Ready for a really unusual Old Testament name?
Kara’s week continues with Asenath as our Baby Name of the Day.
In the Book of Genesis, Asenath is the Egyptian daughter of a pagan priest, given to Joseph as a bride. Their sons, Manasseh and Ephraim, go on to become patriarchs of the Israelite tribes.
That’s all we know from the Old Testament, but sometime, probably around the sixth century, an elaboration of their tale began to circulate.
In this telling, Joseph hesitates to marry outside of his faith. Asenath happily converts. As part of her conversion, bees cover her mouth, stinging her lips to remove the false prayers she’s uttered in the past.
After they marry, they face the wrath of Asenath’s other suitor, the pharaoh’s son. But all ends well.
Back to the name: Asenath is likely derived from Neith, an Egyptian goddess of war and wisdom – something like the Greek Athena. There’s a competing theory that translates Asenath as “she belongs to her father.”
That second possible meaning might be the reason HP Lovecraft gave the name to a character in his 1937 horror story “The Thing on the Doorstep.”
Spooky. And it gets weirder from there …
Other notable Asenaths include:
- A seventeenth century rabbi’s daughter, known for her scholarly writings and sometimes considered the first female rabbi.
- In 1906, Senator Arthur Brown of Utah was fatally shot by his mistress. The reason for her attack? Brown had also been having an affair with the actress Asenath Ann Kiskadden – known as Annie.
The name has never cracked the US Top 1000, but she’s seen steady, if very limited, use.
A few spikes in her popularity are puzzling. 40 girls were given the name in 1941, 32 in 1947, and 28 in 1948. Could it be thanks to a play known as Joseph and His Brethren? It was performed in the 1910s, with a very glamorous Lily Cahill in the Egyptian princess garb of Asenath. It may have been based on Royall Tyler’s nineteenth century play, or there certainly could be more than one dramatic version. Handel’s 1743 opera Joseph also features Asenath.
Could regional revivals of some version of the story be enough to encourage the slight bump in usage?
Today Asenath is challenging. She takes a three-syllable pronunciation – something like as eh NATH or as uh nath. You could use a nickname – Annie, Nan, Nat, Sena, or maybe even Andi. But some of those feel too far removed from all of Asenath’s glorious, clunky, backstory.
Incidentally, the modern Hebrew version of the name is Osnat – and Osnat is in use is Israel today but seems even less wearable than Asenath.
Overall, she’s a clunky curiosity, but perhaps better saved for the middle spot today – though I’ll admit that Sena or Senna seems like the kind of nickname that would wear well in 2014 – and almost makes me think Asenath is perfectly wearable.
What do you think of Asenath? Is she wearable? How ’bout as a middle name?