A memorable scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark brings to mind the expression "cutting the Gordian knot."
In that scene, Indiana Jones is confronted by a swordsman who elaborately and menacingly brandishes his blade. Indy watches the swordsman's agitated activity for a few seconds, then coolly draws his pistol and shoots him – to the moviegoer's surprise and amusement.
"Cutting the Gordian knot" comes from an ancient Greek tale in which King Gordius secures his chariot with a knot so complicated that a prophecy arises: Whoever can undo the knot will rule Asia. Eventually, Alexander the Great encounters the Gordian knot and – with the nonchalance of an Indiana Jones – simply draws his sword and cuts it.
"Cutting the Gordian knot" is just one of many mythological expressions that enrich our communication. For example, we call a weak spot an "Achilles' heel," an expression drawn from the legend that the infant Achilles was dipped into the magical river Styx to make him invulnerable. His mother held him by the heel, however, so it wasn't protected – and the heroic Achilles was killed in adulthood by an arrow to his heel. (Achilles also names the tendon at the back of the heel as well as the "Achilles reflex," an ankle jerk caused by tapping that tendon.)
Two other familiar expressions are "Herculean task," understood to be tough labor, and "Augean stables."
Hercules, a demigod, was son of the Greek god Zeus and a mortal woman. The story goes that Hera, Zeus' wife, was so jealous of Hercules that she sent him a dozen impossible tasks – which he nevertheless accomplished, thereby becoming immortal.
One of Hercules' tasks was cleaning King Augeas' stables – which housed 3,000 oxen and hadn't been cleaned in 30 years. Hercules diverted two rivers through the stables and voilà! Today, we liken any awesome cleanup – often one involving massive corruption – to "cleaning the Augean stables."
The myths of mortals Pandora and Cassandra also provide useful allusions. In myth, Pandora's curiosity was the source of all misfortune. The gods gave her a box into which each had put something harmful, forbidding her ever to open it. In time, her curiosity got the better of her, and she lifted the lid. Out flew all evil. References to "Pandora's Box" are common. Take this play-on-words headline about lawyer advertising, for example: "Lawyers open Pandora's briefcase."
Cassandra's mistake was spurning the god Apollo's advances. He cursed her with a "gift" of prophecy: She would predict the future accurately, but no one would believe her. The Cassandra myth is frequently alluded to in modern life. For example, Warren Buffet – who repeatedly warned that the '90s stock market surge was a bubble – has been called a "Wall Street Cassandra."
From Eros, the Greek god of love, we get the word erotic, while from his counterpart, Aphrodite, comes aphrodisiac – something that excites sexual desire. Cupid and Venus, the Roman god and goddess of love, are not so complimented, however. From Cupid comes cupidity , which means an intense desire to possess or avarice or greed, and from Venus comes venereal – as in venereal disease. [more]