Every living thing has its own unique scientific name, following a system laid out by Carl Linnaeus in his book “Systema Naturae” in 1758.
The rules to naming a new living thing are very vague; it just has to be in Latin and follow a 2-name system with a genus and species name. This allows for some interesting backstories to sneak in according to the whims of the scientist who first described and named the genus.
Last time I tackled this subject, I was looking at plants. This time, we will be jumping into the animal kingdoms with a little celestial flair sprinkled on top because why not? All the stories today are tied to Greek stories as well as constellations in the night sky. Also, maybe I just want to torture myself, who knows? To the moon we go!
There are 88 recognised constellations by NASA and most are inherited from the Greek’s astronomic charts. These stars are grouped usually following myths as they their to explain away the skies and the world around them. Though I believe the following animals are not named after the constellations mentioned, there share some common attribute to the stories that inspired the constellations as told by the Greeks oh so long ago.
The constellation of Cygnus the Swan is a largeish constellation in the northern half of the night sky. It houses Deneb, one of the stars in the summer triangle, and lies right along the milky way. Cygnus is also the scientific name given to all swans. It would not be surprising to know that there is a Greek myth regarding cygnus.
This myth starts with the god Apollo (returning readers would find that God familiar) and his son Phaethon. In some myths, the sun god Helios (aka Apollo) is said to be his father but that is not important as Phaethon and his lover, Cygnus, is the centre point in our story
A shorten version of Phaethon’s story goes like this. Phaethon went to his father for a favour and daddy agreed without asking what the favour was. Phaethon, trying to proof to his friends that his father is the sun god, asked to pilot the sun chariot for a day. After trying to talk Phaethon out of his crazy idea, daddy resigned and gave him the reigns to the horses that pull the chariot.
Phaethon, with no riding skills, spooked out the horses and sent the sun flying too close and too far from the Earth, creating deserts and ice sheets. With no control of the chariot and potential apocalypse on earth, Zeus had to strike Phaethon down with his thunderbolt. With Phaethon’s reckless driving gone, the horses calmed down and returned to their normal route. Cygnus rushed to the river Eridanos where Phaethon’s lifeless body fell, and cried non-stop, mourning for his fallen lover (yes, Cygnus is a guy). Apollo/Helios took pity on Cygnus, struck him to be mute and later turned him into a swan to be in the waters closer to Phaethon. Thus, the birth of the mute swan. When Cygnus himself finally passed, Apollo lifted it up into the heavens to form the constellation. The mute swan also became Apollo’s holy animal, maybe in some form of penance for his hand in Phaethon’s death.
The lovely story does have some merit as mute swans, better known as the white coloured swan, are the least vocal of swans and which they get their name from. And with all swans, they do form very close mating pairs. If one of the pair were to pass, the other will go through a mourning process; sometimes remaining where their mate passed for a period of time. Next time you visit the botanic gardens and see a pair of mute swans, think of foolish Phaethon and the loving Cygnus.
The constellation of Hydra is the largest of the 88 recognized constellations in the night sky. It is a very long patch of the night sky and snakes itself around a few other constellations. Hydra is also the genus of a group of animals that has a very special ability — the ability to regenerate after been badly injured or cut in half. Maybe Marvel said it best, “Cut off a head, two more will take its place.”
The mythical hydra was a giant many-headed serpent that guarded one of the entrances of the underworld in Lerna, giving it the name the Lernaean Hydra. According to myth, the hydra had poisonous breath and blood that could kill anything. But the claim to fame for hydra was its regenerative ability of growing more heads as one gets removed.
The animal hydra also has this trait and is most likely named because of it. The real hydra is from the phylum of Cnidaria together with corals, anemones and sea jellies. This group of animals all share one trait and that is to have stinging cells that are used to sting and poison/paralyze their prey before consuming them. The hydra has this too, which gives it more connection to its mythical counterpart. But back to that regenerative ability. If a hydra is cut in half, it does not die. It just grows back and becomes 2 hydras. Cut into 3? Become 3 hydras. This ridiculous regenerative ability is unmatched in the animal kingdom, but it is slightly diminished by the fact that the hydra is not a giant serpent but a small, at most, 1cm-thin simple tube-like creature with a few tentacles on its head to catch prey.
The mythical hydra, however, is more spectacular but ultimately met its end at the hands of the hero Heracles. As part of his 12 labours, he was to slay the Lernaean hydra. After learning very quickly that chopping the heads off the beast was of no use, Heracles’s nephew, Iolaus, thought of the great idea of burning each stump after the head was chopped out. This prevented the new heads from growing out and thus, slowly but surely, Heracles slayed the beast.
Before calling it a day, Heracles dipped his arrows in the blood of the hydra, imbuing them with the hydra’s poison and harnessing the ability to kill almost everything it touches. In a cruel twist of fate, these very arrows and the poison end up killing Heracles himself.
Finally, did I just write about hydra to say this? Yes, yes I did.
Now for the cream de la crème, the pièce de resistance, this article’s magnum opus, and the whole reason why I wanted to write this article. Cassiopea andromeda; better known as the upside-down jellyfish. To understand this name, you NEED to know the story of Cassiopeia (note spelling!) and her daughter Andromeda.
Cassiopeia was the beautiful queen of Ethiopia, and Andromeda was equally, if not more beautiful, than her mother. With such beauty comes pride and Cassiopeia boasted to all that her daughter was more beautiful than even the Nereids — sea nymphs that symbolize the beauty and kindness of the sea. This display of hubris greatly angered Poseidon and he sent a monster, Cetus, to terrorise the seas around Ethiopia.
No trade can happen with Cetus on the loose, so the country of Ethiopia started to starve and crumble. Oracles were consulted and the solution was to chain Andromeda to the rock next to the ocean and wait for Cetus to consume her, after which would Poseidon call Cetus off and the country be saved. With a heavy heart, Andromeda was prepared as mentioned and set to wait for certain death. But this is a hero’s story and no damsel in distress would be harmed. Luckily for Andromeda, the Hero Perseus came, killed Cetus and saved her.
Poseidon, still angry at Cassiopeia, placed her in the sky on a chair as the constellation bearing her name. But she was placed very near the north star and spins 1 round every year. That way, she is hanging off her throne for half a year as the constellation looks upside down. I can only imagine this as a cruel joke by the Gods.
But it is this very quirk that gave the upside-down jellyfish its name. In fact, the whole genus of upside-down jellyfishes is named after this queen. But why is the jellyfish upside down? These jellies have formed a symbolic relationship with algae that live in its tentacles that will provide the animal food from photosynthesis. The jelly just has to point its tentacles to the sun, thus making it look upside-down. What was the top of the jellyfish almost becomes a suction cup or a foot at the bottom as the tentacles wave in the water to get sunlight and food.
Not going to lie, scientists are huge nerds and will take every opportunity to have a geeky (greeky) name if they could. When presented with the genus Cassiopea, someone must have thought about Andromeda. The constellation of andromeda is also next to her mother and she would not be in this situation if not for her mother. Thus, the scientific name Cassiopea andromeda was given to this particularly special jellyfish that also, in my opinion, is very beautiful.
If there is a moral to this story, it will be not to boost the achievement of your kids to the whole world!
The extent of Greek mythology’s influence on scientific naming of some animals must have been quite the surprise! Interestingly, this influence lives on in modern life today – in science, arts, literature, language and brands.
Until next time, look up, look around, look out for those Greek relics.
Written by Lim Meng Hwee
Illustrations by Lim Daphne