Sunday, May 29, 2016


I am reading a lengthy anthropological essay about speculative thought in the ancient Near East. It was originally written in the 1940s and I am sure some/much of it is outdated. But it only cost a dime on the used book table at the library, so what the hey?

It got me to thinking about the idea among many peoples about the power inherent in a person's name. In ancient Egypt, the name was in fact a part of the soul. A person's ren (rn -- 'name') was given to them at birth, and Egyptians believed that it would live for as long as that name was spoken. This explains why efforts were made to protect it and the practice of placing it in numerous writings. For example, part of the Book of Breathings, a derivative of the Book of the Dead, was a means to ensure the survival of the name. A cartouche (magical rope) often was used to surround the name in hieroglyphs and protect it, as in the illustration.

Conversely, the names of deceased enemies of the state, such as Akhenaten, were hacked out of monuments in a form of damnatio memoriae. [Sometimes, however, they were removed in order to make room for the economical insertion of the name of a successor, without having to build another monument.] The greater the number of places a name was used, the greater the possibility it would survive to be read and spoken.

I suppose we don't have quite the same notion, but I am struck by the apparent conviction among celebrities (perhaps because their essence is tied up in their notoriety) and politicians (sadly, the two groups have pretty much coalesced) that any publicity is good publicity. We are witnessing a political campaign -- not only at the presidential level, although most obviously there -- where most of the energy is devoted to keeping a name before the public. Little discussion of actual issues takes place, few specific proposals are mentioned except those that elicit a big reaction, pro or con. If people are still saying the name, then the campaign is alive and well. 

I admit this is one reason I refuse to mention some people by name in my blog. It is my little magical contribution to destroying them. (I know, neither rational nor kind. We all have our foibles.)

Scary stuff, boys and girls! Talk about your Book of the Dead!


Ur-spo said...

Fascinating, trying to remove any reference to someone dead on the hopes doing so they are forgotten in time.

Mitchell is Moving said...

And I so love the fact that you don't name those people. I try to follow the same rule. Thanks for the history on another reason for hacking names out of monuments. I didn't know that. I'm heading over to the condo complex in NY across the street from my mother's and hacking a certain nameless person's name off all the signs (it was built by and named for that nameless person's father of the same name that will not be named).