Not a feminine Attila

I can’t remember how the idea of Attalissa, the goddess of Lissavakail incarnate as a human girl, came about. She was just there, inherent in the Blackdog’s existence, the focus of its obsession. Once she existed, of course, the temple came into being, as did her enemies. The source of her name, though, is easy. Mr Wicked and I walk by it nearly every day. (Actually, I’m usually being towed in pursuit of a squirrel at about that point. There’s a particularly cheeky one that hangs out in a nearby maple.)

I’ve speculated before on the origin of the name. It isn’t very likely to be a feminine diminutive of Attila; although variants of Attila seem common in northern and eastern Europe, one doesn’t usually find them among young ladies of the latter decades of Victoria’s empire. It sounds like it might be derived from Greek, and the Spouse and I speculated on that for a time with the help of our handy Greek Lexicon. However, there’s another possibility. There’s a “city” (with a population of under a thousand, it seems more of a township or village, but anyhow …) in Iowa, USA, named Atalissa (one “t”). Speculation seems to be that the name may be an anglicizing of a native word. There is also another literary Attalissa, or actually Atalissa, of the one “t” persuasion. She saw print too late to be the namesake of Attalissa H., born 1870, but in 1879, in Volume 8 of Gleason’s Monthly Companion, a short story by G. Putnam Upton appeared, entitled “Atalissa: A Tale of the Seventeenth Century”. This dates to the “romantic Indian” era. It’s the story of Atalissa, an “Indian maiden” desired by a brutish Frenchman; she is saved by her heroic betrothed, Wah-ne-ka. A nice little romance, though not politically correct these days, even though Atalissa and Wah-ne-ka are the heroes and their portrayal is probably no more inaccurate or stereotypical than that of the 17th-century Quebecois villain. It’s always possible, of course, that Upton’s “Atalissa” was published elsewhere before it appeared in Gleason’s Monthly, where we came across it, but it’s equally likely that in the later decades of the nineteenth century the name was out there, floating around, possibly even identified as a romantic native name. There’s a Hiawatha two stelae down from Atalissa, born about the same decade.

Attalissa’s other name, the one she uses as a young caravan mercenary, is something I made up, though, rather than pinching off a gravestone. It just sounded right, sounded like her, whereas Attalissa was elegant and quiet and dignified, which ‘Dhala, by that time an archer and camel-leech and caravaneer, wasn’t. I find a name has to sound right, or it doesn’t stick. Sometimes it takes ages to find the right name, and meanwhile, I use a filler-name, which I can never seem to spell consistently (because it isn’t right and isn’t sticking), which makes a search and replace once I come up with the right name a bit tricky. Attalissa, though not right for the teenage caravan-guard, was definitely the goddess from the start. I was walking, having just begun the book, musing on what to call her, saw the stone and knew, yes, that was her. I wish a certain character in the new project would announce himself so plainly.


About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at
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