Orthodox Names

by Priest Andrew Philips

This article is going to be published in an upcoming issue of The Orthodox Family. Posted on the InterNet by Matushka Deborah Johnson.

With the progressive dechristianisation of society, the use of the expression 'Christian name' is becoming less and less common and is being replaced by 'first name' or 'forename.' Not so long ago Roman Catholics always gave their children saints' names. Even Protestants used to give their children names only if they appeared in the Bible, Old Testament or New. Thus Jonathan, David, Jeremy, Ruth, Judith, Esther, Rebecca, Rachel, Deborah, Abigail and Sarah all became popular names in Protestant-based societies. In Orthodox and Catholic societies, they sound rather Jewish and although they are saints' names, they are rare, even in monasteries.

However, it does seem as if, once more, Orthodox are now the only ones to keep a tradition, that of giving their children saints' names. But many questions are posed as to what exactly a Christian name is and what names those entering the Orthodox Church should take.

First of all it is necessary to point out that someone entering Orthodoxy should not take a new name if he has one which is already borne by a saint in the calendar. We have come across two cases where men with perfectly good Christian names changed them to exotic-sounding Vladimir and Auxentius. Both were cases where in fact the persons concerned were going through identity crises. Psychologically unstable, neither in fact wanted to take a saint's name, but in fact wanted to assume another identity. Both, unsurprisingly, have since lapsed from the Orthodox Church. It would seem that the pastor should discourage uncalled-for changes of name.

Another question which sometimes arises is whether a person with a female form of a male saint's name, for example, Nicole, should be able to keep it.

In Russian practice this is only allowed in monasticism, whereas in modern Greek practice it is quite common among lay-people. Other differences between Russian and Greek practice also occur. For instance Greek women and girls called Maria or Panaghia celebrate their namesdays on Feasts of the Mother of God. In Russian practice it is held that the name Maria is too holy to be given in honour of the Virgin, for we are unworthy to bear her name. Russian Marias therefore celebrate namesdays in honour of other Marias, for example, St. Mary of Egypt or St. Mary, Sister of St. Lazarus.

In Greece and the Balkans, names like Christos (accented on the first syllable,) Sotiris (Saviour) and Kyriakos are also common. Russians tend to find such names unacceptable, for the same reason that Russian Marias are not named in honour of the Virgin. Another custom, unknown to both Greeks and Russians, is that of the Serb Slava, whereby individuals may not have individual saints' names at all, but do have a common family feastday in honour of a particular saint. As regards saints' days there are some which fall on different days in the Greek and Russian calendars. The best-known example of this is St. Catherine whose feast falls on 25 November in the Greek Church, but on 24 November in the Russian.

Some converts to Orthodoxy change names when it is not necessary, not through some identity crisis, but simply through ignorance. The following are names which seem to be perfectly valid Orthodox names, many of them being those of pre-Schism Western saints:

Alan, Albert, Alphonse (St. Ildefonse), Angus, Audrey, Aylwin, Barry, Bernard, Bertrand, Brigid, Claire (St. Photini or Svetlana), Dominic (equivalent to Kyriakos, Kyriaki in Greek), Duncan, Edgar, Edith, Edmund, Edward, Erasmus, Faith (Vera), Frederic (translation of Irenei), Geoffrey (St. Ceolfrid), Gerald, Gilbert, Giles, Guy, Harvey, Helga (St. Olga), Herbert, Hugh, Humphrey, Kevin, Leonard, Mildred, Ottilia, Owen, Richard, Robert, Ursula.

Other names, not sounding Orthodox, are often diminutives of perfectly good Orthodox saints' names. For instance:

Alexandra gives Alice and Alison.
Catherine gives Karen, Kathleen, Kay and Kittie.
Columba gives Malcolm.
Dorothy gives Dora, Doreen and Doris.
Emiliana gives Amelia, Emily and Milly.
Elizabeth gives Bella, Bess, Beth, Betty, Elsa, Elsie, Isabelle.
Helen gives Eileen, Elaine, Eleanor and Norah.
John gives Evan and Sean.
Joanna gives Jacqueline, Jane, Janet, Janice, Jenny, Jessie.
Juliana gives Gillian and Jill.
Mary gives Marian, Marilyn, Maureen, May, Miriam, Moira, Molly, Morag, Polly and Rosemary.
Margaret (Marina) gives Greta, Maisie, Marjorie, Meg, Pearl, Peggy and Rita.
Nicholas gives Colin.

The lists above in no way claim to be complete, but they may be useful.

Ultimately, however, there are names which do have to be changed since they are simply not saints' names at all. What approaches are there to this question? Some change to a name which is similar to their own. An obvious example is that of those who change from Neil to Nil. Similarly Lee can easily be changed to Leo or Leon. There are many other examples.

Some people have second Christian names. Thus someone called Pamela Mary could simply use her second Christian name as her Orthodox name. Some people simply have a favourite saint and have always wanted to be called by that name. This is the simplest case of all.

Others may wish to take on the name of someone in their family. Thus we know of one little Russian boy who was not baptised and did not have a Christian name.

On baptism he took the name of his grandfather, who did have a Christian name. The result was that not only was the little boy baptised, but also that his grandfather started going to church, so bringing happiness to three generations.

There is also the question of how parents should name their children. The tradition was to look in the calendar either on the day of birth, or on the eighth day at the naming ceremony, or else on the fortieth day on the day of the baptism. These are pious customs which future parents should bear in mind.

If parents choose a name simply because they like it, rather than for the saint, there is another aspect of names which is also often overlooked. This is where there are several saints of the same name. For example there are several St. Nicholases in the calendar, but in general only one is honoured this seems most unfortunate. The Church calls us to honour all the saints, not only our favourite few.

Of Anglo-Saxon saints in the English tradition of Orthodoxy, there are a number whose names could be used, although unfortunately some of them are now out of fashion. For boys these are:

Adamnan, Adrian, Aidan, Ailred, Alban, Albert, Aylwin, Bede, Benedict, Bernard, Cedd, Chad, Clement, Cuthbert, Dunstan, Edmund, Edward, Edwin, Felix, Geoffrey, Gilbert, Herbert, James, John, Kenelm, Laurence, Ninian, Oswald, Owen, Peter, Philip, Richard, Sigfrid, Theodore, Wilfrid.

For girls:

Agatha, Alfreda, Audrey, Eanswytha, Edith, Elfreda, Elgiva, Ethel, Hilda, Mildred, Thecla. (Also from male saints: Adriana, Alberta, Augustina (Tina), Benedicta, Clementine, Edwina and Theodora.)

We hope that these considerations will be useful for all parents and those wishing to enter the Orthodox Church. May they receive the blessings of the saints through their holy names.

Fr. Andrew Philips, June 1994.

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