Table of Contents
Part IV: What's in a Name?
Names as Different Societies Have
points are basic to the general thesis of this Doorway Paper:
1. It has often
been observed that a name suits the person who bears it so that
the personality of the individual seems to be reflected in it.
Since names are given before the personality develops, it is
hard to see how there could possibly be any connection except
in a few cases where people are named after somebody who is known
and admired by them and whom they try to emulate, or where the
giver-of-names is clairvoyant and can see what would be appropriate
to the child's future development ‹ surely a right reserved
for God. But many societies identify the name with the soul and
in not a few cases believe that if individuals are correctly
named in childhood they can by this means bring back by a process
of reincarnation anyone who could be appropriately included in
their family circle.
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2. While we look upon such mystical
connections between a name and the personality or a name and
an object with some cynicism, the same cynicism is not felt by
a large number of societies who do not share our particularly
materialistic bias. This mystical connection has been re-discovered
in recent times by some of the best modern students of language.
So bound together are the names which things bear and the very
existence of those things, that namelessness tends to be synonymous
with non-existence. It is merely an extension of the idea that
until an individual has a personal name he does not have a personality,
he is a non-entity, soulless, merely an "it" or a thing.
3. In the matter of personal names,
so important is this attaching of the right name that giving
the wrong name is believed to cause sickness, and changing the
name of a sick child is one of the first remedial measures to
be commonly taken. Any change in the status of the individual
which is likely to be accompanied by some
change in character justifies
or demands a change of name. Change of name may be required when
a person is adopted into a new family, when he recovers from
a serious illness, when he achieves some significant new relationship
(for example, in marriage), when he is appointed to a new position
of importance (for example, as a leader or a ruler), when he
is initiated into some significant membership, often after some
notable personal achievement as victory over an important enemy,
and finally, after some powerful spiritual experience.
4. Every man's soul is so closely
identified with the name he bears that to declare his name publicly
is tantamount to making a public confession of what he is really
like, and since such knowledge gives a potential enemy power
over him, names are secret possessions known only to those in
whose hands it is safe to trust himself entirely.
5. In a remarkable way, the Bible
makes use of this deeply rooted feeling of attachment to and
identity with one's name to bring out many things related to
God's dealings with the individual. An understanding of this
background supplies a commentary on some important aspects of
Christian experience which otherwise may appear as interesting
enough but of little real consequence. In truth, it appears
that somewhat more attention should have been paid by commentators
generally in dealing with a whole class of passages in Scripture
which involve the giving of names, the use of names, and finally
and more importantly, the changing of names.
It seemed worthwhile
on this account to draw together what may appear to be rather
a miscellany of observations in order that the biblical student
may build around it more extensively by being made aware of
how many spiritual events of the people of God in Scripture
are in one way or another associated with the
giving or using or changing of a name. It is only in comparatively
recent years that we in our culture have
begun to re-discover what people in other cultures less sophisticated
than our own have always recognized: that in some way a person's
name is more than just a device by which to identify him in a
1. The name is identified with the very
being of the soul and guarantees its existence.
The persuasive feeling that
there is an agreement between name and personality is very ancient
and widespread. When primitive people observed it in individuals
who had been given the name of one of their
forebears, they adopted
the simple expedient of accounting for it by saying that the
forebear had come back to be reincarnated. From this it naturally
followed that an effort would be made to control as far as possible
who the reincarnated soul would be by adopting some "invitation"
procedure. I am not suggesting by this that such people thought
this all out by a process of theological reasoning; rather, in
a simple, direct, and uncomplicated way they have taken for granted
that the technique of "invitation" will be effective.
As a consequence, many such people treat the naming ceremony
of a newborn child as a much more serious business than we do.
For example, the Chukchee of Siberia decide upon the name of
a child by a process which is something like this: a small object
on the end of a string is allowed to swing freely and is set
in motion by some official in the family while another official
begins to recite all the names which the child could allowably
bear. He continues this recitation, repeating the list in the
same order if necessary, until the other official gives the signal
that the object has ceased swinging. The name then pronounced
is the child's name. (2)
Now this might be thought rather
silly. But in reality it is sensible enough if we grant certain
other premises which to the Chukchee are self-evident. To such
people, as to ourselves, it seems to be impossible to think of
a person as being annihilated at death. Living close to nature
and witnessing the burst of new life year after year as spring
comes, they cannot escape the conviction that man's soul lives
on in some way after death. Very frequently they believe that
reincarnation takes place with the birth of every infant ‹
that is, that the soul in an infant is not a new thing but already
in existence elsewhere. Because not all their dead have been
loved at home, they feel that the living have a right to receive
or reject whom they will from the old family circle; thus in
giving the child a name, they use only the names of dead ancestors
whose presence would be acceptable.
The moment the child's name has
been determined, it is believed that the deceased relative has
returned to live with his own family. Prior to this, the child
is a living creature but has no soul. For this reason, if it
becomes necessary ‹ as they see necessity ‹ to destroy
the child for lack of room or food or some deformity, for example,
no murder is involved to their way of thinking provided that
it has not yet been named.
2. Chukchee of Siberia: W. Bogoras, The
Chukchee, published as vol.11 of the American Museum of Natural
History Memoirs, 1904, p.512.
missionaries are horrified at the apparent indifference of those
who have lost a relative. They show no grief at the graveside.
They may laugh and joke with one another even as the body is
being lowered into the grave. But often the cause of this disinterest
is not lack of regard or even of affection, but the simple conviction
that the spirit of the deceased has gone from the body and is
merely waiting to be reincarnated at the first opportunity. Indeed,
a husband may lose a wife whom he dearly loved and yet make arrangements
for a new wife while the funeral service is being conducted.
Such indifference appalls us. But actually the man "knows"
that his wife can be brought back if he raises another family
and names a little girl after her. There is a sense, therefore,
in which their lack of grief is not evidence of indifference
but the result of a more profound
faith in the continuance of the soul.
But there is a further point of
importance here. In some parts of the world there is no milk
and no vegetables upon which to feed a child. If two children
should be born, the chances are that an Eskimo mother cannot
possibly feed them both. Either two sickly children must result
from lack of sufficient food in their early years or one of them
must be put to death. When this has been thought necessary, the
child is merely put out to freeze. To us, it sounds like a barbaric
process and, of course, it is murder in the strict sense of the
white man's law. Indeed, to the Eskimo, it would also be murder
if the child had once been named. But until a name is given to
a child it is an animal but not a human being. Motherly affection
in the Eskimo family is strong, though among some primitive people
(such as the Alorese in the Pacific) mother love may be habitually
wanting. But the Eskimo love their children and fondle them and
play with them. Some observers hold that childhood is the only
happy era of the Eskimo's life, though this may not really be
so. But they must make decisions sometimes which are carried
out with what appears to be indifference, though in reality they
result from circumstance.
C. M. Garber, who spent many years in
the Arctic intimately sharing the life of western Eskimos, observed
that he had only once ever seen two deformed Eskimo children.
(3) He explains
this as resulting from the fact that the life of the Eskimo is
so hard that a deformed baby will not be allowed to live. His
impression was that Eskimo mothers actually showed a "distinct
hatred" of any deformed child they were unfortunate enough
3. Garber, C. M., "Eskimo Infanticide"
in Scientific American, February, 1947, p.99.
bear, and he seemed to
think that there was something "instinctive" about
this form of mother rejection. Against this assumption is the
known fact that in other primitive societies such as the Toda
in South India, for example, if there is any question of destroying
one of two infants, the sickly one will be spared out of
compassion and the healthy one put away. (4) The fact is that an unnamed child does not have the
same attachment to the family that bears it, and perhaps for
this reason, newborn infants are not named until a judgment has
been made about its health.
Moreover, when an Eskimo mother
nurses her child, she may continue to do so for four or five
or even six years before she decides that it can take prepared
fish which she chews and spits into its mouth. If another child
should be born during this interval, the problem is as severe
as it is in the appearance of twins. Of course, today only a
few tribes or families of Eskimo are still in this position,
for the white man has carried some of the benefits of his culture
(as well as many of the evils) up into the Arctic Circle.
It may be thought that such an
attitude toward an unnamed child is entirely irrational. But
we do well to remember that in some parts of Christendom for
many years, unbaptized (and therefore unnamed) infants were not
buried in Christian cemeteries because it was not known whether
they had souls in the accepted sense. They were believed to pass
into an indistinct region of existence called Limbo, about which
very little is "known"; even among ourselves we find
it somehow difficult to refer to a very tiny baby as he or she,
habitually falling into the use of the impersonal form "it."
This is oddly true when there is something the matter with "it."
This, then, is one way of accounting
for the suitability of a name for the person who bears it, and
the view is, of course, by no means limited to people with "primitive"
background. It is a common belief among millions of people "east
of Suez," and it is not uncommonly held among educated Europeans.
It is difficult to escape at times from the sudden, almost overwhelming,
impression of "having been here before" or having met
someone previously whom we know we cannot actually have met before
in this life. As we shall see in chapter 2, there is evidence
that this concept of reincarnation was not unknown among the
Jews in our Lord's time; (5) and there
4. The Toda: Elie Redus, Primitive Folk,
Scott, London, n.d., p.198.
5. Reincarnation: A belief in reincarnation among the Jews is
reflected in the New Testament in such passages as Matthew 16:14,
where it is commonly supposed that Jesus was one of the prophets
reincarnated. This was not a question of resurrection such as
applied in the case of Herod's fears regarding John the Baptist
(Matt.hew14:2). The people apparently discussed in all seriousness
the identity of Jesus on the presupposition of his being Elijah
or one of the other prophets reincarnated, just as they also
imagined that John the Baptist might have been reincarnated (John
is a form of reincarnation
experienced by the child of God, which is related in a very positive
way to the new name we are to bear which will be a summation
of our ultimate personality when we stand in the Lord's presence.
2. What is true of souls is true of objects
also: the naming of them brings them into being.
This is a very ancient concept.
In his translation of the earliest more or less complete Cuneiform
creation tablets, George Barton renders the opening lines as
Time was when the heaven above was not named,
To the earth beneath, no name was given.
There is magic
in a name. Edward Sapir, one of the great linguists of modern
times, remarked: (7)
Many lovers of nature, for instance,
do not feel that they are truly in touch with it until they have
mastered the names of a great many flowers and trees, as though
the primary world of reality were a verbal one and as though
one could not get close to nature unless one first mastered the
terminology which somehow magically expresses it.
Names of things
seem to give real insight into their meaning and nature. Many
people feel uncomfortable in the company of people whose names
they do not know. Often the mere knowledge of their names brings
sense of confidence, and this confidence is not merely the result
of being able to address them properly. In a way, we know them
. . . though in reality we may know virtually nothing of their
real character. When children meet, it is their first inquiry:
"What's your name?" And numerous experiments have shown
that this is not merely a matter of having a convenient tag for
identifying people. Children are easily satisfied that they understand
how a thing works if they only know the names of its parts. A
youth of fifteen will explain in detail how a radio or a car
engine works, using correct names for its components and imagining
that he understands it all perfectly, though in reality he could
do no more than spell the names if further explanation was desired!
This sense of mastery of the external world seems to lie behind
a child's first efforts to speak. David R. Major,
6. Barton, George, Archaeology and the
Bible, American Sunday School Union, Philadelphia, 6th edition.,
7. Sapir, Edward, in his article entitled, "Language"
in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Macmillan,
New York, 1937, p.157.
who wrote at some length
about the early stages of learning to speak, observed of one
child which he studied for some years: (8)
By the beginning of the twenty-third
month, the child developed a mania for going about naming things
as if to tell others their name, or to call our attention to
the things he was examining. He would look at, point towards,
or put his hand on an article, speak its name, and then look
at his friends.
What a familiar
picture this is! Ernst Cassirer remarked: (9)
Such an attitude would not be
understandable were it not for the fact that the name, in the
mental growth of the child, has a function of the first importance
to perform. If a child when learning to talk had simply to learn
a certain vocabulary, if he only had to impress on his mind and
memory a great mass of artificial and arbitrary sounds, it would
be a purely mechanical process. It would be very laborious and
tiresome, and would require too great a conscious effort for
the child to make without a certain reluctance since what he
is expected to do would be entirely disconnected from actual
biological needs. The "hunger for names," which at
a certain age appears in every normal child and which has been
described by all students of child psychology, proves the contrary.
. . . He learns rather to form the concepts of those objects,
to come to grips with the objective world. . . . His dim
feelings may be said to crystallize around the name as a fixed
centre, a focus of thought. Without the help of the name, every
new advance made in the process of objectification would always
run the risk of being lost again in the next moment.
The name of
a thing is a magical Open Sesame which unlocks the door to its
inner meaning. Often this is only a superficial insight, but
it brings confidence, and occasionally this is more important
than scientific understanding. For example, among primitive people
the witch doctor is generally an unusual individual, far
from being a fool, but rather shrewd and often highly trained
in the understanding of human nature. Finding a patient with
some sickness ‹ let us say, smallpox ‹ he may well know
the actual cause of the sickness but as a rule he will depend
almost entirely upon the power of suggestion. To succeed in this,
he must win the confidence of his patient, and the first thing
he will do is to "identify" the name of the sickness.
We ourselves are conscious of a peculiar sense of relief when
the doctor finishes his examination and then turns to us and
identifies our sickness for us. We are persuaded that because
he knows the name of it, he already has it under control.
8. Major, David R., in Steps in Mental
Growth, Macmillan, New York, 1906, p.321.
9. Cassirer, Ernst, Essay on Man, Yale University Press,
although to anyone who has not thought much about the subject
it may seem ridiculous to make a word for something essential
to its real existence and a name to be the very existence of
a person, the concept is very deep-seated in the human mind.
The little child Mary, in the introduction, viewing herself as
nobody, also thought of herself as nameless. Sometimes a healthy
child in a fit of despondency will reply to a kind inquiry as
to what the trouble is with a burst of tears. As soon as one
asks his name he may say, "I haven't got a name." It
is a pitiful self-assessment, yet it is also of great psychological
interest. It is difficult to account for it in Mary's case since
she can hardly have had any knowledge of how widespread the view
is. One is almost forced to assume that our concept of "reality"
is truly dependent on words.
This concept of real existence being
wrapped up in the possession of a name or in the speaking of
a word is reflected in Scripture.
3. To change the name is to change the
Once more, by way of illustration,
we may refer to the Chukchee who, if a child gets sick, immediately
assume that the wrong name has been given to it and the sickness
is due to a misplaced invitation being sent to the wrong soul
for reincarnation. To cure the sickness the child must be renamed.
It is necessary, therefore, to go through the whole naming ceremony
again. If the sickness continues, this process is repeated until
the child either recovers or dies. Thus the name is not merely
a convenient "handle" ‹ it is much more. It is
the very person. In North America, if the infant of a Crow Indian
proved to be a sickly child, it was believed that the wrong name
had been given to it and its name was changed at once. (10) According to Frazer, the
Eskimo may take a new name when he is an old man in order to
gain a new lease on life, which is the same thing applied at
the end of life rather than at its beginning. (11)
Levy-Bruhl, because of certain
extreme views which he held or perhaps more correctly because
of a misunderstanding of his views due to his choice of terms,
has tended to fall into disfavour. But his classic study of primitive
mentality contains a wealth of documented information related
to the present issue, derived from hundreds of sources whose
reliability is hardly to be questioned. In dealing with the importance
of names, he bases his conclusions upon the works of reputable
scholars, travelers, missionaries, explorers, and colonial administrators
in every part of the world. In speaking of the individual in
a primitive society, he observes: (12)
10. Crow Indians: G. P. Murdock, Our Primitive
Contemporaries, Macmillan, New York, 1951, p.275.
11. Frazer, James G., The Golden Bough, Macmillan, London,
abridged edition., 1960, p.322.
12. Levy-Bruhl, Lucien, How Natives Think, translated
by Lillian A. Clare, Knopf, New York, 1925, p.50.
beginning of a fresh epoch in his life, for example his initiation,
an individual receives a new name: and it is the same when he
is admitted to a secret society. . . . A new name is never a
matter of indifference; it implies a whole series of new relationships
and consequently of protection. . . .
The Indian regards his name not
as a mere label, but as a distinct part of his personality, just
as much as are his eyes or his teeth; and he believes that injury
will result as surely from the malicious handling of his name
as a wound inflicted on any part of his physiological organism.
In America this belief is found among the various tribes from
the Atlantic to the Pacific.
It appears strange that only the
birth name and not any of the other names which a man may bear
should be capable of carrying some of the personality.
An adult man,
after some great exploit, would take a new name to signify that
he was now a new man. It is often held that the great strength
of the Iroquois League, a league which survived for almost 120
years, was due to the fact that its members enjoyed great tribal
mobility, being adopted from one tribe into another with considerable
frequency, thus weakening blood ties but strengthening intertribal
bonds. (13) Whenever
a man was so adopted, usually as a youth or young warrior, he
invariably took a new name and was never again referred to by
his old name. Indeed, as Levy-Bruhl showed, in every part of
the world there is a strong conviction, among people whose ways
of thinking about things are still essentially simple and direct,
that a real change in the being of the person takes place whenever
that person's name is changed. There is a principle here which
is clearly reflected in both the Old and the New Testament. It
is explored further in chapter 2.
4. A name is so intimately bound to the
soul that a knowledge of it gives power over its possessor to
anyone who can find it out.
While it is true that confession
is good for the soul, baring one's soul is also a very good way
of putting oneself into someone else's power. Information regarding
one's personal life or one's weaknesses and failings
thus handed over to another party is likely to provide that other
party with power over oneself. By the same token, logically,
in many societies it is believed that if your personal or private
name becomes known to a potential enemy, the latter has a source
of power over your soul. Whether in your presence or not, if
13. Iroquois League: George S. Snyderman,
Behind the Tree of Peace, Pennsylvania Archaeological
Publication, vol.18, 1948.
hold of your name, your
secret name, it is as though he has possession of all the details
of your private
life ‹ particularly your weaknesses and failures. You may
be almost completely at his mercy. Melville
Herskovits pointed out that while we might consider it absurd
to suppose that our name is so identified with
our soul that we could actually be injured through it, (14)
. . . yet to hear our name accompanied by an ugly imprecation
brings a prompt emotional response, just as it would if we were
to see a picture of ourselves thrown to the ground and stamped
The name is an integral part of
what William James called "the me". By extension, then,
a god summoned by name responds as does a human being. In many
cultures, therefore, the "real" name of the god may
only be known by those with the power to cope with him when he
comes. "Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord Thy God
in vain" is an injunction known far more widely than among
the ancient Hebrews.
It may strike
us as peculiar that people could feel that hurt could be done
to them by injuring their name.
Yet we are very sensitive, as Melville Herskovits said, about
what people do with our picture! An insult to a photograph of
a mother or father is an insult to the original and is equally
keenly felt. Many people, in decisively breaking off a long association
or an engagement, feel that their photographs should be returned
With ourselves, names are merely
a necessary and useful means of identification. As a consequence,
provided that some other additional "handle" is available,
it does not disturb us to give the same name to any number of
people. This in itself is evidence that we are not really identifying
the name of the individual with that individual's soul or person,
because we are well aware that each person is uniquely an individual
and therefore if the name they bear is precisely identified with
their personality, no two people would share the same name appropriately.
By contrast, primitive people, as well as civilized people who
do not share Western tradition, would avoid giving two people
the same name for this very reason, namely, that each individual
is unique and that in some mystical way his name and his uniqueness
are wrapped up together. It is not so much that there is a kind
of equivalence between name and personality so that the one is
an alternative to the other; it is rather that they are
indivisibly the same. In a man's name his very soul is involved;
to call him by name is to touch his soul in the quick, and to
mention his name in public is tantamount to stripping him naked.
14. Herskovits, Melville, Man and His Works,
Knopf, New York, 1950, p.367.
avoid any duplication of names, not a few societies appoint a
kind of registrar. The Iroquois, for example, put their stock
of names into the keeping of a woman called Keeper-of-Names.
(15) When a child
was born, the mother would visit the Keeper-of-Names and ask
her for a list of those available. It is rather like making application
for a trade-name, the object being to ensure that the name chosen
will be the sole property of the one who has the right to use
it. But unlike the trade-name, the personal name is always kept
highly secret, being known only to the immediate family and to
a few personal friends. So closely identified is the name and
the person that it becomes a source of great embarrassment if
he is asked by the European, "What is your name?" Colonial
administrators have not infrequently in the past been quite unaware
of the existence of such taboos and have entirely alienated themselves
at first contact by their not unnatural desire to know people's
names and, even worse, to write them down. To the native this
is tantamount to asking him to put himself completely in their
It is a strange equation, and the
secretiveness that results can lead to some extraordinary happenings.
A case was reported in a Papuan native court of the tragic consequences
of misuse of an intimate name. (16) A man was brought before that court charged with
the murder of his wife. The magistrate learned from witnesses
that the man had lost his temper and had attacked her and murdered
her with an ax. When the case was being investigated, it transpired
that a brother had been present but had made no attempt to rescue
When he was asked, "Why didn't
you stop it? How could you stand there and watch her being killed
before your eyes?" the man replied that he could not go
to her help because in her distress she had cried to him using
his intimate name which was taboo in public, even for a sister.
By answering her call he would have agreed to the breaking of
a taboo which would have been a serious mistake indeed. It was
of less importance to let her be murdered. The native court regarded
the matter quite dispassionately.
Even in this, the Bible is not
without its counterpart ‹ not because the concept itself
is necessarily based on some underlying factual reality, but
rather because God speaks to man in his own language and accommodates
Himself to our form of understanding. It is one of the wonders
of Scripture that it can use our strangely variant ways of viewing
reality to make its own revelation clear without in any way compromising
the truth which is revealed.
15. lroquois Giver-of-Names: A. Goldenweiser,
Anthropology, Crofts, New York, 1945, pp.337, 352.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
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16. Papuan native court case: reported by Evelyn Cheesman, "When
a Name Is Tabu" in The Listener, 27 February,