He’s a saint – and a weather man, too.
Thanks to Paul for suggesting Swithun as Name of the Day.
You won’t find Swithun – or alt-spelling Swithin – in most name guides. But consult a list of saints and you’ll find two.
The original bearer was a ninth-century bishop from Wessex, England. Swithun served in King Egbert’s court before becoming Bishop of Winchester. There’s some debate about dates, but he’s considered a historical figure.
Like many Old English names, Swithun faded post-Norman invasion. Most link him to an Old English word for strong – swith, but it’s tempting to tie him to swifan – the source of our word swift.
Either way, Swithun is all about the saint. Over the years he became associated with many a miracle as well as the weather. If it rains on July 15 – St. Swithun’s Day – grab your umbrella, and keep it close for forty days:
- St Swithun’s day if thou dost rain
- For forty days it will remain
- St Swithun’s day if thou be fair
- For forty days ’twill rain no more
Theories abound for the rhyme’s origins, but interestingly enough, it’s not a bad predictor. The position of the jet stream in mid-July tends to bring six weeks’ of rainy (or dry) weather to the British Isles every summer. Throughout Europe, similar predictive powers are attributed to other saints with midsummer feasts. It may be an old pagan custom dressed up in Christian clothing.
You’ll also hear St. Swithun’s Day used to refer to a day that will never come.
Listen carefully, and you’ll find St. Swithun invoked in plenty of references:
- In the 1950s, Richard Gordon penned a series of novels about medical student Simon Sparrow and his work at fictional St. Swithin’s Hospital in London. The 1954 film adaptation, Doctor in the House, was a smash hit – and made Dirk Bogarde a star. A successful television show – more Scrubs than E.R. – followed in the late 60s and ran for years;
- References to the saint’s day abound in American television, too, from M.A.S.H. to the Simpsons to the Sopranos;
- Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael mystery novels mention St. Swithun, as does the kind-of-sort-of medieval movie A Knight’s Tale;
- Perhaps he’s so current in pop culture because he’s long been present in literary circles. Virginia Woolf’s 1941 Between the Acts – a play-within-a-play – includes a character named Lucy Swithin praying for clear skies;
- In the 19th century, Eliza Hutchinson Gutch was a contributor to Notes and Queries, a journal of English language and literature, under the pseudonym St. Swithin.
As for the later saint, Swithun Wells was martyred in the sixteenth century. His feast day falls on October 25, as one of the 40 Martyrs of England and Wales.
You’ll find a few Swithins and Swithuns in the historical record, as well as a fictional character in the role playing game Guild Wars, but this is a true rarity.
And yet, he might just be wearable. Swithun has the appeal of Dashiell or Rufus – quirky, distinctive but on the right side of outlandish. His two-syallble, ends-in-n construction – shared with the Aidens and many a current favorite for boys – helps, too. If an exceedingly rare saints’ name is what you seek, Swithun could be the one for you.