What’s In A Name

I did a remarkable amount of research on this subject for Ancestral Airs, poking through mythology, history, and the meanings of ancient names still familiar to us. But given that Ancestral Airs is a story about shamanic tribal people my single best source for understanding came from living tribal elders. As they explained it, there existed many sources for names. Perhaps the midwife saw something of interest at the child’s birth. In many cultures she is one to give a child its first name. Puberty rites and clan initiations often brought about second and third names. And then there were peculiarities of personalities that earned yet another such as Doesn’t-Want-To-Be-An-Elder or Overly-Fond-Of-Women, two characters in my book. Events were often factors in name giving. I portrayed other characters in this particular context:

 “Burnt Knife’s apprentice was one of those rare gifts born to die but destined to live. It was rumored that his mother gave birth to him two months early and in a winter when winter stayed into late spring. The river ran slow and thick, with flows that had frozen the sky into them. The Hawthorn women called him Blue Ice.

His power was directly attributed to his unique ability to survive untenable odds. From a fearfully tiny infant whose cries were as faint as wildcat kittens, he grew to an imposing stature. Blue Ice was half again my size and easily twice my strength.”

 “Each of the three apprentices had taken wounds but none of them mortal. More importantly the hunt had been a good one and they came in with three seals. Elders examined the prey meticulously and declared three more boys had stepped successfully into manhood. They set immediately to the butchering supervised by the old men, every part ritually taken with prayers. The young hunters would be permitted none of the meat but got other tokens and the hides which they tanned right away. The rest of the harvest was turned over to the women who had set up an area for processing it. Sea gulls and other creatures cleaned up the little that was left…

On the third morning the young warriors were given names they had earned. Elders immortalized the tale of each of their hunts from which the names were drawn. His mother had called the boy I had a heart for Moon Smile. He was re-named Stone Bite for the great wound he took.”

 I found that names that had been given were rarely spoken, often regarded as medicine names and therefore something of a secret. These names were only used in ceremonies to insure that the spirits knew that the individual was in attendance. What I did not find was anyone who had named his or her self. A name was a thing earned, recognized by tribal elders. It was a concept so significant to them that name giving ceremonies were often unprecedented events and extremely important. People dropped what they were doing to attend, dressed in their finery, brought gifts, and put up feasts.

 In memory of those Old Ones who taught me “what’s in a name” I did my level best to honor their wisdom in Ancestral Airs:

“I thought about his wonderful name breathed into his very soul by his mother at birth. Did women foresee Immortals in their unborn and name them accordingly or did they create them by what they were called? Names were intrinsically woven into women’s secret knowledge of the sacredness of food and the magical gift of breast milk presented to every newborn. Sustenance fed the body while names nurtured and shaped the soul. Predisposition was regarded as a feature of the soul and the very seed that grew into an Immortal or medicine man. But I couldn’t help but wonder if a name sparked predisposition or it simply came into existence because it was called. Only the corruption of the 20th century thinking could catch me in such a web. There existed no conundrum here. Souls descended from the Mother of Creation, mysteriously yet purposefully, as did names. At the end of life, just as surely as dreamers, souls only moved on to other realms of the same world. Sometimes they returned to us in the flesh or as supernatural creatures inhabiting a wholly natural world. Many were Ancient Ones. Others were believed a race visible only when ritual participants disappeared beneath paint or masks in order to bring them to this reality. The manifestations were uncountable and entirely blessings from the spirit world.

But just as surely as the dead abided in the valley of whispers Crones dwelled in the river that was called the blood of life. From the beginning all wisdom flowed to us through them. Requisite to old age was the hoarding of knowledge contained in the blood. It was limitless wealth bequeathed to our people and disseminated entirely by ancient women. No ritual was conducted without their oversight, no sacred union consummated without their knowledge. They saw everything and peered into the lives of everyone. They were the clan midwives; they were the healers, prophets, and Spirit Handlers. Life evolved around the Crones and their consorts were not fallen old men but the Bards in which they were in cahoots. The Crones were the master magicians and all of us fell under the spells they cast. Moondog’s dreamloop was in the end their doing as was my presence in their world. And whether what remained would end up spirit or flesh the Crones were the guarantors of blood and the memory of or people. They and they alone insured that we’d survive somewhere if only in the realm of dreams. They were the keepers and creators of names.”

 Names invoke spirits. If a tribe was beset with trouble one of the Crones would remember the name of some past hero that had the answer. His or her name was given again. But it was well understood that the spirit contained in a name would weary if the name was spoken or invoked too frequently. Consequently names became treasures and the melody of names became songs of power. As with all things in hunter-gatherer life, names were invoked frugally and only when needed. Names were delicacies to be savored and rolled off the tongue infrequently. I loved this about ancient people. So many of the elders I knew harbored a great fear that such delectable details would be lost. I promised them I would do my part in hopes that didn’t happen. This little piece is for them and by sharing this with you they too become Immortals.




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