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The Double Name System
1. One of the very old azbukovniks (an azbukovnik is something of an encyclopaedia containing various
data arranged in the alphabetical order; an extremely popular thing in the period of Muscovite Rus’, i.e.
some four hundred years ago) contained the following: "The people of the first times and families gave
names of their own choice to their children, those names originating from either their looks or from
their nature or from some thing or from a parable. The Slavs, too, before baptising their babies, gave the
following names to them: Bogdan, Bozhen, Pervoy, Vtoroy, Lyubim and so forth. And those were good
names".
It is not a random quotation, of course. We have been speaking about a double name system that once
existed within the Russian tradition. Here is an example: in 1492 a Russian embassy started off to the
court of Maximilian I, Holy Roman Emperor and the Archduke of Austria. Dyak (clerk) Ivan (also called
Volk) Kuritsyn, a famous Muscovite diplomat, was in this embassy. Letters mentioning this person call
him either Volk or Ivan and sometimes even Ivan-Volk. Thus, this diplomat had two names, one of them
quite a Christian one and another on obviously pagan. And he was a dyak! To be fair, we must say that
the names you may come across in the Old Russian documents, combined with the ranks of a dyak
(clerk), a podyachy (copyist) and a priest, sometimes produce a tremendous effect. Let us look, for
instance, at the documents of the first third of the 17th century (1621, 1625, 1628) containing such
names as dyak Tretyak; podyachy Gryaznusha; dyak Neupokoy Kokoshkin; altar boy Tomilko Kastenitov,
son of the Devil, at the Borisoglebsk Monastery; priest Istoma ('Languor'), etc. There was also an 11th
century Novgorod priest called Upyr Likhoy ('Daring Ghoul'), and a priest called Likhach ('the Daring
One') lived in 1161, and a priest called Ugryum ('Gloom') lived in 1600, and another priest Shumilo
('Noisy') - in 1608... These are not nicknames, these are names! Let us think now that all these names
were given to the priests in accordance with the model mentioned in the azbukovnik, i.e. "from their
nature... There is some food for thought, isn't there?
But let us return to double names. This custom had been officially practiced until the late 17th century.
Yet, the everyday peasant tradition obviously went on practising it for a much longer period. The reason
for this custom's long survival was its strong popularity in the families that had had no children for quite
a long time or in ones where only girls had been born and not the long-expected boys. Since all the
ancestors and descendants were a single community, there was a certain relay of personal names in
families. The name was a means of transferring specific traits of the deceased ancestor to the newborn.
This archaic cult connection manifested itself most clearly in the nations on the earliest stages of social
development. The long tradition of the existence of the double name system in Rus' most clearly shows
that it was rather painful for the people to substitute those ancient and inherent national beliefs with
implanted and obviously alien once for their sense was not explained to the people in most of the cases.
The name is not only a bond with the ancestors, it is also a fate; it is full of sense and has a magical
power: just as you name a person, so he or she will live. Yet, the old, "grandfathers'" names, where "the
nature" was abundant, was under arrest and the new ones, that were numerously adopted with the
Christian faith (Roman, Jewish, Germanic names) and were introduced with the church calendar, turned
out to be meaningless for the people. Moreover, the church severely punished people who refused to
be baptised... In 1596, the compiler of the book called "Alphabet" (a typical azbukovnik, as far as we can
see) wrote the following with sadness: "We, the Slavs, do not understand our present names: how can
we interpret either Andrey or Vasily or Danila...". We should mention that this compiler was right in his
feeling of the core of the problem: "If the saint is a Roman, then he or she has a Roman name; if the
saint is a Jew, then he or she has a Jewish name...". And there was obviously no place for the original
Slavonic names... That had not happened overnight, to tell the truth; the substitution had been going on
gradually and it had been quite a slow process.
We must mention that in the 15th and even in the 17th century it was not uncommon that a person had
two names, one being Christian and another one pagan (or also Christian because the substitution was
at least taking place). But during the first centuries of the Russian Christianity even the very noble
people did not want to forget their secular names and used it together with their Christian names.
Various chronicles and other written sources provide evidence thereof. For instance:
— Under the year 1113 we can read: "Knyaz Mikhailo, also called Svyatopolk, has died...", or: "Knyaz
Andrey has got a newborn son Ivan. He has been given the name of Vasily as well..." (a record in the
Galician Chronicle under the year 1350);
— "I, the Great Knyaz Gavriil, yclept Vsevolod, the absolute sovereign Mstislavovich...", that is how the
letter of the knyaz of Pskov and Smolensk begins;
— "... and she was baptised Polagiya (i.e. Pelageya). And her common name was Sbyslava" (the Hypatian
Chronicle on the baptising of one of the daughters of the knyaz);
— we can also find in the records "... Kruglets, named Evstafy, <…> killed by the Lithuanian knyaz
Algirdas<…>
— an early 13th century Volhynian metropolitan was called "Nikifor, and his by-name (i.e. nickname)
was Stanilo";
— and a certain boyar Shuba ('Fur Coat'), baptised Okinf but called Shuba Fedorovich by everybody,
lived in the 14th century, etc.
Sometimes only one name was in everyday use and the other one was secret and it was a taboo to use it
when speaking of or to that person (according to the ancient belief the one who knew the name had got
power over the person). Sometimes the second name became known only on deathbed or even after
death. It is hard to answer the question concerning which of the names was used more often. The
beliefs were changing with the course of time. Upon becoming habitual, both the Christian and the
secular names lost their differences. Finally, the people stopped telling the original Russian names from
the adopted ones. The significance of the "by-name" (i.e. the nickname) sometimes gained more power
than that of the name. Then the nickname was uses as often as the name: good examples here can be
Ivan the Terrible ('Ivan Grozny' in Russian) and Vsevolod the Big Nest ('Vsevolod Bolshoe Gnezdo'), and
sometimes the nickname could win over the name. This can be illustrated by long lists of secular names
which look more like nicknames, taken from the studies of A.M. Selishchev or N.M. Tupikov ("The Origin
of Russian Surnames, Personal Names and Nicknames", "On Some Aspects of the Russian Names'
History"). There we can come across such names as Druzhina ('Team'), Udacha ('Luck'), Maloy ('Little
One'), Kisel ('Jelly'), Malyuta ('Little Thing'), Nelyub ('Not Loved'), Ogurets ('Cucumber'), Soroka
('Magpie'), Nekhoroshey ('Never-Become-Good').
One of the letters of tsar Ivan IV, the one who was named the Terrible for his cruelty, contains the
following: "I ... gave to Zloba Vasilyev, son of Lev, and Ivan Zlobin, son of the same Lev, ... wasteland and
ploughland..." Zloba ('Rage') is a name and Ivan is a name. Yet, the first one looks more like a nickname
(and it has a most clear meaning, and what a fine characterisation of a person that is if he had got such a
name "from his nature"!). It becomes more and more difficult to tell the name from the nickname;
moreover, the differences between the original name (most often it was a secular one) and the church
calendar name were gradually removed: "My son Ostafy named Mikhail"; "Karpusha Larionov
nicknamed Ivashko"; "Ivashko by the nickname Agofonko". These double names were fixed in the early
17th century, the both names (the official one and the nickname) being Christian ones in all the three
cases.
That means that by the late 17th century the incessant struggle of the church had turned out to be
fruitful: the usage of secular names had been prohibited with the course of time and the official attitude
towards them had become scornful: "Cossack Bogdan and his name who knows what...". Thus, the era
of recognised Christian church names began. Those names were received during the baptism ceremony
in accordance with a whole set of rules specified for choosing a Christian saint name depending on its
position in the calendar.
2. The church did not struggle with the ancient beliefs concerning the magical power of names, it was
actively employing them instead. These beliefs are the fundament for the faith in salvation with the
Name of God only as well as for the faith in the permanent protection from the saint whose name you
have got upon baptising. Moreover, the patron saint shared his or her distinctive features with their
person under care. A.M. Selishchev provides a wonderful example thereof, recorded in Macedonia. A
peasant named his newborn son Ivan (in honour of John the Baptist). The christening rite gathered
numerous guests and the peasant had to have a he-sheep butchered. Yet, since the church calendar
honour Ivan 64 times per year, three days later the guests came again. In a month the peasant turned
into a pauper. He went to the church to tell the saint everything he was thinking thereof. Yet, when he
came, he saw an icon depicting John dressed in nothing but a worn sheepskin. "But he is naked
himself!", exclaimed the peasant. "So what else can I wait from a pauper!" And when he noticed an icon
with Nikolaos the Wonderworker, who was the Bishop of Myra while alive, dressed in gold and precious
stones, he said: "That's how I should have called my son!"
3. Name-giving was considered so important because, according to popular belief, the name embodied a
new soul and sometimes the return of a deceased soul, its adaptation. A person of no name is nobody;
he or she is not a member of the society and does not belong to any circle (either social or gender- and
age-specific, etc.). The choice of a name, as we have already discussed, could once be left to the parents
and during the Christian period - to the godparents. Before we start speaking of the godparents and
their role, we should say a few words about the "bathhouse" name given to the newborn by the
midwife.
Before the Christian period the name was often given right in the bathhouse while the old woman was
bathing the newborn - that is why it was called a "bathhouse" name. When baptising became the
possible only way to get a name, the "bathhouse" name became prohibited. The church probably tried
to control midwives' ritual actions because it wanted to prevent the sense of the church sacrament from
being perverted. The fact that the midwife was a woman only added to that, since, in accordance with
the church rules, women had no right to practice church rituals. Yet, there were some cases when
midwives could baptise newborn babies: "If a newborn is very weak, then the old woman will baptise it
in a pot, in her own way". This "do-it-yourself" sort of baptising was not prohibited by the church; it was
even encouraged "in cases dangerous for the newborn" (to avoid the death of the unbaptised) and were
in charge of midwives. They were to baptise such a baby "by plunging into the water or pouring some
water on three times, together with saying certain words". Such baptising ("to keep the baby from a big
trouble") did not replace church baptising and, if the baby survived, a priest performed the ritual
without plunging and gave it the name already given by the midwife. If the baby died, the "bathhouse"
baptising ritual performed by the midwife was quite enough for the baby to be considered "having got
the cross" and it could be buried in accordance with the common rules. We shall not speak of the sad
fate of those babies who have died unbaptised for this theme can become the subject of a small lecture
course. We go on with our discussion of the rodiny as the rites of passage.
4. The church ritual of baptising (krestiny in Russian) was the first rite in the two final parts of the rodiny
cycle since it combined both the elements of purification rites and the acceptance of the newborn into
the family and the community, and its name-giving.
To perform the baptising rite for the newborn, special persons who could do that were required. The
baby's mother and father are "impure", they cannot enter the church until certain time had passed, so
they cannot be involved into its adaptation themselves. As it has been mentioned earlier, baptising was
not merely a name-giving ritual; it was also the process of including the newborn into the "own" world:
the world of family, community, all Christian people (i.e. coreligionists). In some locations there was a
traditional formula, with which the baby's father addressed the potential godfather: "Go and introduce
the newborn to the Orthodox faith!"
Choosing godparents has always been considered significant. In the old days the next of kin were asked
to be the godparents (usually they were the mother's brother and the father's sister). In a sense, they
were mediators strengthening the bond between the newborn and its big family (rod) and, in a broader
sense, the community. Later on, even very distant relatives became accepted as godparents, and
sometimes even good friends and acquaintances. In the national consciousness godparents were still
looked on as each other's close relatives: "Godfather and godmother are like brother and sister to each
other" - that was a popular saying. That was why any marriage between a godfather and a godmother,
and even between their families' members, was strictly prohibited. That notion was extended to the
second generation, too. Moreover, godchildren and their godparents' children, as well as godchildren
sharing the same godparents, were considered relatives, too, "undercross" and "crossbound" brothers
and sisters. Any love affairs between people connected either by their godparents or godchildren were
thought incestuous and therefore were deemed as a very grievous sin. Even quarrels between
godfamilies' members were perceived as a "great" sin.
An original deviation from the tradition of choosing close relatives as godparents was the custom of
inviting the first comer as a godparent. It could be anyone coming to the village or appearing on the
crossroad closest to the village. This custom was practiced most often in the families where the firstborn
had died or where children, as people used to say, "did not stay for long" and died soon after being
born. Such godparents were called "the godparents sent by God Himself". With such godparents, any
child was considered to be under the special protection of God. "Godparents sent by God Himself" were
much revered and after performing the rite they became rightful members of the community.
Certain scholars think that the godparents' institution, that has developed into a traditional custom, was
originally a church institution. Yet, some traits of the avunculate, a matriarchate remnant, can be seen in
it, which is especially true when speaking of the functions of a godfather. (The avunculate is a custom of
particularly close relationship between a nephew and a maternal uncle. The uncle had to take more care
of such a nephew than of his own son.) And canonically all the confessions of the Christian church
perceive godparents as, first of all, God's delegates in baptising, i.e. in the acceptance of the baby to the
church. It was the adoption by baptism that established new relationships between the participants of
the ceremony. It was "spiritual affinity".
When the godchildren grew up a bit, it was the godparents who had to teach them reading, writing and
praying. Quite often godparents taught some initial work skills to them, i.e. scything, ploughing,
spinning, etc. They were fully entitled to take part in their godchildren's upbringing. If they became
orphans, the godparents assumed the duties of parenthood. The godparents were alongside of the
parents in all the major events in the life of their godchild. Children were always told to particularly
respect their godparents: "It is an unforgivable sin to offend your godparents - God won't give you
happiness" or: "You must show equal respect to the godmother and the mother that has given you
birth", etc.
The godfather bought a baptismal cross for his godchild, paid for the ritual, brought his own bread to
the christening party and brought water for the font. The godmother gave her godchild a piece of cloth
as a present and a napkin or a towel for the priest to dry his hands upon performing the rite. She also
brought a towel that the baby was put on upon its taking out of the font. The godparents received their
godchild after the baptising; they brought the baby into the house and gave some small money to the
mother and the baby ("for a tooth"). In general, the godparents had to observe numerous rites since
various omens concerning their godchild's future were connected to their behaviour during the
baptising ceremony, e.g. when the godfather is carrying water for the font, he is prohibited to use a
shoulder pole for the child not to grow bow-backed; the godmother, upon taking the towel after the
baptising ceremony, has to run to the river to rinse it: the faster she runs the sooner the baby will walk,
etc.
After the rite the godmother could fortune-tell in the church on the fate of her godchild. She threw a
wax ball with the baby's hair into the water of the font and watched what was next: if the ball floated,
the baby would live a long life; if it drowned, it will die soon. There is no need to explain now why it was
prohibited to pour the font water into a river of by a river, a spring or a well. Otherwise they would
become impure and springs would run dry.
After baptising the baby was brought back home and was put on the threshold for a couple of seconds,
its father taking it up after that. Then the baby was carried round the table three times. It was a
symbolic acceptance of the newborn into its own home and inclusion into the family. If children had
died in this family before, the newborn could be passed on to its father through the window, to deceive
diseases and death.
5. There was one more rite practiced after the baptising, a baptising dinner. The whole community took
part in it. Everybody was invited "for bread and salt to the newborn, to eat some porridge". If any of the
villagers could not come to this dinner, he or she received a bit of ritual porridge wrapped in a kerchief.
This binding participation was an evidence that the whole community accepted its new member and
took him or her under its protection.
A baptising dinner could sometimes be called "the midwife's porridge". This name comes from the main
ritual dish cooked by the midwife. This porridge, cooked out of millet or buckwheat (it was called
"kolivo" in some locations), was brewed so hard that "a spoon could stand up in it". It was cooked on
honey and much salted. Sometimes an acrid condiment could be added to it.
The baptising dinner consisted of some two parts: a treat for the guests and a ritual. The treat was
plentiful and included several changes of courses. When the first course was eaten up, the midwife
served a pie and a pot of porridge and brought a bottle of vodka on a big plate. That launched the
second part, the ritual itself.
In some locations, e.g. in the Novgorod Governorate, it were the godparents who received the ritual pie
from the midwife's hands. They lifted it high above and broke it up (for their godchild to be tall and wellbuilt). For this very purpose a pot of porridge was put for a time on a shelf under the ceiling. Everything
served by the midwife was accompanied by sayings, e.g.: "The old woman comes, Brings some porridge.
For profit, for joy, For God's grace. For big bundles, For tall haystacks. Porridge in the spoons, And on the
boy's legs!.."
Then the midwife took the bottle of vodka and served it to everybody, but according to the custom the
first stoup was for herself. Then it was the father's turn. And for a titbit the midwife gave a spoon of
porridge to him upon saying the following: "Please eat, the father-parent, eat and be good to your son
(daughter)!". Upon tasting the ritual porridge, the father threw the spoon to the sleeping-bench for the
newborn to grow up quicker. The godparents tasted the porridge after the father, then it was the
others' turn. Everybody, not excluding the newborn's father, put some money for the midwife on the
plate and some more money on the pie - for the mother of the baby. In the Russian North the
godparents ate porridge with spoons' handles. The guests tried to eat the porridge up as soon as
possible, for the newborn to start talking sooner. The godparents chattered non-stop for the same
purpose. The rest of the vodka was served to all the guests (apart from women and children, of course)
and slopped out on the ceiling - again, for the newborn to grow up faster. The porridge pot was usually
crashed to pieces.
After dinner the guests thanked the hosts, wished them the very best and wished health and many years
of life to the newborn. Then they went home. Only the godparents stayed. They had to have a little rest
- it was also an omen: for the child to be quiet and calm. In the evening they were offered to freshen the
nip after dinner. They gave presents to each other: the godfather received a kerchief from the
godmother, "as a keepsake", and had to wipe his face with it right away. Then he gave a kiss to the
godmother and gave her some money as a present. When saying goodbye to the baby's parents, each of
the godparents received a pie and something else, like soap, tea, etc.
6. Purification rites were performed after the baptising ceremony as soon as possible. The rite of
cleaning of the birthing mother and the midwife with water is one of the most ancient traditions in
many nations. Since the birthing mother was thought impure, she spent alone the first days after giving
birth. Even later, when it was considered possible for the mother to stay in one room with her family,
she still ate alone and did not sit at the family table. He was prohibited to touch bread and corn, she had
no right to knead dough and to milk the cow, and, of course, she could not touch such objects like icons,
icon-lamps, etc. In some locations the first nine days after the delivery were thought the most
dangerous ones. That was why the purification rite, the so-called razmoiny, was often performed on the
ninth day, right after the baptising. Yet, in cases when there was no one else to set up housekeeping,
the purification rites were postponed. And razmoiny was held on the seventh and even on the third day
- in this event the rite was usually repeated on the fortieth day. The midwife also used this rite to purify
herself. She could deliver only after the razmoiny.
To perform this rite, a candle was lit in front of the icons and, upon saying a prayer, the midwife and the
mother washed each other’s hands with water containing hop "for lightness" and silver "for happiness".
Sometimes egg and oats were also added thereto. Then the midwife said while washing: "Like the hop is
light and steady, you be light and steady, too; like the egg is full, you be fuller; like the oats are white,
you be white..."
Right after the purification rite the midwife was bid farewell to. She was often laid down-to-earth bows
to (a sign of great respect). For her care, the midwife received, apart from the money during the
baptising dinner, certain obligatory gifts from the family: bread, soap, a kerchief or a towel, and some
more money - from 10 kopecks to one rouble.
Six weeks (40 days) after the birthday the godmother came and brought a belt for her godson as a
present (sometimes it was also a shirt or some cloth for it). That could be any belt: a braided one, an
embroidered one or just a twined cord. Yet, it had a great meaning, just like the belt of a grown-up
person. It was one more amulet. The godmother put the belt round the baby's waist and from that
moment on it should not be taken off unless necessary. In some provinces this rite was performed a
year after the birth.
7. The rodiny cycle ended with the first birthday celebration. Russians adopted the custom of
celebrating birthdays and name days quite late; it was not a tradition initially. Yet, there was a
celebration of "godiny" (i.e. the end of the first year of life) because it was the day when the northern
Russians and Belorussians cut the baby's hair for the first time. Until the baby was one year old, it was
prohibited in accordance with many omens: by cutting the baby's hair ahead of time, you may "cut off
its tongue", i.e. it will be difficult for it to learn to speak; and if you cut nails until the baby is one year
old, it may be prone to thieving. Roughly speaking, "zastrizhki" may be considered a rite adjoint to the
main complex of the rodiny cycle that ended with the "razmoiny" rite.
The "zastrizhki" rite is based on an ancient initiation ritual, which, in this particular case, was much
shifted in time. The rite was performed in a close family circle. Sometimes neighbours were called, and
both the midwife and the godparents were bound to come. If it was a boy, he was put into a saddle or
on an axe. If it was a girl, she was put onto a spindle or on a pile of flax. The midwife, the father and the
godparents cut the hair by turn. The cut-off strands were usually dug into earth, to avoid hexing. Treat
was offered to all the participants after the rite was performed. The child receive gifts from the
godparents on this day. It was usually a shirt.
The word has a rite-organising function in all the rites of the rodiny cycle. It accompanies the rite or
makes it progress. Sometimes the word, by exceeding the scope of the rite, goes on performing assisting
and protective functions by itself. The word manifests its informative function, too, in the omens and
traditional rules connected with pregnancy, as well as in the child care rules. Yet, this function is
addressed to everyone but the newborn here. Lullaby is the first step to learning the world through the
word for a baby. It is followed by other songs, having another form, another contents and another goals.
These are various types of nursery rhymes, but this is the material outside the scope of our lecture
course.