Mythological Names

[Here’s a phenomenon in mythology that can serve as an added dimension to the classroom. I start the semester by presenting the following materials right away, which freaks out the students effectively and yet is relevant to the coming first roll call.]

1) In the third installment of the video version of The Power of Myth, “The First Storytellers,” comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell is asked by Bill Moyers to name a myth that has had an impact on his life. Instead of a narrative, he mentions an Indian practice of changing one’s name when one passes on to a new stage of life. (One also changes one’s style of dress, way of thinking, etc.)

2) The Anglo-Saxon hero Beowulf has a name that oddly does not alliterate with all the names in the work that it should. This is because it is a “kenning” — an Anglo-Saxon compound noun that metaphorically stands for something else. (Aside from the personifications in their smutty riddles, this is about as “poetic” as Anglo-Saxons get.)

BEO-WULF = BEE-WOLF = BEE-ENEMY So what is the enemy of the bee? A swatter? Agrichemicals?
A bear.
And Beowulf has some kind of folklore background, some connection with the bear. Beowulf fights Grendel with his bear-like grip in the poem.

3) In traditional eskimo culture, a newborn would not be given a name until a sign appeared.

4) If you were raised Catholic, you were probably expected to adopt a new confirmation name when you reached the age of self-determination, semi-adulthood.

In other words, there’s your birth name — the name you were given — and there’s your mythological name — the name you earn. I recommend to students to adopt a mythological name for the Mythology course. They should take some time, spend some time getting in touch with their inner self or considering their key distinctive feature as human beings in their culture — what are they known for? From this they may derive their mythological name. And once they’ve chosen — either publicly or privately for this class — they turn in homework under this name; they may expect to be called this; it becomes their name for the class context.

Announcing that I mean no disrespect to Native American culture, quite the opposite, I usually adopt the name Chief Crazy Dog when I teach Mythology: “Chief” for my role in the class, “Crazy” for my neuroses, and “Dog” because it seems to be my soul animal — my dog Frog and I understand one another.

My students over the years have included The Wheel, Princess Dancing Feet, Eats-Like-A-Snake, Double-Down, Blue Iguana, Wayward Son, and Q. I occasionally run into some of these students and know them only by their mythological names, and they still call me Crazy Dog, as it should be.