What’s in a Name?

I have recently been thunderously journeying through the Edda. While I was originally skeptical about sailing through this paragon of Norse myth, the fascinating style of the poetry is most intriguing. Apparently in Norse poetry, nothing is to be referred to by its name. When the author wants to refer to gold, he will say something wonderfully complex, like the “fire of the Eel’s surging path.” The eel’s surging path is the ocean. The fire of the ocean, is a reference to an old story, where gold is used to light the halls of the ocean dwelling Ægir. Every word used in Norse poetry has a story and history behind it. Stories are linked with story upon story as more and more words are used. A section from this book cannot be pulled out by itself, it is intricately connected with other concepts. To remove one word is to pull out the veins that connect all stories together. This idea is expanded upon when it comes to personal reputation. Author and compiler Snorri Sturluson declares

“How shall a man be referred to? He shall be referred to by his actions, what he gives or receives or does. He can also be referred to by his property, what he owns and also if he gives it away; also by the family lines he is descended from, also those that have descended from him. How shall he be referred to by these things? By calling him achiever or performer of his expeditions or activities, of killings or voyages or huntings, or with weapons or ships. And because he is a trier of the weapons and doer of the killings, which is the same thing as achiever.”

To invoke the name of a person is to invoke the personality and deeds of a person, their soul. If I declare the name of Cromwell, the name itself may stir in you powerful emotions. For some, the name of Cromwell is a name of stark terror, reminding them of violent atrocities in Ireland and Scotland. Indeed the name of Cromwell holds little mercy. But for others, the name of Cromwell tells of passion and moral uprightness. To invoke the name of someone is to invoke the soul of that person. To speak the name of Han Solo is to invite the swaggering smuggler into the conversation, to offer him a seat, and hear his opinion. But not only does a name call forth the soul, it calls forth the stories of the soul. When I call upon the name of King Arthur, I am calling out the joy of Camelot, the betrayal of Lancelot, and the hatred of Mordred. I am reminding all of the beauty of Guinevere and the hope of Arthur’s return. This dread invocation is both awesome and terrible. A name communicates far more than the denotative meaning. A name communicates an idea. It summons the mind to bold adventures with little regard. We have a responsibility not to abuse our invocations. Overuse of these souls is not something to be taken lightly. We need to understand that once we reference these people, there is no going back. The tone will be set, and it will not be easily shaken. This leads us to another question. What tone does our name set? Were someone to say our name, what will that do to the conversation? What stories, ideas, and emotions will be stirred?

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2 thoughts on “What’s in a Name?

  1. Whitney Sanders Jr. June 19, 2013 / 3:47 PM

    This is fascinating that we were both thinking about this. Last night I was marveling at names.

    So does Norse poetry avoid mentioning a name precisely because it is so tied with the essence or identity of the named, and brings with it so much to the table that it distracts from the story?

    It’s really interesting to me how in ancient Israel, Persia, and Greece (perhaps other civilizations as well), people were given names that meant something in their own language. Nowadays, your name might mean something, but it probably means it in another language (with the rare exception of names like Grace, Faith, Hope). Even if it does mean something, the meaning is not at the forefront of everyone’s mind when that person is near.

    But Jacob–his name was not “Jacob.” It was the Hebrew word for “supplanter.” Like, they used the same word to describe their son and to comment on a random situation where some fellow was supplanting some other fellow. This would be equivalent to someone nowadays being named, in English, “Supplanter.” You think that might have an impact on your understanding of your identity? What about other people’s understanding of your identity?

    (Incidentally, I hope someone will explain to me why, when we translate the Old Testament, we don’t translate the names. We just end up with, I think, a transliteration, thus the English word “Jacob” appears in the translated text, instead of the English word ” Supplanter.”)

    At what point in history did people start referring to their children by a collection of sounds that meant nothing in their language? This seems to me to be a tragedy. As a culture, we’re all crazily searching for our identity. I wonder if this is part of the problem.

    But here’s something beautiful. Look at this passage:
    But Jacob said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” And he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then he said, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. (Genesis 32:26b-29)

    After this, when people refer to this person, they said יִשְׂרָאֵל, which means “God contends” or “soldier of God.” God changed his name from “Supplanter” to “God contends.” Imagine the impact on your understanding of who you are. Because of the significance of names in that culture, it’s like God has changed WHO Jacob is, or confirmed that Jacob is not who he was.

    On that note, consider when Jesus tells His followers that they are to pray in His name. I’ve never really understood that, but what if it’s saying Christians are to pray in the identity in Jesus? Like signing His name at the end of a letter we write to God.

    It’s also interesting how God places such importance on His name. (Exodus 3:13-15) He tells Moses to tell the people “I AM has sent me to you.” Contrast this with some ancient Egyptian gods and goddesses: Isis meant “she of the throne.” Ra [who supposedly called all people into existence by speaking their secret name] is a derivation of “sun.” Consider the ancient Greek gods. Last night, I read that it’s tough to know what any of the names of the Greek gods meant–they were some sort of derivation from something that meant something, or a transliteration of a god’s name in an older culture. God’s name emphasizes His existence, and doesn’t tell us a whole lot about Him besides that. It’s clear that He cannot be reduced to a “superhuman” or to an embodiment of the sun or other part of nature, like so many gods in other cultures. He is altogether different, and altogether real.

    Speaking of names, Snorri Sturluson is one awesome name.

    • Luke Brake June 19, 2013 / 4:39 PM

      You bring up some excellent perspective here! It does seem that there is a profound reverence for names in many cultures. Indeed, perhaps we ought to attribute much more to our own names. I would imagine a lot of this has to do with our dogged pursuit of complete individualism. The idea that our parents, or someone else, could effect our identity is one that strikes the very heart of our individualism. We unfortunately want to make our OWN name rather than let our name be given to us.
      The poet Bragi is the chief poet of the Æsir. From his name, the Norse called their poetry “Brag.” Indeed, while I believe they did place a lot of reverence beside the mentioning of the name, I also believe that they used the indirect reference to “brag” about the achievements of the subject. It is a sort of exploration of a character that also helps to give tremendous perspective to the story. When I read a section of Norse poetry, I feel as if this is simply a small segment of the massive story of the world. This sort of interconnection is impressive.
      It is interesting to note that in Medieval romance there is a also great deal of importance placed beside telling your name to someone. People often let their names be hidden, for I had to prove myself to you before I could know your name.

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