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The Word Nerd: Greek myths return with a vengeance

We find in the works of great writers such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Dante many allusions to Greek mythology.

This pattern continues into the early part of the 20th century in the writings of Joyce as well as in the terms Freud borrowed such as Eros, and the Oedipus complex.

These ancient legends probably don’t resonate with most people as they once did, but judging from some references in the media, we are starting to view the importance of these myths in our daily lives. It would appear that The Economist agrees, judging by an article in their August 22, 2015 edition: “Perhaps the gripping plots and rich metaphors of the ancient world seem more relevant than ever. Are labours to repay foreign debts Sisyphean? Is the prime minister’s victory in a recent referendum Pyrrhic?

The Economist was referring to events in Greece but the descriptions of other debacles make it apparent that the application of Greek myth metaphors is becoming ubiquitous. The week following The Economist article, the New Yorker offered this description of the anti-immigration attitudes prevalent in many countries by political science professor Samuel Poplin: “When people get frustrated and irritated, they want to cut the Gordian knot.”

I suspect that all three terms italicized, and the stories behind them are not as well known as they may have been in an earlier era when Greek and Latin were taught in high schools. To this end, I offer a brief description of their “gripping plots and rich metaphors” from the age of antiquity.

“Sisyphean” derives from Sisyphus whose punishment in Hades for his misdeeds in his previous life, was having to roll a huge stone up to the top of a hill only to have it constantly roll down. Hence a “labour of Sisyphus” is an endless, futile endeavour, such as the Maple Leafs’ attempt to win the Stanley Cup.

Unlike “Sisyphean,” at least “Pyrrhic” connotes some success. The hero here is Pyrrhus, a Carthaginian general who served under the command of Hannibal. His daring tactics won him many battles. However, at Asculum in 279 B.C. his victory against the Romans was achieved only with the loss of his best officers and many men. He is supposed to have quipped, “One more such victory and we are lost.” He is memorialized by this incident with the term Pyrrhic that denotes a victory attained at too great a cost to be considered worthwhile.

He/she who has “cut the Gordian knot” has solved an intricate problem by a drastic, impetuous action. Its progenitor Gordius luckily chose to drive his chariot one day into a public square when the citizens happened to be searching for a king that an oracle had prophesied would arrive via a wagon. Due to this fortuitous ride into town, he became King of Phrygia.

Gordius tied the chariot to the temple of the god of the oracle in an ingenious way so that nobody could untie it. It was said that whoever untied the knot would become Lord of the Gordian Knot.

Many tried and all failed. Reportedly, Alexander the Great was told that whoever undid the knot would reign over all of Asia.

As Alexander attempted to untie the knot, he failed and proceeded to cut the knot with his sword. Hence, “cutting the Gordian knot” is usually seen as eliminating a difficulty by force or by ignoring the conditions of solution.

In March 2016 the UN’s human rights chief said “US authorities risk opening a Pandora’s box” in their attempt to force Apple to create software to open the phone of a terrorist. Again we have a Greek myth origin.

The story began with the deity Prometheus who had the chutzpah to steal fire from Zeus and give it to humans. To punish Prometheus, Zeus chained him to a rock and sent a vulture to dine on his liver every day, but because Prometheus was immortal, his liver regenerated. So Zeus altered his revenge strategy. He ordered the creation of the first mortal woman, Pandora, whose beauty seduced humanity. Pandora meant “all-gifted” because each of the gods gave her different powers to ruin mankind. Zeus presented Pandora as a gift to Epimetheus, Prometheus’s brother, and Prometheus advised his brother to refuse the gift but his advice went unheeded and Epimetheus married Pandora.

Pandora brought with her a box that the gods had given her and naturally curious of its contents, she opened it. This released countless evils, such as war and pestilence, which have ever since continued to be evil, the world.

Or as Linda Ronstadt put it in song, just one look that’s all it took.

Howard Richler’s book Word Play: Arranged and Deranged Wit was published in April 2016.

Ruth Richler Memorial Lecture

This year’s subject is Choose Life: a Jewish response to the new Canadian physician-assisted dying legislation.
On Saturday, June 11, a panel discussion on the issue will look at the “Jewish response” to the law.

Participants are palliative care advocate Kappy Flanders; health and criminal law expert Alana Klein; bioethicist Vardit Ravitsky; and philosophy professor Natalie Stoljar.

The event takes place at 8:30pm following services at Dorshei Emet synagogue, 18 Cleve Rd. in Hampstead. 514-486-9400.

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