by Aili Winstanley Channer
As the debate between Darwinists and creationists continues, it is interesting to remember that every culture has developed its own unique view of the world and how it came into being. These myths are as striking in their similarities as they are in their differences and offer a fascinating insight into the human psyche. Here are a selection of names of deities and mortals involved in creation stories from around the world.
Ask (m) and Embla (f) – The tree is at the heart of Norse myth, with the whole cosmos being seen as a great ash called Yggdrasil, so it is not surprising that the first mortal man and woman were made out of trees. Ask, meaning “ash”, may be too similar to the verb “to ask” to use today, but has countless attractive relatives from the Old High German Asco to the Anglo-Saxon Ascwin (“ash tree friend”), Asculf (“ash tree wolf”) and, for girls, Ashwynn (“ash tree joy”).
The meaning of Embla is less clear, but “elm” and “vine” have been proposed. The Norse worldview is cyclical, with the world being set to be destroyed at Ragnarök, the Norse concept of the end of the world. Afterwards, a couple named Líf (f) and Lífþrasir (m), meaning “life” and “life-lover” respectively, would act as equivalents of Embla and Ask and repopulate the new world. The spunky Liv is the modern Scandinavian form of Líf; it is now #375 on Nameberry, 16 in the Netherlands and 44 in Sweden.
Beaivi – Still the word for the sun in the Sami language of northern Europe, Beaivi was viewed as a deity in the animistic belief system the people held before they were Christianized in the eighteenth century. The Sami are a Finno-Ugric people who have sadly been subject to persecution for centuries. Beaivi, sometimes considered female and sometimes male, was viewed as the parent of humankind. Roughly pronounced “beh-eye-vee”, the name has a lovely sound and rolls off the tongue in a pleasing way.
Erin – Sadly, the beliefs of the Ancient Celts on the creation of the universe have been lost to time. It has sometimes been speculated, however, that the goddess Ériu, who gave her name to Ireland and whose name means “earth”, may be an Ancient Irish version of the Mother Earth figure. Erin is an anglicized form of Eireann, the dative form of the Irish name for Ireland, Éire. Erin has had a good run of popularity in the United States, peaking at #18 in 1983, and still has plenty of appeal for parents who wish to honour the Emerald Isle in their child’s name. For those looking for something more original, Iverna is a poetic name for the country that derives from its Latin name, Hibernia.
Gikuyu (m) & Mumbi (f) – In the monotheistic tradition of the Kikuyu people of Kenya, God, known as Ngai, created the ancestors of the Kikuyu, Gikuyu (“great sycamore tree”) and Mumbi (“one who molds” or “creator”). The sycamore tree, along with the fig and the olive, were considered sacred to Ngai, who was also seen as being manifest in thunder, lightning, and celestial bodies. Gikuyu and Mumbi had nine daughters some of whose names were Wambui (“zebra”), Wangui (“singer” or “baby-carrier”), Nyambura (“of the rain”), Wairimu (“giant”) and Wangari (“leopard”). Kikuyu society was originally matriarchal, their nine clans were said to be founded by Gikuyu’s nine daughters and traditionally, all Kikuyu girls were given one of these nine names.
Pandora – We are all familiar with the story of Pandora, the first mortal woman in Greek myth, who accidentally let all evils into the world. Her name is playful and charming and gets a good deal of well-deserved attention on Nameberry, but remains controversial.
Rangi (m) & Papa (f) – In Maori mythology, the world was originally made up of the union between Rangi, the sky father, and Papa, the earth mother, who hugged each other in a tight embrace. Their many divine children eventually decide to push the two apart, allowing light into the universe. As the primordial parents of the universe, they are analogous to Uranus and Gaia in the Greek pantheon. The name Papa sounds too daddyish to western sensibilities, but Rangi could be more wearable.
Zhinu (shown)– Chinese myths contain many accounts of how the world came into being. In some versions, it was made out of the body of the primordial giant, Panga. In another version, it is the Jade Emperor god who molds the human race out of clay. The story of his daughter, Zhinu (??, “weaver girl” in traditional Chinese) is well-known; she was a weaver responsible for weaving the clouds in the heavens. Eventually, she fell in love with a mortal cowherd, infuriating her father, who made a river – the Milky Way – flow between Heaven and Earth to prevent the lovers from seeing one another. In the end he took pity on them and let them meet on a bridge once a year; Zhinu can be seen as the star Vega in the constellation Lyra, while her lover is the star Altair in Aquila.
Author’s note: This post is written purely out of onomastic interest and parents who are interested in using a name from another culture for their child – particularly in the case of names of deities or significant cultural figures – are strongly recommended to research the culture and the practices associated with the name thoroughly before proceeding.