This blog post was originally published on December 25 2011, and revised and re-posted on December 23 2015.
From the very start I knew that I would have a name profile due on Christmas Day, and began thinking of suitable names for girls. Because Christmas is just after the Summer Solstice in Australia, and because Christmas is on a Sunday this year, I kept coming back to one name: Sunniva.
This lovely name is the Scandinavian form of the Anglo-Saxon Sunngifu, which means “gift of the sun”. As Christmas is a time for sharing gifts, and Australian Christmases can often be hot and sunny, and Christmas 2011 is on the Sun’s own day, it seemed perfect.
The story of Sunniva is one fraught with drama and high adventure. According to legend, there was once a 10th century Irish princess called Sunngifu, a virgin and very devout Christian. When her land was invaded by a pagan king who wished to marry her, she made a brave and rather desperate decision to escape. Along with a group of loyal companions, amongst them her brother Alban, she fled in a ship without oars or sails, trusting their destination to God.
After a few hairy encounters with Vikings, the pious company settled on the island of Selje, off the coast of Norway. They moved into an empty cave, and supported themselves with fishing and gathering wild foods, living a life of austerity and holiness. If you live in a comfortable house with a supermarket just down the road, this might sound a bit eccentric or at least cold and dismal, but Irish saints had a long and rich tradition of taking themselves off to remote windswept islands to worship in peace, so Sunniva and her crew were pretty normal by the standards of their time and place.
Unfortunately, the locals on the mainland believed these peaceful cave-dwellers were rustling their sheep and chowing down on ill-gotten roast mutton rather than the simple viands of nature. They came after them, intending to murder them as payback. Sunngifu and her company prayed to God to save them from the angry Norsemen. When the armed band arrived on the island, they found nobody there, and the cave sealed by a landslide. None of the exiles were ever seen alive again.
(This story may remind Australian readers both of Waltzing Matilda, with the accused sheep-thief preferring death to punishment by the authorities, and Picnic at Hanging Rock, which also ends with a mysterious disappearance in a cave which seals itself.)
Many years later, after reports of an unearthly light and heavenly fragrance in the area, King Olaf Tryggvason ordered that the cave be opened. Sunngifu’s body was found unharmed by the landslide and incorrupted, and as this was a clear sign of sainthood, King Olaf had a church built in her honour. Her relics were moved to Bergen Cathedral, where they performed another miracle by halting a fire (these useful relics disappeared at some point, unfortunately).
She became known in Scandinavia as Saint Sunniva, and is Norway’s first female saint. Saint Sunniva is the patron of Bergen, and the west coast of Norway. Her feast day is July 8 – appropriately enough, at the height of the northern hemisphere summer. The island of Selje is a place of pilgrimage, and you may see there the ruins of a Benedictine monastery dedicated to the saint, called Selje Abbey.
Sunniva has been well used as a girl’s name in Scandinavia, and is currently #68 in Norway, although falling in popularity, as it peaked at #32 in 2000.
Sunniva is pronounced SOON-ee-vah, but some people prefer to say it SUN-ee-va. Other popular pronunciations are soon-EE-va and sun-EE-va. You could also pronounce it soon-IE-va or sun-IE-va.
Sunniva has a happy meaning, well suited to summer and a land of sunshine. It provides good ties with our English, Irish and Norwegian heritages (we have several popular celebrities of Norwegian ancestry, and bush poet Henry Lawson’s father was from Norway). It’s an unusual name in Australia, but doesn’t sound particularly strange, and isn’t hard to spell or pronounce, once you work out which pronunciation you’d like.
Attractive nicknames for Sunniva include Sue, Susie, Sunny, Eve, Eva, Evie, Neva, Neve, and Zuzu.
Sunniva received an approval rating of 81%, making it one of the highest-rated names of 2011. 30% of people loved the name Sunniva, while only one person hated it.
(Picture is from the cover of Emma’s Secret by Steena Holmes)