First of all, apologies to anyone who happened by yesterday when my blog was temporarily “suspended/archived.” Thankfully it was a system error, and the nice people at WordPress sorted it out very quickly — though I did have a litter or two of kittens in panic in the meantime!
A couple of weeks ago, I included Agatha in my list of “Grannies” worthy of resurrection, and the eve of the feast day of the saint of the name seemed a good day to feature her properly.
For it was Saint Agatha whose popularity in Britain in the Middle Ages made Agatha a common name in medieval times.
Hers is a particularly gruesome tale, even by the usual standards of hagiography.
For refusing to succumb to the advances of the (naturally) Pagan Roman prefect of Sicily, Agatha was tortured — which included cutting off her breasts — and executed.
These scenes have been popular in art across the centuries, with Agatha usually portrayed carrying her breasts on a tray as though they were macaroons (inspiration, perhaps for the minni di virgini cakes, which are a speciality of St Agatha’s day in Sicily).
However, contemporary evidence for her existence is non-existent, and the first references to her date from the sixth century.
All the rest is pure legend and folklore.
So who really was Agatha?
Agatha is a straight-forward name to interpret. It is simply the feminine form of the Greek agathos “good.” Hence Agatha, at its most literal, means “the good (female) one,” in her case, it could be “good woman,” “good lady” — or “good goddess.”
And, as fate has it, there was a Roman Goddess called exactly that, word for word in Latin — Bona Dea, “the Good Goddess.”
The Bona Dea is quite a mysterious deity. what we do know is that she was a goddess strongly linked with women, and her festival was celebrated only by women (and only well-born ones at that).
Ancient writers interpreted Bona Dea as a title or epithet, concealing her real identity, which was believed to be a closely guarded secret kept by those admitted to her mysteries.
This didn’t stop the writers speculating that her real identity was the fertility Goddess Ops (“plenty”), Magna Mater (the “Great Mother”) and/or Ceres, and she was also identified with Juno and Isis.
Intriguingly, there are many vestiges of the worship of Isis in the festivals of St. Agatha on Sicily, where the cult of Isis was strong in ancient times. These include the greeting of the cult statue and its procession on a carriage and an enormous party.
A further interesting “coincidence” is that these festivities begin on February 2nd—with one of her areas of patronage being protection against fire, linking her to Brigid, who is also sometimes equated with Isis, and whose feast day is suspiciously close.
On Sicily, this connection with fire is particularly linked to Sicily’s volcano, Etna; Agatha’s veil has supposedly protected the island from the volcano on more than one occasion.
Agatha, like Isis, is also closely connected with cats; in France, Agatha is said to appear in the guise of an angry cat to women who work on her feast day, and in Languedoc she even used to be referred to as “Santo Gatto.”
In the Middle Ages, Agatha was very much the “Sunday best” form of the name, used in Latin documents. Like many — if not most — names, the vernacular forms were simpler.
In Agatha’s case, they were forms such as Agas, Agase and Agace, and Agacia was commonly found in Latin documents rather than Agatha.
Two significant medieval bearers were Agatha, the mother of Edgar Atheling, and Agatha of Normandy, a daughter of King William the Conqueror. The name is also ascribed to the mother of the famous fifteenth century “Mother Shipton” — Ursula Southill.
After the Reformation, Agatha plunged out of fashion, becoming unusual until the Victorians with their love of all things medieval plunked it from the history books.
Even then, however, it never became particularly common, while many an Agatha naturally became an Aggie.
The best-known real-life bearer of modern times is the British writer and archaeologist Agatha Christie (1890-1976). I’ve loved Agatha Christie’s books since childhood, and feel an additional bond because my Director of Studies at College, who excavated with Agatha Christie and her husband Max Mallowan in the 1950s. It was rather thrilling to hear about her from someone who knew her personally.
In fiction, there’s more than one witch of the name, such as Agatha Harkness, a witch in the world of Marvel Comics, and Agatha Cackle, the villain of Jill Murphy’s Worst Witch.
But probably the most famous literary Agatha has to be the formidable Aunt Agatha of P.G. Wodehouse’s Jeeves stories.
Until recently, this battleaxe image has rendered Agatha virtually unusable. But things are changing, and little Agathas are starting to make appearances.
In Britain, the name’s prospects may have improved due to the children’s TV show Guardians of the Museum, which is hosted by a pretty 1930’s ghost called Agatha. Certainly, my Small Child associates the name with this character, and thinks it’s a fabulous name.
So even if the current generation of parents can’t appreciate Agatha’s qualities, the next is distinctly hopeful!
Happy St. Agatha’s!