Search in any family tree and you will surely come across an Achilles or Ulysses, Hypolite, Telespore, or Cleophas, or some other name from the far distant past. There are several theories about why a group of people, who usually could not read, would select these names, or even know of them.
Dr. Edwin L. Stephens, the first UL president, remarked on the custom in the early 1900s.
"There is a very large number of classic Greek names among [the Acadians]," he wrote. "The parents were not learned themselves in classic lore, as a rule, but probably having almost run out of names because of their extraordinarily large families, they may have left the choice of a name ... to the priest at baptism. A curious fact is that I do not find these classic names among the ... Canadian families -- those who remained in Nova Scotia. The characteristic seems to apply only to those Acadians of the exile."
His theory fits with another reasonably common custom in Acadiana in which parents gave all of their children names beginning with the same letter. I'm told that an Abbeville attorney made "Ripley's Believe it or Not" after he named his 15 children Odile, Odelia, Olive, Oliver, Olivia, Ophelia, Odelin, Octave, Octavia, Ovide, Onesia, Olita, Otta, Omea, and Opta.
When I raised the question about Olympian names in a column some years ago, Father Rex Broussard suggested something almost opposite of Dr. Stephen's idea. Father Broussard thought it was because they didn't want the priest to name their children, not because they gave him the choice.
"During the French Revolution," Father Broussard pointed out, "there was an intense anti-clerical, anti-Church sentiment. This began to be expressed by refusing to name children with saint names, and using what they considered 'non-Christian' names from Greek mythology.
"How this practice gradually influenced our French culture is still a mystery to me. ... I would assume that our Catholic French culture in Louisiana would not have been so directly anti-Catholic [but rather] it would have been 'stylish' in using the new way of naming babies."
One theory that would generally support Father Broussard's is that the names apparently began to appear in the Acadian culture after the French Revolution. Aristocrats and others fled to Louisiana and those names could have ended up in Acadian families as they intermarried with the newcomers.
Still other readers pointed out that some of the names, at least, could be both Christian and classic. St. Hypolite, for example, was a Roman martyr.
You can contact Jim Bradshaw at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.