10 September 2011


Edward Burne-Jones Sidonia von Bork
Burne-Jones, Sidonia von B.
Gender: Feminine
Usage: Late Latin, German, Romanian
Meaning: “woman from Sidon”

This austere beauty has won me over, first piquing my interest with the tragic story of Sidonia “the Sorceress” von Borcke, Pre-Raphaelite antiheroine, and then further hooking my imagination as the birth name of Colette (in its French form Sidonie, that is – see doh NEE).

Sidonia is only marginally less obscure in Germany and eastern Europe than in the English-speaking world, but wherever a Sidonia went, she’d be a rarity. For a class act with a rock-solid pedigree (i.e., gravitas) and the slightest touch of gloom, read on.

Sidon, Phœnicia (“fishery”)

Like Adriana, Sabina, Delphine and Lydia, she comes from an ancient place name, one mentioned in the Torah and Homer: Sidon. Also known as Zidon, it was once a great Phœnician seaport on the Mediterranean and its name (Tzidhon in the original Phœnician) probably reflects its coastal location, likely meaning “fishing place” from tzud “to hunt, capture.” (If so it’s related to the biblical place name Bethsaida, derived from Hebrew beth-tsaida “house of fishing.”) Sidon by the sea, which corresponds to modern-day Saida in Lebanon, “was renowned for its antiquity” – it could be the oldest Phœnician city-state – “and [for] the fame of its buildings; and Mela says that before it was conquered by the Persians, it was the greatest of the maritime cities...” The author of the notorious 2nd-century work De Dea Syria wrote about a great temple in Sidon dedicated to either Europa or Astarte.

Sidonia was later a Christian name (and Sidon a city Jesus visited), but the Sidonian people themselves? They worshipped the pagan gods Baal and his female counterpart Astarte (prototype of Venus/Aphrodite). The villainized Old Testament character Jezebel was in fact a pagan Sidonian princess (“[her] idolatry, too, was of the most debased and sensual kind”), whose zeal for her ancestral religion ended up costing her her life. Her father is said to have been a priest of Astarte and the grandfather of Dido. “Sidonian Dido,” as she is called, was the legendary founder of Carthage whom Virgil wrote about in the Aeneid.

Christian usage

St Sidonia with the sindon
The early Christian Roman Empire, having absorbed Sidon, produced the ethnic nomen Sidonius. Since “by the time of the later Republic and Empire women were simply known by the feminine form of their father’s nomen,” the daughter of a Sidonius would have the legal Roman name of Sidonia.

The name became associated with Latin sindon “fine linen,” resulting in the legend of a 1st-century Georgian saint Sidonia who was touching Christ’s Robe when she was told the story of Jesus’ recent crucifixion; she then clutched the linen to her breast and “immediately gave up the spirit.” It is said that above the spot where Saint Sidonia and the Robe were buried grew a cypress tree. (Its wood is supposedly the foundation of the Living Pillar Cathedral.)

The only other Saint Sidonia, a relative of the first, lived in the 4th century and was converted from Judaism to Christianity by Nino, a miracle-working female saint. There were also two saints named Sidonius, one from 5th-century Gaul and the other a 7th-century Irishman.

In the Middle Ages, English parents used Sidony probably with the Shroud of Turin (Sindone di Torino) in mind, but the name died out. For whatever reason, Sidonia/Sidonie was a go-to name for northern European Christian aristocrats. About the time of the Elizabethan era over in merry England, two noble-born Sidonias were tried for witchcraft within 50 years of each another: Princess Sidonia of Saxony in 1573 and, more sensationally, the Pomeranian lady Sidonia von Borcke in 1620.

Lucas Cranach d. Ä. 039
Hatless Sidonia of Saxony (far left) Mona Lisa-smiles with big sisters Emilia and Sybilla, c.1535

The third daughter of Duke Henry “the Pious” of Saxony, Princess Sidonia, named after his Bohemian (Czech) mother Zděnka (renamed Sidonia by her Saxon in-laws), learned the hard way the folly of marrying for hormonal love. She was a 26-year-old courtier when a young visiting duke swept her off her feet; sixteen-year-old Douche – err, Duke Eric had stopped by the Kassel court to negotiate his marriage with Sidonia’s cousin Agnes, but instead the odd pair fell absurdly in love and were hastily married. Agnes’ wise old papa gave an accurate prognosis: “All sorts of things will happen inside this marriage after the kissing month ends.” Sure enough, they clashed on matters of religion and, I imagine, Sidonia’s not having children. Eric left her for a mistress (whom Sidonia threatened to mutilate, if she got too close) and accused her of poisoning him. Poor Sidonia died in disgrace just one year after being acquitted of witchcraft charges.

As unfortunate as the Saxon princess was, Lady von Borcke had a dramatically worse fate. Despite being born into one of the noblest families in Pomerania, this Sidonia was persecuted, tortured and ultimately beheaded for witchcraft. From Gothic Heroine:
The thousand pages of transcripts of her confession, obtained through torture on the rack, and her trial, have been the source of a number of fictional accounts of her life, the most well known being the novel Sidonia von Bork, originally written in German by Wilhelm Meinhold in 1848. It was published in an English translation as Sidonia the Sorceress in 1849 by Jane Francesca Egree, later to become Lady Wilde, mother of Oscar Wilde. The early editions gained a cult status in sections of British society and were taken up particularly by members of the Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood; Burne Jones produced portraits of Sidonia and of her sister Clara.
    ...Meinhold’s subtitle for the novel describes Sidonia as “The supposed destroyer of the whole reigning ducal house of Pomerania”. In his own preface he asks that the reader “will pardon me if I do not here distinctly declare whether Sidonia be history or fiction”, however the premise of the novel is that all the eventual accusations made against Sidonia are true.
In dramatizations of her life story, Sidonia was cast as a femme fatale and appears in Victorian literature as “Sidonia the Sorceress.” This association gives the name an edge; bearing in mind the legend of beautiful and depraved Lady Sidonia, her name comes across as pleasantly sultry, witchy and dark.

Sidonie Gabrielle Colette
Another cool connection Sidonia has is to Colette, the pen name of Sidonie-Gabrielle Claudine Colette, modernist writer extraordinaire and free spirit of La Belle Époque. Sidonie was a family name; her beloved mother was Adèle Eugénie Sidonie (another triple-barreled moniker), called Sidonie and “Sido” for short. Sido was herself something of an eccentric who encouraged her daughter’s individuality and shocked the neighbors by reading Corneille at mass and refusing to dress in mourning clothes when her husband died. Sido is the title of a book Colette published in 1930. “What a wonderful life Ive had! I only wish Id realized it sooner,” she famously said. The wonderful life of this brilliant bohémienne is an inspiration to me and makes me like Sidonie and Sidonia that much more.

The 316st most popular girls’ name in France in 2008, Sidonie has been used several times in fiction:
  • In Count Geoffroy de la Tour’s 14th-century romance Pontus et la belle Sidoine, Sidoine is a Breton princess, virtuous and, of course, belle.
  • Sidonie is a character in Gluck’s opera Armide, for whom an asteroid and ship are named.
  • Alphonse Daudet’s Sidonie in his breakthrough novel Fromont and Risler (1874) is a vain and cruel social-climber.
  • Sidonie is a drug-addicted prostitute in the tragicomic play Die Ratten (1911).
  • In Erich Hackl’s 1989 novel Farewell Sidonia, she is a gypsy girl taken to Auschwitz at age eleven.
Other Sidonias of note:
  • Medina-Sidonia is an ancient city in Andalusia (southern Spain), possibly founded by Phœnicians from Sidon. The medieval dukedom of Medina Sidonia still exists today; until her death in 2008, the controversial aristocrat Luisa Isabel Álvarez de Toledo held the title.
  • Sidonija Rubido (1819-1884) was the first opera primadonna to come out of Croatia.
  • The Order of Sidonia was Saxony’s female order of knighthood from 1871-1918. Its insignia featured an image of a helmeted female figure.
  • Sidonie Baba, born Solange Duvernon (1905-1973), was a French poet and singer.

Sidonia is strong, mature, understated and overlooked – she’s never broken the U.S. top 1000, and neither has Sidonie. With such a rich, interesting history, not to mention the most legitimate of roots, it’s a wonder she’s veritably unknown. Considering her place in history, she’s a somewhat conservative choice. I think of her as a more serious, complex, dignified, European and feminine version of current favorite Sydney; honestly, I would love to see less Sydneys and more Sidonias. Admittedly she’s a bit formal for everyday use; for that there are low-maintenance nicknames like Sid, Sidda, Sido, Doe, Dodo, Sonia, Donya (a gypsy name) and, yes, Sidney works too. Why not take a chance on deeply romantic and high-class Sidonia?

Other forms of Sidonia include:

  • Sedaine (French – Archaic)
  • Sidónia (Slovak) (nameday: 23 June)
  • Sidonie (Czech, Dutch, French, German, Swedish)
    • Sida, Sitta (German diminutives)
  • Sidonija (Croatian, Serbian, Slovene)
    • Dona, Donia/Donija/Donja, Donka, Sida, Sodka (Slovene diminutives)
  • Sidoniya (Bulgarian, Russian)
  • Sidony (English)
  • Sydonia (Polish)
  • Szidónia (Hungarian)
    • Szidi (Hungarian diminutive)