Penelope is one of the main characters in Homer’s Odyssey, the epic poem describing the exploits of its hero, Odysseus, the king of Ithaca. After spending ten years at the Trojan War in the Iliad, Odysseus spends another ten years journeying home, as his long-suffering wife Penelope waits for him.
While Odysseus gets to sail around the Mediterranean having loads of adventures, listening to siren song, getting seduced by a fan-girl nymph and having an affair with a sorceress, Penelope has to hold the fort in Ithaca, and raise their son (born just before Odysseus went to war) single-handed. To add to her woes, 108 obnoxious suitors crash at her place, in the belief that she now counts as a widow. They try to win her hand, while simultaneously abusing her hospitality, and even threaten the life of her son.
In order to fend off these unwanted admirers, Penelope pretends to be weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law, saying that she can’t remarry until it is finished. The old boy was still alive, but you had to be well-prepared in those days. As a delaying tactic, Penelope pulls out a big chunk of the completed threads before she goes to sleep each night. It takes three years for the suitors to twig that something is amiss, and even then a spitefully tattling servant girl has to point it out to them. Unlike brainbox Odysseus, the suitors weren’t exactly bright.
At last Penelope’s patience is rewarded, when Odysseus returns home. He wins an archery contest by which a suitor was finally to be chosen, then slaughters all the horrible suitors, plus twelve maids and a goatherd who had got a little too cosy with the unwelcome visitors. The population of Ithaca now greatly decreased, Penelope and Odysseus settle down for some quality couple time.
Penelope is not only attractive and clever, she is the epitome of the faithful and devoted wife. Even after many year’s absence, she still loves and yearns for Odysseus so much that it hurts, until she longs to die rather than suffer any more from it. Unlike Helen of Troy, who runs off with Paris, Penelope remains true to her man. She is the perfect fantasy wife – so dazzling that she sends her suitors crazy with lust, yet so chaste that they don’t have a hope of winning her.
The meaning of Penelope isn’t clear, and is most likely pre-Greek. Because Penelope is said to have been rescued from drowning by ducks as an infant, the ancient Greeks understood her name to mean “duck”. Today the Eurasian Widgeon has the scientific name Anas penelope.
It’s now usually thought that Penelope means either “weft face” or “weft peel”, to reflect the story about her weaving – “weft face” suggests a face hidden behind her weaving, while “weft peel” suggests her “peeling” away the weaving that she has done. The name is often simply translated as “weaver”. Penelope’s role as a weaver connects her to Athena, the goddess of weaving, and indeed it is Athena who helps Penelope and Odysseus gain their happy ending.
Penelope has charted in Australia since the 1930s, when it debuted at #346. It peaked in the 1950s at #93, and reached its lowest point in the 1990s at #448. Since then it has been steadily climbing, and is currently #190 in New South Wales and #202 in Victoria.
Penelope has been chosen as a baby name by several celebrities, including Taylor Hanson and Tina Fey, but many Penelope-loving parents went into a tailspin when reality TV star Kourtney Kardashian named her daughter Penelope last year.
Why the sudden Penny-Panic? Because Kourtney’s son is named Mason, and although Mason was already popular and a favourite choice for celebrity baby-namers, it was only after Penelope’s big brother was born that the name Mason suddenly rose, and within two years was the #2 name in the United States, where it remains. Now parents fret that the name Penelope may suffer the same fate.
The question is, should Australian parents join in with this general hand-wringing, or even consciously avoid using Penelope, lest they contribute to an unwanted wave of Penny-Popularity?
Reasons Not to Panic About Penelope
- Penelope isn’t as popular here as it is in the United States. In the US, Penelope is #125 and rising, so it seems likely to be soon in the Top 100 there, even had Kourtney chosen a different name for her daughter. We’re presently quite a way off that point.
- To put it in perspective, less than 100 babies named Penelope were born last year in New South Wales and Victoria combined. (There may have been as few as 150 in the whole country, probably less). That really doesn’t seem like a big population of Penelopes.
- As there are around 5300 primary schools in New South Wales and Victoria, that’s an estimated 0.01 Penelopes per school joining Grade 1 in 2018/2019. Almost none, in other words.
- We may not be quite as influenced by the Kardashians as the United States. While the popularity of Mason suddenly jumped in both the US and Australia after the birth of Kourtney Kardashian’s son, in the US it continued zooming to #2, while here it is rising more sedately and is #17 nationally.
- The only state or territory where Penelope was in the Top 100 was the tiny ACT – and it dropped out of it last year. Maybe Kourtney spooked them already.
Penelope is gaining in popularity, but it’s been doing so for over a decade, and overall numbers are presently quite low. It’s a pretty, elegant name which was favoured by the English aristocracy for many years, and still has a noble feel to it; it might remind you of Lady Penelope Rich, the inspiration for the name Stella.
Penelope’s mythological namesake is a woman celebrated for her intelligence, skill and character rather than her beauty – a woman of strength and substance. Possible nicknames for Penelope include the cute Penny, popular Poppy, and hip Nell or Nellie.
Thank you to Kathryn for suggesting the name Penelope to be featured on Waltzing More Than Matilda
POLL RESULT: Penelope received an approval rating of 80%, making it one of the most highly regarded names of the year. People saw the name Penelope as beautiful or pretty (20%), intelligent and sophisticated (17%), elaborate but not frilly (13%), and elegant and refined (12%). However, 6% of people believe it is already too popular.
(Painting is of Penelope and the Suitors (1912), by John William Waterhouse)