I read Phyllis Wilson’s post “The Name Game: Why Our Names Matter…A Lot” a couple days ago. While it was funny, it also touched a strong chord in me. I thought back to when my wife Kerry and I were busy thinking through this whole name-game thing for our soon-to-arrive daughter. I thought I’d share part of the process we were going through that autumn not so long ago.
India, eminently feminine, was a traditional name for British girls (very much in fashion during the years of Empire building). In me, it conjured up visions of red saris, small silver bells, bustling markets scented with cinnamon. Sitars, tabula, pipes and dancers. Colors of the rainbow in powdered flowers. Incense filling dusty air with jasmine perfume. Sadhus with deep brown eyes and painted faces tromping down the 5000-year-old steps of the bathing ghats of Varanasi into the holy waters of the Ganges. Jain temples, Hindu pilgrims and tantric carvings. Rickshaw wallas racing in bare feet on hot pavement. India — home to Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Jains, hippies and stoned quantum physicists all mixing in some intense cacophony of life.
We had long imagined traveling to India. Our itinerary would include Varanasi where millions of pilgrims come to bathe in the sacred Ganges, to be cleansed in the waters. In Bodhgaya where the Buddha was enlightened under the Bodhi tree, we would breathe the sacred air beneath the canopy of that old tree. In Dharmasala, we might volunteer for the Dalai Lama, then continue to Kashmir, rent a houseboat on Lake Dal and contemplate our reflections.
We had planned the trip to research mythologies and rituals of marriage and love in India and Ireland, two ancient places with unique cultural blends. We saw a book written by two people with different visions, both searching for a greater understanding of love and working towards a union that ceased to be a combination of two, but demonstrated that all of us are one, like the disappearance of the horizon between sea and sky at dusk.
But our trip was not to be. Instead, we found out we were having a child and we embarked on a different journey altogether.
As my wife’s pregnancy progressed, I found myself more and more needing a name for the child growing inside of her. I needed more than a something to relate to. A name would give a spiritual identity, a sense of the person, not merely an abstraction of personality.
Many cultures identify the names of things with the things themselves believing the spirit world can be manipulated by names in the same psychological process that a religious icon is often identified with the power itself. It’s the way the gods live within. If you can name feelings as gods, you can deal with them. Lust as Eros, love as Venus, wisdom as Zeus, anger as Mars.
In the West, we typically name our babies immediately after birth, and sometimes before they’re born. This traditionally has been a form of protection for the child. Some people believe that without a name, a child will not have an identity and will be left with a kind of formless soul, which can fall ill, or be harmed by evil spirits. I guess that may be a deep-seated cultural imperative and why I was pulled so strongly to wanting to name our child prior to birth. Not knowing the sex made it a bit difficult, however.
Many languages associate name with soul. The Irish word for soul is anim; their word for name is ainm. It appears the roots of our consciousness link our names with our essential beings much more closely than I’d imagined. The Sanskrit naman, and the Latin anima, nomen and numen are all soul words as well.
Sir James Frazer in The Golden Bough wrote that primitive peoples commonly believed “the link between a name and the person or thing denominated by it is not a mere arbitrary and ideal association, but a real and substantial bond which unites the two in such a way that magic may be wrought on a man just as easily through his name as through his hair, his nails, or any other material part of his person.”
Frazer goes on to present how people in many disparate cultures will not reveal their true names; instead, they have a second name for general use so they can protect themselves from people using their names for harm.
“Amongst the tribes of Central Australia,” Frazer wrote, “every man, woman and child has, besides a personal name which is in common use, a secret or sacred name which is bestowed by the older men upon him or her soon after birth, and which is known to none but the fully initiated members of the group.”
My wife always had a deep interest in numerology, a form of divination through which our names reveal our personalities and destinies. Each letter is assigned a numerical value, and these numbers convey vibrations, so what we call ourselves can alter our personalities and destinies. Even our karmic lessons can be uncovered through numerology.
One of numerology’s practitioners, Pythagoras, said, “Number is the ruler of forms and ideas, and is the cause of gods and demons.” It has also been said that Issac Newton spent more time studying the numbers in the Bible for possible divinatory revelations than he did working up his theory of gravity.
Kerry doesn’t use my last name for any of her professional activities as a writer. Maritonymy (woman giving up maiden name for husband’s) only goes so far with her. “If I take your last name, my expression number becomes four, a grounded, practical number,” she informs me with a wry smile on her face (sometimes I think she really believes this; other times I think she just plays at it).
“It’s great when dealing with telephone bills, banks and credit cards, but for artistic expression, my maiden name carries more creative qualities.” Therefore, Kerry Holt deals with telephone bills and Kerry Slavens is a writer.
As long as the phone bills are paid, I’m ok with it. My own number is a six, which is interpreted as reliability, loyalty and affection — pretty good stuff for a father, I’d say. Of course, I’m oversimplifying here. Numerology is far more complex than just relying on one number to define yourself.
But back to choosing names for our baby. My family suggested many of the standard names similar to what most of us have — Robert, Dave, Jason, Sara, Sally, and Sandy; but none of those appealed to us — something in the hidden spaces of our miracle had already been named and the resonance of that unknown name was stronger than these.
Some societies don’t name their children immediately. Apparently, people in the hills of Borneo don’t name their children until they are at least five years old and their personalities have begun to assert themselves. I guess they don’t have daycare and school registration problems.
Sadly, in some cultures, when infant mortality rates are high, children are not named early in order to reduce the family’s attachment to the child in case the child dies.
Korean children are not named for 100 days after their births in order to avoid attracting the attention of malevolent spirits. In many societies, children are named when they reach some significant stage in socialization. In Africa, Chagga children are named when their first tooth appears, and Wolof babies are named when their hair is first shaved. Finally, in some societies children are not named until their character becomes evident, and the name is then descriptive of who they are.
David Maybury-Lewis, in his book Millennium, writes of his experience with the Xerente people of Brazil. He and his wife Pia were embarking upon their first field-work trip as rookie anthropologists and had chosen an Xerente village far up the Tocantins River.
Upon arriving, Lewis, looking for an innocent way to get acquainted with the chief, noticed the chief’s daughter and asked what her name was. This simple question, which we wouldn’t blink an eye at here, sent the villagers into a flurry of agitation. The chief became puzzled and spent a fair amount of time debating with his wives while Lewis sat in a hut contemplating his first life lesson in Xerente culture.
“It was not a simple question,” he wrote. “Xerente babies are not named at birth. Indeed they are not named for years. Toddlers run around quite happily, addressed by their kin as ‘daughter,’ ‘son,’ ‘niece,’ ‘nephew,’ and so on. They do not often meet people who are not kin and, when they do, the strangers call them quite simply ‘boy’ or ‘girl.’ A society without any individual names? Not at all. Names are very important among the Xerente — too important to be casually bestowed on babies by parental whim.
“In fact, the Xerente feel the burden of a name would be too much for a small child to bear. Young children are weak and might sicken and die if they were weighed down with a name, so they can only be named later when they are strong enough for it. A name is not a device for singling out an individual; it is a way of making an individual into a social being, of linking him with society, just as society is linked to the cosmos.”
The feelings I had about naming our child were obviously not just some whim of my own, but connected to my cultural past, and perhaps, to the spirit world itself. The question of naming pressed on me because it was meaningful, not only to me, but also to this child who would live with the name. I think I’ve since come to understand that this child already had her name long before we even conceived of it.
We simply had to learn it.
Spices, Image by prakhar via Flickr
SunRise Varanasi, by ironmanixs via Flickr
Millennium by David Maybury-Lewis — Book Cover