I am proud of having once got the excellent Philip Howard to give a lecture to an ARLT Summer School. He is a staunch, erudite and witty supporter of the Classics, and his piece on the downsizing of the Mars bar factory in Slough contains this fine survey of names from Greek and Roman mythology used in marketing today.
March 18, 2005
Heroes of myth live on at the sweet shop
By Philip Howard
The Mars bar is a classic confection, and that name, reflecting the god of war, the month of March and the red planet, exposes the deep roots of classical civilisation in the English psyche.
In astrological superstition, Mars is associated with combative, aggressive or masculine qualities. Mars is associated with the Greek marnamai, I fight, and the Latin mas, masculine, virility (hence our English “masculine”). The Sanskrit root means “striker”.
Educationists and politicians can try to chuck Latin out of the curriculum like a sweety wrapper, but it always comes back in unexpected places.
Classical names are popular with advertisers, even though they may not always get them right. Ajax, Atlas, Hercules, Jupiter and Vulcan are used to sell products they would not recognise. Only Mercury, the chameleon trickster, would recognise the god of war in a bar of toffee-chocolate. And he would, as often in the Babel of trade names, get it wrong.
In fact the popular bar is a family name. Forrest Mars was an American confectionery manufacturer. After a quarrel with his father, he came to Slough in the 1930s to set up his own company. The same man’s name lies behind the coloured chocolate buttons marketed as M&Ms, standing for “Mars and Mars”.
Celestial and classical association is strong in the company. Its other chocolate bars include Milky Way (formed when Hera, in a bate, tore her teat from the mouth of the baby Heracles, whom she was suckling). And Marathon. Somebody in the marketing department read classics.
Mars is in good company at the corner shop. Nike, as in the sports gear marked with a tick, was the goddess of victory. Ajax, the lavatory cleaner, must be, in part, a reference to the Greek hero of the Trojan War, who went round the bend when Achilles’ armour was awarded to Ulysses rather than to him. In his madness, Ajax was said to have slaughtered whole flocks of sheep in the Greek commissariat, mistaking them for Trojans: “Do you see me, the bold, the valiant, the one who was fearless in deadly war, and now formidable to tame and trusting beasts? What mockery! What shame!”
I hope that there is also an Elizabethan pun on A Jakes (a loo) in the trade name of the useful powder.
Flora was the ancient Italian nymph Chloris. She was loved by the West Wind, Zephyrus. At his kiss she was transformed into the goddess Flora, and breathed out flowers that spread over all the earth, just as the cold earth in spring is warmed by the gentle West Wind into blossoming. Botticelli depicts Ovid’s myth in his Primavera, with Chloris fading in Zephyrus’ grasp, and becoming the radiant, queenly Flora. Now she is transformed into the soft margarine Flora; margarine is the Greek for “made of pearl”, because of the pearly nature of the crystals or scales in margaric acid.
Ambrosia (tinned rice pudding) was the improbable food of Mars, Flora and the other gods and goddesses, who were more accustomed to barbecued beef entrails.
Marathon choc bars suggest staying power. I don’t believe it. Milo, the Nestlé milk drink, is named for the strong athlete who supported the roof of a collapsing building in which Pythagoras was teaching, enabling the proto-mathematician to escape.
Pan books are for the part-man part-goat god of shepherds and flocks. Cerebos salt looks from the Greek words as though it stands for a “bull of wax”. Better to take it for Ceres, the Greek goddess of agriculture (as in cereal), plus the Latin for ox (as in Bo-vril, ox-virility). Though the first half echoes cerebrum, brain, and the -os is Latin for bone. Cerebos salt was invented in 1894 by George Weddell, who wanted something to strengthen his young daughter’s teeth and bones. The advertising jingle went: “Ceres is Greek for the goddess of grain,/ Cerebrum stands for the best of the brain,/ Bos is an ox, and Os is the bone —/ A rare combination, as critics will own.”
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