Joseph and Asenath

Ready for a really unusual Old Testament name?

Kara’s week continues with Asenath as our Baby Name of the Day.

We’re fond of Biblical names like Rachel and Dinah and even Keturah, too.  But Asenath is rarer than any of those.

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.”

It’s the story of Edwardand his mysterious bride, Asenath.  Some time after the wedding, Edward is taken mad, insisting Asenath is using him, and that his father-in-law, Ephraim, isn’t really dead.

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?

About Abby Sandel

Whether you're naming a baby, or just all about names, you've come to the right place! Appellation Mountain is a haven for lovers of obscure gems and enduring classics alike.

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  1. Wow, thanks for another great name profile, Abby! Asenath was another archive find. There was a woman who ran a boardinghouse and health food store in 1830s New York named Asenath Nicholson who was a devotee of the health guru Sylvester Graham. I knew the name had Hebrew/Egyptian origins, but I didn’t know she was Joseph’s Egyptian wife or any of the apocrypha associated with her. A lot of 18th/19th century Americans used obscure Bible names.

    Asenath is clunky but I like her. I also kind of just like “Neith’ on it’s own- reminds me a bit of Niamh. I saw others suggest her for the contest and because I’ve always been curious, I added her to my week. 🙂

    1. Great find – thank you! And oh my goodness – love Angelina and Celinda, too.

  2. Yay, yay, yay! I’ve been hoping you would write about Asenath! It was my grandmother’s middle name and her grandmother’s first name. It seems to have enjoyed at least some popularity among Mormon pioneers during the mid-1800s. My great-great grandmother Asenath has numerous siblings who also had some interesting names, including Monassa, Mosiah, Helaman, Helorum, and Evaline.

    My younger brother also had an Asenath in his first-grade class who was apparently named after a great-grandmother. It definitely stood out in a class full of Riley’s, Kiley’s, Baylee’s, and Brinley’s.

    My grandmother actually pronounced her name two different ways: uh-SEE-neth was the most frequently used, but uh-SEN-eth popped up sometimes as well.

    Grandma always claimed that she hated her name and made me vow to never use it on one of her grandkids (even though I think she would have secretly been thrilled if I used it). The closest thing I can come up with is to use Athena as a middle name since it’s an almost-anagram of Asenath minus the s.

    1. Oh, how fascinating, Kendra – thank you for sharing! And what a fascinating family tree, too.

      I think Athena makes a great honor name – in sound and in spirit, too.

    2. There’s an principal in Detroit, Asenath Andrews, who also pronounces her name ah-SEE-nath. (She was the subject of a lot of news stories last year when she fought to keep her charter-school for teenage moms open.)

      I’d only heard the name in a Art History class, where we pronounced is AZ-ee-nath, but I think the ah-SEE-nath is much prettier. This is one of my guilty pleasure names, it doesn’t work with our last name, but I love to see it used.