What’s in a Name? Plenty, Actually….

While writing Medousa, I made some very deliberate choices in some of the names I’ve used. I tried to play with names and their meanings, to achieve, if not puns, at least another layer of meaning to the characters and their stories. Alas, I’d have been much better at this bit were I actually a classics scholar able to read ancient Greek.

There are a few puns in the story, in part two, Athens, in particular, focusing on the names of our heroine and her lover. The name “Medousa,” means “protector,” or sometimes, even “queen.” I thought this an amusing contrast for one who was born a serf, and made a chattel slave. The name “Cynisca,” on the other hand, means “little dog,” referring to a specific breed of hunting hound much prized in Sparta for its ability to track quarry. –Depending on one’s mood toward her, I suppose one could even translate it as “little bitch.” Of course, Cynisca was named after her grandfather Zeuxidamus, who was nicknamed “Cyniscos–” again, “little puppy,” but male as instead of female. As we see in the story, Aphrodite finds it amusing to put these two together, a slave with a queenly name, and a princess, who is called “little bitch.”

And speaking of puppies, there are the young Medousa’s and Cynisca’s toy puppies, Alala and Alexina. I chose the name Alala, as it recalls a war-cry. In fact it is onomatopoeic. Little Alala is young Medousa’s protector from nightmares and the darkness of night. I chose the name Alexina for Cynisca’s toy, as it means “defender,” which is what a teddy bear does for a child. But I also wanted to hint that Cynisca would in time come to be Medousa’s protector.

There is a failed pun in the section Athens; during an interlude in which Cynisca tells Medousa of the man her parents have chosen for her to marry, we learn that it is “Lycourgos.” Now, I am not referring to the legendary Spartan lawgiver, but the name itself means something like “wolf’s work.” And since Cynisca’s name refers to a hound, or dog, I thought it mildly amusing to make that connection. Alas, wolves are not exactly dogs. And this brings us to a nickname Medousa earns at her Agoge– Lykaios. Lykaios means “wolfish,” or “wolf-like,” and can be used by either sex. As you will no doubt recall, Chionis bestowed this name on Chrysanthe– erm, “Medousa–” due to her remorseless and efficient ferocity in combat.

In the beginning of Medousa’s story, you will remember that the chief of the household servant-women decided to call Medousa “Chrysanthe,” commenting that, “It fits her hair.” The name Chrysanthe comes from two Greek words; “chrysos,” meaning “gold,” and “anthos,” a flower. In the ancient myths, Medousa, as a young maiden, was described as having golden hair (as, for that matter, was Helen of Sparta). From an article in BBC Magazine by classics scholar Bettany Hughes* in 2015–

Xanthos – “golden” or tawny – is a standard epithet used to describe heroes in epic literature. Orthodox thought tells us this is just a literary trope, but anyone who has stood with a tawny or redhead friend, backlit by a Mediterranean sun, will know something magical does happen. Here in front of you is spun gold.

My intention in describing Medousa’s hair as “golden,” was to evoke this shade of tawny, red-amber hair. Something like what we would call strawberry blond, today.

Later in the book, we meet one of Medousa’s tormentors, the chief male servant Deimos. Deimos, as we know, means Terror. And, in Sparta, both Phobos and Deimos were particularly worshiped as the sons of Ares and Aphrodite. And certainly, our mortal Deimos was a terror to our heroine.

While I never mention the names of Medousa’s parents, I do make mention of her brothers’ names, Pallas and Athenades. I chose those names as a hint of Medousa’s relationship to the Goddess Athena. And here, let me digress to describe some of the epithets of the Goddess.

In the story, Medousa often cries out to Athena, using any number of her titles or epithets. Among them are:

Pallas Athena, from “pallax,” or “Maiden.”

Parthenos, The Virgin

Promachos, She Who Fights in the Front, who leads the attack

Polias, Of the City

Tritogenia, the meaning of which is unclear, some scholars associating “trito” with “sky,” referring to Zeus’ position as King of the Skies. Herotodus suggests that Athena was a daughter of Poseidon and Tritonis, and demanded later that Zeus make her his daughter.

Alalkomeneis, which some scholars derive from alalkein, or “Strong Defender.”

Areia, Warlike

Khalkiokos, Of the Bronze Roof, referring to the Goddess’ temple in Sparta, which had a bronze roof, and a brazen statue of the Goddess within.

Soteira, the Goddess who Saves

She was referred to as Athena of the Grey Eyes, or “Shining Eyes,” and oftentimes, Athena was simply referred to as The Goddess.

I think that should do for now. More as I remember them!


*If you are unfamiliar with Bettany Hughes, she is a superlative Classics scholar and educator. She has written several books, and hosted numerous television specials in the UK on ancient Greece, Crete, Mycenean civilization, and most recently, Istanbul/Constantinople. Her website is here.


About Michael Butchin

I was born, according to the official records, in the Year of the Ram, under the Element of Fire, when Johnson ruled the land with a heavy heart; in the Cradle of Liberty, to a family of bohemians. I studied Chinese language and literature at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. I spent some years in Taiwan teaching kindergarten during the day, and ESOL during the evenings. I currently work as a high school ESOL teacher, and am an unlikely martial artist. I have spent much of my life amongst actors, singers, movie stars, beautiful cultists, Taoist immortals, renegade monks, and at least one martial arts tzaddik. I currently reside in Beijing's Dongcheng district
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