A few days ago, inspired by a recent post from Cat, I found myself combing through a long list of Orthodox saints’ names in search of little-heard ancient gems that would wear well on a modern girl.
I’ve grown up Protestant. Ever since the Reformation, we as a sect have shunned saints’ names in favor of those that are distinctly Biblical. Yes, if you’ve ever met a Hiram, a Silas, a Naomi, or a Jerusha, it was probably one of us.
After seeing this list, though, I can’t help but think that we’re missing out on some potentially lovely monikers. Though they may not be in the Bible (and though some of their histories are admittedly far-fetched), these women are still fabulous namesakes, with interesting stories and appellations so lovely as to merit consideration by parents of any religion (or none at all). Here are a few favorites:
- Xenia — a Greek name meaning “guest or stranger.” St. Xenia was a fifth-century Russian from St. Petersburg. Her early life wasn’t particularly pious. She married a rather worldly young man, who died while drinking, leaving Xenia a widow at age 26. Distraught by the loss of her husband and realizing the vanity of their former life, she decided to give up all her possessions away and devote her life to serving God. Kseniya and Oksana are the Russian and Ukrainian variants of this name, but Xenia seems like the simplest choice for an English-speaking child.
- Daria — a feminine form of Darius, meaning “possessing good.” Daria was a Greek priestess of Minerva, converted to Christianity by her husband. Her husband was executed for his beliefs, and Daria was sent to a brothel, where she was miraculously defended by a lion. Not one to be thwarted, the emperor then had her stoned and buried alive.
- Junia — a name derived from the goddess Juno. St. Junia was a first-century Christian mentioned in the Bible as being “of note among the apostles.” There has been a lot of controversy surrounding her name. First of all, it’s unclear from the original Greek text whether the name should be translated as Junia (a woman) or Junias (a man), but the majority of the evidence suggests Junia was a woman. Second, there is a debate over whether “of note among the apostles” implies that Junia herself was an apostle (and thus that the early Church allowed female apostles) or whether it simply means that Junia was well-known by the presumably all male apostles. Not wishing to involve myself in a theological debate at the moment, I’ll just say that she seems to have been important and she had a very pretty name.
- Sidonia — a Roman name meaning “of Sidon.” According to the legend, Sidonia was a Jewish woman living in what is now the country of Georgia. When news of the Messiah’s arrival in Jerusalem reached their city, her brother Elioz was sent to investigate. Elioz witnessed the crucifiction of Christ, acquired Christ’s robe (for which the Roman soldiers had cast lots), and took the robe back to his home. His sister Sidonia, weeping and clutching Christ’s robe, listened to her brother’s account of the Messiah’s crucifiction and immediately died of grief. She was buried still clutching the robe, and a cypress tree grew up over her grave.
- Olive — from the name of the tree, a symbol of peace. St. Olive (also known as Oliva) was a beautiful 13-year-old Italian girl, kidnapped by raiding Muslims and taken to Tunisia. She healed and converted many Muslims before being beheaded for her faith.
- Lucina — a Latin name meaning “grove.” There are several mentions of Roman women named Lucina (all of whom donated burial crypts or helped bury Christian martyrs), but there are no full histories of their lives. Because of this, some have speculated that Lucina wasn’t one particular saint, but instead a code name used by several wealthy Christian noblewomen to avoid persecution. One of the oldest portions of the Roman catacombs is known as the Crypt of Lucina.
- Isidora — means “gift of Isis.” Also known as St. Isidora the Simple, this fourth-century nun lived in a convent in Egypt. She often wore a rag on her head and was mocked and ill-treated by the other nuns, who assumed her to be a simpleton. One day, a well-respected hermit visited the convent, told he would find “an elect vessel full of the grace of God” and that he would know her “by the crown that shines above her head.” When Isidora entered the room, he saw a ring of light shining above her rag-covered head, and he fell down at her feet. The other nuns realized that what they had perceived as simplicity was really humility, and they began to revere her as a saint. The humble Isidora, unable to bear so much admiration, ran away from the convent a few days later and was never heard from again. Her admirable name is anything but humble; its exotic Spanish flair would make it a lovely substitute for Isabella.
- Zenobia — means “life of Zeus.” This third-century saint and her brother Zenobius (how’s that for a matchy sibset?) were tortured and beheaded for following Christ.
- Zenaida — a Spanish feminine form of Zeus, meaning “sky” or “shine.” Zenaida and her sister Philonella were cousins of the apostle Paul. Inspired by their love of God and love of learning, they decided to study medicine. They set up their medical practice in a cave with a mineral spring and refused to charge money for their services. While Philonella focused on experimental medicine, Zenaida was interested in pediatrics and psychiatric disorders. Some historical accounts say they were stoned one night by pagans who discovered their cave; other accounts say they died of natural causes.
- Ariadne — means “most holy.” Ariadne was a princess in Greek mythology, but St. Ariadne was the slave of a second-century prince. On the prince’s birthday, certain pagan rituals were performed in with Ariadne refused to participate. She was beaten and imprisoned before running away. Pursued by her captors, who were intent on killing her, she prayed to God for deliverance. A chasm miraculously appeared in the mountain. According to Orthodox tradition, she hid inside; according to Catholic tradition, the chasm enclosed around her and became her tomb.
- Calliste — means “most beautiful.” Calliste was martyred with two of her brothers; her name seems to be the French form of the more common Callista. I’m not sure how it should be pronounced, but I do know a little American girl who pronounces her name kuh-LISS-tee.
- Evanthia — may be derived from the Greek elements eu “good” and anthos “flower.” St. Evanthia was a second-century Roman Christian beheaded for preaching about Christ. With the rising popularity of other “Eve” names (like Eva, Evelyn, and even Evangeline), Evanthia seems well-suited to our times.
Do you have any favorites? Least favorites? Which of these do you think would most appeal to modern parents?