Naming, celebrating, describing: what is a name for?

François Lissarrague dedicates a few pages of his book La cité des satyres. Une anthropologie ludique (Athènes VIe-IVe siècle avant J.-C.), Éditions de l’EHESS 2013 to the function of names inscribed on vases (pp. 39-49). He identifies three reasons explaining the presence of people’s names on vases. These reasons may be helpful in guiding our analysis of women’s names, since women are not a priori treated as an discrete category. Thus a name is liable to:

Be reminiscent of a culture by functioning as a “memory trigger”: “The evocation of a name alone sets off the memory of a tale, suggests a series of narrative data that traces the outline of a course and produces expectations that are linked with communal knowledge. Lyric poetry frequently resorts to this mode, playing on the implications of a name, grouping several names together by association so as to construct a signifying network without slowing down to recount the successive episodes that these names evoke. Thus, for instance, the eleventh of Pindar’s Pythians mentions first Semele then Ino, daughters of Harmonia, before dwelling on Clytemnestra so as to mention the young hero Orestes, associated with the victor of the track race at Delphi. We can understand how a name would be enough, without a long narrative detour, were the auditor in possession of the cultural knowledge required to grasp what the proper noun contains.” (p. 39, in French in the text)

Identify an individual among his or her peers: “In Greece as in many cultures, the proper name serves to individualise characters, to distinguish them from congeners, to identify them among peers. The proper noun is often “telling”; in Archaic Greek it reveals more about the one who gave the child his name than it does about the child. Thus the name of Telemachus, whose father is Odysseus, means “he who fights far away”, which is precisely what Odysseus does; similarly the deceased Phrasikleia, she who speaks of glory”, honours her father. Among telling names, many are descriptive and underline an aspect of the guaranteed transmission passed over through filiation.” (p.40, in French in the text)

Describe a function, a behaviour, an attitude:
“The name of satyrs are telling names, but they do not come into this logic of filiation, since among satyrs kinship and filiation are almost non-existent insofar as the world of satyrs is not located within a familial framework. Therefore the names of satyrs are more directly descriptive and apply without mediation to those that bear them. This is precisely what makes them interesting, for these names emphasise various physical or moral traits as well as forms of action, thus opening initial gateways into this world of fancy. The categories defined by these proper nouns allow us to draw up a map of these traits as they were conceived of, not by us, but by those who named them. Through these names a semantic field emerges and reveals what thoughts satyrs call to the mind of those who referred to them as such.” (pp. 40-41, in French in the text)


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