Classical Baby Names: Great names with bad backstories
By Lauren Apfel
As both a classicist and a lover of names, I find myself in a unique position. On the one hand, I have been exposed, from a relatively young age, to a swathe of wonderful monikers that wouldn’t otherwise be on my radar: Achilles, Antigone, Andromache (to mention a few off the top of my head that all happen to start with A). On the other hand, I have spent many years studying and internalizing the tales of woe that accompany these names. Achilles, for instance, is not just an interesting three-syllable option to me with the benefit of a double letter. He is an angry man, with a delicate ego, who spent a long time sulking in his tent before embarking on a brutal killing spree. Not exactly the connotation I was looking for, you can imagine, when it came to naming my sons.
Okay, to be fair, I was never really tempted to call any of my sons Achilles. But there are some ancient Greek names that make me swoon, names I might even have considered using for my own modern offspring had their backstories not been so utterly problematic. Here are five:
Phaedra. This is a gorgeous name. I ended up calling my lone daughter Phoebe, because there is something special and sumptuous about that Ph beginning followed by a double vowel. But, oh Phaedra, you’re not quite the right role model for my little girl. Phaedra made a good marriage to a good king (Theseus), but it all went horribly wrong after that. Because Theseus already had a son, Hippolytus, and Phaedra took a liking to him. And not in a pure step-motherly sort of way, if you catch my drift.
Ajax. This has got to be one of the coolest boy’s names out there. I mean who doesn’t love an X ending that moves us beyond Max? And yet, what can I tell you about Ajax himself other than that he was a complete idiot? Sure, he was strong like an ox, if you’re into the muscly thing, but most of us these days would prefer our sons to be of the nuanced, intelligent variety. Also, Athena made him go mad and he slaughtered a bunch of livestock because he thought they were the soldiers who had insulted him and then he killed himself in a cloud of disgrace. Not. Very. Good.
Electra. A sparkly, firecracker of a name, and such an interesting E choice outside of the usual fare. For the dads, mind you, Electra remains a sound option. She was indeed a dutiful daughter…but only to her father. Her mom? There’s no way to sugarcoat it: she killed her. Or at least she was egging on her brother, Orestes, to do the dirty deed, even as her poor mother bared her breast in supplication. Yikes.
Cassandra. This one yields great nicknames: Cass, Cassie, Sandy. But the Cassandra of legend, well, she got a raw deal. She was given the power of prophesy by Apollo, so that she might predict things as they would truly be, but she was also given the concomitant curse that she was never to be believed. That’s a recipe for insanity, as you might guess. And that’s how she was seen forever more: as a both a liar and madwoman.
Paris. Place names are all the rage, aren’t they? And Paris has the magnificent city going for it as well as an ancient pedigree. In both senses, the name drips with love. For Paris was the lover of Helen, the most beautiful woman in the world. He whisked her away from her Spartan husband, Menelaus, and thus launched a thousand ships in what became known as the Trojan War. And yet, Paris the man was totally lame. He was in essence responsible for a big, big war, in which he did very little himself. He might have been pretty, but he was a shirker of duty and his shortcomings in battle were known to all.
Ah, if only Greek literature were a happier affair, my children might bear different names. But just to balance it out, here are my two favorite classical characters, whose names I love because of their stories not in spite of them.
Hector. A true prince with a hearty name, Hector is in my view the star of the Iliad. He was both an unflinching warrior and a faithful family man. He was the real deal, the whole package. We see his bravery and prowess on the battlefield as much as his sensitivity on the domestic front. He protects his country all the while taking care to comfort his wife and baby. Hector is a boy’s name that doesn’t disappoint: it is heroic across the board.
Penelope. Penelope’s virtue is legendary and she has a kick-ass name to boot. She was left for twenty years (that’s twenty years, ladies), as her husband, Odysseus, fought in the Trojan war and then wandered the seas on his way home, buffeted from island to island. And not only did she stay true to him, but she ran the kingdom in his absence, staving off a bunch of unseemly suitors with her cunning tricks. Smart, loyal, stately, Penelope is a name with a history a girl can be proud of.