Forbidden Utterances: Naming the Dead

All societies know grief, though how they handle it can vary significantly. One notable manner in which some cultures deal with the death of a member of their community is through name taboos; where the name of the deceased is forbidden from being spoken.

As anthropologists Lyle Steadman and Craig Palmer wrote in The Supernatural and Natural Selection (2008), “prohibitions on saying the name of a dead person, especially in front of his or her relatives, are fairly widespread.” Anthropologist James Frazer wrote that across Australian aboriginal societies, “to name aloud one who has departed this life would be a gross violation of their most sacred prejudices, and they carefully abstain from it.” Frazer adds that, “A similar reluctance to mention the names of the dead is reported of peoples so widely separated from each other as the Samoyeds of Siberia and the Todas of Southern India; the Mongols of Tartary and the Tuaregs of the Sahara; the Ainos of Japan and the Akamba and Nandi of Eastern Africa; the Tinguianes of the Philippines and the inhabitants of the Nicobar Islands, of Borneo, of Madagascar, and of Tasmania.”

Ethnographer Stephen Powers wrote of the Tolowa tribe of California that, “The Tolowa share in the superstitious reverence for the memory of the dead which is common to the Northern California tribes. When I asked the chief, Takhokolli, to tell me the Indian words for “father”, “mother”, and certain others similar, he shook his head mournfully and said, “All dead, all dead; no good”. They are forbidden to mention the names of the dead, as it is a deadly insult to the relatives; and this poor aboriginal could not distinguish between the proper names and the substantives which denote those relations [ed: Possibly this is a case of miscommunication rather than an inability on the part of the chief to understand the difference between the name and the category].”

Among Australian aboriginal societies in the western district of Victoria, pieces of land were named after the family or individuals that were considered to own them, and the existence of the name taboo affected how the land was described after its owner died. James Dawson wrote that, “Should a family die out without leaving 'flesh relatives' of any degree, the chief divides the land among the contiguous families after the lapse of one year from the death of the last survivor. During that period the name of the property, being the same as the name of its last owner, is never mentioned...”

The name taboo can radically change communication after the death of an individual, particularly a prominent one, or one whose name is similar to everyday objects. Among the Apaches, anthropologist Morris Opler wrote that, “There is, first of all, a strong taboo against mentioning the name of the deceased. If it becomes necessary, for any reason, to mention his name, a phrase meaning “who used to be called” must be added.” Opler adds that, “In cases of the death of prominent men who have been named after some object or animal, that animal or object is given an alternative name or another.” And further that, “Ordinarily the names of all the children are changed when a death occurs in a family. The reason given is that the deceased called the children by these names and to repeat them now would be to evoke painful memories of the one who is gone.”

Violations of name taboos can be a significant source of conflict. Of the Apaches, Opler wrote that, “In fact, nothing is more insulting, provocative, and certain to precipitate conflict than to call out the name of a dead man in the presence of his relative. A surprising number of feuds between families have had such an origin or include such an episode in their histories.” Opler describes one such example,

In the case of one feud which I recorded, a drunken man went to undue lengths to stir up trouble. For some time he abused the man who had aroused his anger, but without causing a conflict. Then he hit upon the sure method of shouting out the name of a deceased relative of his opponent. The other man had been earnestly trying to avoid a fight to this point. Instantly his attitude changed. “You did not have to say that!” was his reply, and he reached for his weapons. In the battle which followed seven men lost their lives, and the hate that was generated then persists among the descendants of the combatants to this day.

Opler also tells an Apache story of another violation of the name taboo which is almost Shakespearian in its element of poetic revenge:

The tale recounts how some Chiricahuas, led by a certain man, raided a group of Mescalero camps. Among the prisoners taken were an old woman and a young boy, her grandson. The old woman was a robust spirit who possessed a ready tongue. She proceeded to give her captors a sound lashing with it and singled out the leader for a number of uncomplimentary remarks. She succeeded in infuriating him and brought a death sentence to herself. Her grandson escaped and made his way back to his people. He swore that some day he would meet the murderer of his grandmother face to face. When he grew to a warrior’s estate he started out on his mission of revenge. He penetrated into Chiricahua territory and wandered from camp group to camp group seeking his enemy. Finally he found the camps which this man controlled. That night he sat in the tent of this chief and listened while many men told stories of their past exploits. He stayed until this chief recounted the story of the raid he had led upon the camps of the Mescaleros. Then the young man left and procured a lance. He entered the dwelling again. By this time the other men were leaving. The Mescalero waited until all were gone and he was alone with the chief.

“Won’t you tell the story of the raid on the Mescalero camps once more?” he asked.

The chief politely began his recital again. When he paused the young man asked, “And were any killed?”

“Yes, an old woman.”

“Do you remember what she was called?”

“Yes, I believe they called her -.”

The name was the last word he ever uttered. The Mescalero youth had deliberately led the Chiricahua chief to commit this foulest of insults, and when he heard the name of his dead grandmother, in the cold fury that possessed him, he sent the lance through the older man’s heart.

The name taboos can also cause significant difficulties for anthropologists attempting to collect genealogical data. Two extended examples are reproduced here. In 1934, Morris Opler wrote of his problems during field work among the Apache;

As a result of this taboo it proved extremely difficult for me to obtain reliable genealogical material. It was considerably easier to persuade Apaches to discuss and reveal rites and ceremonies than it was to bring them to the point of talking freely of the kinship ties which had existed between them and those now dead. After considerable effort I felt sure that I had obtained a very complete genealogy from one of my best informants. This was a man who went to some little trouble to provide me with ways and means of obtaining valuable ethnological material. Once when we were passing a certain locality my friend chanced to remark that he had formerly lived near-by. When I asked him why he had moved he became glum and silent. I learned later from other sources that a child of his had died there. No mention of that child appeared in the genealogy.

Another informant, so willing and precise that he would make me read back pages of notes to him if he suspected me of missing and omitting a detail, gave me what he assured me was his full genealogy. Later I had reason to believe that he had omitted mention of a maternal uncIe, a man who had been very close to him and could not easily have been forgotten. When I questioned my informant concerning this lapse he offered a perfect Apache explanation. The man was dead, he said. Moreover, he had died a horrible death. Under the circumstances how could one be expected to call his name?

Napoleon Chagnon also faced similar problems during his fieldwork among the Yanomami. Chagnon noted that the Yanomami “have very stringent name taboos and eschew mentioning the names of prominent living people was well as all deceased friends and relatives. They attempt to name people in such a way that when the person dies and they can no longer use his or her name, the loss of the word in their language is not inconvenient.”

Chagnon gives a fairly comical description of his attempt to collect genealogies of the Yanomami and how they responded to his attempts to get around their name taboos:

They reacted to this in a brilliant but devastating manner: They invented false names for everybody in the village and systematically learned them, freely revealing to me the “true” identities of everyone. I smugly thought I had cracked the system and enthusiastically constructed elaborate genealogies over a period of some five months. They enjoyed watching me learn their names and kinship relationships. I naively assumed that I would get the “truth” to each question and the best information by working in public. This set the stage for converting my serious project into an amusing hoax of the grandest proportions. Each “informant” would try to outdo his peers by inventing a name even more preposterous or ridiculous than what I had been given by someone earlier, the explanations for discrepancies being “Well, he has two names and this is the other one.” They even fabricated devilishly improbable genealogical relationships, such as someone being married to his grandmother, or worse yet, to his mother-in-law, a grotesque and horrifying prospect to the Yanomamö. I would collect the desired names and relationships by having my informant whisper the name of the person softly into my ear, noting that he or she was the parent of such and such or the child of such and such, and so on. Everyone who was observing my work would then insist that I repeat the name aloud, roaring in hysterical laughter as I clumsily pronounced the name, sometimes laughing until tears streamed down their faces. The “named” person would usually react with annoyance and hiss some untranslatable epithet at me, which served to reassure me that I had the “true” name. I conscientiously checked and rechecked the names and relationships with multiple informants, pleased to see the inconsistencies disappear as my genealogy sheets filled with those desirable little triangles and circles, thousands of them.

My anthropological bubble was burst when I visited a village about 10 hours’ walk to the southwest of Bisaasi-teri some five months after I had begun collecting genealogies on the Bisaasi-teri. I was chatting with the local headman of this village and happened to casually drop the name of the wife of the Bisaasi-teri headman. A stunned silence followed, and then a villagewide roar of uncontrollable laughter, choking, gasping, and howling followed. It seems that I thought the Bisaasi-teri headman was married to a woman named “hairy cunt.” It also seems that the Bisaasi-teri headman was called “long dong” and his brother “eagle shit.” The Bisaasi-teri headman had a son called “asshole” and a daughter called “fart breath.”

And so on. Blood welled up to my temples as I realized that I had nothing but nonsense to show for my five months of dedicated genealogical effort, and I had to throw away almost all the information I had collected on this the most basic set of data I had come there to get. I understood at that point why the Bisaasi-teri laughed so hard when they made me repeat the names of their covillagers, and why the “named” person would react with anger and annoyance as I pronounced his “name” aloud (Chagnon, 21).

To get around these issues, Chagnon ended up interviewing children, who could generally use names without being punished, and socially marginalized individuals, who may have been less wary of violating taboos, to get accurate genealogical information from them. Chagnon ended up receiving some criticism for this tactic.

A name is more than an arbitrary designation; over time its meaning becomes indelibly associated with the character of its owner.