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Why is the Island called the Isle of Wight? What does 'Wight' mean, and where does it come from? I thought these would be easy questions to answer, but I cannot find any comprehensive work on the subject. Given the apparent scarcity of information, here are my initial thoughts:
Most people I have asked seem to think it is either something to do with the chalk ridge that runs across the downs - the word Wight coming from a corruption of 'white' - or from an old word for 'lever'. Personally I think there is a deeper interpretation, as you will see.
The Oxford English Dictionary lists three basic meanings for the word Wight, these being 'any living creature', 'magical or mysterious', or 'that which is strong'. There are also other less used meanings, such as 'small'. Arguments can be put forward for any of these definitions being the source for the Isle of Wight, but I feel the historical and entomological evidence points to the meaning of the magical or mysterious.
It is important to look at the historical names given to the Island. The earliest map that I have heard of that includes it has the word 'occi' written across the Island. Unfortunately nobody seems to know if this was actually an old Island name, or if it is simply some unknown annotation written by the cartographer; there is little or no evidence either way.
The Romans invaded the Island in about 45BCE, and named the Island 'Vectis' or 'Vecta' after Vespian planted the Roman Standard, although some people belive Vecta to simply mean 'lever'. The romans occupied the Island for about 450 years. Even after this long occupation there is evidence pointing to the fact that the Island still had it's own aboriginal Britons, who called the Island Guic or Gwith, which is thought to have meant 'that in isolation from the normal'.
When the Saxon king Cedric captured the Island around 530BCE the Island was variously called Wect, Wict, Wic or Pizland. Is it possible that the first three names have the same root as witan, the Saxon for 'the council of the wise'.
The strength of the older, more shamanic beliefs of the Island are mentioned in old historical documents that tell us that the Druidical system was still in common use on the Island in 678BCE. The old ways prevailed even through the occupation of a South Saxon king who enforced Christianity on pain of death, when all but 300 families perished. It is thought that the Island is the last place in Britain to become nominally Christian.
Someone who spoke Isle of Wight Gaelic once told me the word 'Wight' cones from the Gaelic 'wiht', which apparently means 'that which is mysterious or magical'. It is quite possible that this links in with the old Cornish word 'Wisht', which has a similar definition.
It is interesting to note that the Island has always been thought of as a magical isle. For it's size there is evidence for a surprisingly large number of ancient Pagan sites. There is also evidence to point to the fact that the Island was regarded as significant for many different religions and magical groups (including the Druids and the Roman Mithras cult.) Perhaps this importance stems from the uniqueness of the Island's symmetry, and it's geological and biological diversity.
Near the village of Mottistone can be found the site of the Long Stone. The Long Stone is without doubt one of the finest ancient sites on the Island. Most people believe that the Long Stone is a single megalithic stone, but in fact it is two large stones which form part of a long barrow complex. The long barrow is now only just discernible as a nearby mound; it was confirmed in the 1950s that the mound was a long barrow when excavations uncovered an ancient perimeter ditch and some Neolithic pottery remains.