Although you may know a fair bit about Greek naming customs as they are practiced today, there is a long history of naming traditions which goes all the way back to Ancient Greece.
Over time, some new naming conventions have developed — but in many ways a person naming a Greek child today has a lot in common with those living thousands of years ago.
Ancient Greek naming customs
In ancient times, people were generally only given one name. However, in formal situations where more specificity was necessary, the fathers’ first name would be added as a descriptor to serve the same function as a surname would today.
When an individual traveled or settled outside of where they were born, sometimes their place of birth would be used to identify them as well — an example of this would be “Aristotle of Stagira.”
However, women would often simply be referred to as “Wife of …” or “Daughter of …”, as it was considered more polite. When their first names were used, which was usually in formal contexts such as on gravestones, they would be identified using their first name and then their relationship to a man, as usual.
Even today, Greek parents will often name a child after his or her grandparent, which actually finds its roots all the way back in ancient times. Another way in which contemporary Greek naming customs are similar to thousands of years ago is seen through female names, which often are simply male names with a female suffix added to them.
In Ancient Greece, many popular names were bestowed based on characteristics, both physical and moral, that the child was thought to have — or at least the parents hoped they would have. Common names were “Nikomachos”, meaning battle winner, or “Xanthos,” meaning blonde.
Ancient Greek naming customs were also used to honor the pantheon of Greek gods and goddesses, with many children being named in their favor. However, there was a notable difference from the way Greek babies are named today after deities, as in ancient times the names of gods would be changed slightly before being bequeathed upon children.
For example, Ancient Greeks would name their children “Dionysios” after the god “Dionysos,” modifying the name into adjectival form. They also used holy names with suffixes to modify them, for example “Dionosodoros,” meaning “gift of Dionysos.”
Names over the centuries
As Christianity spread across Greece during the Roman period, children began to be named after saints. From the first century AD to the nineteenth century AD, naming continued using this rule of thumb for the most part.
The habit of naming children after saints led to the establishment of name days, wherein those who have names associated with saints celebrate the feast day — usually the day the saint died — almost like birthdays across Greece.
Family names also began to gain popularity in the Byzantine period, and many of them were reminiscent of the patronymics of old, with surnames often being comprised of a prefix or suffix added to the first name of a man in the family.
The now extremely common phenomenon of naming children using ancient names actually developed very recently in Greece.
With the establishment of the modern Greek nation in the 1800s, citizens began harking back to their long and proud history, subsequently giving their babies names from the ancient world. Therefore, names based on mortals or gods from ancient Greece, such as “Phaedra,” “Persephone” and “Electra,” are actually a relatively recent development.
In official documents in modern Greece, people are always given three names: a given name, a patronymic and a family name.
Clearly, Greek naming customs have developed along different lines since ancient times, but there is also a lot of evidence showing that many traditions from thousands of years ago continue to this day.