Updated: Aug 24, 2020
By Skye Shirley
Names matter. They’re the way we present ourselves to the world, the letters we learn to curl into a signature, and the utterance that we respond to in a crowd. In a community of Latin speakers, we develop or share our identity through our names, and it still fills me with joy to scroll through my phone and see so many ancient names in my contacts. One friend chooses to go by Tertia because she is the third daughter in her family. Another friend chose Iuliana, in honor of the Julio-Claudian family she wrote her undergraduate thesis on. Many friends shift their own names just slightly, from Lyla to Lilia, Chiara to Clara, and Lauren to Laurentia.
My own Latin name’s journey is a troubled one. Many of you know me as “Serena,” but after about five minutes of meeting me, you’ll realize I’m anything but serene. So how did it become the name I am known by, when in fact I’d much better be described as Commota, Scholastica, or… well, Boudicca?
It began at my very first Latin immersion program. It was a hot summer day, and I had just moved into a shared dormitory with a few other Latinists. We heard a knock at the door and in came our professor to greet us and welcome us to the program. I had never heard Latin spoken before, much less at such a high level and from someone I’d never met. I caught only a vague sense of what he was saying, but then realized that he was introducing himself and asking how we were doing. Several of my roommates had names that were easily Latinized: from Beth to Beatrix, Maureen to Maria. Then he came to my name, and I cheerfully proposed: “Caelia?” I didn’t like the idea of being the neuter “Caelum” and it was years before I was embraced in a Greek class as “Ourania,” the muse of astronomy.
“Non,” he responded.
“Alta?” I offered, suggesting my middle name which, although just an adjective in Latin, might prove worthy.
“Immo-- Serena es. Serena vocaris.”
The whole conversation was in Latin, so how could I have expressed that I wanted to choose my name? Less than having a name I loved, I wanted to have a name I chose. I tried for several days to get Caelia and then Alta to catch on, but to no avail. The professor called me “Serena” so often in class and at our workshops that it stuck, and I have been known as Serena ever since.
As the years passed, though, it has never, ever felt right. It always felt as though Serena was not who I was, but who I was expected to be; it was the male projection of assumptions about me, without actual curiosity about how I defined myself.
In some ways, I became grateful for this experience, because it serves even today as a reminder to enter each school year open to how students want to be called. I always make sure students can choose Latin names of any gender, and I try to notice the way in which their names affect my perception of them. A student who calls herself “Laeta” might not always be happy… A student named “Maximus” may be insecure. Whether with English pronouns or Latin names, language is a step toward respecting a student’s identity.
Recently, I’ve had the opportunity to trace women’s names throughout history during a course I am teaching called “Women Writing Latin.” One passage spoke to me more than the others-- it is the memoir of Perpetua, a Christian martyr who was killed in Carthage in the 4th century. As she describes her struggle to defend her faith identity to her father, she asks him during his visit to her prison cell,
“Father, do you see that jar lying there?”
And he said “I see it.”
I said to him: “Could it be called by any name other than that which it is?”
And he said, “No.”
“Just like me-- I can’t say I’m different than what I am-- Christian.”
Those last words, “sīc et ego aliud mē dīcere nōn possum nisi quod sum” kept sticking in my mind. By being “Serena,” I’m called by the wrong name. I still love its history in my life and the identity that I wore during my entrance to spoken Latin communities. But the name holds me back, and more than that-- it’s a lie.
I’m not serene. I’m angry. I’m angry that so many women have experienced intimidation, harassment, exclusion, and stalking in spaces that are supposed to be dedicated toward learning Latin. I’m angry at the trolls who tweet things to the Lupercal account so misogynistic that they don’t bear repeating. I’m angry at the “man-els” full of expert male Latinists who, conference after conference, are lauded as the experts without making more room at the table by giving up their own privilege. I’m angry at those who say they support Lupercal but do not hesitate to grope women in offices, to enroll in courses at organizations closed or hostile to women, or to make excuses for those who push against our progress. I’m angry that I feel nervous even writing that I’m angry because I know positivity and community are almost always more palatable in a woman than call-outs and complaints. I’m angry that I feel pressured to keep experiences like these private in order to seem “professional.” I’m angry at the things we’ve experienced in the field that are too traumatic to even talk about, even anonymously. I am anything but “Serena,” and yet I keep smiling through introductions using a name that a man pressured me into using.
So… New name. I’ll still respond to Serena from my friends who “knew me when” and aim to be serene when it feels right to me, but really, I’m ready for a name that matches my keen determination to make Latin more diverse and to fight for gender equity.
Vocor Seraphina. Seraphina means “Ardent, Fiery One,” in Hebrew but, like many Hebrew names, it migrated to ancient Rome with immigrants and slaves, Christians and Jews. I want to burn not only to destroy what is hostile but to warm what is good. I want my name not to just be a name, but an adjective that I either proudly embody or strive to live up to. Whether you have known me for ages and would like to keep me as “Serena,” or want to call me up right now and say “Salve, Seraphina,” just know-- when I look at myself in the mirror (er, rather, Zoom camera)--
I’ll be calling myself nihil nisi quod sum-- Seraphina.
Skye Shirley is the founder and Executive Director at Lupercal. She has been a Latin teacher for nearly a decade and joyfully embraces spoken Latin as a valuable pedagogical tool and rewarding experience in itself. This fall she will be beginning a PhD in Latin at University College London, and her work will focus on the role of the muse in Neo-Latin women’s verse. In addition to Lupercal and her PhD research, she writes English poetry, learns languages, and runs a Latin middle school girls’ club called Puellae Power which is the highlight of every week.