Thanks to Taylorluia for suggesting Vashti as our Baby Name of the Day.
Vashti feels like a daring name, a modern import from a foreign land, or possibly an invention. But that’s not so – she’s there in the Old Testament, as storied as Jerusha or Eve.
When we meet her, she’s the wife of King Ahasuerus of Persia, known for her beauty. Some accounts make her the daughter of a king, kidnapped to Persia after her father’s defeat.
The royal couple is hosting a banquet over many days, with the men in one room and the women in another. Ahasuerus has a little too much to drink, and orders Vashti to make an appearance in the boys’ club, to prove that the king’s bride is a looker.
Some say Ahasuerus was asking his wife to appear undressed. Others point out that well-born women didn’t mix with men – so forget what Vashti wore, or failed to wear. Just entering the room would be scandalous.
One gets the impression that Old Testament kings weren’t often denied, especially by their wives.
Humiliated by her refusal, the king asks his advisers what to do. They suggest Vashti be put aside. Queen Esther is chosen as her replacement.
Interpretations of the former queen’s actions vary. In some tellings, Vashti is vain and disobedient. In others, she’s a heroine, a strong-willed woman who refuses to be compromise her dignity.
Did Vashti actually live? Maybe. Ahasuerus is usually identified with King Xerxes I, and his first wife was Amestris. History is unkind to Amestris, but it was written by the Greeks – so Amestris may have been unhinged, or she may have been vilified by her enemies. Either way, it adds little to Vashti’s appeal.
The name could mean:
- Beauty, goodness, excellence – from Old Persian, and the meaning widely accepted today.
- Others have argued for Hebrew roots, and the meaning thread. But this seems to have been first suggested in the nineteenth century.
- It could be borrowed from the name of an Elamite goddess.
Despite her obscurity and tarnished reputation, Vashti has seen sparing use over the years:
- In Charlotte Bronte’s Villette, Lucy Snowe uses the name for the actress she admires on stage. Vashti is usually assumed to be Rachel, a French actress and major international star in the 1840s and 50s.
- E.M. Forster wrote a cautionary tale about man’s dependence on technology called “The Machine Stops.” One of the main characters is Vashti.
- In 1956’s Giant, a tale of a Texas family, Vashti is a minor character, the BFF to Elizabeth Taylor‘s future matriarch. It was based on Edna Ferber’s 1952 novel.
- Born Jennifer Vashti Bunyan, but known only by her unusual middle, the folk singer-songwriter had a brief career in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She found little success and left music. Over the course of thirty years, Vashti became a cult sensation. She came out of retirement, and now has a thriving career.
As a given name in the US, Vashti has held steady. 19 girls received the name in 2012, and 23 in 1912. The numbers vary in between, but between ten and three dozen girls receive the name most years.
If you’re after a daring rarity with rich history, Vashti might be one to consider.