Monday, May 03, 2010

Of Booze, Bacteria and Etymology

Yesterday, I wrote about Ariadne and her apparently unsatisfying sex life. Today, I note that no matter how Guido Reni might have depicted Bacchus’s manhood, Bacchus and Ariadne did manage to produce children. And Bacchus — or, rather, Dionysus, if you’re talking about his Greek manifestation — being the god of wine, two of his children with Ariadne have associations with booze.

One son, Oenopion, is variously the personification of wine, a king of who brought winemaking to the island Chios, or both. And another, Staphylus, has a name that comes from the Greek staphylē, meaning “a bunch of grapes.” But hold on — grapes may not be the first association English-speakers might make when hearing the latter’s name. No, it might instead be the staphylococcus bacteria. And the association would be accurate, because staphylococcus also comes from the Greek word for a bunch of grapes, with the addition of kókkos, meaning “granule,” “grain” or “berry.” The etymology makes sense when you consider that the actual bacteria themselves are granular and cluster in grape-like formations. See?

This CDC microscope photo shows a close-up view of staph bacteria. Yuck, right? Well, let’s make one small change.

Mmm! Yummy! Grapes! I want to put those in my mouth!

I hope this little exercise in mythology, etymology and color perception makes you find staphylococcus bacteria just a little more lovable.

(An aside: I’m not sure I know that Ariadne ever hooked up with the god of wine. As far I as I knew, her story had her being the Minoan princess who helps Theseus kill the Minotaur, despite the fact that the Minotaur is actually her half-brother. She gives Theseus the ball of thread that he uses to find his way back through the Labyrinth once the Minotaur is dead, at which point Theseus and Ariadne elope. However, for different reasons depending on who’s telling the story, Theseus deserts Ariadne on the island Naxos. My knowledge of her ended there, but she apparently is discovered there by Dionysus — and in some cases, was already married to him anyway. So I guess that’s better than becoming a sun-bleached corpse feeding the Naxos crabs. Way to go, Greek girl.)

Greek mythology, previously:


  1. Yeah, some versions of the myth have Dionysus rescue Ariadne, but I get the impression that was a later addition by people who thought she ended up getting the short shrift. I know there were other Greek stories that were modified to have people left out to die end up being rescued by gods. The weird thing about Theseus is that, some years after abandoning Ariadne, he apparently ended up marrying her sister. Then she hit on his son from a previous marriage.

  2. Oh, and I said a bit more about Theseus here: