Orpheus was the famous musician who was the son (or pupil) of Apollo and the husband of Eurydice. Significantly, his mother was Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry. There has been much discussion regarding the origin of his name, often resulting in the verdict 'of obscure origin'.

The most common theory, however, is that his name derives from orphne, 'darkness', 'night', since Orpheus was connected with the darkness, both in his journey to the Underworld and later when conducting his initiations by night. The English word 'orphan' is related to Greek orphne, the common link being the deprivation: darkness is deprived of light; an orphan is deprived of his parents.


Orseïs was a nymph and the wife of Hellen, to whom she bore Dorus, Aeolus and Xuthus. Her name appears to be based on ornymi which has a wide range of meanings, from 'to rouse', 'stir' to 'cause', 'excite', 'arise'. Orso, for example, means Ί will rouse' (or any other of these meanings). It is difficult to be more precise without some specific guideline.


Ortheia was one of the four daughters of Hyacinthus, all of whom were sacrificed to Persephone. Her name is probably a commen­ datory one, meaning 'upright', 'straight', 'true' (orthos).


Orthus or Orthrus was a two-headed dog, the offspring of Typhon and Echidna. It guarded Geryon's cattle and was killed by Heracles. If we take the spelling Orthus, then we may have orthos, 'straight', 'true' as the meaning behind the name.

If we prefer Orthrus, we may have orthros, 'dawn', 'early morning' as the root, with the general sense being 'early'. Both interpretations would suit a dog that looked after cattle, since it would have to be 'true' and work in the early morning. In his Theogony, Hesiod makes Orthus and Cerberus brothers.


Osiris was the husband of Isis, and the Egyptian god of the Underworld and the dead. In Greek mythology he was the son of Zeus and Niobe, and according to Plutarch he was murdered by his brother Typhon. The Greeks, too, linked him with Dionysus.

His name appears to originate from the Egyptian city of Busiris that also gave the name of the king who in Greek mythology was regarded as the son of Poseidon and Lysianassa. Both Osiris and Busiris are names that have been popularly thought to mean, without much foundation, 'many-eyed'.


Otus and his twin Ephialtes were giants, the sons of Poseidon and Iphimedia (although actually called the Aloadae or 'sons of Alöeus' since he had been the husband of Iphimedia before she married Poseidon). Otus' name derives from otheo, 'to push', 'thrust', 'force back' (as in battle). This is a suitable name for a strong giant.


Oxylus was a son of Andraemon (or his son Haemon) and a king of Elis. His name may be a propitious one meaning 'sharp talker', from oxys, 'sharp', 'quick', and laleo, 'to talk'. (It could also, however, mean 'shrill talker' and even 'hasty talker'.)


Paeon (or Paean) was a physician of the gods, and subsequently one of the by-names of Apollo. Homer mentions him as curing Hades when he was wounded by one of Heracles' arrows as he defended the entrance to the Underworld. His name has the same origin as that of Paeonius, that is, 'healer', from paio, 'to strike', 'drive away'.

As a by-name of Apollo, Paeon (or Paean) was transferred to songs dedicated to him and to other gods, itself ultimately becoming the word for a battle, victory or festive song - a 'paean', in fact. The same name can also be seen in the peony (or paeony), a flower that used to be favourably regarded for its medicinal properties.


Paeonius was one of the Dactyls (together with Heracles, Epimedes, Iasius and Acesidas). His name would appear to mean 'healer', from paionios, 'belonging to healing' (from paio, 'to strike'). If Dactyls are fingers, then this one has the healing touch.


Palaemon means 'wrestler', from palaio, 'to wrestle'. It was the name of several characters, including the son of Heracles and Autonoë (whose father certainly 'wrestled' with many a task), the son of Hephaestus (again for the exploits of his father), and (as a new name) Melicertes, son of Athamas and Ino, who aided sailors in distress. With regard to the first of these three, it should be remembered that Heracles was actually called Palaemon originally.

As for Merlicertes, the new name was acquired at the same time as the conversion of his mother Ino to the sea-goddess Leucothea. It was given him by Sisyphus, who made the newly named Palaemon the protector god of the so-called Isthmic Games (those held on the isthmus of Corinth).


Palamedes was the son of Nauplius and Clymene. He was a gifted man, who was said to have invented draughts and dice games and even the letters of the Greek alphabet! Not surprisingly, his name reflects his cleverness, since it means 'ancient cunning', from palai, 'of old' and medea, 'cunning', 'skill'.


Palinurus was Aeneas' helmsman on his journey from Troy to Italy. His name seems to be a compound of palin, 'back', 'again' and ouros, 'fair wind', which is appropriate enough for one who has to steer a ship from A to Β and back again.


Pallas is in fact two separate and distinguishable names. The first Pallas (genitive Pâllantos) was a Titan, the son of Crius and Eurybia. The second Pallas (genitive Pallâdos) was the goddess Athena, for whom it was the best-known by-name (often used together with Athena, as Pallas Athena, but later used alone).

The first Pallas (and various others of the name, including according to some accounts even the father of Athena) has a name that may mean simply 'young man' (pallas) or perhaps 'shaker', 'brandisher', from pallo, 'to wield', 'brandish'. Either meaning would be suitable for a giant. The second and more famous Pallas has a name that is variously explained.

Some of the theories proposed are as follows.
  1. That it was borrowed from the Titan Pallas as a 'powerful' name. (But, as mentioned, this is actually a different name.) 
  2. That it derives from the blow struck by Athena when she killed this Titan - or from some other blow (from pallo, 'to wield', 'brandish', 'leap', as for the Titan Pallas). 
  3. That it refers to the spear that she constantly flourished, and which she was brandishing even at the moment when she was 'born' by springing forth from the head of Zeus that Hephaestus had split open with an axe (pallo again). 
  4. That it refers to this actual blow by Hephaestus which enabled Athena to be born. 
  5. That it was taken in memory of a playmate of this name, a daughter of Triton, whom Athena accidentally killed as a girl. 
  6. That it simply means 'young maid' (palla), just as pallas can mean 'young man'. (Compare Latin puella, 'girl'.) Of all these possibilities, it is generally reckoned that the last explanation is the most likely.

We also need to connect her name with the Palladium. This was a legendary statue of Pallas Athena, said to have been dropped down from heaven by Zeus to Dardanus, the founder of Troy, to ensure the city's protection. According to Virgil it was stolen by Diomedes and Odysseus, as a result of which the city was burned down.

The London theatre called the Palladium seems to have been so named as the result of a misunderstanding: perhaps it was thought that the Palladium was not a statue but a type of theatre or circus like the Colosseum (which word may have confused the issue). The Colosseum, of course, was not even in Greece, but was the great amphitheatre at Rome, and far from mythological.


Pan was the god of pastures, famous for his pipes. He was the son of Hermes and Penelope (or Dryope), and his name has popularly long been regarded as meaning 'all' (pan). But all what, or all of what? Some writers have maintained that Penelope became the mother of Pan in the absence of Odysseus in the Trojan War, and that he was thus the offspring of all the suitors.

Others say that he was so named since all the gods were pleased at his birth. Others again declare that he was a symbol of the universe, that is, of all. And a fourth group hold that his name embodies all sexual possibilities, since love conquered him and love conquers all, whoever they are.

There is even a school that sees his anatomy as representing all aspects of nature, so that his horns are the sun and moon, for example, and his face the sky! But the truth is probably that in spite of the resemblance to the Greek for 'all' his name actually derives from the root pa- found in feeding and pasturing words such as Greek pateomai, 'to feed on', 'eat', Latin pasco, 'to feed', 'pasture', Latin panis, 'bread' and English 'pasture' itself (to which is even related 'feed').

He was thus 'Pan the Pasturer', 'Pan the Feeder'. Pan's name is also seen in the English 'panic': he may have been an apparently peaceful pastoral god but he had a nasty habit of suddenly startling unwary travellers, who therefore became panicky when they knew he was around.


Panacea was a daughter of Asclepius (as one might expect, with a name like that), her sisters being Iaso, Aegle and Hygea, among others. Her name means what English 'panacea' means, in other words 'all healer' (pas, neuter pan, 'all' and acos, 'cure', 'relief').


Pancratis was the daughter of Alöeus and Iphimedea. She and her mother were abducted by Thracian pirates to Naxos, where two of the pirate leaders killed each other in a duel over her. Her name means 'all strength', from pas (pan), 'all' and cratos, 'strength', 'might'. This was no doubt intended generally as a propitious name, but she was actually the winner of the trial of strength between the two men.


Pandareüs was a king of Miletus whose daughters (after his death) were carried off by the Harpies and turned over to the Furies. (One of the daughters was Aedon, who was changed into a nightingale.) Pandareüs' name appears to mean 'all-flayer', from pas (pan), 'all' and dero, 'to flay'. This is a 'strength-giving' name.


Pandarus was a son of king Lycaon of Zeleia in Lycia, and an ally of the Trojans. He disguised himself as Laodocus, a son of Antenor. Although not the same person as Pandareüs, his name has the same meaning - 'he who flays all'.

He rather mysteriously features in later tales as the go between acting on behalf of Troilus and Cressida, and became particularly prominent in this role in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, where he says of the two lovers: 'If ever you prove false to one another, since I have taken such pains to bring you together, let all pitiful goers-between be called to the world's end after my name; call them all Pandars; let all constant men be Troiluses, all false women Cressids, and all brokers-between Pandars!'

From this the word 'pander' (which should really be 'pandar'), in the sense 'procurer', gained a firm place in the English language. (Its sense today has toned down considerably, so that as a verb it means little more than 'yield to', 'humour', as in 'pandering to the demands of a spoilt child'.)


Pandia was a daughter of Zeus and Selene. Her name, which reflects the attributes of her parents, means 'all-divine': pan, 'all', dia, 'godlike' (the feminine of dios, see Pandion).


Pandion was a son of Erichthonius and the Naiad Praxithea. He married his aunt Zeuxippe and she bore him Erechtheus and Butes as sons and Procne and Philomela as daughters. His name means 'all-divine', 'all-marvellous', from pan, 'all' and dios, 'godlike'.

Thomas Keightley poetically suggests that this could be a reference to the sun in the spring when the swallow and nightingale (Procne and Philomela) appear. Another Pandion was the son of Cecrops and Metiadusa. He was the great-grandson of the first Pandion mentioned here.


Pandora was the first woman, made by Hephaestus and taken by Hermes to Epimetheus, who made the mistake of accepting her as his bride. Pandora brought with her a jar or casket (the famous 'Pandora's box') filled with all sorts of evils which she released, keeping only hope inside. Her name means thus 'all gifts' or 'all-giving', from pan, 'all' and down, 'gift'.

This can be interpreted in different ways: either she received a number of wicked traits from all the gods, or her 'box' contained not all evils but all good gifts for mankind (as some see it), or her casket contained all evils - although these are hardly gifts in the accepted sense.

Of course, it could also be said that since she was the archetypal woman, and therefore endowed with perfect feminine attributes, the gods gave her all gifts, that is, good characteristics, not evil ones. Certainly Milton saw her name thus. In his Paradise Lost he compares Eve to her, saying she is
More lovely than Pandora, whom the gods
Endowed with all their gifts.
Allusively, too, her 'all-giving' could refer to the earth, from which she was made. There are in fact a number of parallels between Pandora and Eve (both, for a start, introduced evil into the world).

There was also another Pandora. She was the daughter of Deucalion and the mother of Graecus by Zeus. Graecus was said to have been the ancestor of the Greeks. Pandora's name has found a small but steady demand as a rather chic modern girl's name.


Pandorus was the son of Erechtheus and Praxithea. His name, like Pandora's, means 'all-giving', in his case simply a propitious name.


Pandrosus was the daughter of Cecrops and Aglaurus. Her name means 'all-dewy' {pan, 'all' and drosos, 'dew').


Panopeus was the son of Phocus and the father of Aegle and Epeius. His name, presumably a 'powerful' one, means 'all-seeing', from pan, 'all' and ops, opos, 'eye'.


Panthoüs was the son of Othrys and father of Polydamas, Euphorbus and Hyperenor. He was also a priest of Apollo. His name means 'all-impetuous', from pan, 'all' and thouros, 'leaping', 'rushing', 'impetuous', 'eager'. This would be a favourable name rather than an unfavourable one.


Paris was a son of Priam, king of Troy, and Hecabe. His name is, of course, nothing to do with the French capital. It actually means 'wallet' (perd). As a baby, Paris had been abandoned or 'exposed' on Mount Ida.

The shepherd Agelaüs, when checking to see if the child had died, found that it had been suckled by a she-bear. He therefore decided to take it to his farm, and he did so, carrying the baby there in a leather bag or wallet (in the original sense of the word).


Parnasus was the son of Poseidon who invented the art of augury. He is said to have given his name to Mount Parnassus (whose name is really probably pre-Greek). His name may perhaps mean 'scatterer' (of enemies), from palyno, 'to scatter'.


Parthenopaeüs was the son of Melanion and Atalanta (although his father could also have been Meleager, Ares or Talaüs). His name means 'virgin son', either for Atalanta's long-lasting virginity, or because she abandoned him on Mount Parthenium, or because she abandoned him to conceal the fact that she had lost her virginity. The elements of the name are parthenon, 'maid', 'virgin' and pais, 'child', 'son'.


Parthenope was the daughter of Stymphalus who bore a son, Everes, to Heracles. There was also a Siren of this name, which means, in a generally agreeable way, 'maiden face', from parthenos, 'maid', 'virgin' and ops, 'face'.


Pasiphaë married Minos and bore him many children. She succumbed, however, to her passion for a bull, and thanks to the ingenuity of Daedalus, who made her a hollow wooden cow, satisfied her desire and subsequently gave birth to the Minotaur. She herself was the daughter of Helios and Perse.

Her name means 'all-shining', from pas, 'all' and phaeno, 'to shine'. 'She who shines for all' is a fine name, whether actually or propitiously, and it ties in well with the name of her father and her mother (perhaps) and her daughter Phaedra. See also Phoenix.


Passalus was one of the Cercopes (with his twin brother Acmon), both being the sons of Oceanus and Theia. His name clearly seems to mean 'peg' or else 'gag' (passalos). We know that Heracles tied both the dwarfish creatures to a pole and carried them off, head down, over his shoulder, and this could be the 'peg' reference, since passalos itself is based on the verb pegnymi meaning 'to fix in', 'to be fixed', 'to be impaled'.

The 'gag' alternative seems harder to justify: Heracles certainly did not succeed in gagging the Cercopes, since even when suspended from his pole they made ribald jokes about his hairy posterior.


Patroclus was the son of Menoetius, king of the Locrians, and Sthenele, and a close friend of Achilles. His name means 'glory of the father', from pater, 'father' and cleos, 'fame', 'glory'. This is obviously a propitious name, although Robert Graves regards it as 'inappropriately patriarchal' and suggests that his actual name may have been Phoenix.


Pedasus was one of Achilles' horses (together with Balius and Xanthus). His name, a nice one for a horse, means 'bounder', from pedao, 'to spring', 'bound', 'leap'. He must not be confused with Pegasus.


Pedias was the wife of Cranaiis, the third mythological king of Athens. Her name means 'plain' (in the sense 'level tract of country'), and his means 'rocky' - a good basic blend for the royal couple.


Pegasus was the famous winged horse who sprang from the blood that flowed from Medusa's neck when Perseus killed her: Medusa was pregnant by Poseidon at the time, so Pegasus had Poseidon as its father.

The popular origin of the name is pege, 'spring of water', and the origins of at least two springs in Greece were attributed to a stamp on the ground of the horse's hoof, the most famous being the Hippocrene or 'horse spring' (hippos, 'horse' and crem, 'well', 'spring') on Mount Helicon. Hesiod, in his Theogony, gives the other well-known 'spring' connection when he says that Pegasus was 'so named from the pegai, the springs of the Ocean' (i.e. Oceanus).

On the other hand the horse's name may be derived in some sense from pegnymi, 'to make firm', 'fix', 'build', this possibly referring to the construction of a ship, in view of the name of his 'father'. Philologists point out, however, that the -asos ending of the name (Pegasos) shows that the real origin is pre-Greek.


Pelagon was a king of Phocis who had rich herds of cows. One of these led Cadmus to the place where he was to found a city. This was Cadmeia, later to become Thebes in Boeotia (significantly 'Cowland', from bous, 'cow').

Pelagon's name immediately suggests 'sea' (pelagos), but it has also been understood as pelogonos, meaning 'born from clay' (pelos, 'clay', 'mud' and gone, 'offspring'). Both these are possibilities for one who lived in a 'sea' region (Phocis bordered the Gulf of Corinth to the west of Boeotia) and who was originally a 'bumpkin' herdsman, as Pelagon was before he became king.


Pelasgus gave his name to the Pelasgians, the aboriginal inhabitants of Greece. According to Aeschylus he was a king of Argos, possibly a son of Zeus and Niobe. His name is usually related to either palaios, 'ancient' or pelagos, 'sea'.

Pelasgus would have been 'ancient' as the ancestor of the people who inhabited Greece before the Greeks; almost any Greek (or Pelasgian) could have regarded himself as someone whose life and destiny was never too far removed from the 'sea'.


Peleus was the son of Aeacus, king of Aegina, and Endeïs, and rather more importantly he was the father of Achilles. His name obviously suggests pelos, which means 'clay' (compare Pelagon).

One story says that he had been covered in sepia-ink by Thetis, who had turned into a huge cuttle-fish when trying to escape his advances. In this state he would have been decidedly 'clayey' or 'muddy'. He was also the son of Endeïs, whose name (which see) could mean 'entangler', this being a synonym for a cuttle-fish.

However, another explanation maintains that he was simply a 'man of Pelion', and it is true that his main adventures are centred round this mountain. Modern linguistic researches, on the other hand, suggest that his name may have originally been something like 'Teleus', and that thus he is 'from afar'. Compare Telemachus.


Pelias was the twin son, with Neleus, of Poseidon and Tyro. A story told by Apollodorus describes how as a baby he had been suckled by a horse that had trodden on his face and bruised it.

This explains his name, from pelios, 'discoloured by a bruise', 'livid'. (Other accounts say a mare kicked him, but the result was the same.) For a name of similar origin, see Pelops.


Pelopia was a daughter of Thyestes and the mother by him of Aegisthus. Her name seems to mean 'dusky face', from pelos, 'dark-coloured', 'dusky' and ops, 'face'. This could be descriptive rather than propitious. In any event it exactly echoes the name of her grandfather, Pelops.


Pelops was the son of the Lydian king Tantalus and Dione (or one of the Pleiades). The obvious interpretation of his name is the same as that of his grand-daughter (see Pelopia) - 'dark face'. Pelops is said to have emigrated from Lydia and to have given his name to the Péloponnèse ('Pelops' Island'), the large southern peninsula (not actually an island) of Greece.

Pelops had won a chariot race against Oenomaüs and as his prize was given Oenomaüs' daughter, Hippodamia, and this peninsula. There is no reason why Pelops, southerner or not, should not have been dark-faced, dark-eyed or dark-haired - or even all three.


Pelorus was one of the Sown Men of Thebes. His name (peloros) means 'monstrous', 'huge', 'giant', 'terrible'. This may be more a 'belligerent' name than a descriptive one.


Pemphredo was one of the Graiae. Her name means 'wasp' (pemphredon) which is a suitably unpleasant name for a spiteful and sinister old hag.


Penates were the Roman gods of the storeroom. In early Roman times the storeroom or pantry (penus) was at the centre of the house, and the Penates protected it. Their name thus comes from the word for 'pantry' which in turn is connected with the word for 'inside', penes (compare English 'penetrate').


Peneius was the god of the river Peneius in northern Thessaly, and the son of Oceanus and Tethys. The nymph Creüsa bore him Hypseus and three daughters: Cyrene, Daphne and Stilbe. His name comes from pene, 'thread', this referring to the windings or meanderings of the river.


Peneleüs was a Theban leader in the Trojan War. He was the son of Hipalcimus and Asterope, of whom nothing else is known. His name is difficult to interpret in terms of Greek words: the elements of his name appear to be pene, 'thread' (as for Peneius) and leos, 'people'.

But it is not so easy to string these together and get a good sense. Perhaps the 'thread of people' were those on board the contingent of fifty ships that Peneleüs and Leïtus led to the Trojan War? Robert Graves sees the name as 'baneful lion' [penthos, 'sad' and leon, 'lion'), which sounds more like a cartoon character than a mythological hero.


Penelope, the famous and faithful wife of Odysseus, has a name that is still popular today. There are some agreeable stories to account for her name. One of the best known, and perhaps the most poignant, tells how Nauplius spread a false rumour that Odysseus had been killed in the Trojan War.

Penelope, hearing this, tried to drown herself in the sea but was saved by some ducks. Her name therefore is a memorial to her rescuers, for penelops is a kind of duck. These birds sustained her and fed her - and she them. Another account derives her name from her weaving.

For three years Penelope pretended to weave a shroud for her father in-law, Laertes, in order to keep her importunate suitors at bay. (She unravelled it at night, however, to spin out the work as long as possible. When the suitors discovered she was doing this, they forced her to finish it.) This explanation therefore sees her name as coming from pene, 'thread' (compare Peneius).

Yet another origin has been offered in connection with her weaving, seeing her name as 'toiler', from penomai, 'to work', 'toil'. To what extent the duck and thread stories link up with totem birds and net clothes worn in orgies is not clear.

Ducks were believed to have been regarded as protecting, kindly birds, and pictures of them have been found on old Greek vases, where they may represent benevolent goddesses. It may be no coincidence that in one story about Penelope she mated with Hermes and bore him Pan, whose name resembles her own.

Perhaps her name was originally more like 'Panelopa', with altogether a different meaning? Another noteworthy fact is that although the modern Penelope (or Penny) owes her name to her, the Christian name itself was first used only in the sixteenth century.

This may well have been due to William Camden's inclusion of it in his Remains Concerning Britain, published in its original form (in Latin, with the title Britannia) in 1586. Penelope acquired her name, he writes, 'for that she carefully loved and fed those birds with purpure necks, called Penelopes'.


Penthesilea was the legendary queen of the Amazons killed by Achilles, who did not triumph, however, but grieved over her. She was the daughter of Ares and the Amazon queen Otrere. The latter element of her name is not certain, but the first indeed suggests penthos, 'grief, 'sorrow'. Compare Pentheus.


Pentheus was the second (or possibly third) king of Thebes. He was the son of Echion and Cadmus' daughter, Agave. He came to a fearful end. He was spotted hiding in a tree by Agave and her sisters, where he was trying to spy on the women in their bacchic (or dionysiac) revels.

In their madness, the women assumed he was a wild beast, so pulled him down and tore him to pieces. This was the revenge of Dionysus on Pentheus, who had refused to honour Dionysus and had attempted to ban such revels. Since he was doomed to this fate at the hands of Dionysus, Pentheus can thus be regarded as a 'man of woe' and his name interpreted as 'grief (penthos).


Penthilus was the illegitimate son of Orestes and Erigone, and he was the father of Echelas and Damasias. His name seems to mean 'assuager of grief, from penthos, 'grief and leios, 'smooth', 'gentle'. It is not clear if this interpretation has a specific reference.