In the novel I’m working on now, the generation of characters that was young in the first novel now has children. And naming these children is no small task, not only because choosing names for characters is difficult in general, but because there are all kinds of expectations heaped on children born in troubled times. I found a great resource on naming princes in old Rus, which I plan to follow when naming my new young characters.
If you speak Russian, you can find a curious lecture given by Fedor Uspenskii, a Russian historian, over at arzamas.academy. It concerns the rules of naming a Russian prince in the early days of Rus. So. If you want to give your next child a name according to the proper rules of ancient Rus, here they are!
- Don’t give your son the name of your father or grandfather, if either is alive
Repeating a name was considered dangerous, because the life force of the living ancestor would leave and pass on to the offspring who shared his name. So you should choose the name of an appropriately dead ancestor. There is, however, one exception. It is permissible—in some cases even desirable—to name your child after a living uncle. This is a wonderful opportunity to lay the foundation for a good relationship between the child and his uncle. After all, according to old Russian traditions, it is the uncle who will take care of your child if you die.
- You should never give your son your own name
If you are Vladimir (or Volodimir, in proper old Rus fashion), you must not name your son Vladimir also. There were no Vladimir Vladimirovichi in Russia before the Mongols. If there ever was such a combination, it meant that the child was born after the father died. However, you can use part of your name. In the case of Volodimir, either “volod” or “mir” are appropriate, so you can call him Vsevolod or Miroslav (though the name Miroslav never appears in the lists of Russian princes, but still).
- You can use exotic names, such as Scandinavian names that are not in the list of Russian names
Some Scandinavian saints were honored in Russia (St. Olaf of Norway, for example). There are suggestions that there was an old church in St. Olaf’s honor built in Novgorod. In an ancient transcript of a prayer to the Holy Trinity (12th century), St. Olaf is mentioned together with St. Canute and St. Magnus of Orkney. So there you go. Name your son Canute. He’s an Orthodox saint.
- Still, you should be careful with foreign names
In old Rus, foreign names that were uncommon in one’s family tree were often given to bastards. That doesn’t mean that a Russian prince with a Scandinavian name couldn’t inherit the throne, but there’s always a chance that some people might grow suspicious and even oppose him. There’s actually a historical example of this from 11th century Scandinavia. Olaf of Sweden, the father of Ingigerd (who became the wife of Yaroslav the Wise), called his lawful son Jacob, since he was born on the day of Apostle James. This was not a Scandinavian name, but Olaf had only recently been baptized. As a zealous neophyte, he was eager to follow all the ancient rules of Christian naming. When Jacob, the son of Olaf, was supposed to become king of Sweden, his own people told him that his name was not kingly enough. Eventually, he was chosen as king, but given another dynastic name–Anund. Eventually, he was known by a double name (Anund Jacob), something very unusual for the Sweden of that time.
- Don’t forget that names have meaning
In the world of the Middle Ages, names carried great significance. Every name has its own subtext and its own cultural associations. For example, the name Izjaslav (Prince Izjaslav is pictured above) was often given to second sons of princely dynasties. However, it was not that unusual for first sons to die of natural causes, so the second son was not an insignificant figure in a princely family, almost an heir.
- Look in the Church Calendar
Princes in early Rus had two names—a dynastic name (pagan in origin) and a Christian name given at baptism. Each name had its proper place. In the church, no prince could say “the servant of God Izjaslav approaches communion,” because there is no saint named Izjaslav. Christian names have their own rules. First of all, you can give your child your living grandfather’s Christian name (but not the dynastic name). Secondly, Christian names can be chosen in several ways. You can choose to give your future prince the name of the saint commemorated on his day of birth or on the eighth day after birth (this is connected to the prayers of the eighth day, which in turn are based on the circumcision ritual of the Old Testament). Alternately, you can also choose the saint of the fortieth day after birth. However, you should keep in mind that the church calendar would only be checked after all other genealogical rules, rites, and habits were consulted first.
- Don’t give your son the name of a martyr or other person with a difficult fate
In old Rus, an old belief persisted that a name is a sign that predetermines the fate of a child. Even as late as the 19th century, ethnographers noticed that Russian peasants really didn’t like to give their children martyrs’ names. Some even tried to bribe priests to baptize their children in honor of saints who died natural deaths. Although that is perhaps an extreme position, if you are intent on following these rules, you should not fail to study the lives of the saints whose names you like. Try to choose a patron with a fortunate end.
If you like this blog post, make sure to read how historians in the 19th century invented a pantheon for Rus, based almost entirely on their own fantasies, as well as the strange medieval fascination with Alexander the Great and Prester John.
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