Posts tagged `mythology`
Lord of the Barnyard Lord of the Barnyard by Tristan Egolf
Publisher: Grove
Year: 1999
Pages: 432

I have reviewed the late Tristan Egolf’s Lord of the Barnyard in 2006, though I’ve read it several times (and could have sworn I’d reviewed it twice…) since my friend first thrust it into my hands in high school and said, with unlikely solemnity, “You have to read this.”

Doing multiple reviews about the same book is difficult, especially if one’s opinions haven’t drastically changed since the last iteration; this review of Lord of the Barnyard doesn’t see yours truly suddenly deciding that Egolf is blasé or the book is suddenly overwrought. In fact, I remain more convinced than ever that it’s one of the best novels I’ve ever read. There is a common item of praise and a common complaint from reviewers, and the two are really one and the same:

  • Praise: the book is “frenzied” and “wonderfully strange” (Literary Review); “always intense” (De Morgan; a “manic, epic [wild ride]” (Publisher’s Weekly).
  • Criticism: the book is “prone to stretches of excess” (Publisher’s Weekly); a “rough beast, both interesting and exciting without quite managing to be good” (NY Times); “a form of shotgun writing” (Salon )

Read more…

§6319 · January 31, 2011 · 1 comment · Tags: , , , ,

n. A very bad or scary dream

The definition of “nightmare” needs no further explanation, as it’s a phenomenon I think most of us are familiar with. The inspiration for this particular Wednesday’s Word came from a rather odd source. I happened to read an article about Teri Garr and into my head popped the scene from Young Frankenstein says, in half-German/half-English, “You were having a nachtmare…”

I began to wonder to myself, funny movie aside, what the real origins of “nightmare” are. The word itself conjures up images of some terrible steed metaphorically trampling one’s dreams, but were its origins really that mythological? Or is a poor transliteration of some old German word, perhaps nachtmehr (to name one fictive example).

In short, it is mythological, but it has nothing to do with horses. The word itself was made “official” in Samuel Johnson’ 1828 A Dictionary of the English Language, where it is defined as a “morbid oppression during sleep, resembling the pressure of weight upon the breast” (491). It is composed to two constituent parts: “night,” which is self-explanatory, and “mære,” which was the Old English word for a demon (incubus), which was thought—either literally or metaphorically, I do not profess to know—to sit on the chest during sleep, and so cause the bad dream in question.

Mære traces its way back to proto-Germanic, and indeed all the way back to Norse, the mara of which was a female wraith that could float into one’s room under doors or through keyholes and then sit on—or “ride,” but not in the sexual sense—the vulnerable sleeper. This relationship is seen more clearly in the Scandinavian terms for nightmare:

  • Norwegian: mareritt, meaning “mare-ride”
  • Danish: mareridt, meaning “mare-ride”
  • Icelandic: martröþ, meaning “mare-ride”
  • Swedish: mardröm, meaning “mare-dream”

The word might even be proto-Indo-European, from the root mer, meaning “to rub away” or “to harm.”

The German word for nightmare, incidentally, seems linguistically different from either the English word or its Scandinavian roots. Albtraum is a combination traum, or “dream,” and “alb” (or “alp”), which is a magical being, mostly likely an Elf. The connection to “nightmare” becomes more apparent when we learn that the old form of albtraum, or “Elf dream,” is albdruck, which means “Elf pressure” and comes down to the same old story of a supernatural being sitting on one’s chest during the night.

§2029 · April 2, 2008 · 6 comments · Tags: , ,

n. a goat’s horn endlessly overflowing with fruit, flowers and grain; or full of whatever its owner wanted
n.. a hollow horn- or cone-shaped object, filled with edible or useful things

Cornucopia comes from the Latin cornu, and it the direct etymological ancestor of the modern English “horn.” It’s one of many “c-” words in Latin that shifted their initial consonant to an “h”—see also centum/hundred and caput/head and cordum/heart. Funnily enough, while Latin C’s became English H’s, Latin G’s became English C’s; for example, granum/corn and genus/kin and ager/acre.

The second part, copia is obviously related to the modern English “copious,” and means “plenty” or “abundance.” Very literally, we are talking about a “horn of plenty,” the ugly woven thing stuffed with gourds that you see around Thanksgiving.

When Dan Brown talked about it in The Da Vinci Code, he sort of got it right: its mythological origins do lie with Zeus: Amalthea, his nurse, raised the baby god on goats milk, and he in return gave her the horn of the goat, which had magical powers to stay filled with whatever the bearer desired. A less-often mentioned story is how either Amalthea’s skin, or that of her goat, became the covering for Zeus’s aegis. What Brown didn’t get right was the whole Baphomet/fertility rites nonsense, and of course my thoughts about Dan Brown and his excremental writing are a matter of public record.

§2006 · March 26, 2008 · (No comments) · Tags: , , ,

n. a mythical snake-like creature reputed to be so venomous its gaze was deadly
n. a type of lizard (genus Basiliscus)

“Ben,” I hear you saying. “Tell me you’re not doing an entry about a basilisk because you read about it in Harry Potter.”


Fear not, dear reader(s)! As it turns out, today’s entry was inspired by a far cooler creation than Harry Potter: XKCD!

What sparked my interest beyond the initial laughter was that the name was not simply “basilisk,” but a l33t version of basiliskos, which my friend informs me is the original Greek. It literally means “little king.” The root, βασιλεύς, or basileus, means “king,” and so, I’m led to believe, the terminating “iskos” is analogous to the Spanish “ito,” which modifies its attached noun to “little.”

In fact, the root basil- gives royal connotations to just about everything. The herb? From the Greek basilikon phyton, meaning “royal plant,” so called because “it is believed to have grown above the spot where St. Constantine and Helen discovered the Holy Cross”. Some say it was also believed to have been an antidote to the basilisk’s venom (as well as delicious in a stew).

I think perhaps the most interesting is the muddy transfer of the root from Greek to Latin. The basilica, the “building of a court of justice” probably more heavily identified with the Roman Catholic Church than anything else, comes from the stoa basilike, or royal portal, of the official justice-giver in Athens.

Our modern usage of basilisk seems to have come not directly from the Greek, but filtered through the Latin basiliscus. While the Greek was easy enough to understand—the mythical basilisk was said to be the king of the serpents, especially due to the crest-like feature on its head. Interestingly enough, basiliscus in Latin had lost the royal connotations and referred more or less only to the horrible lizard.

As an interesting sidenote, I should bring up the etymology of “dragon,” which comes from the Latin draconem, which itself came from the Greek δράκων, or drakōn. The origins of the original Greek comes from a strong aorist stem of derkesthai, which means “to see” or “to see clearly.” Its connotations, however, appear to denote a “darting, sharp and deadly glance of a snake”.

A deadly glance? Now where have we heard that before?

§1978 · February 13, 2008 · 4 comments · Tags: , , ,