What is in a Name? (What is Ritual IX)

A Commugenic / Receiving Ritual Explained

Birth alone does not automatically make a human being a member of the sib, just as death does not exclude an indivual from that community. Entering and leaving the community are marked by certain rites of passage. Hasenfratz (1992:64) describes the following ritual at childbirth, in which the child is picked up from the ground and put into the father’s lap (Schoßsetzung) and blessed with water (Wasserweihe). The child is given a name (ON nafn-festr ‘fixation of name’) and a gift. Water is seen as the element of life; it is the contact with water alone that gives the child actual life, life in the community.1

The defining mechanic of the ritual plane is this: as one element is emphasized, the opposing element is de-emphasized. By examining the evidence of ritual we do have, we will both be able to test the model, and, assuming the evidence supports our model, we should be able to make accurate predictions on other elements of ritual, crafting our new rituals in a way that isn’t historical recreation, but instead meets the necessities of theology and efficacious ritual. This week, I’d like to continue our examination of ritual to look at the naming ceremony.

Ambiguity, as Girard has explained, is dangerous. It is by clear lines and separation do we, as a people, live in harmony with each other. When there is ambiguity, ritual will arise to navigate that ambiguity. The introduction of new life into the social fabric is a serious disruption to the social dynamic. Parenthood seems to redefine a person’s personality, possibly at a biological level. Priorities shift, seemingly overnight. The realities of sleeplessness, biological change, postpartum depression, the shockingly, crazily high level of infant and mother mortality all mean that the level of ritualization would also be proportionately high. Mix in all these social disruptions with the inherent ambiguity of parentage absent modern DNA testing, and the fertile ground that ambiguity makes for paranoia and self-doubt, and you can begin to see the radical danger embodied by pregnancy and childbirth.

Beyond social cohesion, there is need to connect terrifying transition into parenthood to the same transitions that have occurred before, to anchor this moment in meaning, and by extension reality. Talking to new parents, there is a sense of unreality about the whole process, so profound is the experience. Ritual anchors that unreality and shapes it into a transcendent feeling of immense connection. Here is new life, something completely new and unique in all the world, yet the same moment that has occurred every life that ever lived. It is by emphasizing that connection, perhaps even by imitating all those other moments in ceaseless repetition through the ages, we are able to navigate that ambiguity and find the reality greater than our previous reality, through the process of disconnecting to from the old and connecting with the new.

Here, too, is power. The position of fatherhood makes great demands upon a man, sharply limiting his choices. Accepting that position, which is made explicit in the way in which the baby is placed in the lap of the father, and in the father’s privilege to grant the baby its name. In claiming fatherhood, for only the father can name the child, the man also undertakes obligations not only to the child, but also to the child’s mother. Furthermore, claiming children has created a physical anchor for the relationship between two sibs – the father’s and the mother’s. Where marriage was seen as a promise for peace, its fruition was the fulfilment of that promise.2

And lastly, we see in a naming ceremony several lines of communication. The first, of course, is the communication between parents and child. By naming the child, the parents are granting it personhood, communicating to that child who they will be. In that moment, they imprint upon them their Orlæg, and define the base parameter’s for that child’s life. However, there are more lines of communication going on. Both inward and outward, the ceremony communicates the new status of the parents and child. To the parents, here we see them settle into their roles, or at least formally accept them. To the community at large, here we see an introduction of the child into the communal life. The community meets the child, and the child, though they never remember it, meets the community.

The Naming ceremony is fundamentally commugenic. The act of violence is shunned here. There is no slaughter, no blood-letting. We are not slaying and apportioning, as was done to the giant ymir. Instead, we replicate another creation myth, that of the creation of the first humans:

Three Gods,
powerful and passionate,
left Asgard
for Midgard.
They found Ask and Embla,
in that land.
They had no breath,
no soul,
no hair, no voice,
they looked inhuman.
Odin gave them breath,
Honir gave them souls,
Loth gave them hair
and human faces.3

The myth of Ask and Embla is one of the gods coming across driftwood, and shaping that driftwood into Man. A baby is placed on the ground, then taken up and put into the lap, much in the way someone carving driftwood to give it shape might hold it. The baby is given a name, and its orlæg, and other gifts, which shape it into the person it has a chance to become. In doing so, we emphasize the communal, the essential one-ness of the community. Every family, of course, is going to place their own stamp on the way that a naming ceremony is held. Those individual flourishes define who that family is, both to themselves and the wider community, and in negotiating that identity reestablishes the communal, familial, and individual relationships and bonds between them.

The Naming ceremony is explicitly about the receiving of gifts. While the giving of gifts is present, the focus on those gifts is the reception. The child is receiving gifts from its parents, from its sib. These gifts have an impact on who that child grows up to be. Everything about those gifts are symbols of the hopes and desires of a community for its newest member. Everything bound up in this ritual is about that child receiving those gifts.

Next week, we’ll try taking a look at another type of ritual, where the emphasis is largely on the gifting.


  1. Augustyn, Prisca. The Semiotics of Fate, Death, and the Soul in Germanic Culture: The Christianization of Old Saxon. New York: P. Lang, 2002. p27.

  2. German literature is, of course, replete in situations where this does not occur. That is the point of literature, however. To examine institutions by examining the ways in which they break down, to comment on them, and to provide entertainment, by positing situations that are noteworthy simply because they are unique, while at the same time, embodying the emotional truths of the far more common and far less dramatic conflicts of every day life.

  3. Crawford, Jackson. The Poetic Edda: Stories of the Norse Gods and Heroes. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2015. pp 5-6

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