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On Thursday February 12, it will be the 134th birthday of the Russian prima ballerina Anna Pavlova. At a time when the rules of classical ballet were rigidly enforced, the dainty Anna performed in a graceful, romantic style, with less emphasis on precision and acrobatics. The principal artist with the Imperial Ballet and the Ballets Russes, she formed her own company and became the first ballerina to tour as an international star.
It was during one of her tours to Australia and New Zealand in the 1920s that Anna Pavlova would be honoured with the creation of an iconic Australasian dish, and in the process spark a rivalry between the two Trans-Tasman nations, who both claim it as their national dessert.
A pavlova is a meringue cake which has a crisp outer shell, and a soft marshmallow-y filling; a delectable, sweet, melt-in-your-mouth treat which is traditionally smothered in whipped cream and fresh summer fruit. Supposedly, the fragile pavlova was inspired by light-as-air Anna Pavlova, with its meringue casing designed to emulate the soft folds of her white ballet skirt.
Both New Zealand and Australia have some rather dubious stories as to how the pavlova first came to be made and named, but indefatigable research by a New Zealand food historian shows that it definitely originated in New Zealand, with a 1929 recipe being found in a New Zealand magazine. Meanwhile, it didn’t make an appearance in Australia until the early 1930s. So New Zealand gets the honours for inventing the pavlova, although it really does feel as if Australia has embraced the pavlova more heartily – it is a favourite choice to celebrate Australia Day.
I always have a pavlova for my Name Day cake: it not only reflects my name, Anna, but is perfect for a hot summery February Name Day. It’s also very appropriate, because my dad is from New Zealand and my mum born in Australia, so it symbolises the two countries coming together.
Anna is the Latinised Greek form of the Hebrew name Hannah, meaning “favour, grace, graciousness”, sometimes translated more freely as “God has favoured me”, or “the grace of God”. The New Testament uses the Greek form Anna, in contrast to the Old Testament Hannah.
The Gospel of Luke tells of Anna the Prophetess, an old widow perhaps more than a century in age, who was very devout, and spent all her time fasting and praying. At the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, celebrated as Candlemas in early February, she immediately recognised the infant Jesus as the redeemer, and gave thanks to God for having been allowed to see Jesus in her lifetime. Despite having a walk-on role in the Gospels, Anna is recognised as a saint.
According to Christian legend, the mother of the Virgin Mary was also named Anna (or Hannah), but she is usually referred to as Saint Anne in order to avoid confusion with Anna the Prophetess. The use of the name Anna was inspired by Saint Anne rather than the aged prophetess.
In classical mythology, Anna was the sister of Dido, Queen of Carthage; she appears in Virgil’s Aeneid. According to the poet Ovid, this Anna was the same being as the Roman goddess Anna Perenna, whose name refers to the “circle of the year” (per annum, in Latin). Her feast day marked the first full moon of the year, and people offered sacrifices so that the year should be successful.
Ovid relates that Anna escaped from Carthage to Italy, where she accidentally drowned and became a river nymph – he translated her name as meaning “perennial stream” (amnis perennis). Ovid says that the goddess was a tiny old woman who baked cakes, and that crude jokes and songs were sung at her festivals. She may have been a mother goddess, and originally Etruscan – if so, her name might be from the Etruscan nanas, meaning “to bear, to beget (a child)”.
Another mythological Anna is the half-sister of King Arthur, usually referred to as Morgause; in many stories she bears Arthur a son, to his downfall. Morgause seems to be a title, meaning “of the Orkneys”, so Anna would have been her personal name.
It may be that she is based on the Irish goddess Anu, sometimes called Ana or Annan. One possibility is that Anu is another name for the mother goddess Danu/Dana, while the war goddess the Morrigan was sometimes called Anand. The British had a winter storm goddess that they referred to as Gentle Annie or Annis, apparently from terror of her hideous powers (this is another link with the name Agnes in Britain). The name is speculated to come from the ancient Celtic anon, meaning “deity, spirit”.
While we’re looking at the name Anna in different cultures, it is worth mentioning that it is also a man’s name, because Anna (or Onna) was an Anglo-Saxon king. One theory is that his name was a nickname for Ethelmund, meaning “noble protection”, or one of the other Ethel- names. Don’t ask me how Anna is short for Ethelmund!
The name Anna has been in common use in the west since the Middle Ages, and has historically been more popular in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia, where it was used by the nobility. It was traditional in the Russian royal family, and the 18th century Empress Anna of Russia was a nasty piece of work. Apart from Anna Pavlova, another famous Russian Anna is the beautiful Anna Karenina, title character of the tragic novel by Leo Tolstoy, considered one of the greatest works of fiction ever written.
Anna is a classic name which has never left the charts. It was #208 in the 1900s, and sunk to its lowest level in the 1920s at #353. After that, it began climbing and joined the Top 100 in the 1950s at #89. The rise into popularity may have been influenced by the 1948 film version of Anna Karenina, starring Vivien Leigh, and helped along by the 1956 film The King and I, with Deborah Kerr in the role of Anna. These movies probably helped give Anna a touch of exoticism.
The King and I was based on the Broadway musical of the same name, in turn based on the book Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon, from the memoirs of Anna Leonowens about her experiences as a royal teacher in Bangkok in the 1860s (Anna Leonowens lived for a few years in Western Australia). Anna and the King was made into a TV show in 1972, and although it flopped in the US, had a decent lifespan on Australian television as re-runs, giving the name Anna a fair amount of exposure during the 1970s.
Anna peaked at the start of the 1980s at #34, then gradually sank into the bottom half of the Top 100. It has not shown any signs of serious decline, but remained relatively stable. In 2013, Anna was #64 nationally, #60 in New South Wales, #81 in Victoria, #87 in Queensland, where it rejoined the Top 100 and was one of its fastest-rising names, #47 in Western Australia, and #71 in the Australian Capital Territory. Preliminary results for 2014 suggest Anna may have improved its position, and is one of Victoria’s fastest-rising names of last year.
One of the factors helping the name along must surely be Princess Anna from the 2013 hit Disney film Frozen, the younger sister of “snow queen” Elsa. Anna is an attractive heroine who is brave and hopeful, with a strong, loving heart. I know many little girls – and even some not so little ones – who adore Anna for being sweet and genuine, with an endearing awkwardness. I wonder how many baby Annas have had their name suggested by an older sister?
Anna is still popular and stable after many decades, and even shows signs of a recent boost. It is a popular name all over the world, but tends to be most popular in central and Eastern Europe, and is the #1 name in Austria. Last year blog readers voted Anna their favourite internationally recognisable girls’ name.
I have found Anna a very easy name to wear. It’s a common name never out of use, but has never been highly popular, so I don’t actually know many people with my name, although everyone has heard of it. Nobody has had any problems spelling it (I learned to write my name as a toddler in about a minute!), and everyone can pronounce it to my satisfaction, even those who don’t speak English. The biggest issue is that it sounds similar to other names, such as Hannah and Emma, which can cause a slight hold-up over the phone.
I can’t pretend that Anna is a very exciting name, but for such a short and simple one, I don’t think it is completely boring either. It’s a palindrome, which tickled me as a child, and it has quite an interesting history – it fascinates me that so many Annas from legend have been elderly women, sometimes with quite a dark side! Its “foreignness” made it popular in the mid twentieth century, and even now I think it has a slight touch of European exoticism: Disney chose it for a Scandinavian princess, after all.
(Picture shows a pavlova; photo from Just LilDaisy)