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A Reflection on Name Changes in Ancient Traditions and Mythology

Updated: Nov 27, 2018

In many ancient traditions and indigenous cultures, changing names was an important way to reflect on growth or changes in one’s journey and to demonstrate new experiences or understandings which were being embodied.

In publishing my book I have used the pen name Finndyror Silverstars (the 'y' in Finndyror is pronounced like an ‘a’ as in labyrinth) – I find this theme of giving and receiving a name to be quite fascinating and have written down a few thoughts on the subject since finding a new name has been very healing for me.

Native Americans had complex naming traditions and often a name would change throughout a person’s life to reflect challenges which were overcome, experiences or accomplishments – a name could change just as the individual did. Native American names are often descriptive and inspired by nature (reminding the individual to think of ‘us,’ not just ‘me’) and there were also secret sacred names which might only be known by an individual or a medicine man. A secret name could be tremendously healing – if a person had experienced trauma, a spiritual identity which had not been defiled could help the person to rebuild. Spiritual names have also been used in Hebrew, Christian and Hindu traditions.

In her article about Native Indian names, Maija Kappler researched the story of James Costello who began a healing journey at the age of thirty and longed to find his spiritual name. After spending time at a healing lodge he was given the name Naydaynaymowiitmukwainni, meaning ‘Bear Who Carries Humility’ and this change made him contemplate his personality and life. Later he was given a second name, Waawawaakaaneysaatgitchi-inni meaning ‘Big Man Who Shines Bright’ – a second spirit name would add to the individual, rather than displace the first name, explained Costello who now organises traditional ceremonies, helping people to connect with lost cultures.

This notion of a name changing to reflect the growth of an individual is a theme which can be found in mythology as well as in Tolkien’s books (who was deeply inspired by Norse, Greek and Celtic mythology.)

The Irish hero of the Ulster Cycle of mythology, Cú Chulainn, was born as Sétanta yet his name changed after he killed Culann's fierce guard dog in self-defence and offered to take its place until a replacement could be found.

"Setanta Slays the Hound of Culain," by Stephen Reid from Eleanor Hull, The Boys' Cuchulain, (1904.)

Medb, the Queen of Connacht in the Ulster Cycle of mythology renamed all of her children after asking a druid which of her sons would kill her former husband Conchobar mac Nessa and receiving the answer ‘Maine.’ Since she did not have a son called Maine she renamed them as follows: Fedlimid became Maine Athramail ("like his father,") Cairbre became Maine Máthramail ("like his mother,") Eochaid became Maine Andoe ("the swift,") Fergus became Maine Taí ("the silent,") Cet became Maine Mórgor ("of great duty,") Sin became Maine Mílscothach ("honey-speech,") and Dáire became Maine Móepirt ("beyond description.") Eventually Maine Andoe killed Conchobar, son of Arthur, not the Conchobar that Queen Medb had in mind.

Queen Meave and the Druid by Stephen Reid from Eleanor Hull's The Boys' Cuchulainn (1904)

In Irish mythology we can also see how the stories influence the names of places in the landscape. In the Táin Bó Cúailnge book (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), Cú Chulainn killed several of Medb’s pets or handmaidens and the areas in which they were killed were given names reflecting those events – emphasising the important connection between story, name and landscape.

We can see these themes being used in Tolkien’s writings and his characters are often given several names in various different languages. Gandalf was given many names throughout his adventures. His original name was Olórin in the Quenya tongue of the non-Telerin elves, and in the Sindarin Elvish language he was known as Mithrandir. In the mid-third Age he was gifted with the name Incánus, meaning ‘in the south’ and the dwarves gave him the name Tharkûn. After his battle with the Balrog and their mutual death, he returned to life after twenty days and after healing at Lothlórien he was no longer Gandalf the Grey but known as Gandalf the White.

In naming his characters, Tolkien was inspired by Old Norse names and Gandalf came from Gandalfr which incorporated the words gandr meaning ‘wand,’ ‘staff’ and álfr meaning 'elf.'

Lord of the Rings poster by English artist and musician, Jimmy Cauty, made when he was seventeen years old.

In Tolkien’s book, The Children of Húrin, the characters experience many name changes for example the daughter of Húrin, Niënor, became known as Níniel.

“'Do not be troubled!' said Turambar. 'Maybe the tale is too sad to tell. But I will give you a name, and call you Níniel, Maid of Tears.' And at that name she looked up, and she shook her head, but said: 'Níniel.' And that was the first word that she spoke after her darkness, and it was her name among the woodmen ever after.”

Places in the landscape were also renamed:

“Dimrost, the Rainy Stair, those falls were called, but after that day Nen Girith, the Shuddering Water; for Turambar and his men halted there, but as soon as Níniel came to that place she grew cold and shivered, and they could not warm her or comfort her.”

In Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Islander family history research, names can be difficult to follow since people often used many names throughout their life including a kinship name, a traditional name, a European name or a nickname and people rarely used their birth name or the name on official documentation. Many places in the landscape have also been renamed to reflect their Indigenous titles - perhaps the most famous example is that of Ayers Rock which reverted to its Yunkunytjatjara name of Uluru in 2002 and more recently two mountains, “Mount Wheeler” and “Mount Jim Crow,” in Queensland reverted to their traditional names of Gai-i and Baga.

In India, some people issue names by following ancient numerological systems such as Vedic Numerology. Numerology is the science of numbers, their hidden meanings and their influences on human beings. The most ancient system of numerology is called Chaldean Numerology which is also used in India and originated in ancient Babylon. By understanding about the mathematical order of the symbols in letters, numbers and language, it was believed that one could learn about the forces and vibrations within sounds and names which create mental harmony or discord. These systems also analyse a person’s date of birth for its symbology. In the Chaldean system, each letter has a unique vibration with meanings and influences which could play a role in a person’s life.

A mystical Sri Yantra diagram of Hindu Tantra of nine interlocking triangles.

A Western model of numerology is known as the Pythagorean system which calculates a soul number using a chart by allocating a number to each letter. The Hebrew Kabbalah system studied just the name and included 22 vibrations ranging from 1 to 400. In this system it was believed that names and letters could influence reality and Kabbalah scholars believed that the letters in a person’s name represent the connection between the material and spiritual worlds.

This idea of how language can influence our reality was explored by members of the Rastafari movement who created a dialect of the English language known as Iyaric which examined the power or essence in sounds, names and words – for example the word hello was not used since it contained ‘hell’ and ‘lo’ or low. ‘I’ replaced the word ‘me’ and ‘I and I’ was used to refer to the state of oneness and the God that resides in everyone.

“Your soul essence as it is merged with the Source has no name, for it has no personality. It is One with the Source, you see. So your spiritual name or whatever, is for the amusement of you at this particular time…If you desire a title or a name, choose one with which you resonate at this point in your unfoldment. As you progress further, that will change over and over again, until it dissipates into no name, into that which is One with all.” St. Germain channelled through Azena Ramanda and Claire Heartsong.

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