3,000-Year-Old Polyxena: One Short Study in Onomastic Origins

by Mary Papoutsy

Recently an American genealogist wrote a short column about the name "Sena [Xena or Polyxena]" for a weekly e-zine. The piece gave a glancing reference to the Classical origin of Polyxena and proceeded to detail the obscure appearance of "Sena" during the Western Middle Ages through a particular Anglo-Saxon lineage. The columnist writing for this prestigious and well-known genealogical society missed the mark in citing the origins of "Sena." Not only did she fail to emphasize the prevalence today of "Polyxeni" in Hellenic and Orthodox spheres, but she missed an opportunity to reach out to an ethnic segment of American society that has been too long overlooked by western family historians. (See my response: "Researchers of Greek Ancestors: Beware Western Genealogists Bearing Names.)

This present article continues my discussion about "Polyxena," or "Polyxeni" as she is called among Greeks today, expanding upon the classical allusions mentioned in the western genealogical e-zine and adding relevant information about the Orthodox patron saint, Polyxeni. The connection between Classical, Byzantine, and Neo-Hellenic eras is obvious to students of history: there is an indisputable continuous record of Hellenic history spanning all of these periods up to the present. In other words, Greek given names have been in continuous use throughout recorded written history--for about 3,000 years. And so our "Polyxena" is also about 3,000 years old. I hope that western genealogists are taking note.

"Greek given names have been in continuous use throughout recorded history--for about 3,000 years."

Polyxena of Antiquity

The infallible reference tool for Classicists, the OCD (Oxford Classical Dictionary, here the 3rd edition) indicates that the appearance of the name "Polyxena" has its origins in Greek mythology. She was a daughter of King Priam, one of 50 children by this royal sire (Iliad 24.495). Among her other famous siblings were Hector, Paris (Alexandros), Deiphobus, Helenus, Troilus, Polydorus, Lycaon, and Cassandra. According to the OCD, Polyxena is not mentioned by Homer, but appears in related epics by other poets. In one poem, she is "mortally wounded at the fall of Troy by Diomedes and Odysseus and buried by Neoptolemus (son of Achilles)." In another, she is sacrificed on the tomb of Achilles by his son to appease his father's ghost and thus raise winds to take the Achaean fleet home. Later literature includes a version that Achilles, during his life, had been in love with her.

Harper's Dictionary of Classical Literature and Antiquities (Cooper Square Publishers, 1963) adds interesting information, expanding upon the basic data of the OCD: she is "the betrothed of Achilles, who at his wedding with her in the temple of the Thymbraean Apollo, was treacherously killed by Paris (Euripides, Hecuba 40; Hyginus, Fabulae 110). After the fall of Troy the shade of Achilles demanded the expiation of his death with her blood, and she was sacrificed on his funeral pyre." And again, Harper's enhances the OCD mention that Achilles had been in love with her: "Another tradition makes Achilles and Polyxena to have fallen in love with one another when Hector's body was given up to Priam; that Polyxena fled from Troy and joined the Greeks; and that after the death of Achilles she slew herself upon his tomb (Philostratus, Heroicus 19, 11)."

Saints Polyxeni and Xeni of the Christian and Byzantine era

Together with her sister, Xanthippi, St. Polyxeni lived in Spain in the 1st century A.D., when the Roman Emperor was Claudius the First. Xanthippi and her husband, Probus, learned about and converted to Christianity because of the work of Apostle Paul. Polyxeni was baptized by Apostle Andrew the First-Called when she traveled to the East. The two sisters worked to lead many women to their Christian faith. At very advanced ages they died peacefully, working even to their last breath to support weaker souls with their Christian trust in God. The feast day of St. Polyxeni falls on September 23 (Tsolakidis,1997).

Saint Xeni is listed by Tsolakidi in an entry for Saint Eirini (Irene). Apparently, Eirini, a beautiful and virtuous young woman was wed to Prince Ioannis, son of King Alexios Komninos, in the 12th century. She was known widely for her kind and generous philanthropic work among the poor, helping to support them financially and through belief in Christian hope and faith. Many rest homes for the elderly and inns were established by her. In 1143 her husband was killed in battle in Syria. Later 2 of her 4 children died. Out of a need to seek solace, she retired to the monastery Pantokratoros where she became a nun, taking the new name of "Xeni." Her feast day falls on August 13.

There is another, major entry in Tsolakidi for a different Saint Xeni (originally named Evsevia [Eusebia) on January 24. She was a native of Rome and was a "feminist" in her time. Evsevia believed that women had a right and duty not to marry anyone who would present a daily obstacle to living a Christian life. Saint Paul the Apostle urged (Second Letter to the Corinthians 6.14) Christians not to become spouses of non-believers, citing the great importance of the "mystery" of marriage (Letter to the Ephesians 5.32). Evsevia's parents, however, had other ideas for her betrothal, forcing her to flee secretly to Alexandria. There she changed her name to "Xeni" and traveled to the island Kos and then to Mylassa in Karia to hide her escape. With two maids who had accompanied her, she established hesychastic or contemplative cells, nearby which she built a small church dedicated to Saint Stephen the First Martyred. Other nuns joined her and they developed an exceptional Christian sisterhood. Very quickly news of her education, courtesy, warmth and faith became known and women were flocking to her daily for advice and prayers.

Icon of St. Polyxeni from the Iconography-
Byzantine Icons-Eikonografos.com website

Variant Spellings of Polyxeni

"Polixeni" appears to yield more returns in an Internet search than "Polyxeni" or spellings employing an English "y" for the Greek "upsilon." Babynology (http://www.babynology.com/meaning-polixeni-f6.html, accessed 19 November 2013) offers another variant spelling--"Polexeni."

The Greek version of Wikipedia offers interesting information about Polyxeni (http://el.wiktionary.org/wiki/%CE%A0%CE%BF%CE%BB%CF%85%CE%BE%CE%AD%CE%BD%CE%B7, accessed 19 November 2013) . In addition to allusions to her Classical origin and a recently-discovered star constellation (1906 by a German scientist), the transliteration of Polyxeni into a number of different languages appears, offering additional variantions. I reproduce here those using Latin script: (English) Polyxena; (Basque) Polixena; (French) Polyxene; (German) Polyxena; (Spanish) Polixena; (Italian) Polissena; (Catalan) Polixena; (Latin) Polyxena; (Lithuanian) Poliksena; (Dutch) Polyxena; (Polish) Poliksena; (Portuguese) Polixena; (Romanian) Polixena; (Swedish) Polyxena; (Czech) Polyxene; (Finnish) Polyksene. (Non-Latin script included Arabic, Bulgarian, Japanese, Ukrainian, Russian, and Serbian versions, apparently similar to or duplicates of the others listed.) So, from this one webpage, we can add Polixena, Polyxene, Polissena, and Poliksena. Among these other European versions, we can more easily detect connections to the western genealogist's "Sena."

Derivative Names

The definitive dictionary of Modern Greek (Lexiko tis Neo Ellinikis Glossis, 2nd ed) by Professor Babiniotis lists "Xeni" and "Xenia" as derivatives of "Polyxeni." The name itself means a person who is hospitable to guests or one who invites many guests.

A book of popular Greek given names (Mathe ton onoma sou [Learn about Your Name], by Anna Anagnostaki and Eleni Mystridou,1987) also lists "Poly" as a derivative name for "Polyxeni." The authors of this light volume also offer what they believe to be salient characteristics of the name-holder: "lively and indefatigable, she has humor and the ability to mimic wondrously. But she is irresolute and finds it difficult to focus upon a goal." Anagnostaki and Mystridou list "Xeni" separately as an Orthodox saint unconnected with "Polyxeni." According to their entry for Saint Xeni, she "lived in the 5th century and distinguished herself by her many good deeds. Her feast day is celebrated on January 24. Sweet and obedient in her young years, later she rebels and insists on doing what she wishes. Traditionally she becomes a very dynamic woman."

A website on the Internet, "Greek Names," at the URL http://www.greek-names.info/polikseni/ [accessed 29 October 2013] also lists "Polina" as a derivative of "Polyxeni." Given the author's non-standard transliteration of the Greek "ksi" into "ks" in English, the variant English spellings "Kseni" and "Ksenia" also appear on this site. But Wikipedia [accessed 19 November 2013] lists "Polina" as of Russian origin, the second most popular female given name there, while adding that occasionally "Polina" represents a shortened form of "Appollinaria," a name derived from the Greek "Apollo." Ask.com [accessed 19 November 2013] reports that "Polina" is a derivative of "Paulina," ultimately stemming from Latin and meaning "little" or "humble." Babynamesworld [accessed 19 November 2013] lists the meaning of "Polina" as "A Russian variant spelling of Pauline. It may also be used as a nickname for Pelageya." Here I must protest: "Pelageya" cannot possibly serve as a fair derivative of "Polyxeni." It may be connected to "Polina," whose derivation from "Polyxeni" is dubious at best, but it certainly cannot be linked directly to "Polyxeni."

Elsewhere on the Internet the name "Polyxeni" also appears as "Polyxene," a familiar older version of "Polyxena," one used most often by Classicists who study ancient mythology and mythography (http://monsaventinus.wikia.com/wiki/Ancient_Greek_Female_Names_(Greek_Community), accessed 29 October 2013, "Ancient Greek Female Names") .

One Seven Designs includes another set of English variants for "Polyxena" on its website titled "GREEK NAMES: Female": "Zene," "Zena," and "Zenia." (http://www.onesevendesign.com/9w/greeknames.pdf , accessed 29 October 2013).

Poorly informed western sources

The genealogist writing about name origins is certainly not alone in her ignorance about Hellenic civilization. A large number of websites dedicated to the meanings of names, especially baby names, falls far short as well. For example, at the Meaning of the Name website ( http://themeaningofthename.com/polixeni/, accessed 19 November 2013) the authors of the site openly admit their ignorance of this Hellenic name and thus of long-standing Classical tradition: "We apologize, but we don't have a meaning for this name." The Baby Center (http://www.babycenter.com/baby-names-polixeni-404105.htm, accessed 19 November 2013) similarly appears clueless, asking for information from readers: "If you have information about this name, share it in the comments area below!" Nancy's Baby Names (http://www.nancy.cc/baby-name/polixeni/, accessed 19 November 2013) and Baby Name Facts (http://www.babynamefacts.com/babynames/summary.php?name=POLIXENI#.UoujoM4o7IU, accessed 19 November 2013) both echo these other sites.

But Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com/name-origin?surname=Polixeni, accessed 19 November 2013) takes the prize in this "sorry" contest: "Sorry we couldn't find geographic distribution information for the Polixeni last name." Further down on the same webpage, a click on the "Polyxeni Family Origin" tab, and then another click on the link "Search for Polixeni in Immigration Records" yields 20 "Travel and Immigration Results," most of which mistakenly list "Polyxeni" as the surname instead of as a given name. There are not even any messages in the Ancestry "Message Board about Polixeni." Need I say any more here on this particular point? [But I do wish to be fair to Ancestry.com. Its website is undoubtedly the largest subscription-based digital genealogical database in the world, and as such holds massive amounts of information of value to Greek-Americans on U.S.-based subjects. The single largest problem for Hellenic research is the language barrier and this affects use of the Ancestry.com site: to overcome this, researchers must know the various methods of transliterating Greek and have a rudimentary knowledge of the language itself and of Hellenic culture. Without these tools, research on Hellenic subjects will likely bring inaccurate results.]

Response from Ancestry.com to "Polyxeni" search request--

See also the Ancient Faces website (http://www.ancientfaces.com/surname/
, accessed 19 November 2013). Ancient Faces, too, considers "Polixeni" only as a surname, confessing lack of information: "Polixeni Surname History. Add to this section. Add to this page! This history of the Polixeni last name is maintained by the AncientFaces community. We do not have content for the following sections: Polixeni family history, Polixeni country of origin, nationality, & ethnicity, Polixeni last name meaning & etymology, and Polixeni spelling & pronunciation." The dearth of accurate information is particularly glaring given the name of this site, "Ancient Faces."

Contrast western secular sources with Orthodox websites

Contrast these western sources now with Hellenic or Orthodox ones. A good, concise introduction to Orthodox Christian names and Feast days (Name days) is the website of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America at the URL http://www.goarch.org.  Under the "Ministry Resources" tab there is a submenu for "Lives of the Saints" which is very informative. Under the "Multimedia Programs" one can click on the "Iconograms" link and locate two lovely icons of St. Xenia (January 24). Alternatively, under the "Online Chapel" tab at the top of the webpage, a submenu of "Search for a Saint" presents a search-engine box for seeking out information or images of a particular saint. Here, another visually stunning icon appears under a search for St. Polyxene (September 23), and several for St. Xenia (January 24), with additional information about the life of St. Xenia (Eusebia), "she was ordained deaconess by Paul, her spiritual father, who became Bishop of Mylasa," enhancing the entry listed in the Tsolakidi book mentioned above. One terrific feature of the Iconograms webpage is that an appropriate message and image can be sent to someone on their Name day using the tools in the left-hand margin of this page.

The best site for additional information about the life of St. Xenia can be found on the website of the Orthodox Church of America (OCA) at the URL http://oca.org/saints/lives/2013/01/24/100286-martyr-xenia-of-rome-and-her-two-female-slaves (accessed 19 November 2013). This autocephalous church hosts webpages dedicated to Orthodox Saints: "The Lives of the Saints." Here there is a much fuller treatment of the life, works, and death of Eusebia-St. Xenia, with a striking icon image:

Saint Xenia of Rome, in the world Eusebia, was the only daughter of an eminent Roman senator. From her youth she loved God, and wished to avoid the marriage arranged for her. She secretly left her parental home with two servants devoted to her, and set sail upon a ship. Through the Providence of God she met the head of the monastery of the holy Apostle Andrew in Milassa, a town of Caria (Asia Minor). She besought him to take her and her companions to Milassa. She also changed her name, calling herself Xenia [which means “stranger” or foreigner” in Greek].

At Milassa she bought land, built a church dedicated to St Stephen, and founded a woman’s monastery. Soon after this, Bishop Paul of Milassa made Xenia a deaconess, because of her virtuous life. The saint helped everyone: for the destitute, she was a benefactress; for the grief-stricken, a comforter; for sinners, a guide to repentance. She possessed a deep humility, accounting herself the worst and most sinful of all.

In her ascetic deeds she was guided by the counsels of the Palestinian ascetic, St Euthymius. The sublime life of St Xenia drew many souls to Christ. The holy virgin died in 450 while she was praying. During her funeral, a luminous wreath of stars surrounding a radiant cross appeared over the monastery in the heavens. This sign accompanied the body of the saint when it was carried into the city, and remained until the saint’s burial. Many of the sick received healing after touching the relics of the saint.

Unfortunately, there is no entry for St. Polyxeni at "The Lives of the Saints," nor are there any icon images for reference. But the websites of several iconographers (such as for the icon above right) offer myriad images for researchers and interested persons.

Frequency of appearance of "Polyxeni" in Neo-Hellenic culture

Greek Google offers some useful statistics with regard to the frequency of appearance of the name "Polyxeni" in Greek culture. A study performed by computer scientist Foundalis (http://www.foundalis.com/grk/EllinikaOnomata.htm, accessed 19 November 2013), indicated that this given name appeared in a little less than 1% of a female study population of about 70,000. This number tallies fairly well with my own studies on a small village in the Aegean of 3100 names entered into an official registry, yielding an overall count of 36 appearances of "Polyxeni" and a rough percentage of 2% for the female population of the registry. If our simple studies are reliable, then there ought to be somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 women named "Polyxeni" in Greece today, assuming a total population of about 10-11 million. That's a large number of people bearing a name about which western genealogists seem to have no information.

(Posting date 19 November 2013)

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