We have already covered the classic children’s writer and illustrator, May Gibbs, and her adorable floral creation, Little Ragged Blossom. This is another of her characters in the Snugglepot and Cuddlepie series, who can be found in the 1921 picture book Little Obelia.
Instead of being set in the Australian bush amongst the gum trees, Little Obelia continues the undersea adventures first encountered in the previous book of the series, Little Ragged Blossom.
May Gibbs wrote: I always had an absolute love for the underwater things …. I used to look into the clear water from the boats … we used to do a lot of boating in Perth … And one day I thought how lovely it would be to have a little town under the water.
So just as the gumnut babies were born from her childhood experiences in the Western Australian bush, Little Obelia was inspired by boating in Perth. It’s probably not a coincidence that she saw the undersea world as a “town”, and thought of it while in the city.
In the stories, the undersea world is in stark contrast to the bush. While the bush folk, like our gum-nut trio, are generally simple and egalitarian, the world of the sea is one of class difference. It is not long before we encounter a “grand affair” where one may meet Lord Giant Boarfish, the aristocratic Long Tom, the Honourable Mrs Rock Whiting, and Lady Garfish.
In other words, the bush stands in for the country or suburbia, while the sea is the city … glittering, exotic, a carefully structured society in an environment which is ever-shifting and sometimes hard to navigate.
There are many mysteries regarding the sea (one of them is how the gum-nuts manage to easily breathe underwater), and Little Obelia a rather mysterious figure.
Obelia is apparently a type of gum-nut baby too, but instead of growing up in the bush she lay sleeping in a pearl at the bottom of the sea for “years and years”. As she slept, her mind became imbued with great wisdom, although she physically did not age a day, remaining a tiny baby.
One day the pearl burst open into a beautiful white flower, which was found by Ragged Blossom and Snugglepot. After that, Obelia grew very quickly until she was the same size as Ragged Blossom, but so wise that even the cleverest of the Fish Folk would travel many miles to seek her advice.
As you can see, there are a lot of unanswered questions here! How does a baby get inside a pearl? How does sleeping for years and years make you wise? How long is years and years – ten years or ten thousand? How does a pearl blossom into a flower? And so forth.
Like all great oracles, there is much about Obelia which is veiled in mystery and secrets, until she almost takes on the mantle of a nymph or marine goddess.
Obelia’s name comes from the “beautiful Obelia seaweeds” which grew all around her pearl as she lay sleeping. Obelia are not really seaweeds or even plants: they are a genus of simple animals, related to jellyfish and coral, and extremely ancient. They do however grow in colonies which resemble seaweed, with fragile stems and branches.
Obelia are common around the world, and only live in shallow coastal water such as in rockpools, often forming a delicate growth upon rocks and jetties. May Gibbs must have often seen them at the beach – part of that clear underwater world she viewed from boats. Obelia don’t live in the deep sea, so we know that Little Obelia’s pearl must have been in quite shallow water, close to shore.
The name Obelia is from the ancient Greek obelas, meaning “a round loaf or cake”, I guess because colonies of Obelia can form a big mound. The cake’s name is from obelos, meaning “a spit, a spike, a nail”, because they were toasted on spits.
This is also the origin of the word obelisk, those tall tapered pillars ending in a pyramid made by the ancient Egyptians, who called them tekhenu. The Greeks must have seen them and thought they looked like sharp spits.
Obelisks symbolised the sun god Ra, and were so impressive that several countries had Egyptian obelisks shipped over for public display (Rome went slightly obelisk crazy, and you can see the world’s largest obelisk in the Piazza di San Giovanni). Possibly the most famous is Cleopatra’s Needle on London’s Victoria’s Embankment, although of course it is far older than Queen Cleopatra. The obelisk shape is still a favourite design for war memorials.
I’m not sure whether Obelia was used as a woman’s name in ancient Greece, but it’s been in uncommon use as a girl’s name in the English speaking world since the 18th century, and overwhelmingly more common in the United States. It appears likely that the obelisk was the inspiration behind the name, with connotations of both strength and slenderness. The name remains rare, with no sightings of Obelia in either UK or US name data for 2014.
I found only a very few women named Obelia in Australian records, but the Australian writer Drusilla Modjeska has a stepdaughter named Obelia, and there is an architect named Obelia Tait, and a designer called Obelia McCormack. I have also come across several women and girls in Australia with the name, and I’m guessing most, if not all, were named with Little Obelia in mind. I also found Obelia on this lady’s name list, to give you an idea of what other names might be in Obelia’s style.
This is an intelligent, elegant and even hip literary name which is very unusual, but not unfamiliar, and doesn’t seem bizarre in Australia. It doesn’t seem too markedly different from popular names like Olivia, Amelia, and Isabella, and I think would make a good choice for someone who loved the sound of Ophelia, but worried about Ophelia’s unhappy fate. Even the literal meaning of Little Obelia’s name is not a problem, as it doesn’t seem much different from the name Coral. A great way to celebrate both Australian literature and Australia’s love of the sea.
Thank you to Siobhan for requesting the name Obelia be featured on Waltzing More Than Matilda
(Picture shows an illustration from Little Obelia by May Gibbs)