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Posts Tagged ‘Agatha’

First of all, apologies to anyone who happened by yesterday when my blog was temporarily “suspended/archived.”  Thankfully it was a system error, and the nice people at WordPress sorted it out very quickly — though I did have a litter or two of kittens in panic in the meantime!

A couple of weeks ago, I included Agatha in my list of “Grannies” worthy of resurrection, and the eve of the feast day of the saint of the name seemed a good day to feature her properly.

For it was Saint Agatha whose popularity in Britain in the Middle Ages made Agatha a common name in medieval times.

Hers is a particularly gruesome tale, even by the usual standards of hagiography.

For refusing to succumb to the advances of the (naturally) Pagan Roman prefect of Sicily, Agatha was tortured — which included cutting off her breasts — and executed.

These scenes have been popular in art across the centuries, with Agatha usually portrayed carrying her breasts on a tray as though they were macaroons (inspiration, perhaps for the minni di virgini cakes, which are a speciality of St Agatha’s day in Sicily).

However, contemporary evidence for her existence is non-existent, and the first references to her date from the sixth century.

All the rest is pure legend and folklore.

So who really was Agatha?

Agatha is a straight-forward name to interpret. It is simply the feminine form of the Greek agathos “good.” Hence Agatha, at its most literal, means “the good (female) one,” in her case, it could be “good woman,” “good lady” — or  “good goddess.”

And, as fate has it, there was a Roman Goddess called exactly that, word for word in Latin — Bona Dea, “the Good Goddess.”

The Bona Dea is quite a mysterious deity. what we do know is that she was a goddess strongly linked with women, and her festival was celebrated only by women (and only well-born ones at that).

Ancient writers interpreted Bona Dea as a title or epithet, concealing her real identity, which was believed to be a closely guarded secret kept by those admitted to her mysteries.

This didn’t stop the writers speculating that her real identity was the fertility Goddess Ops (“plenty”), Magna Mater (the “Great Mother”) and/or Ceres, and she was also identified with Juno and Isis.

Intriguingly, there are many vestiges of the worship of Isis in the festivals of St. Agatha on Sicily, where the cult of Isis was strong in ancient times. These include the greeting of the cult statue and its procession on a carriage and an enormous party.

A further interesting “coincidence” is that these festivities begin on February 2nd—with one of her areas of patronage being protection against fire, linking her to Brigid, who is also sometimes equated with Isis, and whose feast day is suspiciously close.

On Sicily, this connection with fire is particularly linked to Sicily’s volcano, Etna; Agatha’s veil has supposedly protected the island from the volcano on more than one occasion.

Agatha, like Isis, is also closely connected with cats; in France, Agatha is said to appear in the guise of an angry cat to women who work on her feast day, and in Languedoc she even used to be referred to as “Santo Gatto.”

In the Middle Ages, Agatha was very much the “Sunday best” form of the name, used in Latin documents. Like many — if not most — names, the vernacular forms were simpler.

In Agatha’s case, they were forms such as Agas, Agase and Agace, and Agacia was commonly found in Latin documents rather than Agatha.

Two significant medieval bearers were Agatha, the mother of Edgar Atheling, and Agatha of Normandy, a daughter of King William the Conqueror. The name is also ascribed to the mother of the famous fifteenth century “Mother Shipton” — Ursula Southill.

After the Reformation, Agatha plunged out of fashion, becoming unusual until the Victorians with their love of all things medieval plunked it from the history books.

Even then, however, it never became particularly common, while many an Agatha naturally became an Aggie.

The best-known real-life bearer of modern times is the British writer and archaeologist Agatha Christie (1890-1976). I’ve loved Agatha Christie’s books since childhood, and feel an additional bond because my Director of Studies at College, who excavated with Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan in the 1950s. It was rather thrilling to hear about her from someone who knew her personally.

In fiction, there’s more than one witch of the name, such as Agatha Harkness, a witch in the world of Marvel Comics, and Agatha Cackle, the villain of Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch.

But probably the most famous literary Agatha has to be the formidable Aunt Agatha of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories.

Until recently, this battleaxe image has rendered Agatha virtually unusable. But things are changing, and little Agathas are starting to make appearances.

In Britain, the name’s prospects may have improved due to the children’s TV show Guardians of the Museum, which is hosted by a pretty 1930’s ghost called Agatha. Certainly, my Small Child associates the name with this character, and thinks it’s a fabulous name.

So even if the current generation of parents can’t appreciate Agatha’s qualities, the next is distinctly hopeful!

Happy St. Agatha’s!

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Over the course of today and or/tomorrow, most Pagans in the Northern Hemisphere will be celebrated Imbolc (down under, it’s time for Lughnasadh).

Both Imbolc and Lughnasadh are what are often dubbed “Celtic fire festivals.”

Both names are Irish, and are the names by which the festivals were known in the early medieval period, but it is thought that the fire festivals were celibrated across the Celtic world.

The other two are Samhain and Beltane, and they all fall midway between a Solstice and an Equinox — hence their other generic name “cross-quarter days.”

Imbolc — also called Imbolg, and correctly pronounced “i-molk” — marks the transition between the deepest, darkest days of winter and the Spring Equinox.

It seems to derive from the Old Irish for “in the belly,” although a medieval glossary said it meant “ewe’s milk.” Either way, its association with the burgeoning new life of spring is clear.

It’s still cold. It’s still dark, but signs of spring are increasingly everywhere, from the trembling, delicate snowdrops, to the shivering catkins on the hazel and the buds on the blossom trees.

It is the time of the Maiden.

Not surprising that the saints most strongly associated with early February are Bridget and Agatha, Bridget — often now called by the Irish form of her name, Brigid — on the first, Agatha on the fifth.

It is Brigid who has become most associated now with Imbolc — though not the saint. The Goddess who lies behind her. The great Irish Brigid, so beloved in Ireland in pre-Christian times that instead of trying to eradicate her worship, the Christians turned her into a sixth-century saint.

She is equally revered among many modern Pagans, especially Wiccans and Druids.

Many Christians — particularly Catholics — still contend  that the saint just happened to share the same name as Pagan Ireland’s favorite Goddess, that she just happened to found her monastery on the site of Bridget’s cult center in Kildare, and just happened to have a thing for fire, etc.

Similarly, the widespread nature of St. Bridget’s cult in England and Wales is often ascribed to the spread of the cult from Ireland when — although the form “Bridget” is Irish — her worship in the British Isles is probably much older; Bridget and the famous Brythonic Goddess Brigantia are almost
certainly the same deity.

The form Bridget developed from Brigitta, a Latinized form of the Medieval Irish Brigit and Brigid. It derives ultimately from the Common Celtic *brig-/brigant- “high,” or *briga- “might” and “power” combined with the Irish fem. suffix –ait. This has become Brighid in Modern Irish Gaelic. The variants Bríd and Bríde are also used.

In England and Wales, Bride and Bryde  were also commonly used in the Middle Ages, surviving in place names such as Bridewell.

Bridie — an Anglicized form of Bríde — is not uncommonly heard in Pagan circles too.

Bridget is found as a given name in England from the fourteenth century. In Ireland it wasn’t actually used until the seventeenth; it was considered
too sacred for everyday use in previous centuries (so much for the saint just happening to share the Goddess’s name!).

In the nineteenth century, the pet-form Biddy was so common in Ireland that it became a nickname for an Irishwoman (in the same way Paddy was used for an Irishman). It has lost this meaning now, but “old biddy” is still used in Britain as a mild slang term for an old woman.

Many wonderful old traditions surround Imbolc and St Bridget’s. One of it’s other names — Candlemas — comes from the tradition of making and blessing candles at St Bridget’s; the connection between candles and Brigid’s fires is obvious.

In Ireland, the tradition of making a Brigid’s Bed has survived until modern time in some parts; women and girls make a corn dolly, and a bed for her to lie on beside the fire. They then keep a vigil on the the eve of St Bridget’s, and the men visit to pay Bridget their respect.

In the morning, the dolly is sometimes taken round the village from door-to-door, a bit like a guy on Bonfire Night in England.

Due to the believe that Brigid goes abroad on Imbolc eve, clothes are sometimes placed outdoors for her to bless as she passes.

Candles are often placed in all the windows to welcome her.

But probably best-known is the Brigid Cross, with it’s four spokes, it almost certainly is a vestige of the Pagan Celtic sun-wheel. Generally woven from straw or rushes, they are placed in the chimney as a protection against fire. Although the general tradition was that they were renewed each year, with the old burnt on Imbolc fire, old ones are not uncommonly found forgotten up the chimneys of old Irish houses.

A bright and blessed Imbolc, one and all!

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There are distint signs now that the pace is gathering in the rehabilitation of names long consigned to granny (or rather great-granny status, as most grannies nowadays are called things like Carol and Susan, and true “granny names” are at least a generation further back).

The trend’s roots actually go back to the seventies and eighties, when the first batch of “Victorian” names started to come back into use. Principal among them have been Emily, Emma, Isabella and Olivia, on both sides of the Atlantic.

In Britain, too, this was the era when names which are only now really capturing the hearts of Americans, such as Alice, Amelia, Beatrice/Beatrix, Charlotte, Matilda and Eleanor (with its pet-form Ellie actually more popular than Eleanor herself), also returned to bask in the sun of popularity.

These could be classed the great-great-granny names; the names borne by the women who went on to name their daughters Lily and Grace, Florence and Evelyn.

This generation began to make a come-back in the nineties.

Some like Lily and Grace are already now thoroughly acclimatized. Some, like Florence, Daisy, Poppy and Ruby, are already considered mainstream in the UK, and are so talked about in the US, it can only be a matter of not very much time before they’re top 100 there too. Others, like Edith, Olive and Maud, are regaining attention.

But there’s a whole Devon cream tea shop’s worth of other delicious and tempting options, and these are the ones I think deserve to be brought back down from the attic.

AgathaI deliberated quite some time about whether to include Agatha, as she’s never actually been very common at all. However, perhaps largely down to Aunt Agatha in the Jeeves stories, she has acquired a distinctly granny edge, and there certainly were more Agathas around in 1910 than 2010! She’s a name I’ll feature on her own some time, as, personally, I love her, and there’s so much to say about her, but I just couldn’t neglect her here, because of my life-long love of all things Agatha Christie…

Agnes — a staple not just of the Victorians and the early twentieth century, Agnes was one of the most popular girls’ names of the medieval and early modern period too. She was under a cloud in the eighteenth century, and again in the twentieth. She is so rich in history, mythology and allusions that she has a post of her own, scheduled for St Agnes’ Eve. But it would be a travesty to not give her a mention here, especially as celeb baby Agnes Lark might well have been the catalyst she needed to spark interest again.

Annie — actually truly belongs  to the great-great granny era, being most in decline since 1881 (when she was ranked 8th). The musical and film arrested her decline in the late seventies and early eighties, but unlike her siblings, she then went back into decline. Her fate may have changed, but at present she still seems to be dithering in the low 300s. Although treated as a pet-form of Ann/Anne, there’s no reason not to consider her a name in her own right, as she’s been used as such so long, and is actually a bit closer to the original Hebrew Hannah, sharing two syllables, rather than just the one.

Blanche — never all that common; like Annie, it hovered in the fifties in the late nineteenth century. Short, elegant, with a long and distinguished history back to medieval times, Blanche makes a worthy alternative to those one-syllable names which are now growing tired, like Claire, Brooke, and Paige.

Doris — in America, one of the darlings of the twenties. This pretty Greek name is definitely ready for revival.

Elsie — already back on the radar and rising, sweet Elsie — usually considered a Scottish short-form of Elizabeth — is also an English surname and essentially the modern form of the Old English Ælfsige “elf-victory.” It’s a must for revival in the UK, slipping comfortably into that established group of friends, Sophie, Evie, Maisie, Ellie, Millie, Katie, Gracie, and Rosie, etc…

Ethel — Ethel’s take up in Victorian times was as a short-form of the numerous girls’ names which featured it as a first element, particularly Etheldred/Etheldreda and Ethelinda. But it is essentially the modern English form of the Old English æthel “noble,” and its German cognate Athalia was used as a name in its own right in medieval times, becoming the English Adela and French Adele. As the name of Lily Allen’s new baby, there are indications are that people are starting to see Ethel — for so long almost the quintessential great-granny name — in a new light. After all, it does combine those softest and most romantic sounds: eth and el…

Freda — Use in the last couple of centuries originated, like Ethel, as a short form of longer names, particularly Winifred and Alfreda. However, also like Ethel, it stands up as a name in its own right, with frithu  meaning “peace” in Old English. Its Norse cognate is found as a name in medieval times: Friða. It survived in Scandinavia as Frida. The Germanic Frieda has also long been used as a variant. Freda is also found in the name of a lwa (divinity) of Haitian Voodoo —   Erzulie Fréda — though in her case, Fréda is probably West African in origin.

GertrudeMy grandmother had the unusual name of Gayther — but was almost universally known as Gertie, the usual nick-name of Gertrude. For a time it was also treated as the archetypal name of a student of my alma mater, Girton College, Cambridge (the shared initial “ger” sound, no doubt). It was also borne by another of my historic heroines, the archaeologist Gertrude Bell. With the strong meaning of “spear-strength,” Gertrude was hugely popular for a time in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and has a distinctly “no-nonsense” air about her. But she does shorten to the gentle Trudy, tom-boyish Gerry and contemporary Tru, as well as the as well that ever-cheerful Gertie…

Gladys — up there with Ethel, Gladys (Gwladys in the original Welsh) is another name that I think only needs a nudge for people to start to think, “why not?” Either the Welsh form of Claudia, or an elaboration of gwlad “country.” After all, there are a number of names ending in, or prominently featuring the “is” sound, such as Alexis, Alice, Allison, Genesis, Melissa, Marissa, Iris, Isis, Paris, Carys, and Cerys, etc. Nor is Gladys actually all that far away from Madison and Addison when you think about it…

Ida — Ida is another that was at her most popular in the late nineteenth century and is long overdue reconsideration; she’s already making steady progress in the UK, and since the very similar Ada is clearly on the up in the US, why not Ida too? Ida was found in Britain in medieval times, though in the Victorian period it was most associated with the nymph of the mountain which shared her name, who was said to have raised the infant Zeus. There’s a whole lot more to Ida, and I intend to feature her as a pick of the week, but she certainly deserves a mention here.

Irene — As the usual English form of the Greek Eirene “peace”, Irene is mostly pronounced with two-syllables, but three is not unknown. With two fresh dramatisations of the Sherlock Holmes takes around at the moment — the big screen Robert Downey, Jr version and the sparkling and clever British television one staring Benedict Cumberbatch — the character of Irene Adler will no doubt be working her magic on how people perceive Irene.

Mabel — The bells should be ringing loudly for Mabel. Roll it around the tongue — “May bell”. How pretty is that? Already rediscovered in certain British circles (ranking 386 in 2010), she vanished in America from the top 1000 in 1960 and has yet to resurface. Mabel originated in the Middle Ages as a shorter form of Amabel.

Mildred — I’ve always had a soft spot of the charming Mildred, an Old English gem meaning “mild/gentle counsel.” Featured as a Witch of the Week here.

Nellie — traditional pet-form of Eleanor, but also used of Helen and Ellen. For a long time Nellie fell under the cloud about the popular song, but it is breaking away now and with that popular “-ie” ending, and those letter “l”s, Nellie has a lot of personality.

Olga — one of my first ever name loves. One of the Russian names that came into fashion in the late nineteenth century, Olga is not actually Russian in origin at all; it is the Russian form of Scandinavian Helga “holy.” Olga was never particularly common, peaking in the US in 1916 in 130th spot.

Opal — a nineteenth century adoption of the name of the precious stone, which derives ultimately from the Sanskrit upala “stone.”  It peaked in the US in 81st place in 1911, and dwindled into obscurity by 1900. Believed by the ancients to be the tears of joy wept by Zeus following his victory over the Titans, in more recent centuries black opals in particular have gained an association with witches.

Pearl — at first used as a nickname — like Daisy — for girls called Margaret, Pearl was in independent use by the mid nineteenth century. It actually peaked by 1890, but remained in the top 100 until 1927. It is just starting to show signs of renewed interest, but there’s still a long way to go.

Phyllis — another pretty “-is” name which has been too long neglected now. It derives from Greek phullon “leaf” (with phullis itself meaning “salad.”).

Vera — Vera is another name of Russian origin, meaning “faith,” though it is identical to the Latin vera, the feminine form of verus “true,” which is the source of the vera of the wonderful Aloe vera. Another of my personal heroines is the British writer and pacificst Vera Brittain. Vera was never particularly common in the US, but has recently started to show signs that its fortunes are changing.

Next week, I’ll take a look at the Grandpas…

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For the last month, I have been in France — for much of that time, in Provence.

It is a region with a much deserved reputation for spectacular scenery and picturesque villages. In the region where we stayed, these clung as though by magic to impossibly steep hillsides gazing idly down dramatic gorges, draped in pines, evergreen oaks, olives and vines.

It is also an exceedingly historic region, always set a bit apart from the rest of France. Once, the people didn’t even spoke French, but Provençal, a dialect of Occitan — a language closer to Catalan than to French — although Provençal is sometimes used to refer to Occitan in general, and the langue d’Oc of medieval troubadours.

Unsurprisingly, it has a whole collection of names and variants of names unique to the region.

And it was in Provence that names like Isabella and Eleanor first arose.

During our stay, I kept my ears open, but was disappointed that, by and large, the names I encountered — particularly among the children — were little different to the rest of France. The fashion in France at present is for names of foreign origin, and the favored region for more unusual native monikers is Brittany.

But we did encounter some, especially among my own generation.

I love the fact so many Provençal girls names end in -o; it makes a refreshing change, and is very contemporary.

Here is a selection of my personal favorites. Some, like Zouè, are relatively recent — others, like Azalaïs, are medieval.

GIRLS:

  • AgatoAgatha
  • Aïs — diminutive of ANAÏS and/or ALAÏS
  • AlaïsAlice (features in Kate Mosse’s 2005 novel Labyrinth); ultimately from Adelaide
  • AlienorEleanor
  • Anaïs — in Provence, used as a form of Anne or Agnes — not actually found prior to the nineteenth century
  • Anetoun — a double diminutive form of Ano (Anne)
  • AzalaïsAdelaide (Alice)
  • Babeleto — diminutive of Eisabèu/Isabèu (Elizabeth/Isabella)
  • BergidoBirgitte
  • Bielo — diminutive of Gabrielo (Gabrielle)
  • BregidoBridget
  • CelinoCeline
  • Chantaloun — diminutive of French Chantal
  • Clareto, Claroun — diminutives of Claro
  • ClaroClare/Claire
  • CloutildouClotilda
  • Delaïdo — diminutive of Adelaïdo (Adelaide)
  • Eliso — diminutive of French Élisabeth (Elizabeth)
  • EstefanoStephanie
  • Fanfan — probably a diminutive of ESTEFANO. Made fairly well-known (at least in France) by the 1952 film Fanfan la tulipe (remade in 2003) — in which Fanfan is a man — and Alexandre Jardin’s 1985 novel Fanfan, filmed in 1993.
  • Fino — diminutive of Delfino (Delphine) and/or JÒUSEFINO
  • FlourFlora/Fleur
  • GlaudioClaudia
  • IoulandoYolande
  • Janetoun — double diminutive of Jano (Jane/Jeanne)
  • JòusefinoJosephine (the name of our villa’s housekeeper!)
  • Jóuselet — variant/diminutive of JÒUSEFINO
  • Laïdo — diminutive of DELAÏDO
  • Lali, Lalìo — diminutives of Eulalìo (Eulalia/Eulalie)
  • Laloun — diminutive of LALI
  • Lìo — diminutive of names ending in -lìo, such as Eulalìo (Eulalia/Eulalie), Natalìo (Natalie), Rosalìo (Rosalie)
  • Lisoun — diminutive of ELISO
  • Lodi, Loudi — diminutive of Eloudìo (Elodie)
  • Madaloun — diminutive of Madaleno (Madeline)
  • Magali, Magari — probably Magaret, but possibly a variant of Madaleno (Madeline — from the original Magdalene)
  • Maïoun — diminutive of Marìo (Mary/Marie)
  • Marioun — diminutive of Marìo (Mary/Marie)
  • MelioEmilia
  • Mirèio — coined by the poet Frederic Mistral for his poem Mirèio (1859). From the Occitan mirar “to admire.”
  • Naïs — diminutive of ANAÏS
  • Ninoun — pet-form of Catarino (Katherine)
  • Rieto — pet-form of Enrieto (Henrietta)
  • RosoRose
  • SoufioSophia/Sophie
  • SoulanjoSolange
  • Talìo — diminutive of Natalìo (Natalie)
  • Teldou, Tildeto — diminutives of names containing –tild– or –teld-, like CLOUTILDOU
  • VitòriVictoria
  • ValorìValeria/Valerie
  • Zeto, Zetou — diminutives of JÒUSEFINO
  • Zouè Zoe

BOYS:

  • Amiel – said to be the Provençal form of French Emile
  • AudouardEdward
  • BartoumiéuBartholomew
  • BerenguiéBerenger
  • Calendau — from the Latin kalends, used of the first day of a month and, in Provence, for Christmas Day.  The hero of Mistral’s poem Calendau (1867)
  • CharleCharles
  • Charloun — diminutive of CHARLE
  • Ciprianet — diminutive of Ciprian (Cyprian)
  • DàviDavid
  • Deri — diminutive of Frederi/Federi (Frederick)
  • Dovi — dimunituve of Ludovi (Ludovick/Louis)
  • Estève, EstièneStephen
  • GabrieùGabriel
  • Glaude, GlàudiClaude, Claudius
  • JaufretGeoffrey
  • Jaume James
  • JòrgiGeorge
  • LuLuke
  • Luquet — pet-form of LU
  • Maïus — curious name of uncertain origin. In use in Provence since at least the late nineteenth century. Possibly conceived as a masculine form of MAÏOUN.
  • MasMax
  • MiquèuMichael
  • OuliviéOliver
  • PascauPascal
  • PèirePeter/Pierre
  • Pierroun — diminutive of French Pierre
  • RafèuRaphael
  • RoubinRobin (yes, the English Robin — one of the foreign names embraced by the French in the twentieth century)
  • Savié — probably Xavier, but possibly Savior (best known as a name in the Spanish form Salvador)
  • SilvanSilvanus
  • SimounSimon
  • TeoudorTheodore
  • Titoù – Either Titus or a diminutive of Batit (Baptist)
  • Titoun — diminutive of TITOÙ
  • ToumasThomas
  • Ugue, UguesHugh
  • VincènVincent
  • VitourVictor
  • Zavié — variant of SAVIÉ
  • — diminutive of Joùseù (Joseph)

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