Cultural Literacy Unit 2

Seniors — You have a quiz over this list on Monday, January 30th.


1.) Lazarus — a New Testament character who was risen from the dead by Christ. He is often alluded to as a symbol of rebirth and faith (in the book of John where his story appears, the miracle is attributed to Lazarus & his sisters’ faith in Christ).

2.) Morpheus — the god of dreams in Greek mythology; hence the phrase “in the arms of Morpheus” means “asleep”.  Familiar allusions are the character Morpheus in The Matrix movies, Neil Gaiman’s comic book series The Sandman, and Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. And yes, the drug morphine is named after him.

3.) Rip Van Winkle — Washington Irving wrote the famous short story in 1819, but the action of the story takes place around the time of the American Revolution. Rip Van Winkle, a hen-pecked older man, falls asleep under a tree and does not wake up until 20 years later. In this time he has grown a long beard, his dog has disappeared, his children have grown, and — most importantly — he is by default no longer a subject of the British king, but rather a citizen of a democracy. He is often alluded to to symbolize laziness, change, and/or oversleeping. The story has been adapted into countless movies and children’s books.,

4.) Sisyphus (pronounced sis uh fiss)– This story is a perfect example of why if you ever find yourself as a character in a Greek myth, you really do your best to avoid angering the gods. The basic plot is this: Sisyphus angered the gods, and they wished to torture him with the worst punishment imaginable. He was sentenced to spend the rest of his life attempting to roll a large boulder to the top of a hill. Day in and day out, he’d push the rock up the hill until he lost control of it and it rolled back to the bottom and he had to start over again. Lather, rinse, repeat. Sisyphus is oft alluded to to symbolize the seeming pointlessness of or lack of reward for some kinds of work. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are laboring constantly but to no avail, you are undertaking a Sisyphean task.

5.) Pygmalion (pronounced pig mail ee uhn)– As we discussed in class, Pygmalian = My Fair Lady = Pretty Woman. It was first a Greek Myth, then a play by George Bernard Shaw, then Broadway musical and several Hollywood films. The specifics change, but the story stays the same: a man of some means takes a woman of lesser privilege under his wing and transforms her into a classy lady. Yes, there is a great deal of gender and social commentary to be had on the topic, but for the purpose of this quiz you just need to know the storyline.

6.) Faust (or Faustus in some versions) — In a legend of German origin, Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to gain knowledge of magic — and let’s just say it doesn’t end well for our friend Faust. This is such an attractive story to the human mind that it has been retold and adapted over and over again, most notably in Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe’s novel Faust and Christopher Marlowe’s play The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus. Oh yes, and I mustn’t leave out the episode of The Simpsons where Homer tries unsuccessfully to sell his soul for half a doughnut. If ever you are tempted by a dark, devilish figure to gain something temporarily that will cause you to suffer in the end, you are making a Faustian bargain.

7.) Adonis — In Greek Mythology, Adonis was an almost excessively beautiful young man. Orphaned before birth (his mother was turned into a tree while pregnant with him… long story…), he was raised by Aphrodite (goddess of beauty) and Persephone (queen of the underworld). Both of these women were stunned by his beauty, and many contests for his sole affection ensued (especially once he was, shall we say, “of age”). He was killed by a boar, and roses grew where drops of his blood fell. This is likely an origin of why we associate red roses with love.

8.) Lolita — In present day, this name is invoked to indicate that a young girl is sexually precocious. This stems from 20th century author Vladimir Nabakov’s disturbing but beautifully written classic novel in which a middle-aged man named Humbert Humbert enters into a relationship with a 12 year old girl.

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