Each of this week's words is derived from the name of an ancient Greek god or hero. The characters are all mythical so take these words cum granum salis:
- Sisyphean -- Sisyphus founded the city of Corinth, but was by all accounts not a good king. In addition to murdering passing travelers, he was also a trickster figure who betrayed the secrets of the gods and chained the god of dead so that the souls of the deceased could not reach the underworld. In retribution, Hades consigned him to eternal damnation, his punishment being to forever repeat the task of rolling a heavy boulder up a steep hill. Thus the core meaning of "Sisyphean": endless and repetitious. (I wonder if this myth gave Nietzsche the idea for the eternal recurrence.)
- Promethean -- Prometheus, whose name means "forethought", stole fire from the gods and gave it to human beings. Some myths relate that along with his brother Epimetheus he was also charged with endowing the creatures of the earth with their faculties. For stealing the sacred fire and various other crimes, Zeus had Prometheus chained to a mountaintop in the Caucasus, where an eagle or vulture would eat out his liver every day, only to have it regenerate overnight. Today we use "Promethean" to refer to acts of great creativity or innovation.
- Epimethean -- Epimetheus was the less intelligent brother of Prometheus (his name means "afterthought"). He gave all the natural gifts and powers to other creatures, leaving humans with nothing until Prometheus stole the fire. He also ignored his brother's warnings about accepting gifts from Zeus, and married Pandora, whose box (or urn) loosed a flood of evils upon humankind. Curiously Epimetheus was not punished like his brothers Prometheus and Atlas -- presumably because he was an effective weapon for the Olympians against those upstart humans. "Epimethean" is used to refer to those who think too late.
- Atlantean -- Atlas was another brother of Prometheus and Epimetheus. Atlast led the war of the Titans against the Olympians, for which Zeus punished him by making him hold up the earth (or the heavens). Etymologically his name means "one who dares or endures", and "Atlantean" describes one who pursues great deeds or who carries a great burden.
- Tantalean -- Tantalus, son of Zeus and king of Sipylos, was favored by the gods and invited to dine with them. Unfortunately he either tried to share ambrosia with other mortals, or served the dismembered body of his own son Pelops to the gods. In punishment he was consigned to Tartarus, where he was immersed up to his neck in water (which immediately receded if he attempted to drink) and "tantalized" by fruits hanging from trees above his head (which were blown away by winds if he attempted to eat). Thus "Tantalean" can refer to someone who is tantalized in the same kind of way.
Peter Saint-Andre > Journal