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A Light in the Darkness: The Light Personal Names Shed on Ancient Paganism

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Names. We all have them. They are so integral to our society that few people ever pause to reflect on their cultural significance and what they reveal about our way of life.

These days, in the West, names are largely a label. Most of us possess a hereditary surname, coupled with a name chosen at birth by our parents, largely on a whim. The only rule regarding the naming of children is that they must be named.

But even today, naming practices vary considerably across the world. And the naming practices of our ancestors were equally diverse. And, what's more, they offer us a unique window through which to glimpse their lives, how they lived, and what they believed.

The names that have come down to us from antiquity are very revealing. The best documented are those of ancient Rome. Roman civilization was by far the most structured, organized—and regulated—society prior to our own, and Roman names very potently reflect this. Citizenship was what mattered to a Roman, and names to Romans were their badges of citizenship. The most important part was an inherited family name, called a nomen—quite literally, this was their "name," so integral that it is the source of the English word "name" itself.

These nomina were quite comparable to our own surnames, deriving from a similar mish-mash of place-names, personal names, nicknames, and occupational names. Some, however, particularly of the oldest and most aristocratic families, derived from the names of deities. The Junii, for example, claimed the Goddess Juno as its namesake, and while the Julii claimed descent from Venus, their name almost certainly derived from that of Jupiter.

A Roman citizen typically had three names. In addition to their nomen was their praenomen, essentially a "first name." It was little more, however, than a formality, a token. By the time of the Roman Empire, there were only a handful in regular use, and the vast majority of men bore one of just three: Gaius, Lucius, and Marcus.

And the women? Most Roman women didn't have a praenomen at all.

The final component of a Roman name was the cognomen. These were often inherited, but in most levels of society were rather more fluid. Sometimes they changed from generation to generation. Because of their fluidity, they are the most revealing part of Roman names, because they tend to reflect contemporary society.

As so much has come down to us from Rome, it is possible to take a detailed snapshot of these names from pretty much any time between the third century BCE and the fourth century CE, but one of the most poignant sources of Roman names are those preserved in the ruins of Pompeii, the prosperous seaside town destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 78 CE.

And what do these names reveal about these first century Romans?

  • That they shared the same sorts of personality traits as we do. A large proportion of cognomina make a comment on the bearer's temperament, such as Placidus ("gentle"), Iucundus ("jolly"), Celer ("quick"), Firmus ("steadfast"), Verus ("genuine"), and Felix ("lucky").
  • That they had a strong belief in embracing the auspicious. A number of common Roman cognomen demonstrate what would today be dubbed "positive-thinking." Names such as Valens ("hearty"), Crescens ("thriving"), Fortunatus ("fortunate"), and Faustus ("of favorable omen"), were as much statements of hope for continuing well-being as they were of commenting on the bearer's current state.
  • That they were cosmopolitan. Roman civilization is well-known as an early cultural melting pot. Influence from Greece was particularly strong, and there were many people in Pompeii who bore Greek names, some of them rather lovely, such as Elainus ("olive-wood"), Helpis ("hope"), Psacas ("raindrop"), Erastus ("beloved"), and Chlorus ("greenish-yellow"). Other names revealed where a person originated, such as Afer ("African") and Sabinus ("Sabine").
  • That their beliefs played an important part in their lives. A good number of Roman cognomen involve the Gods in some way; names derived from a theonym (the name of a God or Goddess) might well have been adopted in the hope that the deity would look favorably on the bearer, and offer them protection. Examples from Pompeii include Saturninus ("belonging to Saturn"), Vestalis ("belonging to Vesta"), Cerealis ("belonging to Ceres"), and Primigenius (a name deriving from Primigenia, an epithet of the Goddess Fortuna used specifically of her patronage of favorites from birth).

In other ancient civilizations, names reflecting beliefs were often even more pronounced. Among the Greeks, for example, more emphasis was placed upon the name bestowed at birth, and these frequently were religious in nature. Names that included a theonym were very common, many of which survive in use in one form or another to this day (such as Dionysius ["belonging to Dionysus"], Demetrios ["belonging to Demeter"], and Apollonios ["belonging to Apollo"]).

What is particularly notably about most Greek names is that to their bearers, they had plain and discernible meaning, unlike most of the names used in the West today. We are used to most names not actually meaning something in our own language. Isabella, Jacob, Emily, Ethan, Jessica, and Jayden are all simply "names." For a Greek called Apollodoros ("gift of Apollo"), Perikles ("surrounded by glory"), Erato ("love"), or Xanthippe ("yellow horse"), every time they said or heard their name, they spoke or heard its meaning.

One of the most fascinating cultures to explore through their names is that of the Celts of Roman Britain. The language they spoke is called Brythonic, and it survives, by and large, only in personal names of the period. These Brythonic names offer us unique first-hand evidence of their world, otherwise denied us. For, while the Greeks and Romans were prolific writers, and we have a lot of evidence when researching their lives, the Pagan Celts were not literate, and most of what we know about their way of life comes from archaeology, contemporaneous (and not always terribly reliable) writings by the Greeks and Romans, and Welsh and Irish literature, written down many centuries later.

But their names—recorded by Roman and Greek writers, preserved on tombstones, altars, coins, curse-tablets, and even the occasional letter or administrative document—have survived.

These names have a great deal more in common with those of Greece than those of Rome. Like Greek names, Celtic names were composed of elements with meaning in the bearer's language. And what the Celts chose to use as names reveals a great deal about view of the world, and how they saw themselves in it.

Unsurprisingly, for a people with a strong warrior-culture, their leaders often had names that spoke of military prowess and leadership. One first-century coin preserves the name of a chief of the Catuvellauni, reconstructed as Cartivellaunus, meaning "a chief (who) drives out" (presumably his enemies). Another chief, mentioned by Caesar, was Cingetorix, whose name means "champion king."

Other names incorporate elements with meanings such as "axe," "slaughter," "battle," "chief," "prince," "bronze," "iron," "army," "tribe," "queen," "noble," and "victory."

But what is most intriguing about the names of the Celts is the number of names that incorporate elements suggestive of deep spirituality and a reverence for nature. Even the names of many of the warrior chiefs combine war and leadership elements with those with a distinctly spiritual dimension, such as Togodumnus, one of the chiefs who resisted the invasion of Claudius in 43 CE. His name combines togi-dubno-, a word with the literal meaning of "deep" but that was used specifically of the Otherworld.

Another well-known British chief was Cunobelinus, whose name means "hound of (the god) Belinus." Dogs were just one of the animals held in high regard by the Celts, and many names feature it as an element (a later, very famous example is the Irish hero Cú Chulainn). Other animals that feature in names include the cow, badger, fox, wolf, mouse, pony, bear, stag, and horse. Taking into account evidence from archaeology and later literature, it is tempting to suggest that the ancient Celts believed that someone who bore such a name displayed—or would display—the positive, perhaps symbolic, characteristics associated with a particular animal.

The names of other Celtic deities are found in names, such as Boduo-, the name of the crow-goddess; she became Badb in Irish mythology, one aspect of the Morrígan. The name Boduogenus ("born of Boduo-") is preserved on a bronze vessel found in Cambridgeshire. Esus, who is mentioned by Roman writers, is another God whose name is attested in personal names; Aessicunia ("hound of Esus") occurs on a curse tablet found at Bath.

But even more interesting are elements that give tantalizing glimpses of religious practice, names including words meaning "sacred grove," "festival," "magic," and "seer." Examples include Litegenus ("festival-born"), Prasutagus ("magic chief"), and Vatiaucus ("little seer").

The classic Welsh name element (g)wyn, frequently found in girls’ names as (g)wen, was already common in the Roman period. Its basic meaning is "white," but it is also used figuratively to mean "blessed" and "pure." It is impossible to say for certain whether the Brythonic forms shared these meanings, but given the number of Welsh girls' names that contain the element (and are known to date to at least the sixth and seventh centuries), it seems a distinct possibility. Among the many examples from Roman Britain are Vinda ("white"), Cunovinna ("white dog"), Vindiorix ("white king"), and Vindomorucus ("little white sea").

Also worthy of mention is the fact that the names of two trees also occur in Brythonic personal names—the alder and the yew. Both feature prominently in later Celtic mythology; the alder is the tree of Bran the Blessed, and Roman writers commented on the importance of the yew to the Celts. It is no coincidence that many of the oldest yew trees in Britain are to be found in ancient churchyards, where the church is known to have been built on a place of Pagan worship.

Sadly, what practices surrounded the bestowal of names is unknown. There is evidence that names might change during the course of a person's life, such as a poignant Roman-era tombstone of a small child, found at Corbridge in Northumberland, that reads "Ertola, properly called Vellibia."

Nevertheless, the names that survive, whether bestowed upon the Celts as babies or acquired in later life, paint a vivid and remarkable picture of the world their bearers inhabited, a world of warrior-priests in which Nature was revered, the Gods honored, and life celebrated in all its wonder.


About K.M. Sheard

K. M. Sheard (Wales, UK) is a member of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids (OBOD) and the British Pagan Federation. A graduate of the University of Cambridge, Sheard is a scholar of history and several languages, both ...

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