Thursday, April 26, 2007

Thoughts on the Echidna

I've been back at school for almost a week after a relaxing holiday on the north coast of NSW. One of the highlights of my trip was camping at Yuraygir National Park, where we saw lots of native wildlife, including some incredible native birds, kangaroos, and an echidna, which is rare enough to be remarkable.

It got me thinking about how the echidna got its name. This used to puzzle me back in high school, when I first learned that 'echidna' was the Greek word for snake. I don't know if you've ever seen an echidna, but they don't look much like snakes. Perhaps (I thought) by some bizarre coincidence the Aboriginal word for echidna was the same as the Greek word for snake? That didn't sound very likely. Perhaps they were named by a particularly short-sighted colonist, whose mistake had been perpetuated through the ages? Again, not particularly plausible.

After months, perhaps even years, of bewilderment all my worries were put to rest when I came across the mythical beast called (you guessed it) Echidna. Echidna was half woman, half snake, sometimes depicted with two tails, sometimes with wings, and the mother of pretty much every important monster in Greek mythology, including Cerberus, the Chimera, the Sphinx, the Nemean lion and Scylla. She is sometimes said to have been the daughter of Tartarus (ie the Greek version of hell), sometimes of the river Styx. This is how the Greek writer Hesiod describes her:

"half a nymph with glancing eyes and fair cheeks, and half again a huge snake, great and awful, with speckled skin, eating raw flesh beneath the secret parts of the holy earth."

So how did a cute but spiky, Australian mammal come to be named after a hideous, raw-flesh-eating, half-snake woman? Well, I'm still not quite sure, but I guess some colonist, seeing an echidna for the first time thought that it looked like some kind of monster (what with the spines and everything) spawned from the underworld, and named it accordingly.

Now if only I could work out how the possum got its name...


Mike Salter said...

I grew up in a house where there was an incredibly determined possum always trying to steal our dinner when we ate outside in the summer. Certainly an appropriate name for that one ("I can get that steak, I can steal that chicken cacciatore, I know I can...")

Mathea said...

Good old Wikipedia says... "The name derives from their resemblance to the opossums of the Americas" - perhpas too simplistic an answer to be believed/liked?

Anonymous said...

I wonder about the possum thing every time I think about the animal or the Latin word. Every time! I sure would like to know what the deal is so my brain can stop wondering about it so often.

PS: Tomorrow I am going to do SO MUCH LATIN. Today I am doing everything else. But tomorrow my desk will be LATIN CENTRAL. Woohoo!