The Wonder-ful Nature of Greek God Names

Batman lurks like a bat in the shadows. Spider-Man slings webs like a radioactive spider. Superman is a literal translation of Friedrich Nietszche’s term ubermensch. And Wonder Woman is…well, what does Wonder Woman’s name tell us about her? A lot, it turns out. When William Moulton Marston created Wonder Woman in the early 1940s, he made her not just Diana, an Amazon princess, but also a goddess descended from Zeus. In doing this, Marston placed Wonder Woman smack-dab in the middle of a world of Greek gods and heroes whose names tell us fascinating things about their powers and personalities. They also show that whether we’re talking about today’s superheroes or the gods of yore, a well-chosen name can certainly help a character achieve lasting fame.

Wonder Woman’s real name, Diana, is no exception here. She’s named after the Roman goddess, Diana (whose Greek equivalent is Artemis.) Diana was known as a wild and free-spirited goddess who hung out in the mountains, woods, and meadows. A powerful hunter and skilled archer, she fought with the same mix of power and finesse as Wonder Woman. She was also known for being smart and fiercely independent; as Shakespeare has Romeo say of Rosalind:

“She’ll not be hit
With Cupid’s arrow. She hath Dian’s wit.”

That’s not to say Diana didn’t have a soft spot in her heart for some creatures. Ancient authors refer to her as potnia theron, Mistress of the Animals because, like Doctor Dolittle, she’s constantly surrounded by them. She is also the goddess of childbirth, and so like Diana in the new Wonder Woman movie, you can guess that she loved babies.

Another god who figures prominently in the 2017 movie Wonder Woman is Zeus (aka Liam Neeson in shimmering white robes, bellowing “Release the Kracken!” Yes, that one.) In the movie Wonder Woman, Diana tells Steve Trevor that Zeus created her out of clay in order to thwart the evil plans of the war god Ares. But Zeus’s most important power to ancient Greeks was his ability to make it rain (literally, not just in dollar bills). His full name was Zeus Pater, which means “Sky Father.” Zeus was thought to control the weather—you know, like Storm in the X-Men series. A popular song sung by children in the ancient world went, “Rain, rain, O dear Zeus, on the cornland of the Athenians and on the plains.” It was also a colloquial expression to say, “Zeus is raining,” whenever it started pouring. And when a weather god needs to lay down some whoop-ass on his foes, he of course busts out his trusty thunderbolts.

In both Greek myth and in the Wonder Woman movie, one of Zeus’s greatest enemies is the war god Ares. His name literally means “destroyer,” and comes from the Greek word are, meaning “bane, ruin, curse,” so he’s pretty much bad news personified. Part of what makes Ares so unlikeable is that he’s a bloodthirsty warmonger. Zeus tells Ares in the Iliad:

“You are the god of Olympus that I most hate, for you always love destruction and wars.”

On top of this, Ares is also a bad parent, forcing two kiddos to pull his chariot—Phobos and Deimos (whose names translate to Fear and Terror, which is why you probably won’t see them on any lists of Top Baby Names any time soon). It’s appropriate that Wonder Woman director Patty Jenkins casts Ares as a villain in the context of World War I, since Ares represents the untamed, savage side of warfare—which in World War I was represented by the brutal fighting in the trenches, machine guns, and mustard gas. One curious deviation Jenkins engages in is to have the Amazons, the race of warrior-women who raise young Diana, as Ares’ enemies; in Greek myth, they are his daughters.

Another Greek goddess who is similar to Wonder Woman and a common enemy of Ares is Athena. She is known as Pallas Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, where they built her this huge temple (still there) called the Parthenon. So we know what Athena means, but exactly what a “pallas” is remains kind of a mystery. One myth says that  Pallas is the name of a giant Athena slew during the mythical War of the Giants. Athena, the story goes, flayed Pallas and used his skin as a shield. Yikes. And like Wonder Woman, Athena has a very famous shield, her aegis, which she casts over those she is protecting like a force-field.  Today, it’s common in the business world to say such-and-such a project is under someone’s aegis, but how many businesspeople know that this is a metaphor for Athena’s shield?

Another example of the importance of a name in the Wonder Woman universe is her Lasso of Truth, known in the comics as either the Lasso of Aphrodite (the Greek goddess of love) or the Lasso of Hestia (goddess of family, hearth, and home). Wonder Woman creator William Marston thought of the lasso as a symbol of a woman’s charms (because when a woman wraps a man up in her lasso of love and familial comfort, he cannot tell a lie…or something). While Diana’s golden lasso would stick out in any time or place, lassos themselves were hardly a strange sight in the ancient world. The lasso (or lariat, as it is also called) was a tool of ancient cattle herders in many cultures, not just the cowboys (and your odd super-powered woman) who’ve made it iconic today. The Greek historian Herodotus even mentions a tribe in Iran, the Sagartians, who were famously skilled at using their lassos in war.

The name Wonder Woman itself also once had a different sort of meaning than it has today. In the stuffy Edwardian era that the 2017 Wonder Woman movie is set in, wonder-woman was one of those patronizing phrases men of that time used to describe an endearing (but not superpowered) woman. In the 1920s, a man might have said to his jolly lads that a woman is a real knock-out, a wonder-woman! without anyone thinking he was calling her a superhero. Ironically, the incredible success of William Marston’s Wonder Woman character has given the phrase a new meaning, so that today the name “Wonder Woman” means something much more spectacular than just being an ace of “womanly charms”.