Tanith: Baby Name of the Day

by appellationmountain on June 26, 2013

After the fall of Carthage, Tanit was venerate... Photo credit: Wikipedia

She’s an ancient, exotic appellation, one seldom heard in the English-speaking world.

Thanks to Fran for suggesting Tanith as our Baby Name of the Day.

Tanit was a goddess.  Along with Ba’al Hammon, she was the protector of the ancient empire of Carthage.  The couple was likely imported from Phoenicia.  This traces the name to the fifth century BC.

Depending on the historical moment, Tanit was a goddess of love or the moon.  Or war.  Or fertility.  Sometimes she was confused with – or conflated with – Astarte or Juno or another goddess.

It’s not clear when she picked up the final h, but she’s been Tanith in English for ages.

So what does Tanith mean?

The oft-repeated explanation is serpent lady, but I can’t confirm it – and while she’s sometimes pictured with a lion’s head, she’s never shown as a snake.  A handful of sites give her Irish origins, too, but these seem doubtful.  Some tie Tunis, the capital city of Tunisia, near ancient Carthage, to the goddess, but that doesn’t shine any light.

She’s exceedingly rare as a given name.  Tanith is more popular than Tanit, and the Greek Tanis is sometimes heard, too.

Tanith might have made it onto the list of possibilities by way of Guastave Flaubert’s Salammbô.  The 1862 novel was set in Carthage circa the third century BCE.  Salammbô is a priestess of Tanith.  It’s an intensely gory tale – and while it might explain our familiarity with the goddess, it might also hint at our reluctance to use the name.

Archeologists debate whether or not the ancient Carthaginians practiced child sacrifice.  But if they did, there’s some evidence that Tanith was part of it.  Gives you pause, right?

It’s also the name of an asteroid and a frequent choice for sci fi and fantasy writers.  As for real notables, there are a few:

  • Tanith Belbin won a silver medal in ice dancing at the 2006 Olympics in Turin with her partner Benjamin Agosto.  Belbin was born in Canada and became a naturalized American citizen.  I can’t find a story behind her unusual name.
  • Writer Tanith Lee is a sci fi and fantasy master, having published over 70 novels since the since the 1970s.
  • Tanith Carey is a British journalist writing on parenting issues.
  • Tanit Phoenix is a South African born actress.

So that’s a trio of Taniths, plus a Tanit, who might have inspired parents.

There’s also a 1968 horror film called The Devil Rides Out with a character by the name.  In Stargate SG-1, a male character answers to the name.

All of it adds up to an intriguing possibility.

Is she wearable?  If Theodore and Theodora are on the uptick, why not other th names?  I’m a sucker for Thisbe and Thora.  Plus surname name Tanner and legend name Tristan have made the tan sound stylish for boys, and choices like Elizabeth, Katherine, and Ruth are th heavy names for girls that rate as classics.

If you’re looking for something truly different, a tailored choice for a girl with rich history and an unexpected sound, Tanith might be the one for you.

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Fran June 28, 2013 at 6:42 PM

Thanks for covering this. The Tanith I know does actually have an Irish surname so it’s interesting to see the possible Irish connection, even if it’s doubtful.

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Waltzing More Than Matilda June 28, 2013 at 4:56 AM

I read the book “The Devil Rides Out” when I was a kid (yeah, my parents didn’t supervise my reading), and fell instantly in love with the name Tanith, even though the character is evil.

It’s so exotic, although I have to admit it still sounds slightly evil to me. But that’s part of its allure I expect.

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Christina Fonseca June 26, 2013 at 4:39 PM

I quite like it.

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Panya June 26, 2013 at 1:02 PM

I’d assume the ‘h’ was added as an anglicisation — loads of Hebrew names originally ending with -t have -th in English [the above-mentioned Elizabeth and Ruth being examples]. [Not that Tanit/h is Hebrew, just an observation of a similarity.]

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