Which river would you drink from?

Welcome back to the Greek mythology series!

Writing about Zeus’s creative punishments all of which last for an eternity reminded Đề of the movie “Eternal sunshine of a spotless mind”. It was a romantic drama about two strangers who felt for each other at first sight then found out later that they used to be madly in love. Their story started when after two years being together, the two lovers separated and decided to undergo a procedure, provided by a company Lacuna, to remove all of the memories of their romance. People say sometimes the best memories are the worst. Just as much as they used to make you happy, beautiful memories hurt when it comes to the realization that those things you had were forever gone. Therefore it’s natural to have the idea of getting such painful part out of your head.

In Greek mythology, there was also a need of mind erasure, all mortals had to do this between their two lives, forget everything before being rebirth-ed. If in “Eternal sunshine of a spotless mind”, they needed a company and all kind of neuroscience technology to help them do that, go through their unconscious mind, find every single related piece and erase it, things were easier and simpler in the Greek ancient stories, all it took was to drink water.

Lethe was one of the five rivers in Hades, the underworld in Greek mythology. It was also known as Ameles Potamos, the river of unmindfulness. The river was told to flow through the cave of Hypnos, the god of sleep, who would murmur his drowsiness into the water. Just like most other rivers in in Greek myths, Lethe had a god or a goddess for its namesake, it was the same-name goddess, a personification of oblivion. One would experience complete forgetfulness of the past after drinking water from it. In the mythology, the souls of the dead would have to drink this water to erase their earthly lives before reincarnation. With some modification, Lethe came into modern English as the word lethargy. Lethargy characterizes a condition of extreme drowsiness, fatigue, laziness or torpor, and usually a lack of emotion or interest. Lethargic means unnaturally drowsy, dull or torpid.

Interestingly enough, there was another river which had just the opposite magic of Lethe, that was river Mnemosyne. It had the ability to make those who drink water from it remember all things and acquire omniscience. Greek mythology at the end of the day was human’s imagination, what they could not possess in the real world were fantasied here. If there was one way to completely obliterate one’s mind in the wink of an eye, there must be another way to fulfill it just as fast. This, to some extent, might as well indicate the ancient (Greek) people’s yearning for justice, which can also be seen in Zeus’ quite fair and elaborate treatment for the righteous and the sinner. The river Mnemosyne was powered and guarded by no other than goddess Mnemosyne. She was the personification of memory and remembrance, the creator of language and words. In some source, she was named the minor-goddess of time too, for she knew everything since the beginning of time. As you may have guessed, her name was the origin of the word memory and other “mnemo-ish” words. Mnemonics is the art or method to improve memory. Mnemonic (adj) is relating to improving memory. Mnemophobia is the fear of memory. So whoever has mnemophobia might consider going to Lacuna company if it ever exists. As for goddess Mnemosyne, she had quite a story as well, but that will come in another post.

Let’s get back to River Lethe and River Mnemosyne. One allows you to forget all the memory that was so beautiful it hurts, all the things you knew and all the events you have been through. The other lets you obtain the pinnacle of knowledge and wisdom. In one way, you basically become a new person with no history, in the other way, well, you will also become a new person except with loads of history of the whole mankind. Here comes the question, if you were given the option to drink from either of the two rivers, which one would you choose, Lethe or Mnemosyne?

Come way back to the couple in that movie, they chose Lethe, not for their entire mind though, just a part of it. But things worked out well for them. After becoming estranged, maybe thanks to their very last remnant of each other’s memory or for some inexplicable reason they happened to meet on a train. Coming across all the records of their relationship in the past, they were astounded and wanted to start everything anew.

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Greek myths and eternal punishments

First off, Đề would like to thank Bồ for inspiring the topic of this series. The previous post on contranyms which are grouped and named after Janus has sparked off the idea of studying words that come from those mythologies. So while arranging some ideas for this post, Đề changed her mind after reading Bồ’s entry. But instead of digging into Roman religions and mythologies where Janus belonged, this series will feature words that were coined based on the stories or characters in Greek mythologies. These words and stories might be obvious to those who have been learning English vocabulary by studying its etymology; however, to Đề, who is very new to these Greek myths and is remotely familiar with Greek roots in English, this is just fascinating. Apparently, mythologies offered variable explanations of the origin of each word, only the prevailing version will be mentioned here.

In this first post of the series, each of the following words will relate to either eternal punishment or nourishment.

Promethean: daringly creative, defiant of authority

The word signifies the characteristics of the Titan giant Prometheus, who was known as a benefactor of mankind for the things he did. He was assigned by Zeus to form human from water and earth but later became enamoured of men which was beyond Zeus’ expectation. Prometheus and Zeus disagreed on how much power to grant human. Zeus wanted to prevent men from having power and even wanted them to perish. But Prometheus, against Zeus’ will, taught men agriculture, brought to men the fire he stole from Zeus’ lightning. To punish him, Zeus tried to hurt his loved ones, his brother and human. Nevertheless, Prometheus continued to defy Zeus, stole more skills from other gods to give to men. Later on, Zeus punished Prometheus himself by having him tied to a mountain where an eagle could tear his liver every day, which would regenerate overnight. Forever since, Prometheus had to endure the agony of having his liver eaten over and over again. Having said that, the word means boldly creative, in the way that this philanthropist loved and helped human; it also means defiant in the way that he defied god’s might and suffered for men.

Sisyphean: laborious, futile and interminable

This word takes us to the story of Sisyphus, who was not a god, but a king. Being chronically avaricious and treacherous, he was known as the craftiest of men. With the quest for power, he did all it took, including killing guests, seducing enemy’s daughter and even betraying Zeus. However the word Sisyphean does not indicate his characteristics, but the punishment for his deceitfulness. He was forced to roll an enormous boulder up to the top of a steep hill. More than that, Zeus has enchanted the boulder to roll away from Sisyphus just before it reached the top. As a result, Sisyphus was consigned to a useless and frustrating task for the rest of eternity.

Tantalise: to torment or tease with the sight of something unattainable

I bet at one point in your life, you must have been tantalised by something in one way or another, then you know how Tantalus, a half-god and half-nymp felt. One time, when attending a Zeus’ dinner in Olympus, Tantalus stole ambrosia and some secrets of Zeus to give to mortals. He later even killed his own son and served it to the gods in a banquet as a sacrifice. Aware and disgusted by his evil-doing of kin slaying, the gods refused to take the offer and revived his child. Tantalus was later punished by standing in a pool of water with low-hanging fruits above his head. But whenever he stretched out to get the fruits, they would grow out of his reach. Henceforth, he is forever tantalised by the food that he could never have.

Cornucopia: abundance, nourishment, a great amount of something, especially produce

The word literally means “horn of plenty”, originating from two Latin words: Cornu (horn) and Copia (plenty). It was told that the infant Zeus was once sent away to avoid his father from devouring him. From this point ward, there were few versions of the legend, one of which was that while hiding in a cave, Zeus was nursed and fed by a goat, Amalthea. One day, he accidentally broke her horn, and in his regret, Zeus charmed the horn to always be fulfilled with whatever Amalthea wished. Hence the word cornucopia, an eternal abundance of foods. This symbol of a horn with plenty of produce is adopted to Thanksgiving celebration in modern days and is traditionally displayed in the centre of a dining table.

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Prometheus by Gustave Moreau, (1868). Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sisyphus by Titian, Spain. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Tantalus by Gioacchino Assereto. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Roman goddess Abundantia with a cornucopia, by Rubens. Courtesy of Wikipedia.