“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”
(II.2.40-44) Romeo & Juliet, William Shakespeare
I play around with the past when talking about ancestral origins but my jokes are often near the best possible truth. I make references, and I can go on and on knowing that I have captured my audiences’ imagination and desire to dig deeper into the question, ‘Where am I from?”
I often open up with,
“I was born in Sicily. What is the first word that comes to your mind when I mention ‘Sicily’?
And the most immediate response is,
“Well, I reply sarcastically, “Be careful with what you think. I still have my connections!”
Putting all the joking aside, I say, “My birthplace, Sicily, was invaded by all the possible civilizations you can think of. To name a few: Phoenicians, Greeks, Arabs, Normans, Romans, Spaniards, and, lastly Italians.”
I push my audiences to challenge their preconceived notions,
“Please, bear with me. I am a full-fledged Italian, but an Italian from the region of Sicily!” To put the record straight, as a matter of factual recorded history, the ethnic groups I mentioned traveled around the Mediterranean Sea during the BCE and CE millennia and decided that the island of Sicily was a nice place to live. They came by ship with mighty warriors, conquered its peaceful habitants with the sword, and stayed for as long as possible until they surrendered to more powerful groups equipped with better soldiers and weapons.
At the end of these recurrent slaughters, the powerful took the wealth and the commoners mingled with the new arrivals—the most immediate outcome: mixed ethnic groups. You couldn’t tell who was Norman, Arab, Jewish, French or Spanish.
Or one might have guessed whom they were by looking at their faces: (1)
“Italiano? Greco? Una faccia, una razza!”(2)
“Italian? Greek? One face, one race!”
Ultimately, if Sicily is one’s birthplace, chances are that person is a genetic derivative of mixed ethnic groups.”
Unfortunately, some individuals prefer referring to a Sicilian like myself as a ‘Terrone,’ a derogative description to stress that one is the same color as the earth. In other words: like dirt. But, I wonder. In the absence of deep colors, isn’t being brown, the color of the soil, a wonderful thing? Isn’t it a compliment instead of an insult?”
I would say that I love the color of my skin. Within hours of being exposed to intense sunlight, it changes from light brown to dark brown —for many, a desirable tanned color.
Beyond intentional invasions, handovers, and warfare , my ancestors also survived hunger, famines, diseases, epidemics, and pandemics.
Did you ever hear of the Black Death of 1347 that killed most of the population in Messina, my birthplace? Ships departing from the Black Sea docked in the Strait of Messina. The sailors from these 12 ships brought pestilence and death. Local inhabitants started dying in astronomical figures. Whoever could escape from the city did it as fast as they could—those who stayed perished.
I startle my audiences by concluding,
“Well, the fact that we can all stand vertically shows that our ancestors survived. So let’s pat ourselves on the back. And, by the way, what are you going to do to ensure the lineage of your ancestors continues?”
In the real sense of written historical records, my birthplace, Messina, was initially erected by Greeks pirates from Cumae in 730 b.c.e… It was named Zancle, scythe, the shape of the still existing harbor. Later it was renamed Messana, by an ethnic group escaping famine from Messene, Greece, that took over the city by force. (3)
Were my ancestors Greek? Well? The settlements in eastern Sicily point in that direction but my cognomen, last name, Puleo, points in a completely different direction: Florence, Tuscany, a Roman military colony in the first-century b.c.e. (4)
The historian Malaspini mentions in Chapter 57 of “Istoria Fiorentina,’ that Cesare P. Artale, from Florence, traveled to Messina in 1500. Cesare researched medicinal herbs, came across the wild herb, pennyroyal, Mentha Pulegium, and moved around the entire island preaching the herb’s benefits and selling it. Because of his occupation, Cesare’s new cognomen was Pulejo from Sicilian puleiu or puleu, or Latin, puleium, a seller of herbs. (5)
Further written evidence suggests that Cesare Pulejo’s descendants distinguished themselves in various noble occupations. For example, Antonino Pulejo, Giuseppe Pulejo, and Pasquale Pulejo practiced medicine, following up on their ancestor’s curiosity about natural herbs’ benefits as described in an azure coat of arms: (6)
“D’azzurro, al leone d’oro impugnante colle branche anteriori un ramo di puleggio di verde, fiorito di rosso.” (7)
“Of blue, a golden lion holding with his anterior paws a green pennyroyal branch flowering in red.”
However, my favorite realistically fictional version of whom my ancestors might have been is an historical reference to the Roman author and philosopher Lucius Apuleius born in present Algeria, in North Africa and who travelled to ancient Rome. (8)
Adhering to the sequential evolution of Latin into italic languages, the Italian cognomen, Pulejo, was transformed from the Latin Apuleius by simply dropping the vowel, A, in front of the consonant, P (when uttered verbally, the P’ is more accentuated than the ‘A’), and changing the ending, ‘US’ in Pulejus into an o. The ‘J’ was simply changed to an ‘I’ or completely dropped. The Puleo’s orthographic changes are precisely what happens to every Latin word ending in ‘IUS’ or ‘U’ transformed to the Italian language. This discovery connecting me to Lucius Apuleius is synchronous with my passion for philosophy and writing in philosophical jargon.
With everything being said and done, where we come from matters, but what’s most important is what we do with the present. Where I come from or whom my ancestors might have been are crucial to how I use the knowledge to be productive and valuable when I join my fellow humans in the pains and joys of life.
(1) Lucio Dalla summarizes it all in his popular song.Lucio Dalla - Siciliano”
(2) An expression used by a fictional Greek f prostitute (who becomes a life companion) when meeting an Italian soldier in the 1991 film, ‘Meditteraneo, HTTPS://WWW.IMDB.COM/TITLE/TT0102426/.’
(3) According to the researcher Brunda, Pulejo is a derivative from the latin term puleium, pulleggia, in Italian, and the sicilian term, puleu. Regardless of the orthography, it is a term used to describe a wild mint, pennyroyal. (4) The Puleo’s cognomen or last name appears predominantly in Italy with approximately 6000 families. 5000 families are found in Sicily: about 2000 in Sciacca, another 2000 in Bagheria, 300 in Santo Stefano Qusquina and about 160 in Messina, my birth place. That’s not the end of the travels, Approximately 4500 Puleo families are found scattered all over the United States with the state of New York as the preferred location of Puleo’s emigration to the Americas.
(5) In the Middle Ages, t was a common practice to name individuals with names that described what they did for a living.
(6) To reaffirm common practices, the first names Antonino, Giuseppe and Pasquale appear often in my immediate family. (7) The Puleo Coat of Arms is actually a written valid record and the references to Cesare Pulejo traveling to Messina and throughout the island of Sicily accounted for.
(8) Lucius Apuleius was born in 124 ce in Madauros, present day, M’Daourough, Algeria. He was a Platonic philosopher, best known for the first ever prose narrative written in the Latin language, ‘The Golden Ass,’ originally known as ‘Metamorphoses.’