Penelope, the famous and faithful wife of Odysseus, has a name that is still popular today. There are some agreeable stories to account for her name. One of the best known, and perhaps the most poignant, tells how Nauplius spread a false rumour that Odysseus had been killed in the Trojan War.

Penelope, hearing this, tried to drown herself in the sea but was saved by some ducks. Her name therefore is a memorial to her rescuers, for penelops is a kind of duck. These birds sustained her and fed her - and she them. Another account derives her name from her weaving.

For three years Penelope pretended to weave a shroud for her father in-law, Laertes, in order to keep her importunate suitors at bay. (She unravelled it at night, however, to spin out the work as long as possible. When the suitors discovered she was doing this, they forced her to finish it.) This explanation therefore sees her name as coming from pene, 'thread' (compare Peneius).

Yet another origin has been offered in connection with her weaving, seeing her name as 'toiler', from penomai, 'to work', 'toil'. To what extent the duck and thread stories link up with totem birds and net clothes worn in orgies is not clear.

Ducks were believed to have been regarded as protecting, kindly birds, and pictures of them have been found on old Greek vases, where they may represent benevolent goddesses. It may be no coincidence that in one story about Penelope she mated with Hermes and bore him Pan, whose name resembles her own.

Perhaps her name was originally more like 'Panelopa', with altogether a different meaning? Another noteworthy fact is that although the modern Penelope (or Penny) owes her name to her, the Christian name itself was first used only in the sixteenth century.

This may well have been due to William Camden's inclusion of it in his Remains Concerning Britain, published in its original form (in Latin, with the title Britannia) in 1586. Penelope acquired her name, he writes, 'for that she carefully loved and fed those birds with purpure necks, called Penelopes'.