Greek Mythology for Birders and Botanists is a project to reveal the meaning behind the scientific names of birds and plants by retelling the classic Greek myths of characters whose names are memorialized in taxonomy.
Greek myths were irreverent, violent, depraved, hilarious, tragic, and frequently contradictory. The gods were capricious, vindictive, petty, shallow, and generally irredeemably deplorable. As many of the European and American scholars of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries were trained in the Classics, Greek mythology, language and culture permeate the sciences. We see this clearly in the construction of our scientific terms: Ecology, the study of one’s house, comes from οίκος – home – and λογία – words, or discourse.
We it also in the scientific names of organisms who have taken their names from the Greek gods and heroes passed down to us by Pindar, Ovid, Plato other other ancient Roman and Greek scholars. Many of these stories are of mortals transformed, often tragically, into various beasts, plants, and geographic features. Take the African painted dog, Lycaon pictus, named after King Lycaon. King Lycaon, according to some sources, was impious and selfish. Seeking to test the omniscience of Zeus, he sacrificed his son and then fed him to the god. An angry Zeus punished Lycaon by turning him into a wolf and killing his 50 sons.
Read the Stories
Teage is currently working on a project to rewrite Greek myths that focus on the figures, like King Lycaon, whose names are now memorialized in the scientific names of plants and animals. You can read a small selection of these myths by following the links below and discover just how vital an understanding of Greek mythology is to understanding the names of things. Each story is accompanied by extensive footnotes and references that catalog and describe the many species with eponyms (taxonomic names derived from real or fictional people).