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The Power of Eagles

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Edited by Richard Walker, Sunday, 6 Dec 2015, 15:52

Last night in my local, the Moon Under Water, talk turned to how the Roman road known as Ermine Street, which runs near here, got its name.

One theory was that it was called after the animal, the stoat in its white winter coat with a black-tipped tail, and derived from this a heraldic 'tincture' which is a background of white with black tail tips arranged in a pattern .

Few saw easily what the connection could be though, and in fact the explanation is totally different.

Ermine street is a corruption of an Anglo-Saxon name Earninga Straete, which would mean "the Roman road of Earn's people", Earn presumably being a tribal leader.

The word earn is the Anglo-Saxon for eagle and survives today in the form erne, meaning the sea eagle (or possibly the golden eagle too). Probably the tribal leader wasn't actually called Earn, because Anglo-Saxon names tended to be dithematic — composed from two parts, such as Alfred, "elf counsel" or Mathilda, "mighty battle".

However these names often got shortened. To any Maddys reading: did you realize you were warlike? Alfs, did you think of yourself as guided by supernatural beings?

In a similar way Earn was perhaps short for Earnwald, "eagle power". In forms such as Arnold it remains a common name today. Arnie?

And where did Earnwald's people live? Probably somewhere near the Cambridgeshire village of Arrington, which lies on Ermine Street. In the Domesday book it is Erningtone, "Ern's people's farmstead", which lends support to this idea.

I wondered what the Romans called this road. We have no idea. It seems we know the Latin names of few, or no, Roman roads in Britannia, although names were certainly given to roads elsewhere.

To end on a Roman note: here is an example of true eagle power. Jupiter was supposed to ride a chariot pulled by eagles, as shown in this spirited engraving. Sorry it is a bit dark but there was a bit of weather about as you can tell.

Picture credit

Welcome images, via Wikimedia commons

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