14 September 2011


prinsenavsorg“With a feeling of deep yet most singular affection I regarded my friend Morella.” –opening words of “Morella” (1835)

The subject of today’s post comes to you from the dark imagination of Edgar Allan Poe, one of my favorite sources for dreamy girls’ names with macabre undertones. The short story “Morella” is one of his least-known works: a widower’s surreal and disturbing account of his wife’s death and perceived reincarnation. Normally I would discard her as made-up, flimsy or what-have-you, but the closer I look, the more compelling she is. The name of an ancient walled city, as well as an alternative name for the poisonous weed “black nightshade,” deliciously smooth Morella is all mystery and feminine allure – but is she too sensual, or her fictional namesake too grotesque and arabesque, to transfer over from a Poe anthology to a birth certificate? In an age dominated by pseudo-Italian, feminissa choices like Isabella and Arianna, this muted Gothic name is a natural.

Harry Clarke, illustration for “Morella,” 1923
“Morella” was published in April 1835 (a month after “Berenice”), and in September of that year its author married his thirteen-year-old cousin Virginia – which is interesting (for many reasons), in light of how disastrous married life is for the narrator of “Morella.” Then again, Poe’s unnamed storyteller is distraught and likely unreliable in relaying events. Has he descended into madness, or does his wife truly haunt him from beyond the grave? On her deathbed she had said,
    “I am dying, yet shall I live.”
    “The days have never been when thou couldst love me—but her whom in life thou didst abhor, in death thou shalt adore.”
Along with Berenice and Ligeia (similar Poe protagonists), the title character is essentially a vampire.

“Morella” was adapted to the screen in Tales of Terror (1962) with Vincent Price, and before he died, Tony Curtis was set to appear in a 2011 film adaption.

As to whether Poe made the name up or discovered it somewhere, there’s no clear-cut answer; either way, since he was naming a veritable lamia, the fact that its first syllable recalls Latin mors “death” (but in a subtler way than Morticia) probably drew him to it. Morella is also reminiscent of “mournful” and amour. He could have borrowed the name from somewhere, as it’s been used sporadically, in unrelated cases.

Morella seems to be relatively popular in New Zealand and Latin America. Perhaps the most prominent bearers have been Venezuelan singer Morella Muñoz (1935-1995) and Saint Lucian politician Dr. Morella Joseph, the first female president of a political party in the history of Saint Lucia.

Vista de Morella
The Spanish town of Morella, 1845
Morella could well come from Maurus, or at least share a common ancestor; this is true for the Spanish place name of Morella. It’s an historic hilltop town overlooking the Mediterranean, captured by the Moors in the first century AD and since then called Maurela. It’s also the name of a mountain in Catalonia, Spain, and in Barcelona they have a rhyme: Vent de Morella, llevant després d’ella (“The wind from Morella is followed by wind from the east”). There, La Morella refers to a southern wind from the direction of the mountain.

Both “Maurela” and “Moor” derive from Latin Maurus meaning “of Mauritania,” the region of northwest Africa they were from, and the place name can be traced to Mauros, a Greek personal name from either a native Moorish name or the Greek adjective mauros “black” – but the Online Etymology Dictionary notes that “this adjective only appears in late Greek and may as well be from the people’s name [Mauros] as the reverse.” It’s a chicken-or-egg question. Regardless, most sources still take Maurus to mean “black” or “dark-skinned” – which is in keeping with the darkness of Poe’s demonic title character.

Morello Cherry
Morello (dark) sour cherries
Morello means “black horse” in Italian, from Maurus; “Morello di Vento” was the name of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s riding horse, and in the medieval romance Cligès, Morel was the horse Cligès rode in a great tournament (he won, thereby proving himself to King Arthur). But it was also an Italian personal name; in fact, in the year 1427, it was the 237th most common name for adult men in Florence. (However, I couldn’t find evidence that Morella was/is used in Italy.)

In the Divine Comedy, Dante alludes to his friend Morello or Moroello III Malaspina (or Maroello, Morollo, Moruello) as the Vapor di Magra:
“Mars draws from Magra Valley a hot wind wrapped in roiling clouds, and with impetuous, bitter violence they will fight above Camp Piceno; and he will suddenly break the cloud, so that every White will be stricken by it,” Inferno XXIV, 144-50.
Like a fog, Moroello – a marquis from the Val di Magra northwest of Tuscany – surrounded and defeated the enemy in the Battle of Campo Piceno (1302). He was a Black Guelph, which sort of coincides with his name (mauro, literally “Moor,” was a nickname for men of blackish complexion), who led his party to victory over the Florentine government in which Dante served, indirectly causing the poet to be exiled from Florence on pain of burning if he returned; but despite the politics, Dante and Moroello struck up an unlikely friendship. Moroello was a family name, and his famous kinsman Alessandro Malaspina, an explorer born centuries later, was the son of Carlo Morello.

Maurelius is the patron saint of Ferrara, Italy, and the boys’ name Maurelio belonged to an Italian Baroque painter, Maurelio Scanavani. Morelia, given to 29 U.S.-born girls in 2010, corresponds to a city in Mexico named after national hero José María Morelos. In 1999, astronomer Stefano Sposetti named an asteroid Maurilia after his sister. Maurilio, given to nine boys in the U.S. last year, was a saint’s name (a.k.a. Maurilius) and belonged to a Cardinal, Maurilio Fossati, who was an outspoken anti-Fascist during WWII. (Note: I’ve seen Maurilius traced back not to Roman Maurus, but rather the Celtic Mwawr, said to mean “magnanimous.”)

Juliana Morell, by Edme de Boulonois
Morello is also an Italian surname, borne by one of the first gangs of New York: the Morello crime family. It could be a short form of Amorello, from the term of endearment Amore, “love.” Juliana Morell (1594-1653) was a Spanish nun celebrated for her learning, immortalized in a poem by contemporary writer Lope de Vega (1562-1635) as “the fourth of the Graces and the tenth Muse.”

Morella was also an Italian surname, possibly derived from Sicilian mureddha “blackberry.” In 1728, the British amatory fiction writer (and “literary dunce”) Eliza Haywood published The Agreeable Caledonian: or, Memoirs of Signiora di Morella, in which the protagonist, a Roman lady named Clementina di Morella, makes her escape from a monastery, for the love of a Scots nobleman.” The story begins,
Of all the noble Families in Rome there was none that cou’d boast of having furnish’d the Council with greater Statesmen, nor the Army with more brave Commanders, than that of Morella.

Sweet, soulful Morella has several other possible origins. She was a medieval Scottish variant of Muriel; Morella or Muriella Calder (1498-1575), an orphan heiress who was kidnapped by a rival clan and forced into marriage at twelve years old, was an ancestor of Winston Churchill, Princess Diana and Prince Rainier. Her great-great-grandmother had also been a Morella (a.k.a. Muriel Chisholm).

Nightshade (Solanum xanti)
In the plant genus Solanum there is a group or clade called the “Morelloid” clade, often referred to as the black nightshade group. In Italy, morella is the common name for “black nightshade” or Solanum nigrum; in French it’s la morelle noire, and another English name is “petty morel.” (A morel is also a type of mushroom.) Species related to black nightshade are also called Morella, like “bittersweet nightshade” (Solanum dulcamara – where the character Dr. Dulcamara in the opera L’elisir d’amore gets his name – which is Morella rampicante in Italian and Morelle douce-amère in French) and its more notorious sister, “deadly nightshade.”

Deadly nightshade or Belladonna has long been used as a medicine, poison and hallucinogenic. The 16th-century physician Della Porta wrote down two formulae for “flying ointments” allegedly used by witches involving deadly nightshade (warning: this reading material is NOT for the faint of heart!), referred to simply as Morelle:
  1. De la Bule (water parsnip), de l’Acorum vulgaire (sweet flag), de la Quintefeuille (cinquefoil), du sang de chauvesouris (bat’s blood), de la Morelle endormante (deadly nightshade – literally “sleepy Morelle”), et de l’huyle (oil).
  2. De graisse d’enfant (baby’s fat), de suc d’Ache (juice of water parsnip), d’Aconite (aconite), de Quintefeuille (cinquefoil), de Morelle (deadly nightshade), et de suye (soot).
In “Morella,” the narrator mentions that his wife was educated at Pressburg, a university city on the Danube River associated with witchcraft and the occult – where nightshade grows. Coincidence?

(FYI: There is also a seemingly unrelated genus of flowering plants named Morella.)

Sound-alike names
  • Recently a character named Maurella appeared on HBO’s True Blood (that’s season four). She’s a fairy – possibly a recurring role.
  • Marella is another feminine form of Maurilio, belonging to the Italian princess, socialite and ’60s style icon Marella Agnelli.
  • Moriah: an Old Testament place name and a top 1000 name in 2009, specifically #630 (given to 408 girls).
  • Moria: a water nymph in Greek myth who, when her brother was killed by a monstrous serpent, brought him back to life with a magical herb. In ancient Greece, a moria was a type of olive tree believed to have come from “the original olive which Athena herself had caused to spring up on the Acropolis.” To uproot a sacred moria was an offense punishable by dispossession and banishment.
  • Mór: a Gaelic girls’ name meaning “great,” and the beginning of Morrigan, originally Mór Ríoghain “great queen,” the Irish goddess of war and death who often appeared as a crow.
  • Morana (or Morena): the Slavic goddess of death, and a gypsy name.
  • Marilla: In the Anne of Green Gables series, this is the name of Anne’s adopted mother, after whom she later names her daughter. The series finale is Rilla of Ingleside (1921), about Anne’s Marilla (obviously nicknamed “Rilla”). It could come from Amaryllis.
  • Meliora: Kathryn behind the Edward II blog spotted this name “while trawling through the Patent and Close Rolls of the early fourteenth century;” in October 1327, Meliora was the widow of one Gilbert de Glenkarny. “‘Meliora’ always sounds to me like the kind of silly pseudo-medieval name that sometimes appears in historical romances” – amen to that – “but there you go, apparently it was a real name.” It’s associated with Latin melior “better.”
  • Medora Leigh was Lord Byron’s niece and rumored daughter. She was named after a character in his poem The Corsair (1814), made into a Verdi opera.
  • Others: Morgana, Mirella, Marlene

Morella is beautiful in a haunting, otherworldly way, but taken out of her literary context she’s also warm and self-possessed, fit for a 21st-century sweetheart. Delving into her many exciting associations has been an adventure, and for such an obscure name I could really flesh her out.


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