I’m just home after spending a little over a week in Somerset.
The stay has inspired a couple of forthcoming posts, but today I have to share some of the luscious Pagan names I encountered on our travels.
This is a region rich in pre-Christian history and archaeology, a wonderful, evocative landscape, with Iron Age hill-forts, Neolithic and Bronze Age tumuli almost around every bend.
Dominating the landscape for many miles, unmistakable by its lonely tower, is Glastonbury Tor. I always get the wobbles when I first spy it, and on this trip we saw it twice in special circumstances; once floating ghostlike above the mists, and once purple against a glorious sunset.
And Glastonbury’s a good place to start with the names…
Although Glastonbury itself is probably a bit unwieldy as a name for a child (though it would make a great name for a cat), there are many others which has associations with the place.
Chief among them must be Avalon; assertions have been made that Glastonbury is the site of the legendary Avalon of Arthurian myth and legend since medieval times, and many today consider it fact, though there are other contenders.
What can be said with certainty, is that Avalon derives from the Celtic word for “apple orchard,” and makes a splendid, evocative name.
As coincidence had it, while staying within sight of Glastonbury at Wookey Hole, we happened to watch a 1978 episode of the cult BBC sci-fi Blake’s 7 last night, in which there was a female character called Avalon…
Arthur and Guinevere, are two other names which call out from Glastonbury; medieval monks at the Abbey claimed to have found the graves of King Arthur and his wife buried there, and these graves can still be visited at the Abbey.
A lesser known name connected with Glastonbury is Neot, supposedly a ninth century saint. He is most associated with St Neot’s in Cambridge, and was said to have been a monk in Glastonbury. However, it is perhaps more likely is that Neot represents a survival of the Celtic God Nodens (an important God of healing, hunting and the sea), especially given the fact his feast day is the Eve of Lughnasadh and he is regarded as the patron saint of fish.
Glastonbury still has healing connections, now mostly associated with the lovely Chalice Well; Chalice making an unusual and meaningful name option…
Which leads nicely to another healing deity and place of healing — the Goddess Sulis Minerva of Aquae Sulis, i.e. Bath.
The Roman Baths are one of my favorite sites; the museum is excellent — and has got even better since our last visit five years ago.
Best of all though, is the fact that the magic and the mystery of the original Celtic shrine remains, especially at the Sacred Spring itself (usually called the King’s Bath today), where the pale green hot mineral waters bubble and the steam rises as an otherworldy mist.
Sulis is the Celtic Goddess of the place, a name which I’ve always thought is just crying out for attention. It may be from the Celtic *sƒwol- “sun,” though another interesting option is from the Celtic *su- “good” + *liy-o- “flow,” an apt, if rather more prosaic, description of the spring.
And then, of course, there’s lovely Minerva, the Roman Goddess of wisdom and war with whom the Romans identified Sulis.
Also associated with Bath is Bladud “wolf-lord,” a mythical king of Britain, credited in later mythology with creating the thermal spring at Bath, and the king of “the King’s Bath.” Bleiddudd and Blaithyd are two other variants, the last representing probably the best phonetic spelling for an English-speaker.
Another magical, watery place, though of a different kind, is the characterfully named Wookey Hole, our home last night. Wookey (the “wook” rhymes with “book”) is definitely up there in the eccentric-names-best-suited-to-cats league; the jury remains out on whether it derives from an Old English word meaning “trap” and “snare” (for animals understood), or a Celtic word meaning “cave.”
Both suit it.
Today, the village (mentioned in the Domesday Book) is most famous for its caves and for the legendary witch associated with them; the legend refers specifically to one of the stalagmite formations, though is often now linked to the skeleton of a woman found in the early twentieth century, along with an intriguing alabaster ball. It is thought the skeleton is from the Saxon period, but it could be Romano-British, or even earlier.
The caves are also the source of the River Axe — well, one of them, anyway. This could derive from a Celtic word meaning “water,” another meaning “high” or from the Saxon word for “ash-tree”; it is virtually impossible to say for certain which. Whichever, Axe would certainly make another interesting name choice, offering a distinctive twist to Max.
Wookey Hole has often been used as a film-set, including one of my favorite TV series of all time — Robin of Sherwood — and the episode Project Avalon of Blakes 7.
It was pure coincidence (truly, it was) that we happened to watch that episode at Wookey Hole.
Don’t you just love a good coincidence?