This article presents a literary genealogy of the titular character in Verdi's Aida. While scholars have explored the opera's resonances with late nineteenth-century conceptions of Orientalism, Blackness and the imagined ‘East’, Aida's etymology and character traits reflect a much broader archetype that extends back a century from its 1871 premiere. Her name is not Egyptian or Ethiopian but Greek, and her backstory was modelled on characters named ‘Haidée’ and ‘Haydée’ who appeared in works by Lord Byron and Alexandre Dumas fils, as well as in a celebrated opéra comique by Daniel Auber. Aida was thus an assemblage of ready-made character archetypes and scenarios rather than an author's sui generis depiction of non-Western culture. An intertextual reading of Aida offers a broader perspective on alterity in the nineteenth century, which eschewed geographical specificity for archetypes, quotations and allusions. It also offers another way to confront claims of authenticity made by current-day defenders of brownface in Verdi's work.