Belisama

Attested:  Ptolemy 2,3,2 Βελισαμα estuary.

Where:  The river Ribble in Lancashire used to have a very large estuary, but it has been infilled by a vast amount of sand coming inshore, as discussed for the last 3 centuries or so here.  Sea levels relative to land have not changed much since Roman times, when the tidal limit was probably like now, upstream of Preston, near the Roman supply depot at Walton-le-Dale, SD55132812.

Name Origin
Belisama is widely described as a goddess because of two inscriptions from Gaul, including this one.  Most commentators then liken the name to Latin bellissima ‘very beautiful’, with the observed name supposed to be a superlative derived from a root meaning ‘bright’, which developed to mean ‘white’ notably in Slavic.  However, at least 8 PIE roots of form *bhel- or *bel- have been recognised.  Delamarre (2003:71-72), who studied ancient personal names beginning with Bel-, translated Belisama as ‘most powerful’.
  Ptolemy generally named places that were significant for navigator-merchants and there is no obvious reason why the Ribble was divine.  (In fact divinities are invoked too often as name explanations.)  So maybe Belisama was a typical two-component name, not a plain adjective.  Then what might -sama mean?  Modern Samlesbury may preserve the name; it is said to come from Old English sceamol ‘ledge’, probably derived from Latin scamillus, diminutive of scamnum ‘ledge, bank of earth left after ploughing’.  The ledge in question is very obvious in the Terrain option of Google Maps: an escarpment rises steeply all along the north side of the flood plain through which the Ribble meanders from Ribchester to Preston.  The river name Ribble, formerly Rippel with P not B Ekwall (1928:340-1), may descend from *rei- ‘to cut’, like rip, rift, and Latin ripa ‘bank’.  Perhaps Beli- referred to the powerful tide that flows into the Ribble, but it seems better to think in terms of static topography, following Watkins (2011:10) in defining bhel- ‘to blow, to swell’ as having “derivatives referring to various round objects and to the notion of tumescent masculinity”.  Or, maybe best of all, it is related to Greek βελος ‘projectile, arrow, dart’, here referring to the (not very impressive) projection of the escarpment towards Walton-le-Dale.

Notes:  The Ribble formed the northern limit of Mercia, and perhaps marked a significant cultural division in Roman times, when Bremetenacum was at the brim or edge.  In France the bulge-ledge topography suggested here is apparent at both the find-spots of inscriptions that mention Belisama, and also at some of the later names, discussed by Lacroix (2007:164-8) as possibly descended from it, such as Blesmes and Bellême.

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Last edited 21 September 2020     To main Menu