter eggs. On the 15th anniversary of the series' premiere, we're looking back at the sci-fi series that kickstarted a Browncoat revolution.

1. A CIVIL WAR NOVEL INSPIRED THE FIREFLY UNIVERSE.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Killer Angels from author Michael Shaara was Joss Whedon’s inspiration for creating Firefly. It follows Union and Confederate soldiers during four days at the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. Whedon modeled the series and world on the Reconstruction Era, but set in the future.

2. ORIGINALLY, THE SERENITY CREW INCLUDED JUST FIVE MEMBERS.

When Whedon first developed Firefly, he wanted Serenity to only have five crew members. However, throughout development and casting, Whedon increased the cast from five to nine.

3. REBECCA GAYHEART WAS ORIGINALLY CAST TO PLAY INARA.

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Before Morena Baccarin was cast as Inara Serra, Rebecca Gayheart landed the role—but she was fired after one day of shooting because she lacked chemistry with the rest of the cast. Baccarin was cast two days later and started shooting that day.

4. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS WAS ALMOST DR. SIMON TAM.

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Before it went to Sean Maher, Neil Patrick Harris auditioned for the role of Dr. Simon Tam.

5. JOSS WHEDON WROTE THE THEME SONG.

Whedon wrote the lyrics and music for Firefly’s opening theme song, “The Ballad of Serenity.”

6. STAR WARS SPACECRAFT APPEAR IN FIREFLY.

Star Wars was a big influence on Whedon. Captain Malcolm Reynolds somewhat resembles Han Solo, while Whedon used the Millennium Falcon as inspiration to create Serenity. In fact, you can spot a few spacecraft from George Lucas's magnum opus on the show.

When Inara’s shuttle docks with Serenity in the pilot episode, an Imperial Shuttle can be found flying in the background. In the episode “Shindig,” you can see a Starlight Intruder as the crew lands on the planet Persephone.

7. HAN SOLO FROZEN IN CARBONITE POPS UP THROUGHOUT FIREFLY.

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Nathan Fillion is a big Han Solo fan, so the Firefly prop department made a 12-inch replica of Han Solo encased in Carbonite for the Canadian-born actor. You can see the prop in the background in a number of scenes.

8. ALIEN'S WEYLAND-YUTANI CORPORATION MADE AN APPEARANCE.

In Firefly’s pilot episode, the opening scene features the legendary Battle of Serenity Valley between the Browncoats and The Union of Allied Planets. Captain Malcolm Reynolds takes control of a cannon with a Weyland-Yutani logo inside of its display. Weyland-Yutani is the large conglomerate corporation in the Alien film franchise. (Whedon wrote Alien: Resurrection in 1997.)

9. ZAC EFRON'S ACTING DEBUT WAS ON FIREFLY.

A 13-year-old Zac Efron made his acting debut in the episode “Safe” in 2002. He played Young Simon in a flashback.

10. CAPTAIN MALCOLM REYNOLDS'S HORSE IS A WESTERN TROPE.

At its core, Firefly is a sci-fi western—and Malcolm Reynolds rides the same horse on every planet (it's named Fred).

11. FOX AIRED FIREFLY'S EPISODES OUT OF ORDER.

Fox didn’t feel Firefly’s two-hour pilot episode was strong enough to air as its first episode. Instead, “The Train Job” was broadcast first because it featured more action and excitement. The network continued to cherry-pick episodes based on broad appeal rather than story consistency, and eventually aired the pilot as the show’s final episode.

12. THE ALLIANCE'S ORIGINS ARE AMERICAN AND CHINESE.

The full name of The Alliance is The Anglo-Sino Alliance. Whedon envisioned The Alliance as a merger of American and Chinese government and corporate superpowers. The Union of Allied Planets’ flag is a blending of the American and Chinese national flags.

13. THE SERENITY LOUNGE SERVED AS AN ACTUAL LOUNGE.

Between set-ups and shots, the cast would hang out in the lounge on the Serenity set rather than trailers or green rooms.

14. INARA SERRA'S NAME IS MESOPOTAMIAN.

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Inara Serra is named after the Mesopotamian Hittite goddess, the protector of all wild animals.

15. THE CHARACTERS SWORE (JUST NOT IN ENGLISH).

The Firefly universe is a mixture of American and Chinese culture, which made it easy for writers to get around censors by having characters swear in Chinese.

16. THE UNIFORMS ARE RECYCLED FROM STARSHIP TROOPERS.

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The uniforms for Alliance officers and soldiers were the costumes from the 1997 science fiction film Starship Troopers. The same costumes were repurposed again for the Starship Troopers sequel.

17. "SUMMER!" MEANS SOMEONE MESSED UP.

Every time a cast member flubbed one of his or her lines, they would yell Summer Glau’s name. This was a running gag among the cast after Glau forgot her lines in the episode “Objects In Space.”

18. THE SERENITY SPACESHIP WAS BUILT TO SCALE.

The interior of Serenity was built entirely to scale; rooms and sections were completely contiguous. The ship’s interior was split into two stages, one for the upper deck and one for the lower. Whedon showed off the Firefly set in one long take to open the Serenity movie.

19. "THE MESSAGE" SHOULD HAVE BEEN THE SHOW'S FAREWELL.

Although “The Message” was the twelfth episode, it was the last episode filmed during Firefly’s short run. Composer Greg Edmonson wrote a piece of music for a funeral scene in the episode, which served as a final farewell to the show. Sadly, it was one of three episodes (the other two were “Trash” and “Heart of Gold”) that didn’t air during Firefly’s original broadcast run on Fox.

20. FIREFLY AND SERENITY WERE SENT TO THE INTERNATIONAL SPACE STATION.

American Astronaut Steven Ray Swanson is a big fan of Firefly, so when he was sent to the International Space Station for his first mission (STS-117) in 2007, he brought DVD copies of Firefly and its feature film Serenity aboard with him. The DVDs are now a permanent part of the space station’s library.

This post originally appeared in 2014.

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