Melissa is a given name for a female child. The name comes from the Greek word μέλισσα (melissa), "honey bee", which in turn comes from μέλι (meli), "honey". In Ireland it is sometimes used as a feminine form of the Gaelic male name Maoilíosa, which means "servant of Jesus." Melissa also refers to the plant known as lemon balm (family Lamiaceae; genus and species Melissa officinalis).
According to Greek mythology, perhaps reflecting Minoan culture in making her the daughter of a Cretan king Melissos, Melissa was a nymph who discovered and taught the use of honey and from whom bees were believed to have received their name. She was one of the nymphic nurses of Zeus, sister to Amaltheia, but rather than feeding the baby milk, Melissa, appropriately for her name, fed him honey. Or, alternatively, the bees brought honey straight to his mouth. Because of her, Melissa became the name of all the nymphs who cared for the patriarch god as a baby.
Melissa was not a popular name in the United States until the 1950s. Very popular during the decades from the 1960s through the 1990s, today Melissa is somewhat of a rare baby name; in 2010, fewer than 2,500 girls were given the name, compared with around 10,000 in 1993 and well over 30,000 at the name's peak popularity in 1979. In 2007, Melissa was the 137th most popular name for girls born in the United States, dropping steadily from its peak of second place in 1977. It was among the top ten most popular names for girls from 1967 to 1984.
Ancient Greek Mythology
The name "Melissa" has a long history with roots reaching back to even before Ancient Greece. For this reason, in part, there are several versions of the story surrounding the mythological character Melissa, especially in how she came to care for the infant Zeus. In one version, Melissa, a mountain-nymph hid Zeus from his father, Cronus, who was intent on devouring his progeny. She fed Zeus goat's milk from Amalthea and fed him honey, giving him a permanent taste for it even once he came to rule on Mount Olympus. Cronus became aware of Melissa's role in thwarting his murderous design and changed her into an earthworm. Zeus, however, took pity and transformed her into a beautiful bee.
Nymphs, such as Melissa, played an important role in mythic accounts of the origin of basic institutions and skills, as in the training of the culture heroes Dionysos and Aristaeus or the civilizing behaviors taught by the bee nymph. The antiquarian Mnaseas' account of Melissa gives a good picture of her function as in this respect. According to folklore, Melissa first found a honeycomb, tasted it, then mixed it with water as a beverage. She taught her companions to make the drink and eat the food, and thus the creature was named for her, and she was made its guardian. This was part of the Nymphs' achievement of bringing men out of their wild state. Under the guidance of Melissa, the Nymphs not only turned man away from eating each other to eating only this product of the forest trees, but also introduced into the world of men the feeling of modesty.
In addition, the ancient Greek philosopher, Porphyry (233 to c. 304 AD) wrote of the priestesses of Demeter, known as Melissae ("bees"), who were initiates of the chthonian goddess. The story surrounding Melissae tells of an elderly priestess of Demeter, named Melissa, initiated into her mysteries by the goddess herself. When Melissa's neighbors tried to make her reveal the secrets of her initiation, she remained silent, never letting a word pass from her lips. In anger, the women tore her to pieces, but Demeter sent a plague upon them, causing bees to be born from Melissa's dead body. From Porphyry's writings, scholars have also learned that Melissa was the name of the moon goddess Artemis and the goddess who took suffering away from mothers giving birth. Souls were symbolized by bees and it was Melissa who drew souls down to be born. She was connected with the idea of a periodic regeneration.
Jacob Bryant, a significant British scholar and late 18th to early 19th century mythographer, recognized that as all the great occurrences of old were represented by hieroglyphics, we may in consequence of it perceive many different emblems, which manifestly relate to the same history. One such instance relates to the deity Melitta or Melissa — for the name is given in both ways — who was in particular described under various symbols.
Within a fragment of the Orphic poetry, quoted by Natalis Comes, Melitta is spoken of as a hive, and called Seira, or the hive of Venus:
- "Let us celebrate the hive of Venus, who rose from the sea: that hive of many names: the mighty fountain, from whence all kings are descended; from whence all the winged and immortal Loves were again produced."
From the works of Hesychius, it is clear that the word Seira among other interpretations signified Melitta, a bee; also a hive, or house of Melitta, "[s]uch is the sense of it in this passage: and [she] was thus represented in ancient mythology, as being the receptacle, from whence issued that swarm, by which the world was peopled.". With that said, Seira was none other than the goddess Demeter, the supposed mother of mankind; who was also styled as Melitta and Melissa, and was looked upon as the Venus of the East. This Deity, Melitta, was the same as Mylitta, the well-known Venus of the Babylonians and Arabians. Melissa or Melitta is also said to be the mother-wife of Phoroneus, the first that reigned, in whose days the dispersion of mankind occurred, whereas before all had been in harmony and only one language was spoken. Melitta, being the feminine of Melitz, the Mediator, consequently signifies Melitta the Mediatrix for sinful mortals.
The 16th-century Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto used the name "Melissa" for a good fairy (the good sorceress and prophetess who lived in Merlin's cave) in his poem Orlando Furioso. The following is an ode to Melissa's birthday by Thomas Blacklock, a Scottish poet from the late 18th century.
ODE, ON MELISSA'S BIRTH-DAY
"Ye nymphs and swains, whom love inspires
With all his pure and faithful fires,
Hither with joyful steps repair;
You who his tenderest transports share
For lo ! in beauty's gayest pride,
Summer expands her bosom wide ;
The Sun no more in clouds inshriu'd,
Darts all his glories unconfin'd;
The feather'd choir from every spray
Salute Melissa's natal day.
Hither ye nymphs and shepherds haste,
Each with a flow'ry chaplet grae'd,
With transport while the shades resound,
And Nature spreads her charms around;
While ev'ry breeze exhales perfumes,
And Bion his mute pipe resumes;
With Bion long disus'd to play,
Salute Melissa's natal day.
For Bion long deplor'd his pain
Thro' woods and devious wilds in vain;
At last impell'd by deep despair,
The swain preferr'd his ardent pray'r;
His ardent pray'r Melissa heard,
And ever)* latent sorrow cheer'd,
His days with social rapture ble~t,
And scoth'd each anxious care to rest.
Tune, shepherds, tune the festive lay,
And hail Melissa's natal day.
With Nature's incense to the skies
Let all your fervid wishes rise,
That Heav'n and Farth may join to shed
Their choicest blessings on her head;
That years protracted, as they flow,
May pleasures more sublime bestow ;
While by succeeding years surpast,
The happiest still may be the last;
And thus each circling Sun display,
A mere auspicious natal day."