Just For Namesake: Mount Kynthos in Delos, Greece
By Cynthia Ord
Names aren’t fair
First names, like genes and hometown, can be a tyrant of a basic identity fact. Determined at birth, they have no regard for personal choice, nor are they open for much negotiation. Even the most well-intentioned parents go awry, and their kids get stuck with a mouthful of an off-tasting name. I was one of those kids. My name, Cynthia, is Greek mythic in origin.
As I discovered in a high school literature class, Cynthia is an epithet for Artemis, the Greek goddess of the moon and the hunt. At that age, however, the pagan roots of Cynthia didn’t interest me, and the name was an awkward fit.
My mother and grandmother had chosen the name based solely on the “nice ring to it” factor. If my family had researched the name’s origins even a little, they would have found that statistically the name Cynthia has been decreasing steadily in popularity since its peak in the 1950s.
In that decade, it ranked #12 in popularity for girls’ names in the U.S. By the early ’80s when I was born, it had dropped to #70. In 2009, it was down to #362. It was a baby boomer name, showing no signs of a comeback. The default nickname — even worse. I winced inside if anyone attempted the shortened Cindy. I was so not a Cindy. In my teenage angst, I made lists of names I would have preferred.
Misgivings about my name started to dissolve when I began traveling as a college student. It turns out that Cynthia is a great name for living in Latin America and Spain. In its slightly different Spanish spellings, Cintia or Cintya, it is familiar but still unique. People recognized it, remembered it, even complimented me on it. At one point, I was working alongside an Italian girl who called me the Italian version of the name, Cynzia, pronounced “CHIN sia”. I couldn’t get enough.
Of all the variations of Cynthia I encountered abroad, my favorite was actually a place – the historical town of Sintra, Portugal. I read on the train ride there that the place was named Sintra during the Roman era because the village’s inhabitants had practiced cult worship of the moon.
I felt akin to the place. Our names both evoked the same Greek deity and paid homage to the same white orb. I was on the lookout for remnants of the moon goddess and Sintra’s pagan past. The closest thing to visible evidence that I found was a cafe by the name of Cyntia. The name itself, though, resonated with me.
Mission: Mount Kynthos
I was given a pagan name by coincidence and had visited Sintra by chance. Yet the finding had provoked me. I wanted to keep hunting. I wanted to trace the name to its roots. I wanted to find the exact point of origin. It had to be Mount Kynthos on the island of Delos in the Greek Cyclades, the birthplace of Artemis.
In mythology, Artemis is a versatile goddess. She is recognized as a patron of the moon as well as the hunt and wild animals. She is often portrayed with her bow and arrow as a huntress, an elusive mover.
Both gods and mortal men who attempted to seduce her were always struck down. She is not said to have mothered any children. The more I read, the more I admired her prowess, her autonomy, and her enigma.
Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and his mistress Leto. In a fit of archetypal jealousy, Zeus’ wife Hera banished Leto from the face of the earth. God of the sea Posiedon took mercy on her and offered to harbor her on the island of Delos, so she fled to the island while pregnant with Artemis and her twin brother Apollo.
There, on Mount Kynthos on the island of Delos, Artemis and Apollo were born. For that reason Artemis is alternately known as Cynthia.
Today, the sacrosanct island of Delos has no permanent inhabitants. Its mythological and secular past is still being excavated. In 1990, UNESCO named Delos a World Heritage site, recognizing it as an “exceptionally extensive and rich” archaeological site which “conveys the image of a great cosmopolitan Mediterranean port.” In its commercial prime between 200 and 100 B.C., this tiny island of just 6.85 square kilometers was the hub of all the trade activity of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Before this ancient economic boom, the early Greeks who inhabited the island made it a place of worship. Between the 9th and the 4th century B.C., a great sanctuary was built in homage to Artemis and her twin Apollo, the god of light, harmony, and balance. Temples and sanctuaries honor other members of the Greek pantheon such as Leto and Aphrodite.
Nowadays, archaeologists dig and ferries shuttle handfuls of tourists to Delos from the neighboring Island of Mykonos just a few kilometers away.
In polar contrast to the loud baselines and excesses of Mykonos, which has been catering to the vices of mass tourism for decades, Delos inspires an awed silence. I reached the island on an off-season October day with clear skies and wind that blew my hair horizontal. From the port, I stared at Mount Kynthos rising gracefully on the horizon and started walking.
The ascent to Mount Kynthos is gentle. More a hill than a “mount”, the highest point is only about 367 ft (112 meters) above sea level. Along the way, a walking path cuts through groves of ancient truncated pillars. I passed a sanctuary of the Egyptian gods with its facade largely intact. I reached the steps to the peak of the mount.
At the top of the mount, the wind became tyrannical. Its fury threatened my balance as I stood in wonder absorbing the view from this special place I had been anticipating for so long. The wind persisted, interrupting my silence and pushing against me. I pushed back, testing its strength. I let half my weight fall into it and for one brief holy moment, it suspended me in the air.
The Right Name
That night in Athens, a sliver of a moon hung high – its shape was once associated with Artemis’ hunting bow. Cynthia. I belonged to my name as much as it belonged to me, and to Sintra and Kynthos, and to Artemis herself.
I listened for the ring that my namers had heard when choosing it. Instead I heard a resonance from ancient times and epic places. I held my name on my tongue and savored this proudly acquired taste.