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Three Nordic naming traditions

Naming traditions
1940s. K W Gullers / Nordic Museum (CC BY-NC-ND)

Difficult to choose a name for your future or newborn child? Here are three naming traditions to help you on your way, drawn directly from our rich Nordic heritage.

Choosing a name for your child, is it just a matter of finding a name that "feels" good and sounds nice? For some, maybe, and there's nothing wrong with that. But there are also traditions that go back tens, or even hundreds, of generations in the Nordic countries - traditions that can bring joy not only to the parents but also to the child. Traditions that give the child a meaningful connection to their historical and cultural roots.

Lately I've gained a new appreciation for old Swedish names, names that I once may have thought sounded "old" in such a way boring screw. This new-found appreciation stems partly from warm memories of my grandparents and an interest in my roots, but also from a new-found knowledge of these traditions.

In my opinion, our names are a very beautiful part of our Swedish heritage and culture. Names with thousands of years of history, which often have an original meaning that is now forgotten by most people. How many people know, for example, that the name Gunnar is formed from ancient gunnr and haria and means warrior?

Names like Birger and Björn, Sigrid and Sven, Ingrid and Ingvar, Helge and Harald, Tyra and, yes, even Torbjörn.

Do you know what these names have in common that you see above? They all appear on rune stones around Sweden, and was thus written down about 1000 years ago (roughly). Names with ancestry, which had been passed on for countless generations already at that time. Names that are still passed on today by their descendants, by us Swedes, Norwegians, Danes and Icelanders who all have roots in the Nordic cultural heritage.

Sigurdsristningen (Sö 101) on Ramsundsberget, Södermanland, from the 11th century, which mentions the woman Sigrid. Woodcut from 1877 from Oscar Montelius Sweden's pagan period, and the Middle Ages, last stage, from 1060 to 1350

If you want to get to grips with Nordic personal names, look up the book Nordic Culture volume VII - Personal names, in which editor Assar Janzén (1904-1971) writes the following about traditional naming principles:

The oldest soap-lead personal names had, as already indicated, a real meaning. They were full of power and meaning. The name was given for magical purposes, with a view to the future character of the child. "The name was in itself a concentrated poetic wish for good fortune", says the great German name researcher Schröder. Even today, parents like to dream about their children's future. It has always been that way. In the past, this was reflected in names. The name would be the child's motto and guiding light. It has been said: "Man is what he is called." It was hoped that the name would give the newborn a favourable starting point in life, and therefore included a wish for bravery, success in battle, wealth, power, the favour of the gods, or, in the case of a girl child, for beauty, helpfulness, Valkyrie qualities, etc. One can also imagine that the parents felt indebted to the gods and dedicated their child to them by name.

Assar Janzén, Nordic Culture VII - Personal names

Janzén explains how these wishes for good fortune could find expression in the naming of the ancients as follows:

Name of Ás-, God-(Goð-), þór- etc., expressed from the beginning the wish that the child so named might be under divine protection. One can imagine that with Ásbjǫrn meant 'the bear protected by the gods', with þorgeirr 'the Geirr protected by Thor', etc. The desire for prominence and a powerful position lies in Eiríkr 'the one above others powerful' (or possibly 'the always powerful'), Haraldr (< -valdr) 'the one who has power over the army, the commander' [...]. Desirable female qualities are referred to by such names as Ragnfríðr 'beautiful to or loved by the gods', Brynhildr 'the brow-bearded warrior', Salgerðr 'he who protects the home' etc.

Assar Janzén, Nordic Culture VII - Personal names

So how did you go about naming your child? Naming children after relatives or other dignitaries is still common today (see #3), but there are also two other naming principles that go back even further in our history. Let's take a look at all three:

1. Variation

Variation is the practice of forming new compound names from different joints in older relatives' names. The child's name was associated with "someone close, especially the father's". So if the father's name was Torbjörn two sons could be named Torsten and Torleif. An example from Book of Names (Landnámabók) in Iceland shows what an entire lineage could look like:

Torbjörn (far) - Torbrandr (sound) - Asbrandr (sonson) - Vebrandr (sonar)

Of course, old Nordic soap names are not very common these days. But who knows, everything goes in cycles, so maybe Torleif and Torsten will also make a comeback sometime in the future?

2. Alliteration

Alliteration is the practice of associating names within the same family with each other through uddljudsrim. For example, the whole first syllable or just the first letter of the names.

The Norman and the Jarl Atle Mjove who died at the beginning of the 10th century, called his three sons Hallstein, Herstein and Holmstein where he got both the same first letter and the same ending. But since, as I said, soap names are quite rare today, a more reasonable option is to have the same first letter for all siblings.

What was the idea behind this principle? It's hard to say, but I think that maybe they wanted the siblings to be even more united and feel closeness and loyalty to each other, when they were united not only by kinship but also by their names.

3. Recall

Here we come to the only Nordic naming tradition that is still alive today, a tradition that goes back to at least the 6th century according to Janzén, i.e. to the end of the the migration period and the beginning of Vendeltiden. Naming, i.e. giving the child a name from a relative or other "confidant". Janzén says that children were usually named after a father or grandfather, "very often also a father's or uncle's, or even older relative's name". The same principle applied to daughters.

For example, the first son may have been named after his grandfather, the second son after his grandfather, the third son after his father or some other ancestor. The same pattern applied to the naming of daughters, i.e. the first daughter was given grandmother's name, the second daughter was given grandmother's name, etc.

Here's Janzén on the possible origins of the naming convention:

In a famous essay "Sjaelavandring og Opkaldelsessystem", the Norwegian researcher G. Storm connected the oath of calling with the old Germanic belief in the migration of the soul, probably taken over from neighbouring peoples. The soul and qualities of the deceased ancestor were passed on through the name to a later descendant.

Assar Janzén, Nordic Culture VII - Personal names

In comparing the three principles, Janzén argues that naming as a principle emphasises the individuality of the individual, while both variation and alliteration remain within a lineage or family and "are an expression of the Germanic sense of lineage".

Among the lower social strata, even back in ancient times, it was more common to have single-headed names, i.e. simpler uncompounded names, and here, by nature, the principle of naming was more common.

For those who have an interest and appreciation for their roots, I would like to use this article to make a case for all the beautiful old Swedish and Nordic names that are part of our cultural heritage and your family, names that our grandparents carried, names that give the child a direct link to their origins.

Today's tip will be the website Nordic Names where you can dig in and read more about the meaning of the names. They also have a good search function where you can search by language, popularity and meaning.

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