Greek mythology invades biodiversity!

Giving a name to an organism is one of the most thrilling moments for any biologist. Not only it’s a perfect opportunity to show off their inventive and imaginative skills, but it’s also a way to reach immortality (to put it in a poetic way). The organism will carry this name at least until someone finds out inconsistencies in the previous classification and it has to be changed.

One recurring theme when naming is greek mythology. The idea of giving an organism the name of those almighty gods dates to the times of Linnaeus. One quick look into a species survey shows that many scientists have managed to give their organisms a godly name for their species’ genre. To remember, scientific names (Homo sapiens) are composed by the genre (Homo) and an epithet (sapiens).

We will see now which animals had the privilege of being named after a god and see if there is some kind of relation (results may be somewhat disappointing…). Only genre names will be shown, which are not frequently repeated (epithets can easily be repeated in many different organisms). Also, only pure greek gods, not their roman counterparts (No Venus or Mars, for example)

 Zeus

Zeus eol
Image from here

Zeus is the god of gods, master of the thunder, father of other gods and heroes, one of the three brothers who defeated their Titanic father Cronus, … Major words. The animal to have such a title is the genre of fishes Zeus, commonly named John Dorry or Peter’s fish. Inhabits the coasts of many continents and is an active predator which uses the expansion of its mouth to capture preys. Apparently, there seems not to be a specific reason why Linnaeus gave this name to the fish, because at a first glance there isn’t much of a godly presence in this animal…

 

Aphrodita

Aphrodite eol
Image from here

Aphrodita is the goddess of love, beauty and pleasure. Although her origin was controversial among greek sages, it was clear that her beauty was unprecedented. This was a threat to the stability of the Olympus, so she was forced to marry Hephaestus, one of the ugliest gods in Olympus. The list of lovers, however, was huge. Her name is now property of a Polychaete worm (worm with plaques), commonly named sea-mice. They live in many coasts around the world and they commonly eat dead animals. The name was also given by Linnaeus, because it was said that when viewed ventrally, they resemble female genitalia. As an anecdote, Aphrodita is hermaphrodite.

Hephaestus

Hephaesuts fishesofaustralianetau
Image from here

Hephaestus, Aphrodita’s husband, is the god of volcanoes, craftwork and metallurgy. He was the producer of weapons for the gods and gave skills to human artists.  It’s said he was in exile for a while (again, the reason is controversial), although managed to return to Mount Olympus, in the end. Hephaestus are omnivorous river fishes only found in Nord Australia and Indonesia. Why De Vis, the scientist who gave this name to the fish, managed to establish a parallelism between this animal and the god of metallurgy is, at least, unclear.

Hades

Hades eol
Image from here

Until now, we have seen that the god of gods is a fish and the goddess of love, a worm. Following this criteria, it’s natural that the god of death and hell is a benign butterfly. To be honest, Hades wasn’t an evil entity as we normally portray him, but just a passive entity (although he kidnapped his wife, amongst other “minor” wrongdoings) whose main goal was to keep order in Tartarus (hell in greek mythology). The genre Hades is found in Central and South America. Its name may have been a result of the black coloured wings with red-spots, which may resemble the landscape of Tartarus, although this is just a hypothesis. (sadly, it’s difficult to find information about naming in the 18th and 19th century… ).

   

Athene

Athena eol
Image from here

Athene was the goddess of wisdom, protector of cities, involved in the intellectual part of the human soul. Mathematician, strategist, justice dealer…her inportance in greek religion was huge, and in fact, the capital, Athens, is named after her (or the other way round?). This name goes to an owl, which is clearly significant (at last). Athene was usually depicted with an owl on her hand, and her nickname Glaukomis can be translated to “bright eyes”, something that can be related  to the eyes of owls, which contain the reflecting tapetum lucidum. Athene is a small animal, but successful, as it’s found on almost every continent on Earth, maybe guided by its protector goddess, who knows.

Hestia

Hestia
Wong & Boyce, 2010

Hestia was a kind goddess related to hearth, home and family. She could be considered the antithesis of Aphrodite and her main duty was to maintain the fires of Olympus with the burning of animals offered as sacrifices. Hestia was usually honoured in feasts and sacrifices. Hestia is, on the other hand, a plant found in some islands of Malaysia. It is easy to identify thanks to the multiple inflorescences (groups of flowers) that hang from the long stems (see photo). According to the scientists that gave its name in 2010, Hestia lives in a fire-prone habitat, which relates to the job of the goddess, maintaining the Olympus fires.

Artemis (Artemisia)

Artemisia botanicalcom
Image from here

Artemis is the goddess of hunting and fertility. According to some researchers, this goddess may have had a pre-Hellenistic origin (so, it’s origin is older than other gods). Artemis is often depicted with deers, dogs and a cypress, all of them symbols of hunting. Artemisia is a plant originally described by Linnaeus. It’s a wind-pollinating plant, with a huge area of distribution and with thousands of species that belong to this genre. Why Linnaeus gave this name to a plant is (again) unclear.

 

Honourable mentions (greek mythology is huge):

Poseidon (Nemertean worm), sadly, not much information about this species. Posidonia, a seaweed. Zeus is also a funghi, but again there is not much information about.

Lesser gods: Pan (God of the wild, a chimpanzee). Iris (a messenger of the gods, both a type of mantis and a genre of plants), Atropa (goddess Atropos, who chose the mechanism of death, is a plant of the Solanaceae).

Titans: Eos (Titan of the dawn, a parrot), Selene (Titan of the moon, a fish), Hyperion (Titan related with the sun-titan Helios, a beetle), Tethys (Thetis is the titan of seas, her counterpart a nudibranch), Phoebe (Titan related with the moon, a plant of the Lauraceae), Rhea (Mother of many Olympian gods, it’s the nandu, a flightless bird), Mnemosyne (Mother of the Muses, a cicada).

Bibliography

http://eol.org/collections/16

http://www.marinespecies.org/

Wong, S. Y., & Boyce, P. C. (2010). Studies on Schismatoglottideae (Araceae) of Borneo IX: A new genus, Hestia, and resurrection of Apoballis.Botanical Studies, 51(2).

If you want to know even more examples:

http://www.curioustaxonomy.net/etym/myth.html

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