Archive for November, 2008

This particularly friendly 'melissa' tried to pollinate my dress this summer...

My mother and I love bees. When my grandmother died, my mother gave me an embroidery Grandma had done of two bees on a flower, and I keep it in pride of place on my desk. Bees are the best. Wasps should go away and never come back, but bees… Bees are the absolute top. I think bees are great. What’s more, in the same eerie way that many aspects of my life turn out to be echoes of Classical days gone by, the Greeks did as well.

A particularly charming philosopher by the name of Simonides of Amorgos in roughly the mid-seventh century BC wrote a tract called “Pedigree of Women”. In it, he characterised various types of women and various types of corresponding animals. What a lovely man. To quote from this article, “Simonides derives the dirty woman from a hog, the cunning from a fox, the fussy from a dog, the apathetic from earth, the capricious from sea-water, the stubborn from an ass, the incontinent from a weasel, the proud from a high-bred mare, the worst and ugliest from an ape, and the good woman from a bee”. The bee is industrious, fairly quiet, and less hassle than any other animal. Isn’t it interesting that he thought the worst woman was an ape, considering what we know now about evolution…

Bees were also thought to be utterly intolerant of the sexually promiscuous, and young unmarried women of the household were often given the role of bee-keeper in the countryside. It was a sign of sexual pollution (though “pollution” is quite an ill-defined concept) if a person was shunned by bees. By the way, I’m getting this information from an absolutely brilliant book called ‘Miasma’ by Robert Parker, which I recommend very highly, even to the Classical layman.

Here’s where it really gets interesting. The word for honeybee in Greek is ‘melissa’. Melissa, of course, has been a name in use since the Ancients (amorphous lot that they are), and the meanings of Greek names were often very important for examining a person’s character and destiny. In Iliad 6, the Trojans call Hektor’s son “Astyanax”, meaning “lord of the city”, in honour of his father (though the moniker turns out to be horribly and tragically inaccurate). So what did it mean for a Greek to name his daughter Melissa? Well, it might have showed that he was intelligent enough to have knowledge of the pseudo-philosophy of Simonides, but naming his little girl Melissa may also have been a step on the road towards making a good marriage for her when she grew up. It’s an advert for good wifely qualities, and a quiet guarantee that she’ll be a virgin when she joins her new husband’s family. Virginity matters. After all, how could she not be chaste? Bees hate adulterers, and her name means ‘bee’! She’d be going against her very nature if she slept around.

Being named ‘Melissa’ is basically like being named ‘Good Chaste Wife’, though I think you’ll agree that ‘Melissa’ is a bit more catchy.

I might name my daughter Melissa, if only to give her some interesting stuff to talk about at drinks parties.


Addendum: I was thinking about names today after I posted this, and I realised that names are perhaps just as important to us as they were to the ancient Greeks and Romans. True, they’re not always linked to the recipient’s own personality, but they certainly can speak volumes. What if I didn’t name my daughter Melissa, but Medea? Medea went so bezerk when her husband left her that she killed their two children. Or if I named my son Thyestes, the brother of Atreus (Agamemnon’s dad) who committed adultery with Atreus’ wife and was fed his own children? Or what about more modern names with equally horrible associations- Myra? Jeffrey? Adolph?

People name their children after people all the time. When Roosevelt was in office, the number of little girls named Eleanor skyrocketed. I guess we just have to ask why they do so. If I were to call my little girl Penelope, would she be any more sensible than if I had named her Phaedra? Or is it a self-fulfilling kind of thing instead?

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