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Ancient African Naming Practices

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As noted in the Old Testament, almost all of the earliest African names were originals. Some of the various ways parents named children were after animals (totem), objects, gods, ancestors, or by praising a group to whom the family was attached, like clans. Some applied the name that marked the occasion of the child’s birth.

For example, if it had been raining at the time of delivery, the assigned “blessing” name might be “Rain,” “Rainy,” or “Water.” Or, if there was a locust invasion, the “cursed” name might be “Locust,” “Famine,” or “Pain.” Or, if the Mother was on a journey at the time, the child might be called “Traveler,” “Stranger,” “Road,” or “Wanderer.”

Still another way is similar to many American Indian naming practices which reflect something in the culture of a particular tribe. For example, an Indian’s name might have come from the object that caught a parent’s eye after the birth of the child (e.g. Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Spotted Tail).

Since this was also the practice of many ancient African parents, the question arises as to whether Africans could have taught this to the Amerindians thousands of years ago. Other approaches to naming came from the medicine-man, an oracle, or an astrologer.

Particularly in Egypt there was a strong belief that the positions and aspects of celestial bodies had an influence on the course of natural earthly occurrences and human affairs as, for example, names of people (and things) being integrated with the stars.

The point is that practically all African names had a significant meaning. The belief was that the source of these names derived from the supernatural spirit world located between the one high God and man. Whether characterized as a blessing or as a curse, a given name could never be a product of chance. Rather, a person’s name was a reflection of his/her soul.

Thus it was extremely important to have just the “right” name. A “right” name would endow its receiver with some sort of magic -- the power to control or influence those supernatural forces believed to direct natural events. Perhaps that control or influence would compel spirits to do the person’s bidding; or protect the person from harm; or sooth the angry spirits.

Or, a “right” name could have a magical effect upon some other person(s). For the ancient Egyptians (i.e. Black Africans), the effacing of a man’s name from his tomb destroyed his continued existence in the next world. Having the “wrong” name was at the core of how “curses” began. To be assigned a “cursed” name was equivalent to entering a fate of bad luck throughout one’s life and it was rarely possible to live down that curse.

The victim and all who knew the victim would attribute his/her troubles to the “hoodoo” name (the name that brings bad luck).

These concepts about naming were carried into the Bible. The overall idea is that a name described the essence of the person, exposed the profound reality of the being who carried it, and communicated the character or the reputation of the person named.

God’s name was used as the archetype -- the original standard. In the third of the Ten Commandments: “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord your God” (Ex. 20:7), the reference is not to cursing but to any use of the name of God that treats Him as anything but what He is -- the sovereign source of all things. The Bible continues: “Where His name is, there He is present, for the name of yahweh is like Himself.”

Likewise, for ancient Africans, human names were something living and carried from God the power continuing existence (Isa. 66:22, 30, 27). In other words, the Ancient Africans, naing was a creative act that gave structure to one’s personal development. To cut off a name was to suppress existence (I Sam. 24:22; 2 Kings 14:27). In short, Self-meaning and purpose or fate were encapsulated in the name of an African.

Joseph A. Bailey, II, M.D

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