She’s a powerful goddess, a mournful woman, and everything in between.

Thanks to Frances for suggesting Mara as Baby Name of the Day.
Mara can claim Biblical roots. Naomi takes the name in the Old Testament Book of Ruth following the death of her husband and sons. She tells us that Mara means bitter, and that tracks with one of the meanings attributed to Miriam and sometimes Mary, too.
Speaking of Mary, in some languages, Mara is a short form of Maria, or possibly just a spin on the name. And, of course, Tamara is usually shortened to the cheerleader/country western Tammy, but could just as easily be the sophisticated Mara instead.

But there’s so much more to Mara. She’s a goddess in Latvian myth, the equivalent of Juno. The only trouble is that Latvian mythology isn’t well documented, and it is possible that some of it was constructed after the fact, as a nod towards national pride. Still, that doesn’t make her any less of a Latvian heritage choice.

Mara has many less pleasant associations – the Old Norse mara is the source of the word mare. Folklore from at least the thirteenth century, and almost certainly earlier, gave the name mara to a goblin sent to torment sleepers – hence the term nightmare.

On the other side of the world, Mara’s daughters were the beautiful women a demon used to tempt Buddha. Mara was male – and, depending on your reading, somewhere between the embodiment of pure evil and a harmless pest.

A second male Mara surfaced in the 500s or 600s. The philosopher Mara bar Serapion hailed from Syria. His writings are among the oldest references to the historical Jesus that do not come out of a faith tradition.

And then there’s the Slavic witch. Even today, many Slavic cultures recognize Mara (or Mora, Morana, Morena, Marzena, and so on). This Mara is a goddess of winter and death; she’s sometimes depicted as a beautiful girl with claws, and sometimes as a broom-riding crone.

Mara’s status hasn’t stopped her from ranking in the highly regulated German top 100. And in recent years, the highest profile figure by the name might be child actor Mara Wilson, the engaging star of the movie version of Roald Dahl’s Matilda.

You might also overlook her negative associations when you look at her ranking. Mara is that elusive name – normal, in step with fashion, but never among the most popular picks. She first appeared in US Top 1000 in 1950, peaked at #539 in 1990, and fell to #756 in 2009. But that’s not a clear rise and fall; instead, Mara has bounced between the mid-500s and the mid-900s since the 1950s.

If you’re looking for a name that is simple, global, and has some depth without being at all common, Mara might be the choice for you.

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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What do you think?


  1. I love the name Mara! Though for me it has very positive meanings taken from East Africa. One of my favorite places on earth is the Masai Mara, in Kenya. “Mara” in Masai Mara is taken from the Masai language called Maa and has something to do with the beauty of the land. I also speak kiswahili in which the word “Mara” means time.

  2. Never liked Mara. I really dislike the meaning and now it reminds me of the animal. They are like a cross between a rabit and a guinea pig. They are cute, but I wouldn’t want to name my child after them.

    1. Yes and no. There are at least three suggested origins for Maura. One of them links her to Moira, which did evolve from the Mary names – so back to Mara. But there are other possible sources, too.

  3. It’s hard to think about naming a baby something that means bitter or sad or evil. Plus, is it MAR-a or Mah-ra?

  4. What a lot of heavy baggage! In Sanskrit, Mara means “evil” or “death-bringing”. But when I hear the word, I think of its two Biblical references: Naomi’s chosen name, and the time in Exodus when the children of Israel come to a river whose waters are so bitter they can’t drink it, so they name the place Mara as a result.