statue of Ovid in Constanţa (ancient Tomis, the city where he was exiled), Romania – 1887, by the Italian sculptor Ettore Ferrari – photograph: Wikimedia Commons/Kurt Wichmann
The noun myrmidon denotes a follower or subordinate of a powerful person, typically one who is unscrupulous or carries out orders unquestioningly.
This word first appeared in the plural forms Mirmydanes and Murmindones in The Laud Troy book, a poem about the siege of Troy composed around 1400.
It is from the classical Latin plural Myrmidones, from the ancient Greek plural Μυρμιδόνες (= Murmidones), which, in the Iliad, an epic attributed to Homer, designated the Myrmidons, a warlike people of Phthiotis, in Thessaly, about Phthia and Larissa Cremaste, under the sway of Achilles, who led them to the siege of Troy.
In The Historie of Troylus and Cresseida (1602?), the English poet and playwright William Shakespeare (1564-1616) used the word in its etymological sense but also in its current sense of henchman:
(Act 5, scene 7 – Quarto 1, 1609)
Enter Achilles with Myrmidons.
Come here about me you my Myrmidons,
Marke what I say, attend me where I wheele:
Strike not a stroke, but keepe yourselues in breth,
And when I haue the bloudy Hector found:
Empale him with your weapons round about,
In fellest manner execut your armes
Follow me sirs and my proceedings eye,
It is decreed Hector the great must die.
In French, myrmidon, also mirmidon, means pipsqueak. This sense is an allusion to the playful etymon of myrmidon, the ancient Greek μύρμηξ/μυρμηκ- (= murmex/murmek-), ant. In the Metamorphoses, an epic which retells Greek and Roman myths, the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC-circa 17 AD) makes Aeacus, king of Aegina, explains to Cephalus, an Athenian prince, that his land recently suffered a catastrophic plague, and that he asked Jupiter either to take away his life or to restore his people:
(translation: Anthony S. Kline)
‘There happened to be an oak-tree nearby, with open spreading branches, seeded from Dodona, and sacred to Jove. I noticed a long train of food-gathering ants, carrying vast loads in their tiny mouths, and forging their own way over its corrugated bark. Admiring their numbers, I said “Best of fathers, give me as many citizens as this and fill the city’s empty walls.” [...] Night fell, and sleep claimed my care-worn body.
‘The same oak-tree was there before my eyes, with the same branches, and the same insects on its branches, and it shook with a similar motion, and seemed to scatter its column of grain-bearers onto the ground below. Suddenly they seemed to grow larger and larger, and raise themselves from the soil, and stand erect, they lost their leanness, many feet, and their black coloration, and their limbs took on human form. Sleep vanished. Awake again, I dismissed my dream, bemoaning the lack of help from the gods. But there was a great murmuring in the palace, and I thought I heard human voices, those I was now unaccustomed to. While I suspected that it was an effect of sleep, Telamon came running and throwing open the door, shouted “Father, come out and see, something greater than you could hope or believe. Come now!”
‘I went, and saw such men as I had seen in sleep’s imagining, in ranks such as I recognised and knew. They approached and saluted me as king. I fulfilled my prayer to Jove, and divided the city amongst this new people, along with the lost farmers’ empty fields. I called them Myrmidons, a name that did not belie each one’s origin as an ant, μύρμηξ. You have seen their bodies: they still retain the habits they had before, a thrifty, hard-working people, tenacious of achievement, and keeping what they achieve. These men, fresh in years and spirit, will follow you to war.’
From the Greek μύρμηξ/μυρμηκ-, myrmeco- is used to form scientific terms relating to ants; for example, myrmecology is the scientific study of ants. English also has the rare adjective myrmidonian, meaning of, or relating to, the Myrmidons of the Iliad, and, often with humorous or mock-pompous allusion to the Myrmidons, of, or relating to, ants. For instance, in her 1960 translation of Zazie dans le métro (1959) by the French author Raymond Queneau (1903-76), Barbara Wright wrote:
Like unto the coleopter attacked by a myrmidonian column, like unto the ox assailed by a hirudinal* shoal, Gabriel shook himself, squirmed and squiggled.
Tel le coléoptère attaqué par une colonne myrmidonne, tel le bœuf assailli par un banc hirudinaire, Gabriel se secouait, s’ébrouait, s’ébattait.
(* hirudinal: of, or relating to, a leech)
The Greek μύρμηξ/μυρμηκ- is probably cognate with classical Latin formica, ant (cf. formic acid, an acid present in the fluid emitted by some ants).