Is That a Proper Name?

2 April, 2012

This week On the Reading Rest I have an anthology: Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources, edited by Katerina Ierodiakonou. Since chronology is its ordering principle and since I bought it some years ago in the AUC bookstore in Cairo, because I am interested in Scandinavian Iron Age, I tend to become less interested after the third article. Actually, the third article is the one I ought to be most interested in, and I am, but I read the second one first.

It seems there’s a lot of ‘I’ in this entry.

Artistotle as he looked in the 16th century in the Monastry of Philanthropinon. Ioanninon/Aksiotheata_Ioanninon/ english_version/monh_fil.htm

Kalligas, Paul. 2002. Basil of Caesarea on the semantics of proper names. In: Katerina Ierodiakonou (ed.) Byzantine Philosophy and its Ancient Sources. Clarendon Press, Oxford. Pp 31-48.

In Luke chapter 1 vv 57-61 we are told that:
on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child; and they called him Zacharias, after the name of his father. And his mother answered and said, Not so; but he shall be called John. And they said unto her, there is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. Then they made signs to his father, to find out what he would like to name the child.

For different reasons the name was to be John, but we understand why Elisabeth’s neighbours and cousins suggested Zacharias and wondered, why John?

Having been told to read the whole chapter faithfully or resolved on accepting it as we accept a piece of jigsaw puzzle, we take it that ‘Em Yochanan’, Mother John, an 80-year-old primigravida, has a reason to call the child John = Yochanan = ‘God [is] gracious’, and faith enough to refer to God. Moreover, God, who in this early part of Luke is still in his Old Testament mood, is teaching Zacharias a lesson, and there is quite a bullying touch in forcing the old man to accept that God is gracious.

Centre right: the elderly parents and the healthy child, haloed. Left: Mary unmarried and three month pregnant; everybody surrounded by midwives. The feeble Zacharias writes 'Yochanan'; able Elisabeth supervising his doing it corretly.

In Northwest Europe in the beginning of the 9th century AD instruction wasn’t yet that successful. In fact the story was so strange, the gap between faith and reason so wide, that the Saxon poet, who translated and rewrote the Gospels to bridge Pagan and Christian ways in newly conquered (Carolingian) Saxony, felt the need to clarify what he thought was obscured by Luke:

‘Then spoke there a skillful man, who knew so many wise words, had much sense. He eagerly asked what his (the child’s) name would be in this world: “It seems to me from his looks as well as his behavior that he is better than us and so I find that obviously God himself has sent him from Heaven”. Then at once the child’s mother, who had him, her son, that child on her lap said: “Hither came last year God’s command, the foremost of words, saying that according to God’s instruction he should be called John. Whatever I may think, I cannot change this even if I wanted to”. Then spoke an arrogant man, who was her kinsmen: “Never were any of the nobles or any of our clan called so. Let us choose another name, an agreeable name, which he may like”. Then spoke a wise man, who had much to say: “I wouldn’t advise any young warrior to start changing God’s words …”.’ Hêliand vv 208-227.[1]

When it comes to 9th c. Germanic naming traditions rather than 1st c. Jewish, we can identify two positions: (1) An old Pagan tradition seeking a name that links in with social stratification and socially acceptable qualities, which clan and family can accept and the child (grow up to) like. The point is to create a match between being and life, and naming is the start of that process. (2) A modern Christian tradition, which also seeks sociably acceptable names, however, leaving it to God (i.e. the father) to decide what a proper name is.

Cunningly, as always, the Hêliand author, whose task it was to drive home new Christian values, chose to let the young and foolishly arrogant represent old-fashioned views while the old, wise, sharp, sensible, eloquent and eager advocate the modern ones.

We tend to sympathize with the modern 9th c. view because we take a great interest in neutrally referring to unique objects, and it so happens that we don’t mind seeing any human being, be it father or son or whatever, as indeed unique. Taking this interest in ‘unique’ and ‘human’ one step further we find a reason for inventing proper names. Names, one might suggest, are ‘proper’ inasmuch as they designate an individual being. Although this sounds quite straightforward, proper names are nevertheless difficult to handle. Someone called Peter may be one of many called Peter. Individuals called Peter have for a long time been contextualized in a number of ways, e.g. in Christian societies. This means that someone called John may be ‘a Peter’. As it happens, the sentence ‘Peter is dead’ bothers noboby, despite the fact that there is no more any Peter to designate, now that he has ceased to exist. Moreover, the problems with the concept ‘being’ in relation to ‘unique’ and ‘human’ are so great that it makes sense to say: ‘Peter is dead! Long live Peter!’

Our latent interest in the individual and the unique sparks the eternal in mortals – a contradiction in terms.

Authorities, as well as parents giving their children a series of names, have tried to come up with solutions to the need for unique references, but we may still ask ourselves whether the uniquely defined 3001 1996 1126 2065-M, listening to the name Peter, is indeed the person in front of us. Immigration authorities wonder every day, at least a little, before they come up with a conclusion similar to this: ‘If your language contains some elements of the dialects of northern Somalia, then whatever you say, you cannot be designate “3001 1996 1126 2065-M, Peter from Mogadishu” because Mogadishu is southern Somalia, isn’t it? So, we send you back to Northern Somalia where you belong – and by the way, who is called Peter in Mogadishu these days?’ Like most of us, immigration officers equate designation with contextualization although it cannot always be done. Some of us understand the problem others do as they are told.

In some contexts Peter is no doubt Peter, in others he (or whoever it is) is not. ‘Peter’ may mean and means a lot, but it is only a proper name – nobody corresponds to the meaning of the name.

These are the kind of problems addressed by Paul Kalligas (PK)  in his article on Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379 AD). PK writes in a genuinely analytical way, well-anchored in the history of philosophy. Since his is a philosophical approach it’s worth mentioning that philosophers, although they are interested in discussing proper names in order to define them, are also willing to take part in language games that go against any simple realtion with names.

Porphyry, the 3rd century AD philosopher born in Tyre of Phoenician parents, was given the name Malchus, i.e. a variety of the Semitic maliki, ‘My king’. When he moved to Athens to study philosophy, his teacher called him Porphyry, i.e. ‘of the purple colour’ of the Royal toga or the rock used, e.g. in busts, to depict this toga. His teacher showed his appreciation and used the pun to point out Malchus’ outstanding qualities and intellectual class travel: in these Neoplatonic circles hinting that someone was a Philosopher King was flattering. Porphyry later went on to Rome and became a leading philosopher writing textbooks that would be studied a thousand years or more. ‘Malchus’ therefore, disappeared and ceased to exist c. 260 AD, but lived on in ‘Porphyry’: a Peter of philosophy? – well not exactly. His most famous work was Against the Christians. In Rome ‘Porphyry Peter’ is odd or irony and thus a meaningful proper name. In the fourth gospel, ‘John’ tells us that the man whose ear Peter cut off was called Malchus – a third century fact?

And what might possibly be the reason why anyone interested in Scandinavian Iron Age will read about Basil, let alone Basil himself? The answer rests with the fact that Basil, amidst predictable tradition, happened to express an interesting and uncommon opinion.

Basil was engaged in a religious discussion with his contemporary Eunomius, who happened in passing to express an extreme position when it came to names. He pointed out that the nature of things corresponds to the names that God himself has given things in an appropriate way when they were born, i.e. created. Eunomius goes on to say that this, the true nature of things, can be known to man only through some kind of prophetic or apocalyptic revelation. Predictably Eunomius would argue that names and proper names are ‘in accordance with truth’ (PK p:41). Against this Basil offers the following:

It is easy to see that the name John = Yochanan = ‘God (is) gracious’ and the reasons for choosing it comes very close to Eunomius’ ideas, and if, as in this blog, we don’t understand the meaning of God’s grace when it comes to St John’s life and its gruesome end, then that is just a lack of relavation.

‘John’ was given by God and to the best of our knowledge it is in accordance with (Christian) truth. It is a proper name in the Eunomic sense. Not surprisingly we can pin the modern 9th c. understanding on Eunomius, surprisingly we can not pin it on Basil! Instead, his point of view reminds us of the young warrior belittled in Hêliand when he suggests a name that the new born will like, i.e. ‘like’ in the future when he is able to look upon himself as a human being living a life.

Basil felt that he lived in an era in which hearing the name we will at once begin to enumerate and grasp some of the peculiarities of the lives lived by one or more persons labeled by this proper name. These peculiarities may of course be indicative also of other beings with other names. As PK points out, proper names, the way Basil sees them, are similar to pronouns because they can refer to an infinite number of contexts and at the same time unite these contexts in one narrative defining any person represented by the name.

This then brings us to a vogue phenomenon concerning early if not the earliest recorded Scandinavian iron-age names and appellations. Now and then they make up a small series of contexts, labeled under a proper name that acts as a pronoun or indeed under a pronoun inasmuch as the series often starts with or incorporates ‘ek’, i.e. ‘I’.

Looking at Early Iron Age Scandinavian names (4-5th c. AD) from a general point of view, there are a number that a child may grow up to like whatever his career. They are names such as Bear—bera ; Hawk—haukz ; Nimble—wagnijo; Black—swarta; Glad—taitaz, Little New—niujila . They are simple proper names and although they are metaphorical or meaningful (and could have been acquired during adult life) they will act like ‘Peter’ in Basil’s example. This is true also of some names that refer more clearly to acquired skills, mostly martial, such as Fighter—wigaz or Little Weapon—sarula. Without knowing for sure, these could be names we grew to like rather than appellations. Conventional proper names such as these are nevertheless few in comparison with those clearly referring to a lived context. These latter names are often composite indicating a social role such as guest, servant, protector, counsellor or warden, but also simple ones referring to an acquired physical status such as Limping—lamo or Maimed—hnabdas or Bent—hakuþo; or names indicating that a community refers someone to foreign lands or a places such Finn—fina (the runestone stands in South Eastern Sweden), or (from) Holt—holtijaz. Some names may perhaps have been used as appellatives, but even complex names such as Fino Saligastiz—Finn Hallguest seems to be no more than a proper name.

It is typical of the rune names that they may all, albeit metaphorically, refer to a lived contextuality, and they can all be referred to contexts such as social roles, individual roles, warrior mentality, personal appearance, non-humans (name metaphors) and geographical origin.

If these are general characteristics there are inscriptions which make up quite elaborate collections of names referring to the contexts and peculiarities to which the person in question was related. I have chosen five examples. They all include the word erilaz, which refers to an institution and/or man, often working as a title. That is not surprising inasmuch as it is the origin of the word earl [2]:

The distribution of the inscriptions mentioned in the text

(1) ek erafaz ek naudigastiz kelbaþewas.—I (am) Wolverine I (am) Kelbaþewa’s [i.e. ewe lamb servant’s] Needguest [i.e. guest in/from/of Need].

(2) ek erilaz asugisalas muha haiteI (am) Asugisala’s erilaz [i.e. ‘the erilaz of “god’s arrow shaft”’] I am called Muha [i.e. ‘retainer/warrior’].

(3) ek erilaz saiwilagaz hateka—I erilaz I am called Sawilagaz [i.e. ‘the seaman giving oath’ or ‘the cunning man (, who is) from the sea’].

(4) ek irilaz liubaz hite, harabanaz haite runaz wraitu— I erilaz I am called balmy*, I was called raven I wrote the runes**.
* This in NOT slang! **This runestone stands in Järsberg in Värmland

(5) Fahiðu wil-ald wigaz ek erilazI painted (the runes on) the crafty-work, wigaz I erilaz [i.e.’ (I am) warrior I (am) erilaz’]*
*’Crafty work’ refers to the gold brecteate carrying the inscription. ‘ek’ is moved to a position between wigaz and erilaz making it unstressed to befit the meter fornyrðislag: fahiðu wil-ald – wigaz ek erilaz – two half lines each with two stressed syllables, 5+6 syllables, assonances on w. Dropping the ‘ek’ and putting it back again one hears the rhymnic qualities of the unstressed ‘ek’ and why it is needed to make the half line and the names a suitable conclusion.


The point in this kind of naming is to build up the ‘ek’ with one or more names and appellatives linked to a pronoun. Even names referring to other persons come in handy inasmuch as they contextualize the I of the proper name. Typically, the noun erilaz drifts towards appellative and proper name because of the way nouns are used to describe men. Originally, erilaz was probably an occupation, the forerunner of ‘earl’ in the sense of being ‘someone’s erilaz’, however informally. But in (5) Fahiðu wil-ald wigaz ek erilaz—I painted the artefact–Wigaz I Earl, in which wigaz means’ warrior’ and erilaz ‘earl’, we can’t know the precise status of the nouns, they may be proper names, appellatives or even nouns. The inscription nevertheless describes the man as (rune) painter, warrior and earl. The proper name need not be there at all because the pronoun (‘ek’) is there to harbour all the other appellations. The inscriptions are similar to Basil’s peculiarities because they link name and pronoun.

Most series are tied to a moment in the present, but in (4) ‘I erilaz, I am (called) delightful, I was (called) hawk I wrote the runes’, there seems to be a timeline including the actual writing in order to describe a man with a past, who as erilaz is eternal presence. Since there are no more runes on this stone the inscription is all about contextualizing erilaz or Erilaz.

The rune inscriptions link in with a common tendency during the Late Roman Iron Age and the early Pre Carolingian Iron Age to exhibit individuality, e.g. in graves (cf. On the Reading Rest: Roland of Ellekilde, 6 February 2012). In the graves as well as in ‘name narratives’, the ‘I contextualized’ is all that matters, even in case the man’s original proper name, such as Muha or Erafaz, is involved. As Basil suggests, … the appellations of Peter and Paul and all persons in general are distinct, yet the substance of all is one. The way contemporary Scandinavians looked upon the naming of men seems thus to equal Basil’s point of view: the essential thing is keeping the appellations together by means of a proper name functioning as a label and enhanced pronoun. In Scandinavian literacy as we know it, the pronoun ‘I’ tend to squeeze out the proper name.

This means that in the 4th century AD what rang a bell in Basil rings in Scandinavian writers too. Basil as well as the barbarians fell back on the same in the Mediterranean area non-traditional understanding of names. In Neoplatonic or Christian Late Antiquity it was an intellectual eye opener to Basil. Among barbarians in the 4th c. AD it was a simple practice, a vogue seeking to contextualize outstanding individuality, and easy to explain with reference to a society rapidly stratifying itself. This is not a question of diffusion, but rather a matter of latent ways of acting and thinking triggered by cultural intercourse, such as enrolling barbarians in the Roman army.

In the end therefore, we may add Erilaz to Basil’s Peter and Paul and rewrite his conclusion: So that the name, on the one hand demarcates for us the character of Peter, but, on the other hand, it in no way represents the substance itself. Again hearing ‘Paul’ we grasped a concurrence of other peculiarities: ‘the one from Tarsus, ‘the Jew, ‘the Pharisee according to law, ‘the student of Gamaliel’ … … all these are encompassed by the single sound ‘Paul’. And hearing ‘Erilaz’ we proceed to grasp ‘the balmy man’, ‘he who was called Raven’, ‘the writer of runes in Järsberg’.

What is important to Basil as well as the Scandinavians is saying ‘Peter, he who is … …’, ‘Paul, he who is … … ‘ and ‘Erliaz, he who is … … ‘.It turned out that in the long run the Scandinavian heroes, contrary to the heroes of Christianity, lacked supporters and we can only rely on Erilaz telling us: ‘Erilaz, I who am … … .’


[1] If you want the whole story, there are several translations of Hêliand. G. Ronald Murphy’s The Heliand: The Saxon Gospel (1992) New York: Oxford University Press, is very readable.

[2] There is a lot on the net about erilaz, but one might as well read Mees, Bernhard. 2003. Runic “erilaR’. NOWELE, 42:41-68.

Albeit in Swedish all names can be checked in Lena Peterson’s dictionary at:

One can find the runetexts on Samnordisk runtextdatabas at:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: