The enduringly popular story of King Arthur and Guinevere has been retold countless times for a thousand years or more, most recently in the TV series Camelot.
What the truth is behind the legends is a question which has occupied historians, archaeologists and folklorists alike for hundreds of years.
Guinevere is the now classic form of the legendary queen’s name, as used by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the Idylls of the King, but there are many others.
Probably the next most seen is Guenevere, used in a number of versions, including Rosalind Miles’ Guenevere, Queen of the Summer Country (1999) and the musical Camelot (1960).
In Mallory’s 15th Century Le Mort d’Arthur she is Gwenyvere.
The original Welsh form of her name is Gwenhwyfar.
This is really ancient!
For while Gwen features in a great many Welsh names of all periods, its Common Celtic predecessor *uindo- ‘white, bright’ is attested in Celtic names in Roman Britain.
Hwyfar, however, is not recorded anywhere, except in Gwenhwyfar’s name.
There has been a lot of speculation over the years as to its meaning; the Victorians conjectured that it must carry some soft, feminine sort of sense, and interpreted it as ‘soft’ and ‘smooth’, linking it to the rare (and obsolete) Welsh word gwyf.
But this doesn’t actually even mean ‘smooth’!
It means ‘that which extends’.
And the sort of torture it must endure to turn it into hwyfar really brings tears to the eyes.
But there is a better explanation, provided by historical linguistics — the Common Celtic *sŒbro- ‘specter’.
In Old Irish, this became síabar – ‘fairy’ and ghost’ — a word which almost certainly features in the name of another tragic figure of mythology, the Irish Fionnabhair. This make it exactly cognate with Guinevere.
This begs the question whether Guinevere and Fionnabhair are linked at a level deeper than just their names, and whether rather than ever being real historical figures, they belong to the pantheon of the Pagan Celtic Gods.
Given the role they both play, a convincing argument could be put forward that they both represent Goddesses of sovereignty, like Rhiannon and Medb (it is probably no coincidence that in the myth, Fionnabhair’s mother is Medb of Connacht).
Even today, in North Wales, the legend persists of an apparation — ‘the Grey Lady’ who haunts the Celtic hill-fort of Moel Arthur, and is now said to protect the grave and treasure of King Arthur.
Alternatively, they may be the bride aspect of the Goddess — the May Queen. There are certainly strong parallels in the tale of Arthur and Guinevere with that of Lleu and Blodeuwedd.
Perhaps they are both.
Guinevere is found as a genuine given name from at least the 14th Century — largely as a result of the popularity of the Arthurian Cycles. In Wales and the Marches, it survived in forms such as Gaenor, Gaynor, Gwennor and Gwenifer.
In Cornwall, it became Jenifer. George Bernard Shaw introduced it to the rest of the ESW in his play The Doctor’s Dilemma (1905), which features a character called Jennifer Dubedat.
In Scotland, it became Vanora. Vanora’s Grave in Meigle, Scotland is a grass-covered mound in front of which two carved Pictish stones are known to have once stood, though Vanora isn’t found as a given name itself before the 19th Century.
Another variant is the Italian Ginevra — made better known by Ginevra ‘Ginny’ Weasley in Harry Potter.
But Guinevere itself has always been uncommon. It has never featured in the top 1000 names in the US. And even in England and Wales, there were less than 250 girls given the name Guinevere as a first or second name between 1847 and 1915. 57 baby girls were called Guinevere in the USA in 2010, but only 4 in England and Wales.
This is a great shame, and Guinevere is crying out to be re-embraced. It makes a fantastic alternative to its love-child Jennifer, which is now tumbling out of favor after so long as a firm favorite. It shortens nicely to Guin or Guinny (or Gwin, Gwyn, Gwinny, Gwen and Gwenny, etc) — even Ginny or Jenny.
There are the Welsh pet-forms of Gwen- names too: Gwenno, Gwennan and Gwenog.
You could even use Vere or Vera, Nev or Neve — or Never!
And why not Guinevere? A magnificent name for Pagans and non-Pagans alike!