About the Book

Table of Contents

Part I

Part II

Part III

Part IV

Part V

Part VI

Part VII

Part VIII

     

Part IV:  What's in a Name?

Chapter 1

Names as Different Societies Have Viewed Them

     THE FOLLOWING 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.
     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

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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 crowd.

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

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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.  

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     Sometimes 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 to

3. Garber, C. M., "Eskimo Infanticide" in Scientific American, February, 1947, p.99.

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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 1:21). 

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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 follows:
(6)

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 a
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., 1933, p.287.
7. Sapir, Edward, in his article entitled, "Language" in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, Macmillan, New York, 1937, p.157. 

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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, 1948, p.132. 

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     Thus, 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 person.
     
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. 

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     At the 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 he has

13. Iroquois League: George S. Snyderman, Behind the Tree of Peace, Pennsylvania Archaeological Publication, vol.18, 1948. 

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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 upon.
     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 or destroyed.
     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. 

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     To 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 power.
     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 her.
     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.
16. Papuan native court case: reported by Evelyn Cheesman, "When a Name Is Tabu" in The Listener, 27 February, 1958, p.356
.

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Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved

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