How Greek myths live on in English expressions

Phrases from a world of hydras and wooden horses; a time of Trojans and heroes


You’d think Greek myths might have lost their relevance by now, almost 3,000 years after they were first written down. But they are so full of vibrant stories and characters that people still often allude to them in their daily lives, and many references from them have become part of the English language.

Check out the following Greek myth-based phrases, and you’ll find it’s no Olympian feat to understand them and add them to your own vocabulary.

Herculean task

Hercules is the Roman name of the Greek legendary hero Heracles, and it is the name by which he is most commonly known today. He was the son of Zeus, king of the Greek gods, and a human woman named Alcemene. The goddess Hera, Zeus’ wife, was jealous of their affair, so she sent two snakes into baby Hercules’ crib to kill him. But — in the first sign of his incredible strength — the infant strangled both snakes.

When he grew up, Hercules married a princess named Megara. But Hera still wanted to cause trouble for him, so she cursed him with a fit of madness, in which he killed his wife and their children.

As punishment, he was forced to become the servant of his elder brother, Eurystheus, King of Greece, who imposed upon Hercules the famous Twelve Labors. The slaying of the nine-headed serpent Hydra was one of them. Hercules, thanks to his unusual strength, carried out all these challenges successfully. (The killing of Hydra was particularly difficult, because as one head was cut off, two more grew in its place. So Hercules enlisted the help of Iolaus and, as he cut off the heads one by one, Iolaus set fire to the neck so new ones wouldn’t grow back.)

Because the Twelve Labors were so difficult, a “Herculean task” refers to a near-impossible challenge. The story of Hercules has given us many other expressions. One refers to the serpent he slew: When people describe a problem or situation as “hydra-headed,” they mean that it’s persistent and has many causes.

Trojan horse

The Trojan Wars, a conflict between the ancient Greeks and the people of Troy, occurred between the 12th and 13th centuries B.C. They began after a Trojan prince named Paris ran off with Helen, wife of King Menelaus of Sparta. To avenge the insult, Menelaus’ brother, Agamemnon, led a Greek expedition against Troy. The war between the two kingdoms lasted 10 years. The Greeks eventually won by entering Troy by deceit.

They pretended to withdraw from the city, which they had besieged, leaving behind at the gates a large wooden horse. The Trojans, thinking they had won the war, brought the horse into the city, mistaking it for a gift from the retreating Greeks. But Greek soldiers were hidden inside the wooden horse. At night, they crept out and captured the city.

A “Trojan horse” is a person or a group that is trying to overthrow something (a company, a country or a government) from within.

Achilles’ heel

The son of the mortal king (Greek myths are full of mortal humans and immortal gods) Peleus and the sea nymph Thetis, Achilles was the bravest hero of the Trojan Wars. According to one tale, when Achilles was a baby, Thetis dipped him in the magical waters of the River Styx — which separates the world of the living from the world of the dead — to make him invulnerable. But she held him by one heel, which remained dry. Afterward, that was the only part of the warrior-hero that remained vulnerable.

So “Achilles’ heel” is used to refer to a person’s weak point. But if someone talks about the “Achilles tendon,” it doesn’t mean the same thing. This is the name given to the calcaneal tendon, the thickest and most powerful tendon in the body, which connects the calf muscles to the back of the heel, Achilles’ weak spot — hence its name.

Cutting the Gordian knot

In 333 B.C., Alexander the Great, on his march through Anatolia in present-day Turkey, reached a city called Gordium. There, he was shown the chariot of Gordius, the ancient founder of the city. The yoke of the chariot was tied to a pole by an intricate knot. It was said that only the conqueror of Asia would be able to unravel this knot. According to a popular version of this story, Alexander merely sliced boldly through the knot with his sword.

If you can “cut the Gordian knot,” it means you can find a bold, creative solution to a complicated problem.

The Midas touch

In classical legend, King Midas is known for his foolishness and greed. One of the gods, Dionysus, granted him a wish, and Midas wished that whatever he touched would turn to gold. The trouble started when he tried to eat — even his food turned to gold. And then the king’s poor daughter came running to him and flung her arms around him — she, too, was turned to gold.

If someone has the “Midas touch,” it means that he or she has the ability to succeed in every financial enterprise. Of course, as the legend of King Midas shows, being rich doesn’t solve every problem; in fact, wealth often creates problems of its own.

Pandora’s box

In Greek mythology, Pandora is considered to be the first woman who ever lived. One day, she found a box, which her husband, Epimetheus, warned her not to open. But her curiosity got the better of her and she disobeyed him. Once the box was opened, all the evils of the world — misery, sickness, war — poured out. A later version puts it differently: All the blessings of the gods escaped; the only thing left inside was hope.

When people talk of “opening a Pandora’s box,” they mean that tampering with the situation could have unpredictable consequences. In other words, the situation might be better off left alone.