Bill Casselman

In Walter Crane’s magnificently kitschy “Horses of Neptune,” the ocean god, chariot-borne, bestrides the brine and tames the wave-steeds, so their webbèd hooves leave only foam upon the beach of time.

Increase your knowledge of given names of the world by learning the 3,000 year-old history of Cabiria

At the Wording Desk

Annals of Onomatology
Origin of the Italian Given Name Cabiria

Cabiria is best known to English speakers in the title of Federico Fellini’s 1957 film The Nights of Cabiria (Italian: Le notti di Cabiria) starring his wife Giulietta Masina as a prostitute, a petite, wandering waif traipsing through the streets of Rome seeking true love and finding only abuse and disappointment.

The American Broadway musical and movie Sweet Charity is based on Fellini's screenplay of “The Nights of Cabiria.” But the raucous, outer-space-queen, garish blatmouthedness of the dedicated, screeching vulgarian actress Shirley MacLean bears no comparison with the delicate screen artistry of Giulietta Masina.

Fellini snaps production still of Masina on 1954 set of La Strada.

Although I cannot name chapter and verse, I believe that in some print interview Fellini said he got the unusual feminine given name from the title character in a famous silent movie made in Italy in 1914 entitled “Cabiria.” Anyone studying Italian cinema seriously is certain to screen this early silent film, since “Cabiria” stands out in excellence from the mediocre shlock Italy usually produced early in its movie history, tedious orgy tales of ancient Roman decadence, spindly chariot races, with a creeping-looking Ulysses sword-fighting with papier-mâché monsters, choppy scenes in which the actor playing Ulysses has bigger tits than the female temptress. One of Cabiria’s instantly and widely adopted innovations was a moving camera, a camera pushed on wheels and dollies and carts, to relieve the “static frame” of most early silent films.

            a poster for the 1914 silent movie "Cabiria"

But Cabiria as a word is perhaps 3,000 years old. 2,000 years ago or more, the word arrived in ancient Italy from a Greek mystery cult centered around subterranean earth deities with the non-Greek name Κάβειροι ‘the Kabeiroi’ (probable Semitic meaning: ‘the mighty ones’). They seem to have been associated with fire worship of the blacksmith Greek god of fire, Hephaestos.

From the isle of Samothrace , this worship of Vulcan-like forces of the ocean spread rapidly during the Hellenistic Age, to be introduced eventually by Greek slaves and settlers into southern Italy (eventually called Magna Graeca because so many Greeks speaking Greek lived there) . The Cabiri were represented as an old man and his son whose chief divine function was the protection of sailors. Cabiria might easily have been a name given to a daughter by a fisherman father who worshipped the Cabiri.

But there is no root in Greek or Latin for this word, while there is a most probable one in the Semitic languages of the ancient Middle East.

Probable Semitic Roots of The Name
In Hebrew כביר kabir root: k-b-r) and in Arabic kabir or kebir mean ‘big, great, large.’

The word is common in the Old Testament, for example in The Book of Job 36:5 הן אל כביר ולא ימאס כביר כח לב׃ “Behold, God is mighty, and despiseth not any: he is mighty in strength and wisdom.”

In Arabic, al-bait al kabir means "the big house" and al bait kabir means "the house is big."

الله أكبر
In the very well-known Islamic pious phrase الله أكبر Allahu Akbar! ‘God is greater [or greatest],’ one sees akbar, the comparative or superlative form of the Arabic adjective kabir ‘great.’ This common phrase of praise is said aloud upon fortunate occasions: upon receiving a blessing from Allah, upon hearing good news, upon escaping from danger or achieving victory in a battle, upon business success, upon hearing of a relative giving birth, upon learning that a loved one has had successful surgery, etc.

So, in a quaint Italian rural name,

there echo chthonic sonorities

like the quondam glide of unguent lava’s rock jelly,

like the redundant undulance of sea swell

whose waves beach-taste

the island sands of Samothrace.

Bill Casselman, March 19, 2017

Text copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman


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