Saturday, September 09, 2017

The Saintly Invention Of Santa Ponsa

The fiestas are taking place in Santa Ponsa. Long before it found a place in the general consciousness (or in some instances unconsciousness) for being a resort, its principal claim to fame was for having been where Jaume I and his men disembarked on their mission of Aragonese expansion in 1229*. Reconquest and all that, Mallorca nevertheless offered potential for a mediaeval king with a spot of empire-building to conduct and with a need to keep vassals onside by finding them some nice plots of land. The grand "possession" of Santa Ponsa was created after the invasion.

We all know Santa Ponsa but mainly because it is a resort. But what do we know of the saint - Ponsa, or Ponça to use Jaume's linguistic legacy? We know very little. In fact we know nothing. Consult a list of saints and nowhere on it will you find a Ponsa. She (it) wasn't in any shape, form or legend a saint. She most certainly didn't exist. The name Santa Ponsa has nothing whatsoever to do with saints.

Although the possession (estate) was established in the thirteenth century, the name already existed. It was an Arabic farmstead, though the name clearly isn't Arabic. The origin is open to debate, but owes perhaps everything to prehistoric inhabitants. The Talayotic people of the area are said to have been of the Celtic-Hispanic or Celtic-Ligurian family. (Ligurian, still spoken, covered part of northern Italy and southern France.)

The Ponsa part was at one time Pontia, which suggests Latin but wasn't. Very ancient Indo-European gave rise to words as diverse as "pond" in English and others such as "ponç" and "pont". The latter was Celtic, meaning a word to describe a body of water. It corresponds to something like marsh or marshy place. And that was what Santa Ponsa was - a marshy place.

The Santa element can also be attributed to the Celts. There was a Celtic-Ligurian word "sant". It didn't mean saint, it referred to a wetland or, yes, a marshy place. Santa Ponsa was two times marshy, or so it might seem.

To make matters more complicated, there was a pre-Roman deity called "Ponto", and when this was applied to water it would have been feminised, i.e. "Ponta", as water elements tended to always be feminine.

But the word "santa" is to be found elsewhere in Mallorca and it also means marshy land, while there is a further angle on the Ponsa part. This would again seem to have Celtic roots and was a reference to wetland zones where there was an abundance of poplar trees. It is thought, therefore, that this is the most likely explanation of what is an enigmatic place name.

Over time, and in accordance with Christian religious sentiment, Santa Ponsa would have been fixed as - to use a grand technical term - a pseudo-hagiotoponym: in other words, a made-up saint's name. It has the appearance of saintliness, whereas in fact it owes absolutely nothing to any religious aspect. It was a hydronym, a proper name given to a body of water with or without poplars.

Santa Ponsa is by no means the only place name in Mallorca over which debate has raged as to its origin. Move a short distance down the coast and one comes to Magalluf, for which a common explanation is that it comes from the Arabic "ma haluf" to mean filthy water. But not everyone accepts this or indeed that the root is Arabic. It could be Jewish, and it would appear that back in the fourteenth century it was documented that the mayors of Andratx and Calvia owed money to two Jewish brothers - one was named Jusef, the other was Magaluf (with one 'l'). Ah but, where did he - Magaluf - get his name from?

Whatever the origin of the Santa Ponsa name, it's probably reasonable to assume that Jaume I wasn't agonising over it when he made landfall. Victory was eventually his, the Arabic farmstead became a possession, and the rest - Santa Ponsa-wise - was minor history until Heinrich Mendelssohn and Max Säume started to develop it in the 1930s and then Joe Walsh made it the favoured resort of the Irish in the 1970s.

* The re-enactment of the battle in Santa Ponsa takes place this afternoon from 17.30.

** Photo of the statue of Jaume I in Palma from Wikimedia Commons.

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