With Llewellyn’s Complete Book of Names at last completed and gone forth into the big bad world, this week’s pick of the week — the lovely and evocative Elysia — is a thank you to Llewellyn’s Elysia Gallo, who, throughout the whole process of writing and editing, was so supportive, helpful and encouraging.
I have to say, I am very jealous of Elysia’s name — and I absolutely love it. As a girl’s name, it is found in the records from the seventeenth century, though it is clear that, especially in many early cases, it was mixed up with Alicia — sometimes also Eliza.
But it is also clear that for others, the association intended was clearly Elysium…
Elysium itself is the Latin form of the Greek Êlusion.
This is the name the Ancient Greeks gave to the part of the Underworld reserved for heroes, righteous individuals selected by the Gods, and initiates of the mystery cults, particularly the Mysteries of Eleusis.
It is probable, but not certain, that Elysium and Eleusis share the same origin. And, if not, they have certainly been blurred together since ancient times.
The Eleusinian Mysteries are probably the best-known of the ancient Mystery cults; they are, indeed, the Mysteries. Centred on the small town of Eleusis in Attica, and within walking distance of Athens, the focus of the Mysteries were Demeter and Persephone, in her maiden aspect, Kore.
Unfortunately, the exact rites, rituals and beliefs of the initiated are, quite literally, a mystery. Absolute secrecy regarding practices and beliefs among initiates was a major component, and they those ancient initiates took their secrets with them to Elysium.
However, enough clues do survive, in the form of oblique references, and archaeological remains, including wall-paintings and mosaics, for scholars across the ages to have pieced together some of it.
The rites included fasting, consumption of ritual drink, the showing of special objects, the re-enactment of the myth of Demeter and Persephone, and revelation of secrets.
To reveal those secrets to a non-initiate, the penalty was death.
It is thought that the Eleusinian Mysteries date back to Mycenaean times (i.e. the second millennium BCE); in decline from the second century, they were banned by the new Christian elite in 396 CE.
The etymology of Eleusis and Elysium are as shrouded as the practices — though by passage of immense time, rather than by design.
The most obvious derivation of Eleusis is from the Greek erkhomai “to come.” Eleusis “coming,” is also a variant of the noun êlusis, which carries the prosaic meaning of “step.”
But a credible and alluring alternative explanation is that its actual origins lie with another Greek word — enêlusios “struck by lightning”; ta enêlusia was a name given to places set apart from worldly uses because they had been struck by lightning.
A further intriguing option is that the roots of Elysium actually lie with the Egyptian: jArw “rush,” a reference to sxt-jArw the “fields of rushes,” which was a similar concept to Elysium in Egyptian religion, ruled over by Osiris.
Given the long history of trade between Greece and Egypt, it is perfectly plausible that this notion would find its way into the Greek belief system.
Both Greek and Latin have adjectival forms of Elysium — Greek êlusios, Latin Elysius. They were used of Elysium and its queen, Persephone, and are often translated as “Elysian,” most famously in the expression Elysian Fields, a translation of the Latin campi Elysii.
In English today, “Elysia” is frequently used interchangeably with “Elysium.” Although its original use was quite specific, it has come into general use to mean “paradise,” passing, largely without hint of irony, into Christian language and iconography too.
As well as Elysia herself, Elysian makes a noteworthy name choice — and could also be used for a boy, as could Elysion, the usual Anglicized form of the original Greek Êlusion, which is sometimes found (mostly in poetry) as a variant spelling of Elysium.
As a name, there are a number of variant spellings, such as Elisia, Elizia and Elyzia. Elyse also wanders into the category, demonstrating the distinct blurring at the edges between Elysia with Alicia, Alice, Elise, Eliza and Lisa.
Certainly, Elysia presents an unusual, meaningful but also very contemporary alternative to those names, especially for a Pagan parent looking for a name with deep and strong Pagan roots.