She’s lovely and quirky, familiar but rarely heard – a winning combination circa 2009.
Thanks to Bizzy for suggesting Philomena as Name of the Day.
You’ll spot phil in plenty of familiar words, and more than one name. Philip and Philippa are fond of horses; Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love – and very occasionally, a given name. The Greek phelein meant to love. Philomena may only trace her roots to that word, or might also related to menos – strength.
She sounds ancient, but Philomena is young – and may never have been a given name at all.
Early Christians buried the earthly remains of martyrs and commoners alike in the catacombs – subterranean cemeteries. Today they’re undeniably spooky. Back then, they were practical.
The Catacombs of Priscilla – named after the woman who donated the land – would eventually hold nearly 40,000 bodies over eight miles. Their use declined as Christian persecutions ended. Eventually, they were all but forgotten. In the late 1500s, Antonio Bosio entered many of the tombs for the first time in centuries.
Our story begins in 1802, when a group seeking martyrs’ graves found the body of a young woman. They thought a vial enclosed in the tomb was blood and must surely denote a martyr. The grave’s inscription read:
LUMENA PAXTE CUMFI
It almost certainly was out of order. Rearranged, it reads:
PAX TECUM FILUMENA
The inscription translates to Peace be with you filumena. Filumena could be a given name – or a term of endearment.
The excavators trumpeted their success – the discovery of Saint Philomena’s remains, overlooking the lack of historical evidence for a Saint Filumena. Or Filomena. Or Philomena.
Pesky details aside, nineteenth century Italy embraced her. A nun claimed visions of her life. The future Saint John Vianney was among several of her devotees, spreading Philomena’s reputation to France. Miracles were attributed to her relics, housed near Naples.
History eventually won out, and you won’t find her on the official calendar today. Perhaps her greatest legacy is her name.
Philomena is in use from Ireland to Italy and throughout the Spanish-speaking world. The wife of the current Orléanist pretender to the throne of France, the Duc de Vendôme, is married to the aristocratic Vienna-born Philomena de Tornos y Steinhart. (The couple welcomed their firstborn, Gaston, just a few days ago.) In the unlikely event that their claims are ever realized, Philomena could take on a regal air.
In France, Philomène had her best year in 1901. Philomena peaked in the US back in 1915 and left the rankings after 1942.
If you’re looking for a true rarity, there’s the literary Philomela or Philomel – a poetic term for the nightingale, and a mythological princess of Athens who suffered mightily. Writers from Ovid to Chretien de Troyes to Chaucer to Coleridge to Margaret Atwood have referenced her sad and gory tale.
Today, Philomena or even Philomela could appeal to parents who find the relatively uncommon Francesca and Valentina too familiar for their tastes. With nicknames ranging from Mena to Polly to Pippa, she’s an unconventional choice that might wear well.