This year, Monday January 21st marks the day we celebrate the birth of a great American, Martin Luther King, Jr. (his actual day of birth was January 15, 1929). It was Ronald Reagan who signed this federal holiday into law in 1983.
Since I’m in the business of naming, I always like to look at great men and women of history from the viewpoint of their first name. This perspective constantly reinforces my belief that names are no accident. As Sigmund Freud wrote, “A human being's name is a principal component in his person, perhaps a piece of his soul.”
The name Martin is a multilingual form of the Latin Martinus, an Old Roman cognomen (nickname), the third name in Rome’s three-part naming system called the Tria Nomina which was generally reserved for members of the aristocracy. Martinus is an example of an early theophoric name (ones that are derived from gods or goddesses), meaning, essentially, “belonging to Mars” (the Roman god of war and one of the most prominent of all gods in Roman mythology; equivalent to the Greek Ares). Mars is probably a Roman (Latin) borrowing from a now-extinct sister language belonging to various other Italic tribes who dwelled in present-day Italy. The name has been theoretically traced to mas (genitive of maris) “male, young man, virile” and by extension, “able, strong; brave in battle.”
Mars was an all-important deity, on par with Jupiter, the supreme god of Roman mythology. The month of March was named for him because it marked the beginning of a new season of warfare. He is also the namesake of the planet Mars due to its red color, suggestive of the bloody battlefields over which he presided. During war, the god was invoked for protection and to strengthen the resolve of the Roman soldiers. Mars also fathered Romulus, the mythical founder of Rome in the 8th century BC. In every possible way, the Ancient Romans worshipped Mars, including through the coinage of names Marcus, Marius and Martinus – among the oldest recorded in Western Civilization. These names were eventually deposited throughout Europe, Northern Africa and West Asia as the Roman Empire expanded in the early centuries AD.
Enter Christianity. Once Christianity took hold across Europe, names deriving from the old pagan gods of classical Greek and Roman mythology probably would not have endured and flourished had it not been for some high-profile saint bearing it. In this case, the name Martin owes its survival to a 4th century saint.
St. Martin of Tours (c. 326-397) was the son of a Roman soldier and pagan worshipper; as such, he was duty-bound to join the military at the age of 15. By this time, he was drawn to Christianity which was still illegal and punishable by death in the Roman Empire. According to popular medieval legend, while stationed in Gaul as a Roman soldier, he happened upon a poor beggar. Humbled by the man, Martin at once drew his military sword and cut his own coat – handing over half his garment to the man. That night, Martin dreamed of Jesus wearing half his coat and saying to the angels: “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier …he has clad me.”
This story, a shining example of Christian piety, became enormously popular among early and medieval Christians, particularly the French. A robust cult grew up around St. Martin and pilgrimages were made to his shrine. It was members of the French clergy who first began using the name Martin in the saint’s honor and five popes would bear it from the 7th century onward. Eventually, it was adopted across the Continent and the Norman French introduced it to English speakers after the Conquest of 1066.
So here we have it. A name first associated with war & conflict, and second with a Christian saint. How apropos, then, that two of the most famous, world-changing men would bear it. Two men, as it so happens, who stressed true Christian virtues amidst times of strife. And it’s a little known fact that the second great man was named after the first.
Martin Luther (1483-1546), a 16th century German monk and theologian, famously instigated the Protestant Reformation with his radical idea that salvation was a free gift from God (rather than rewarded through good deeds). All one needed was faith in Jesus Christ as redeemer of sin. This didn’t sit well with the Roman Church since they were deep into the practice of accepting money in return for giving absolution from sin. When Luther squarely confronted the Roman Church by nailing his Ninety-five Theses on his local church door, he set off a fire-storm, forever fracturing Western Christianity.
Fast forward 400 years. Born Michael King, Jr. on January 15, 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia, the boy’s reverend father (Michael King, Sr.) changed both their names to Martin Luther King sometime around 1934. The Senior King had just returned from Germany where the Baptist had toured the birthplace of Protestantism, itself profoundly juxtaposed against the hatred and intolerance displayed by the rising Nazi party.
Martin Luther King, Jr. lived up to his “battle-ready” name by all accounts, as well as his saintly namesake (St. Martin of Tours) by bravely putting his Christian values in action against the backdrop of violent national conflict. MLK famously lead the American Civil Rights Movement and altered the landscape of American history forever. His powerful, non-violent approach reshaped race-relations in the United States and his memorable speeches are among the most poignant words ever strung together. In his tragically-cut-short 39 years, MLK displayed a wisdom and a humanity this nation may never know again.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up, live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
By Julie Hackett | Founder | NameStories.com