pandemic (panˈdemik)

The novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, is affecting the lives of people worldwide. Image from www.cdc.gov

A novel coronavirus, more specifically SARS-CoV-2, was named a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) a few days ago. Since then, the word “pandemic” has been in the headlines a lot. Let’s break it down.

According to the WHO, a pandemic is an epidemic occurring worldwide, or over a very wide area, crossing international boundaries and usually affecting a large number of people. Pandemic consists of two Greek roots: pan- meaning all, and dem- meaning people. A pandemic is something that affects all people. COVID-19, the disease that is caused by the coronavirus, has spread to all the continents (except Antarctica). As of yesterday, the death toll was 6,470 and the number of cases was 164,837.

The threat of COVID-19 is transforming the daily lives of people worldwide. People are panic buying essential goods and panic selling stocks. It is important to note that the word panic and pandemic originate from two different Greek words. Panic is derived from the Greek god of the wild, Pan. It is said that when Pan was in the midst of battle, he would release a great shout, scaring his enemies away and often causing mortals unspeakable terror, forcing them to flee from him.

In Louisville, Kentucky, schools are closed for two weeks, events have been cancelled, and gatherings of 50 or more people are discouraged. The streets are strangely empty as people stay home to contain the spread of the disease. What’s it like in your part of the world?

I hope everyone stays safe and healthy during this time!

lethifold (lēthə-fōld)

A Lethifold is shroud of darkness that preys upon sleeping wizards or Muggles. (image from www.moviepilot.com)

In Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them, Newt Scamander states that a Lethifold is a very rare creature that dwells in tropical climates. A Lethifold looks like a black cloak that floats along ominously during the night seeking victims who are sleeping. Once its prey has been suffocated thoroughly, it simply digests them in their beds, leaving no trace of its victims.

Since Lethifolds are stealthy killers, it is difficult to find much information about them. However, Flavius Belby, who survived a Lethifold attack, wrote the earliest account of Lethifolds in 1782. During the attack, Belby writes that he tried to overcome the Lethifold by using a Stupefying Charm and an Impediment Hex, neither of which worked. Finally, Belby cast the Patronus Charm, which repelled the Lethifold successfully.

The Ministry of Magic rates these highly dangerous creatures XXXXX, meaning that they are known to kill wizards and it is not possible to train or domesticate them.

Lethifold contains the Latin root leth-, meaning deadly or fatal. Leth- was probably influenced by the Greek word “lethe,” referring to the mythological river in the Underworld whose waters caused spirits to forget everything about their former lives. It makes sense that the word “lethe” would later influence the Latin “leth-” because if a person forgets who he is and loses all his memories, he loses his sense of self which is similar to death.  Since the Lethifold is a deadly creature, this name seems apropos.

Join me next week as we continue exploring fantastic creatures from the Harry Potter world. I hope you are all enjoying these posts as much as I am enjoying writing them!

tantalize (tan-tə-līz)

Tantalus reaches for a fruit that he will never be able to reach, while standing in water that he will never be able to drink. (Image by xenomorph from greekmythology.com)

Many of you are probably familiar with the word tantalize, but you may not know of its origin in Greek mythology.

Tantalus was Zeus’s son. The gods favored Tantalus so much that they invited him to a grand feast on Mount Olympus itself. To return the favor, Tantalus hosted a feast in his palace. Although he was a very rich king, nothing seemed good enough for his most honored guests. His most beloved treasure was his son, Pelops. Therefore, Tantalus decided to kill Pelops and make a stew with Pelops as the main ingredient. When he offered this delightful meal to the gods, they were angry, for the gods of Olympus hated human sacrifice.

The Olympians punished Tantalus by throwing him in the Fields of Punishment to suffer forever. He was condemned to stand in water up to his neck with branches of fruit hanging over him. Whenever he stooped to drink, the water would quickly recede and whenever he reached for the succulent fruit overhead, the branch would bend out of reach.

Pelops was resurrected by the gods. However, one of his shoulder bones was missing because Demeter, grief-stricken by the loss of her daughter Persephone (who was kidnapped by Hades), accidentally took a bite of the stew. The gods replaced his shoulder bone with a piece of ivory and gave him majestic gifts.

Tantalize is a verb meaning “to tease or torment by presenting something to the view and exciting desire but continually frustrating the expectations by keeping it out of reach“(Merriam Webster).

Scylla and Charybdis

Scylla and Charybdis were terrible monsters!

Happy New Year everyone! Have you ever noticed that many terms we use in the English language are from Greek mythology? For example, being caught between Scylla and Charybdis means that you must make a choice between two equally unpleasant options.

The hero of Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus, is faced with many challenges on his way home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. One terrible choice he had to make was deciding which monster, Scylla or Charybdis, was the lesser of two evils. “Charybdis sucked down the sea three times a day and three times vomited it up again – a whirlpool in which no ship might live. And in a cave, midway up the right-hand rock another monster, Scylla by name, had her lair. She had six heads on long thin scaly necks, and in each mouth three rows of grinding teeth and twelve long feelers with claws at their ends, with which she caught her prey: big fish or dolphins – or men if any passed that way (Page 41)”. Odysseus chooses Scylla, losing six of his men along the way; this was better than losing his entire crew and ship.

Have you ever been caught between Scylla and Charybdis? In a famous song by The Police, Scylla and Charybdis are mentioned; do you know the name of the song?

*Quote cited from The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliff.

thanatophobia (than-ət-ə-ˈfō-bē-ə)

Thanatos was the primordial Greek god of death. "Angel of Death" by Evelyn DeMorgan, 1881.

To continue our Halloween theme this month, let’s take a look at another phobia. Thanatophobia is the fear of death. Thanatos was the primordial Greek god of death. It was said that he appeared to mortals when the time for them to die was imminent in order to guide them to the Underworld. No one could escape death, therefore Thanatos was feared by all.

Thanatos is often depicted in art as a young man with wings, symbolizing the ability to guide souls to the Underworld. Other symbols include a sheathed sword representing a peaceful passing and a reversed torch representing the end of life.

Other words that are derived from Thanatos are “thanatology” and “euthanasia.”

stygian (stijēən)

The National Mythology Exam is over, but here is one last word on the subject. The word stygian is an adjective  that means dark or gloomy. It is related to the River Styx, the main river of the Underworld, ruled by Hades.  Spirits must cross this river in order to enter the realm of the dead. Charon, the ferryman, would provide a boat ride across the river, only if the spirits could pay him. Ancient Greeks used to put a coin under a deceased person’s tongue to pay for the boat ride. If the spirits couldn’t pay, they would wander the banks of the Styx forever. The most solemn oath the gods could make was to swear by the River Styx. The four other rivers are, the Lethe, Phlegethon, Acheron, and the Cocytus. I’ve written about the River Lethe in a previous post.