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Today marks the start of the Roman Pagan feast of Saturnalia, celebrating the birthday of the God Saturn.

As Gods go, Saturn is quite neglected these days in the retelling of Classical Myths.

He usually gets dismissed as “the equivalent of the Greek Cronus” and that’s pretty much it.

The tale of Zeus and Cronus is quite well known: Cronus — who had castrated his own father, Uranus, with a sickle — swallowed all his children by Rhea as soon as they were born, for fear that one would overthrow him.

That was, until, Rhea contrived to smuggle the infant Zeus away.

He grew up on Mount Ida, suckled by a goat — and grew up to overthrow his father.

Most assume that’s all there is to Saturn too.

But it’s important to remember that while there are parallels between the Greek and Roman pantheon, and the Romans equated Saturn with Cronus, they do in fact have quite separate existences.

Cronus, with his sickle, was associated with the harvest, Saturn — the Roman God of agriculture — was associated more with sowing.

And to the Romans, Saturn, unlike Cronus, never became a shadowy figure in the background, even though the Roman passion for all things Greek meant that among the literatti, he did get his nose shoved out somewhat.

But it is clear that he still remained one of their most important deities, very much at the forefront of their religion.

They named one of the planets after him (the Greek name for the planet Saturn was Phainon “shining”).

In turn, the planet Saturn gave its name to a day of the week — the only day of the week, indeed, which in our calendar still bears his name: Saturday.

Saturn’s temple stood at the foot of the Capitoline. It was an important place, home to the state treasury, the Tables of Law and the records of decress by the Senate.

And the Saturnalia was probably the most popular festivals of the Roman calendar.

Originally, it lasted only a day, and it was  held in celebration of the sowing of the crops, which took place in Roman Italy in December.

From the 3rd Century BCE, though, it started to grow, lasting a week by the time of the Emperor Augustus.

It was a period characterised by revelry; the formal, cumbersome toga was put aside, and everyone wore the equivalent of party clothes instead.

Slaves got to be cheeky to masters, and to have their celebratory feast before — or with — their masters.

A “lord of misrule” was chosen, and everyone had to do what he said, no matter how ridiculous — indeed, the more ridiculous, the better.

And, most significantly for us today, as we dash madly round the shops trying to find something to buy Auntie Mabel for Christmas, we have the Saturnalia to thank for the tradition of giving gifts at this season.

The traditional gift of the Saturnalia were small terracotta dolls called sigilla, and other popular gifts were candles, fruit and nuts, but all kinds of gifts were given. Book 14 of Martial’s Epigrams contains all sorts of Saturnalia gifts, ranging from a lyre to an apron, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey  to an ape — although Martial was writing satire, so does needs to be taken with a pinch of salt…

So what names do we have for Saturnalia babies?

Well, the possibilities are endless, but here are a few suggestions.

  • Allegra — Italian “happy” and “cheerful”; Byron renamed his illegitimate daughter Clara Allegra when he gained custody of her in 1818
  • Ananda — Sanskrit “happiness” and “pleasure”
  • Antic
  • Asher — Hebrew osher “happy” and “blessing”
  • Banter
  • Bliss
  • Blithe
  • Carousel
  • Cereus — Latin “wax candle”; one of the traditional gifts of the Saturnalia. Cerea makes a nice feminine form.
  • Cheer
  • Cithara — an ancient instrument, resembling a lyre, plucked at many a Saturnalia feast
  • Cymbal — simple musical instruments were often a feature of festivities such as the Saturnalia
  • Droll
  • Drummer — plenty of drumming at the Saturnalia!
  • Dulcimer — a medieval musical instrument, with the loveliest of names
  • Džiugas — Lithuanian boy’s name, dating to medieval times, meaning “cheerful” and “merry”
  • Farah — Arabic “joy” and “delight”
  • Felicia — variant of FELIX dating back to medieval times
  • Felicity
  • Felix
  • Festal
  • Festival
  • Festive
  • Festus — Latin “festive”; used as a cognomen (surname) in Roman times
  • Fête — French “festival”
  • Fidicen –– Latin “minstrel”
  • Frolic
  • Gala
  • Gale — obsolete English word meaning “merriment” and “mirth”; the identical looking word for a high wind has a different etymology
  • Gaudeamus — Latin “let us rejoice”; from the Latin student’s song “Gaudeamus igitur…”; gaudeamus was sometimes used in the 19th Century of merry-making, particularly by students.
  • Gaudeo — Latin “I rejoice”
  • Gaudi — Spanish surname, made familiar by the genius Spanish architect Antoni Gaudí; it derives ultimately from the Latin gaudium “joy”
  • Gioconda — Italian “merry”  (La Gioconda is one of the names of the Mona Lisa)
  • Glad — and maybe, dare I through it in — Gladys?
  • Glee
  • Gŵyl — Welsh “festival”
  • Happy
  • Harper — more music…
  • Hilaria — Latin: hilaris  “merriment.” The original medieval Latin form of Hilary when used for girls.
  • Hilarity
  • Io — although pronounced differently, if I had a Saturnalia baby, I’d be very tempted to use this lovely and rather quirky name from Greek mythology as a nod to the traditional cry of “Io, Saturnalia” (kind of the equivalent of “Merry Christmas”…)
  • Jape
  • Jest
  • Jester
  • Jink
  • Jocant — obsolete English word meaning “jolly”
  • Jocund
  • Jollity
  • Jolly
  • Jovial
  • Jovy — obsolete form of JOVIAL
  • Joy
  • Joyeux — French “merry”
  • Joyous
  • Kermis — a periodical fair or carnival in the Low Countries and parts of Germany characterized by much merry-making
  • Laeta (simplified as Leta) — Latin “happy”
  • Lecelina — a medieval diminutive form of LETITIA
  • Letitia — Latin laetitia “happiness”; used as a given name since the Middle Ages
  • Lettice — the charming ye-olde-worldey English form of LETITIA
  • Levity
  • Llawen — Welsh “merry” (the name of an early saint)
  • Lowena — Cornish “joy”
  • Lowender — Cornish “mirth”
  • Lyra — Latin name of the Lyre (which also has name potential), the best known instrument of the ancient world, and grandmother of the harp. Like the Cithara, there would have been much strumming of the lyre at the Saturnalia, and it was one of the gifts featured by Marial in his epigrams about Saturnalia presents…
  • Merriment
  • Merry
  • Minstrel
  • Mirth
  • Piper — plenty of pipe-playing at the Saturnalia too…
  • Pleasance
  • Pleasant
  • Revel
  • Revelry
  • Saturn — Saturn derives from Latin satus “sown,” from sero “to sow.” There are actually examples of Saturn as a given name since the 19th Century.
  • Saturnalia
  • Sigilla — Latin “little image”; the little statuettes handed out as traditional Saturnalia gifts
  • Timbrel — a medieval instrument akin to a tamourine, used in festivities and celebrations

Not to mention all the names meaning “gift.”

And now it’s time to go and celebrate. Io, Saturnalia!

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Well, the news the world has been waiting for is finally out — cure for cancer? Peace in the Middle East? A solution to the international financial crisis? No, the Beckhams have named their new baby — Harper Seven.

I have to say that, for them, I find that quite tame, and almost — ALMOST — conventional! What’s happened?

Apparently, they just liked Harper, and chose Seven because of its spiritual connotations, and because she was born about 7am 7.7.

Actually, I do rather like it.

Harper is an English surname, deriving from the Old English hearpere ‘harper’. Original bearers, such as a Robert le Harpur, recorded in 1186, and Reginald le Harpur, found in 1275, may have been musicians in baronial households, members of a musical troope, or even medieval wandering minstrels par excellence. It is first found in use as a boy’s first name in the 17th Century, though bearers were likely to have had some connection with someone whose surname was Harper. Harper does crop up a few times in the top 1000 US boys’ names in the late 19th Century, but it is erratic, and it certainly didn’t become established.

In the 19th, it starts to be seen as a middle name for girls – again almost certainly with that family connection. This most famous bearer — responsible for making the name generally known and encouraging its take up for girls — is Harper Lee, the author of the now standard school text, Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960).

Harper Lee’s full name is Nelle Harper Lee, and she was born in 1926. Harper’s use generally has almost certainly also been influenced by the international fashion magazine Harpers Bazaar, which has been around since  1867. In recent years, the character of Harper Finkle in the Wizards of Waverley Place (2007-) has further promoted the name, which has been rising rapidly since 2004. In the US last year, it wasn’t far short of making the top 100…

Seven is a number which has profound significance. A prime number (of various kinds), it has symbolic meaning in many cultures and belief systems and has long been regarded as sacred, and associated with magic and psychic powers. The seventh child of the seventh child is often ascribed special psychic or supernatural ability. Its significance has been further bolstered by humans attaching importance to it — thus we have seven days of the week, Seven Wonders of the World, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, etc, etc.

There are many sevens in nature two, such as the seven colors of the rainbow, the seven stars in the Pleiades (the Seven Sisters), and the seven heavenly bodies visible with the naked eye (the sun, the moon and the five planets).

Seven as a given name has actually been around since the 18th Century, as Seven is also a surname — a variant of Severn, which, funnily enough, I discussed last week in my article Fair Sabrina. It has been growing gradually in use in recent years; the character of Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001) has no doubt played a part in it. What with Natalie Portman naming her son Aleph (Hebrew for ‘one’) a few days ago, it would seem number names are clearly the new must-have accessory in Celeb land!

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