Cadmean victory Cadmus was informed by the oracle at Delphi that he would establish a great city. When he eventually found the site of the future Thebes, he prepared to sacrifice to the gods in thanksgiving. He soon discovered that the local spring from which he needed to draw water for a proper sacrifice was guarded by a serpent. He sent his men to dispatch the monster and bring back the ritual water. All of his men failed in the attempt, and Cadmus eventually took it upon himself to kill the serpent. Though Cadmus was ultimately victorious, he now found himself bereft of his comrades and despaired of establishing his realm. A Cadmean victory has
come to mean a victory won at great loss to the victor.
caduceus In Latin the herald’s staff was known as the caduceum, derived from the Greek word keryx, or herald, and his staff the kerykeion. Hermes, as divine messenger, was invariably depicted with the caduceus, which was represented as a staff with white ribbons or intertwined snakes. The white ribbons may have indicated the inviolability of his office. The image of intertwined snakes may have been drawn from the Near Eastern use of copulating snakes as a symbol of fertility, for Hermes was a fertility god. The staff of Hermes became confused with the staff of Asclepius, the renowned mythic physician and son of Apollo, because some stories about Asclepius involved snakes and the reptile has the ability to slough its old skin and seemingly be “reborn,” and so had associations
calliope Calliope was one of the nine Muses, who gives her name to the musical instrument, made up of tuned steam whistles and played like an organ. Calliope is also the name for the California hummingbird. See muse.
Cassandra Trojan Cassandra, daughter of Priam and Hecuba, was amorously pursued by the god Apollo. Having at first agreed to succumb to his advances, she was awarded the gift of prophecy, but later, when she changed her mind and refused him, Apollo punished her. She would remain a prophetess, but would never be believed. Cassandra’s predictions were invariably of disaster,
foretelling the murder of Agamemnon by Clytemnestra or the destruction of Troy through the ruse of the Trojan horse. A Cassandra today is anyone who utters dire warnings of the future, regardless of their truth that people prefer to ignore.
Calypso/calypso music Calypso (“she who hides or conceals”) was the daughter of Thetis and either Atlas, Nereus, or Oceanus. Odysseus was detained on her island home of Ogygia for seven years with the promise that she would make him immortal. Though he enjoyed her bed, each day he would weep and look longingly over the sea to his homeland, Ithaca. Eventually Zeus sent Hermes to inform Calypso that she must give up Odysseus. Calypso music, derived from the name of the nymph, originated on the islands of the West Indies and features topical or amusing themes.
catamite Zeus was so impressed with the beauty of the Trojan youth Ganymede that he took the form of an eagle and brought him to Olympus to become the cupbearer of the gods. The Latin rendering of Ganymede’s name was Catamitus, and his relationship with Zeus (or Jupiter) was interpreted by some as overtly homosexual to lend divine authority to ancient pederastic practices; today a catamite is still the designation for a boy used for pederastic purposes.
Cerberus Cerberus, the hound of the Underworld, stood guard at the gates of Hades and prevented those not permitted from entering. He is usually described as a beast with three heads and the tail of a dragon. When Aeneas journeyed to the lower regions under the guidance of the Sibyl, he brought along a medicated cake to drug the animal and ensure their safe passage. To “throw a sop to Cerberus” means to give a bribe and thereby ward off an unpleasant situation.
cereal Ceres (the Roman counterpart of Demeter) was goddess of grain and the fertility of the earth. From her name is derived the Latin adjective Cerealis (having to do with Ceres and the grain), from which comes our English word cereal.
chaos/chaotic Whether Chaos is to be understood as a void or a primordial, formless, undifferentiated, and seething mass out of which the order of the universe is created, it is the starting point of creation. This unformed beginning is contrasted with later creation, a universe called the cosmos, a designation meaning, literally, harmony or order. The sky and the stars, the earth and its creatures, and the laws and cycles that direct and control creation seem to exhibit the balance, order, and reason that the mind discerns
in the natural world. For us chaos, together with its adjective chaotic, simply means a state of confusion. See cosmos.
Chimera/chimerical/chimeric A wild, hybrid creature, the Chimera had the head of a lion, the body of a goat, and the tail of a serpent, and it breathed fire. It was killed by the Corinthian hero Bellerophon on one of his journeys. Today a chimera is a fantastic delusion, an illusory creation of the mind, or a hybrid organism, usually a plant. Chimerical and chimeric designate something
as unreal, imaginary, or fantastic. These adjectives can also signify that one is given to fantasy.
cornucopia The Latin cornucopia means “horn of plenty.” There are two stories about this horn, which bestows upon the owner an endless bounty. Zeus, in his secluded infancy on Crete, was nursed by a goat named Amalthea, which was also the name of the goddess of plenty. One of the horns of this goat was broken off and became the first cornucopia. The horn of plenty is also associated with Hercules. In order to win Deïanira as his bride, he had to defeat the horned river-god Acheloüs. In the struggle, Hercules broke off one of the horns of the river-god but after his victory returned the horn and received as recompense the horn of Amalthea. Ovid, however, relates that the horn of Acheloüs became a second horn of plenty. Today the cornucopia is a sign of nature’s abundance, and the word comes to mean a plenteous bounty.
cosmos/cosmic/cosmology/cosmetic/cosmetician Cosmos refers to the universe, and all that is ordered and harmonious. Cosmology is
the study of the origin and structure of the universe. The adjective cosmic may designate the universe beyond and apart from the earth itself, or it may in a generalized sense describe something of vast significance or implication. Akin to the word cosmos are various English words derived from the Greek adjective cosmeticos. Cosmos means not only order and harmony, but also arrangement and decoration; thus a cosmetic is a substance that adorns or decorates the body, and a cosmetician the person involved with cosmetics. See chaos.
cupidity The Latin word cupidus (“desirous” or “greedy”) gave rise to Cupido, Cupid, the Roman equivalent of the Greek god of love, Eros. In early representations he is a handsome youth, but he becomes increasingly younger and develops his familiar attributes of bow and arrow (with which he rouses passion in both gods and mortals) and wings, until he finally evolves into the Italian putti or decorative cherubs frequently seen in Renaissance art. From the same Latin root comes cupiditas to denote any intense passion or
desire, from which we derive cupidity (avarice or greed). See erotic.
cyclopean There were two distinct groups of giants called the Cyclopes, whose name means circle- eyed and indicates their principal distinguishing feature, one round eye in the center of the forehead. The first, offspring of Uranus and Ge, were the smiths who labored with Hephaestus at his forge to create the thunderbolt for Zeus, among other masterpieces. The second group of Cyclopes were a tribe of giants, the most important of whom is Polyphemus, a son of Poseidon encountered by Odysseus. The word cyclopean refers to anything that pertains to the Cyclopes or partakes of their gigantic and powerful nature. Thus the Cyclopes were said to be responsible for the massive stone walls that surround the palace-fortresses of the Mycenaean period. And so cyclopean is used generally to describe a primitive building style, which uses immense, irregular, stone blocks, held together by their sheer weight without mortar.
cynosure The constellation Ursa Minor (“little bear”) was called Kunos-oura (“the dog’s tail”) by the astronomer Aratus, who saw in it one of the nymphs who raised the infant Zeus. Long a guiding star for seafarers, it has given us the word cynosure, which can describe anything that serves to focus attention or give guidance.