Imagine that on your way back from the coffee shop one lunch break, somebody stopped you in the street and asked what you know about classical literature. It certainly beats someone asking you for any spare change or directions to the nearest Nando’s.

It might stump for you a second or two, but you probably know more than you think about Greek and Roman mythology.

You might remember, for instance, that Hercules had 12 labours to complete. You probably know that Medusa had a nest of vipers on her head and you’d be turned to stone if you so much as glanced at her. And just about everybody has heard the tale of the giant Trojan horse, haven’t they?

In our everyday writing and speaking, we make lots of references to people and places from that mythical time. Some of them seem so commonplace, we might be unaware or have forgotten what they were originally referring too.

Here’s an aide memoire featuring eight classical allusions you might use in your writing and the stories behind them.


Achilles Heel We might actually be describing the thick tendon which runs from our calf to the back of our heel. Or alternatively, we might be highlighting someone or something (say a company or sports team) which has a particularly vulnerability. But whatever the case, the Achilles we’re referring to was the fearless warrior who, according to the Greek mythology, was dipped as a child by his mother in the River Styx. This made his body invulnerable, except on his heel where she held him. This was his weak spot and the origin of this well-used phrase.

Aphrodisiac We’ve all read articles where everything from oysters to chocolate is supposed to put you in the mood for romance. But the word itself derives from Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of sexual love, beauty and desire. All these alluring qualities meant men as well as gods were drawn into affairs with her.

Cynic In everyday use, we often refer to someone as a cynic if they’re wary of someone else’s motives and question whether they’re as selfless as they might appear. But back in the 4th century Greece, cynicism was a philosophical movement. Its followers believed humans were really selfish, so the cynics wanted to disassociate themselves from everyone else. One of the most famous cynics was Diogones who spent his life living in a tub spouting his thoughts on life. Among his little gems were ‘Man is the most intelligent of animals- and the most silly’.

Draconian  If we feel some rules are a bit strict, we might describe them as Draconian. Back in ancient Greece, it wasn’t just ignoring the ‘do not walk on the grass’ sign which would get you into trouble. Just about every slight transgression seemed to result in the punishment being by death. That was because of the harsh laws brought into Athens by Draco, the lawmaker whose name is now forever associated with the severest of rules.

Labyrinth Today we might use it to refer to a building where you can get easily lost and struggle to find your way out again. But it in Greek mythology, it was applied to the maze-like structure where King Minos of Crete held the Minotaur (which was half bull and half man) captive before it was killed by Theseus.

Nemesis In fiction, it’s easy to think of many famous pairings who are known as arch-enemies.  Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty? Peter Pan and Captain Hook? Batman and The Joker? In many of these cases, each character could be described as one that seemingly can’t be beaten and returns time and again.  Nemesis herself was the Greek goddess of vengeance and retribution and someone definitely not to cross.

Pyrrhic Victory Another way of saying this is that you might have won the battle but lost the war. In other words, it’s a hollow success because it was achieved at such a high cost. For example, someone might win a court case to clear their name but in doing so lose a fortune in legal costs and destroying their reputation too. The phrase originates from when King Pyrrhus of Greece defeated the Romans twice back in ancient times. But in doing so, he suffered such huge casualties to his own army that victory was hardly a cause for celebration.

Spartan Back in ancient Greece, the state of Sparta was on a constant military footing. Its citizens, the Spartans, were brought up to fight. The myths say that when a Spartan boy was seven, he was taken away from his family to begin his training as a soldier. Because their existence was disciplined from such an early age, a Spartan lifestyle has come to mean one that’s harsh, austere and lacking in any luxuries.

See, you really did know more than you thought. You just need someone to stop you in the street on the way back from the coffee shop…