The name of Ursula connotes something dark, alluring and exotic, and seems to be associated with fate. It is a name to be said in a low, throaty voice, growling with rich, succulent consonants: Urrrsulllaaa. It is a name for fateful women and for fortune tellers. When Disney chose this name for their sly and evil sea-witch in their retelling of The Little Mermaid, they knew what they were doing.

Still, it is sort of funny they should do this. Historically, the name belonged to a brutally murdered saint, and it has the rather prosaic meaning of Little bear in Latin. If a girl named Ursula were to choose a star constellation for herself, it would probably be Ursa minor, which means the same. But that little bear has other stories. This is Ursula's node.

The saintly Ursula was neither sinister nor dark. She was a Breton princess, born in the 4th century or so. As a strongly believing Christian, she was the unwillingly betrothed to a pagan prince. To save time and perhaps even her soul, she pleaded for a three year postponement of the marriage and went on a pilgrimage to Rome together with a group of loyal maidens, whose numbers range from eleven to eleven thousand, depending on your source. In all likelihood they were not 11 000, but 11 maidens or even 11 ships. However, scribes may have thought the abbreviation M for Martyr was the Roman numeral for a thousand, and so given rise to the legend of the unlikely number.

No matter their number, the ladies came to an unfortunate end. On their journey home from Rome, they met with a group of marauding Huns who were not going to let them go easily. Either because the barbarians disliked Christians, or because Ursula refused to marry their chieftain, they were massacred to the last maiden. To honour the martyred virgins, a basilica was later built in Cologne close to the place where they were killed.

In the Middle Ages, Ursula the Saintly Princess was a very popular figure, and her name became a common girl's name. Her dramatic story appealed to imagination and creativity. "The Stories from the Life of St Ursula" by Vittore Carpaccio is an example of this. Commissioned by the confraternity of St Ursula in Venice, he produced nine beautiful canvases, painted between 1490 and 1496, depicting scenes from the saint's life.

As a saint, Urusula guards young girls, students, teachers, and a Catholic education. The Ursuline Order was founded primarily to educate young Catholic girls. Maybe this penchant for knowledge is where the fortune tellers get their inspiration. Or maybe it is just the way the name sounds.

Played by Lisa Kudrow, Ursula is the name of the waitress who worked at the restaurant frequented by Paul and Jamie in Mad About You. Later, as part of a crossover with the sitcom Friends, Ursula was found to be the identical twin sister of Phoebe Buffay. Originally vapid, but generally unmalicious, Ursula evolved over the course of guest appearances into a deceitful, treacherous leech, who (among other things) starred in a porno flick using Phoebe's name. Phoebe and Ursula had quite a feud going between them; according to Phoebe, one reason for this was because "she was the prettier one".

Ur"su*la (?), n. Zool.

A beautiful North American butterfly (Basilarchia, ∨ Limenitis, astyanax). Its wings are nearly black with red and blue spots and blotches. Called also red-spotted purple.

 

© Webster 1913.

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