Names are odd things. Nowadays – at least in the UK – we give names for a variety of more-or-less sentimental reasons. Perhaps they remind us of relatives or friends, or there is a family tradition. Or we think about how the future adult’s first name would sound when run up against their family name. We usually do look up the meaning of a name, either online or in a suitable book, but for most of us the name’s meaning is a secondary thing, not the primary one. Still less often, I suspect, do we think of the name as in some way a prophecy over the new infant’s life. At most, we hope that the example of some famous person of the same name might serve as an inspiration. For many people, at the other extreme, a name is simply an arbitrary label of convenience.
In much of the ancient world, however, the giving of a name was a much more weighty matter. The meaning of the name was crucially important. It could act as a reminder of gratitude for safe delivery, or perhaps the gift of life after a period of barrenness. It could act as a prophetic word intended to steer the direction of the new life for many years to come. Even those many names which are based on the natural world – typically animals and plants – can probably best be seen as an expressed wish that the primary quality of the object, such as strength, grace or beauty, would be transferred in some way to the new child. And of course, whether ancient or modern, names often give clues as to the ancestry or birth-culture of the baby.
In a Milk and Honeyed Land follows this principle quite thoroughly. Many of the names are directly copied from, or else strongly based on, actual names recorded in ancient literature. Even allowing for the accidents of preservation of clay tablets, pieces of stone, papyrus sheets and so forth we have a rather bewildering variety of names to choose from. Some of the names I have used are nature-names. So Damariel’s sister, Sosanneth, is “Lily” – the same name as modern Susan, which comes ultimately from Egypt via the Levant and is one of the oldest continuously used names in history. The old chief at the start of the story, Yad-Nesherim, is “eagle’s hand” – no longer in common use!
Many of the names are based on wishes, hopes, or prayers. Damariel’s brothers, Baruk and Bashur, are “blessing” and “good news”. His uncle, Adonilanu, is “my Lord favours us”. In a few cases I made the name overtly related to the person’s role in the story. So Damariel is “my song is El”, El being the name of the chief Canaanite god. Aliyna, who we first meet as a subjugated captive and gradually see her assert a place in Kephrath, is “victorious”.
Some of the townspeople retain the older northern names, often identified by scholars as of Hurrian origin, arising originally from what is now the border regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran – roughly the same extent as the Kurdish people. These have names like Pirigalla and Putiheba, Tagi and Dadua – recognisably different even to a modern reader, and in the ancient culture these names would advertise their remote ethnicity. Over time this distinction was eroded, and by the time of the book, “the clan islands were no longer so distinct, but extended encroaching swirls into one another like cream being stirred into porridge”.
When Damariel goes down to Gedjet (Gaza) he meets Egyptians with Egyptian names, most importantly Nepheret er-sefet Tefnut, which as his friend and fellow scribe Gilem tells him, means “beautiful like the fragrance of Tefnut”. The name of Damariel’s first wife, Qetirah, means “incense” or “perfume”, a seemingly accidental connection that Damariel never forgot, and reflects on in his final soliloquy.
So when you’re reading In a Milk and Honeyed Land, take a moment to think about the names that are being used. Just like real names from the world of the Late Bronze Age, none of them are accidental.
To buy In a Milk and Honeyed Land in kindle and other ebook formats, or in soft-cover and hard-cover, check out http://www.kephrath.com/WhereToBuy.aspx.