In Pagan Name of the Month, I feature a name currently in the top 100 in the US or UK, which has a particularly rich Pagan flavor.
This month, it is the turn of the wonderful Welsh Owen.
In 2010, Owen was 47th in the US, and 59th in the UK (although in Wales, it was 49th).
Owen is actually an Anglicized form of the correct Welsh form, Owain — pronounced “ō-wīn” (i.e. like “oh wine”) — and is also used in Ireland to render the cognate Irish Eoghan, which is pronounced pretty much exactly the same as Owen.
Traditionally, both are derived from Eugene (Greek: Eugenios “well-born”); it is certainly true that Eugene was used to “translate” Owen and Eoghan in medieval times, but few contest today that they are actually native Celtic names in origin.
They may still, however, be cognate with the Greek, as a likely source is the Common Celtic *wesu- “excellent” and “noble” + *geno- “born,” cognate with the Greek eu “well” and gignomai “to be born.”
Both Celtic elements were in use in names in the Romano-British period.
Another very tempting option for the first element is *yewo- “yew,” which was also used in names in ancient times. This is currently the most favored option.
The yew was an extremely important tree to the ancient Celts. Yews are exceptionally long-lived trees, symbolic of rebirth, immortality, and the Otherworld.
In the British Isles, many ancient yews — predating Christianity — are found in old churchyards, a sign that Christian priests built their churches on sites already regarded as sacred.
But there is yet another possibility for the first element of this ancient name – the theonym Esus, which also featured in Brythonic personal names.
Esus is a Celtic God mentioned by Lucan by Roman writer, and linked with two other well-known Celtic deities — Teutates and Taranis.
One of Owen’s other British cognates is Ewan — commonly spelled Euan. This is now largely considered the Scottish form of Owen and Eoghan, but it is found across “the Old North,” particularly in Lancashire, from time to time until the name’s modern resurgence across the British Isles, and its use in those areas probably goes back to Celtic times too.
Owen itself has also been in use since the Middle Ages, not just in Wales but also in the English Marches — the counties which border Wales. It is one of the few Welsh names which remained in constant, common use from medieval times to the present day, and is as well-known now for the surname derived from it as the personal name.
There are many notable bearers, from history and legend.
Probably the earliest is the semi-legendary Owain Ddantgwyn “White-tooth”, a fifth-century king of the small early medieval kingdom of Rhos in North Wales (roughly the region of the modern county of Conwy). He is often cited as a likely candidate for the historic King Arthur.
Another very early Owain was Owain mab Urien, king of Rheged, often known as Ywain or Ywein in Arthurian Romance, who probably lived in the sixth century. In the Arthurian cycles, he features as the hero in the tales of the Lady of the Fountain, such as Chrétien de Troyes’ Yvain, the Knight of the Lion (1170s).
There was also more than one king of the Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde called Owen between the seventh and eleventh centuries.
Owain was very common in the Middle Ages, giving rise to the surnames Owen and Owens.
There are numerous Owens (or rather Owains) of note, such as Owain ap Gruffydd, King of Gwynedd (c.1100-70), and Owain Glyndŵr (c.1354-c.1416) — known as Owen Glendower in English — who almost succeeded in wresting Wales from English control. He was the last native Welshman to bear the title “Prince of Wales.”
Meanwhile, Sir Owen Tudor (c.1400-61), founder of the Tudor dynasty, was the grandfather of King Henry VII.
Bearers of the surname include the Welsh novelist Daniel Owen (1836-95), the English First World War poet Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), British actor Clive Owen (b. 1964), and footballer Michael Owen (b.1979).
So if you’re looking for a boy’s name which is “mainstream” but with plenty of Pagan kudos, and a name with a long rich history of use as a first name, Owen might be the perfect one for you.