English Literature

A Few Jots on Mythological Allusions

I am in the process of writing an Ancient Greek Myths scheme of work for Year 7 (which I will share when complete) and have been writing down the mythological allusions I come across. Here are eight that I know off the top of my head – no doubt there are many more and lots more detail to add…feel free to comment if you know any!

#1 Cupid’s Arrow
A phrase that we associate with falling in love at first sight. However, in Latin ‘Cupido’ means desire, so perhaps he is more about inspiring sexual attraction than love? Cupid is in fact the Roman God of love, known as Eros by the Greeks. His image is conjured with ease – a chubby cherub with golden curls and a bow and arrow. The son of Aphrodite, few are immune to his powers.


His mischievous character frequently meddled in the love lives of others and we see his influence in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He had a pretty tumultuous love life himself …

“Cupid is a knavish lad,
Thus to make poor females mad.”

#2 Pandora’s Box
This phrase is best associated with getting into a situation that you have little control over or cannot get a hold of once it has begun…The first woman on earth, we can compare Pandora to Eve. Pandora and Eve are both deceived into doing something they have been told not to which lead to inescapable situations. Pandora’s very creation was to serve as revenge for Zeus who wanted to punish Prometheus for gifting man with fire against his wishes. All that was left in the box when Pandora slammed it shut was Hope – something that we use to fight against all the hatred and malice that Pandora released.

#3 Nemesis
An agent of destruction or an inescapable enemy! Nemesis enacted out divine retribution on those who defied the Gods. She personifies wrath and is certainly not to be messed with. Originally, ‘nemesis’ meant to simply ‘distribute’ or ‘allot’ something that was neither good nor bad, but due. Her job title is certainly connected to revenge, therefore it’s perhaps obvious to connect ‘nemesis’ to the phrase ‘poetic justice’ – an arch nemesis can as easily be your own pride (Marlowe’s Faustus?) as your noisy neighbour…


#4 Herculean
To attempt a ‘Herculean’ task is to attempt something backbreaking, challenging and intensely difficult. Hercules is the most popular Greek hero and has been represented in art since 620 B.C. He is easy to spot because he is often depicted with a lion on his head. Hercules killed the fierce lion with his bare hands and thus solidified his identity as a strong and heroic figure. As the mortal son of Zeus, Hercules is most famous for undertaking the twelve labours. These were to be completed to atone for the murder of his wife and children that he committed in a fit of rage…perhaps something that is oft forgotten and certainly not mentioned in the Disney movie.


#5 Promethean
Something that we consider original or creative can be considered Promethean. As noted earlier, Prometheus enraged Zeus for gifting humankind with fire despite specific instructions not to…therefore, we can also associate Promethean with defiance or resistant. Shelley’s Frankenstein was originally named The Modern Prometheus. When Prometheus gave fire to humans, he inevitably opened a door to further power and most importantly, knowledge. Fire is a potentially destructive force to release – just as the monster was in Frankenstein. Victor, like Prometheus, also steals fire (lightening) in order to create life and defy natural order, just as Prometheus defied Zeus and was punished.

#6 Achilles’ Heel
As a child, Achilles was bathed in the River Styx. This left his body invulnerable, except for his heel – where he was held as he was submerged by his mother. This phrase describes the one weakness we may have, be it emotional or physical. Samuel Taylor Coleridge makes reference to Achilles’ heel in The Friend: a literary, moral and political weekly paper in 1810.

“Ireland, that vulnerable heel of the British Achilles!”


#7 Narcissus
Unfortunately for Narcissus, he fell under the watchful eye of Nemesis. Known for his beauty and pride, he resented those who loved him. The story we are most likely familiar with is Ovid’s Echo and Narcissus. Echo fell in love with Narcissus, but he rejected her embrace and she wilted away into nothing but an echo in the forest. As revenge for Echo, Nemesis lured Narcissus to a pool of water where he fell in love with his own reflection. Unable to drag himself away, he eventually died and turned into a flower that leans over water, as if gazing at its own reflection. This tale makes for a wonderful (if rather depressing) memory anchor to the adjective ‘narcissistic’.

#8 Eureka!
We all know ‘eureka!’ as that moment of celebration when something has been discovered or accomplished. Ancient Greek mathematician and inventor Archimedes is said to have invented the word which in Ancient Greek effectively means ‘I’ve found it!’ on realising that the volume of water displaced from his bath must be the same as the part of his body that had been submerged. I should add that this is all presumption as he never wrote about this moment himself. The expression also has associations with the discovery of gold in California and the gold rush in Australia.


Sources/helpful links for the classics:

Categories: English Literature

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