LAOCOÖN, n. A famous piece of antique sculpture representing a priest of that name and his two sons in the folds of two enormous serpents. The skill and diligence with which the old man and lads support the serpents and keep them up to their work have been justly regarded as one of the noblest artistic illustrations of the mastery of human intelligence over brute inertia.
—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
This week we’ve seen literature, film, and music referenced, but how often do myths crop up in Nature Magazine?
For example, there’s a reference in An Achilles heel for kidney cancer, but Achilles heel is a recognised OED term and is no longer properly thought of as the Trojan hero who was dunked into the Styx while held by a heel.
I found no obvious mythological references in the general section. However, the specialised, cutting-edge research articles yielded some interesting terminology:
- Argonaute proteins,
- Asgard archaea,
- and the volcanic Loki Patera on the moon Io.
As you know from posts like Playing Detective: Hamlet and the n-dimensional Hyperplane, I enjoy tracking down wellsprings. So here goes …
The science: Argonaute proteins were observed in a plant that reminded researchers of an octopus called Argonauta argo, which itself had gotten the name from a (never-observed) method of propulsion along the surface of the sea that resembled a boat with sails.
The myth: Jason and the Argonauts were the Greek heroes of legend who went to steal the Golden Fleece. The Argonauts were named after the ship they sailed on, Argo (which makes Argonauta argo a pleonasm).
The science: Asgard archaea are a newly named superphylum (2017), thought to bridge the gap between eukaryotes (complex organisms, e.g. us, formed from complex cells) and bacteria (simple cells). Their first representatives were found in an Arctic hydrothermal vent called Loki’s castle, and therefore designated Lokiarchaea, kickstarting the naming convention. Loki’s castle (discovered in 2008) was so called because it resembled a castle and it was tricky to locate.
The myth: In Scandinavian mythology, Asgard is a celestial realm containing Valhalla. Within the same mythology, Loki is a god, traditionally (although disputably) thought of as a trickster.
The science: Io is a moon of Jupiter, and Loki Patera is a volcanic depression on Io. The word patera means a broad, shallow, bowl-shaped planetary feature with a scalloped or irregular edge. I don’t know why it was called Loki, but mythological consistency went unobserved in naming pateras on Io, as there is an Amaterasu Patera (after a Japanese sun goddess) and Manua Patera (after a Hawaiian sun god). The naming of Io goes back to the early seventeenth century and Johannes Kepler.
The myth: Io was a nymph taken by the thunder-god Zeus, the head god in Greek mythology, later renamed to Jupiter or Jove in the Roman pantheon. In The Not-So-Mild Hallucinations of a Musk-Ox, I wrote about the modern reimagining of Io as a musk-ox in Anne Carson’s verse-novel Red Doc>. (And Inspired by the Ordinary has my short story featuring Jove’s earthly presence.)
What’s your favourite mythological reference?