Researchers of Greek Ancestors: Beware Western Genealogists Bearing Names

by Mary Papoutsy

Ever since I began more serious inquiries into my own family history, the dearth of helpful western genealogical materials has continued to surprise me. At genealogical conferences there might be a token class on workers in the industrial towns of New England early in the 20th century, or there might be a more useful lecture on utilizing records of the National Archives and Records Administration. But as far as something specifically developed in the U.S. to aid research of Greek subjects, the field is appallingly narrow. Helpful is the multivolume set by Mary Voultsos of Greek passenger ship records for the port of Boston. There are a number of these reference sets in public libraries located in the Northeast. A couple of useful references, chiefly gazetteers, have been developed by Lica Catsakis Bywater in Utah. The utility of the gazetteers, however, is very limited for persons unfamiliar with civil and ecclesiastical registries in Greece, unfamiliar with Greek language and customs, and unfamiliar with Greek geography. Some online materials have been offered by a couple of other enthusiasts, but these, too, fall into the same category of restricted usefulness as the Catsakis references. Thus, my decade-long endeavor to complete a comprehensive introductory guidebook for researching Greek ancestry. The work has widened in scope, and so lengthened the time of completion. When it is finally available in print, I believe that it will be of great service to family historians, essentially closing the gap in this area of ethnic family investigation.

That having been said, I still cannot comprehend the lack of basic knowledge about or interest in the Balkans and Asia Minor on the part of western genealogists. Take, for example, the weekly e-zine of a genealogical society. One of their regular columnists writes about derivations of names, usually given names. One week, the column was about the name “Dionysia,” with etymological indication that the name was used in Latin and stemmed from the Greek term “Dionysos.” Pretty good so far. The expert then went on to demonstrate a long history of the name in a particular English lineage. Not so good perhaps.

Here was a golden opportunity to reach out to millions of ethnic Greek-Americans across the U.S. with just a few short sentences about the appearance of this name in Byzantine and Neohellenic history. But there was nothing. Nada. Rien. Tipota. No mention of the importance of this name to the Ionian island Zakynthos where there is a significant shrine to St. Dionysos. No mention of the prevalence within Greek society today of both the masculine and feminine versions of this name: Dionyssios and Dionyssia. I can even cite concrete examples of its appearance today from my own extended family. My godchild’s grandmother was named Dionyssia. A daughter of a local priest is named Dionyssia. One of our best friends, named Dionyssios, is from Zakynthos. Of course there was no mention by the genealogist of the practice in Greek society of naming children after Orthodox saints, celebration of one’s “Name Day.”

The following week there was another e-zine. I had just managed to calm down after the “Dionysia” column, only to see my blood pressure rise again. The topic of the next column was “Sena,” a derivative of the Biblical Asenath (and so of Polyxena), an excerpt of which appears below:

SENA (f): Often a nickname for ASENATH (or for any other name with middle or ending
element -sen- [e.g. POLYXENA]. ASENATH is Old Testament Biblical, originally Egyptian
. . . . while POLYXENA (not mentioned by Homer) was a Trojan princess, betrothed or
married to Achilles (accounts differ) and sacrificed by the victorious Greeks on his tomb
"to appease his shade." (Clarence L. Barnhart, William D. Halsey et al., The New Century
Cyclopedia of Names, 3 vols. [1954], 3:3218). Here the specific meaning of a name has
given way to phonetic convenience. . . In such cases it may be important to seek names
in other forms: a woman may be Asenath in her birth record, Sena in her marriage
record -- or Sena in her birth record and Polly X. at marriage.

The main point of the writer is well taken, namely that women’s names can vary considerably across records. But my point here is that the example cited of Polyxena is little more than an aside. After the reference to Polyxena in classical literature, there was no follow-up, no indication that the name was still used regularly in Greek society today. In the village records of Vatoussa, which I finished digitizing last year ( , the name Polyxena makes up nearly 2% of all the female names recorded. And that is only one of many thousands of villages across the country, and doesn’t take into account the tens of millions of Greek enclaves globally where this baptismal name also appears. St. Polyxena (or in Neohellenic Greek, Polyxeni) was a saint of the early Christian church, honored by both the western Catholic tradition and by eastern Orthodox custom.

The genealogist clearly has no notion that there are hundreds of millions of Orthodox Christians worldwide, a good percentage of whom may still be assigning the name “Polyxeni” to their daughters. One of my childhood schoolmates (Greek-School) was named “Polyxeni,” a very smart young woman whose family originated in Epirus. It was very nice to read about these Hellenic names in use among the western tradition, but those instances appear to be rare, according to the same genealogist. Indeed, the column on “Sena” continued much as the earlier one about Dionysia, engaged in the citation of an obscure appearance of “Sena” or “Polyxena” among a line of Anglo-Saxon families.

Why is this deserving of mention? For the simple fact that we all, as persons of Greek descent, must continue to educate Westerners about our traditions and our history. If we won’t do it, someone else will, and it may not be accurate. So, this article is my way of helping to improve the record a bit on the part of the columnist for the genealogical e-zine. Perhaps when I reach Athens I’ll even search out an English version of the lives of Orthodox saints to send to the author.

On another occasion, after conducting an introductory workshop on Hellenic ancestry in New Hampshire, a professional genealogist approached me to ask for advice. Pulling out a hand-written letter from an envelope, she explained that she had been hired by a Greek family to research their history. The writing, she stated emphatically, was in “Vlachika.” What did I think?

Well, I took the proffered vintage letter and started to read. The writing was in Greek characters and written phonetically by someone who hadn’t learned to write well. Perhaps the author was unschooled. Or perhaps Greek was not a primary language for the writer. But one thing was absolutely clear: the letter was written in Greek. I told the genealogist that, but she refused to believe me, citing the family’s insistence that they spoke Vlachika. But what none of them apparently knew, was that Vlachika, a dialect in the far northern border areas of Greece, has been an oral dialect. Until only recently, there was no written counterpart or development of a dictionary. Moreover, nearly everyone who speaks Vlachika also speaks Greek, another important point apparently unknown to either the genealogist or the family. So, seeing that she wouldn’t believe me, I gave her the name and address of a professor at the university with whom to consult.

And finally, one more example may serve to substantiate my position that western genealogists are unable to offer significant assistance for Hellenic research subjects. A few years ago a genealogist had developed a computerized database: "English Equivalents of Foreign Given Names." I tried it out, with the goal of seeing whether or not it would assist in Hellenic investigations. It didn't. There were no columns for Greek names anywhere. The eleven columns of their database showed the following versions of names: English, Czech, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Slovak, Russian, and Yiddish/Jewish." And that's what I wrote in my review of this GenWeb project. (See this review for Hellenic Historical and Genealogical Association hosted by Hellenic Communication Service at the URL A short time later I received an email communication from the developer of this database, asking me for "some Greek names" to add to it. What could I say at this point? "Some Greek names" couldn't begin to cover more than 3,000 years of recorded Greek history with a good percentage of names from antiquity still in use today. What about the entire history of eastern Orthodoxy whose army of Christian saints furnishes baptismal names used regularly today? To which period of history might I turn for "some Greek names"? And how would I explain to this genealogist that Greek is an inflected language, that masculine names can be turned into perfectly acceptable feminine ones and vice-versa? Would I cite only the masculine names? Or should I turn to the women's names? But the entire issue of inflection doesn't carry well into computerized databases unless the programmer understands basic linguistics, so would any names furnished this group be of service if they didn't understand inflections? The issue of naming in Greek culture is exceedingly serious business and simply cannot be easily reduced to "some Greek names."

My advice to persons seeking information about Greek ancestry: avoid western genealogists bearing names. There has been no systematic effort even to address Greek ancestry. These anecdotes above are only a few illustrative examples of the disinterest in or inability of these western experts as a whole to assist in researching Hellenic ancestry. Virtually none of them knows anything about Neohellenic or Byzantine history. Fewer still have the appropriate connections with ecclesiastical or civil officials even to launch a request for information abroad. And certainly, none of them has even the foggiest notion of what 1922 means, a pivotal time in the history of many Hellenic families. I recommend enlisting the help of younger members of one's family and embarking on one's own search. Ask for help from Greek-speaking persons with Greek language issues. Try out my five-step plan for beginning a Greek genealogical search ( Let the Hellenic researcher beware!

(Posted 17 August 2013)

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