“His talent is untying the Gordian knots typical in tangled legal procedures.”
Nice alliteration from that writer, but poor metaphor. The point of the Gordian knot myth was that it could not be untied. Rather, it was cut.
This is just one of many mythological expressions that can deepen and enrich our communication — provided we use them correctly.
“Cutting the Gordian knot” brings to mind an amusing and memorable scene in one of Harrison Ford’s “Indiana Jones” films. In that scene, Indiana is confronted by a swordsman who elaborately, menacingly brandishes his blade. Indiana watches the swordsman’s agitated activity for a few seconds, then offhandedly draws his pistol and shoots him.
It’s just that sort of dispatch that Alexander the Great brought to the task of the Gordian knot. The expression 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 encounters the Gordian knot and — with the nonchalance of an Indiana Jones — simply draws his sword and cuts it.
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 useful 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 the mythic world, 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 — for example, this play-on-words headline about lawyer advertising: “Lawyers open Pandora’s briefcase.”
The mortal 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 has warned against various stock market euphorias — 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.
From Mars, the Roman god of war, comes martial. From Odysseus’ friend Mentor, who was entrusted with the education of Odysseus’ son, comes our noun mentor. From the Titans, called the elder gods, comes titanic. From Sisyphus’ eternal task of rolling a large stone up a hill, only to see it roll down again, comes Sisyphean, an adjective we give to constant and thankless effort. From Nemesis, the Greek goddess of justice, comes our noun nemesis, which means a bane or a relentless opponent who seeks retribution. From Hector, a heroic figure in the Trojan army, comes the verb hector, which means to tease, bully or badger.
Dionysian and bacchanalian, which mean wild and drunken celebration, derive from the Greek and Roman gods of revelry and wine, Dionysus and Bacchus.
Junoesque comes from Juno, wife of Jupiter (or Jove), the Roman equivalent of Zeus. Junoesque once suggested a stately, matronly beauty but is now commonly a euphemism for “queen-sized” — or, as I once heard it stated both inelegantly and redundantly, a “Junoesque fatso.”
Jovial, meantime, derives from Jove — although he seemed far from jovial when he was lobbing thunderbolts. Maybe he had a softer side.
These and other allusions are the common property of the literate, and they reinforce and amplify a writer’s meanings. But they must be accurate, natural rather than contrived, and derived from a habit of wide reading.
Paula LaRocque, former writing coach at The Dallas Morning News, is author of The Book on Writing: The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well and of Championship Writing. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.