Ritual – Naming a Child

Several legal references attest that Germanic tradition counted a newborn as fully viable (eligible for full wergild and no longer abandonable) after nine nights of life.1 Hence the baby was given a name and thereby became a legal member of the family and eligible to inherit at a ceremony on the tenth day.

The Old Norse term for the ritual used in naming a baby is vatni ausa, “to sprinkle with water.” For example in Rígsþula 7:

Jóð ól Edda
jósu vatni,
hörvi svartan,
hétu Þræl.

“A boy bore Great-Grandmother,
they sprinkled with water,
the swarthy of skin,
dubbed him Thrall.”
–and again for Karl and Jarl; and the phrase occurs multiple times in the sagas.2

A couple of references suggest a more vigorous application of the water: the 2nd-century CE Greek physician Galen reputedly wrote that Germanic tribesmen dunked their newborns in ice-cold water like red-hot iron, and Hávamál 158 reads:

ef eg skal þegn ungan
verpa vatni á
mun-at hann falla,
þótt hann í fólk komi

“If I should throw water over
a young stripling,
he shall not fall dead,
though he go into battle.”
But neither of these seems relevant to the naming ceremony. Galen’s statement, even if true, is about newborns not ten-day-olds; it was probably a test of viability if it happened at all.3 In the Hávamál passage, the reference to a þegn and the purpose of protection in battle suggest not infant baptism but sponsorship by Valfather.

In fact the term “sprinkling” distinguishes the heathen ceremony from the Xian tradition that took over in the various countries. The various verbs used in different Germanic countries to refer to “baptism” (German taufen; Norwegian døpe; the Gothic was daupjan; however, Old Norse and Icelandic skíra, “to purify”) are cognate with English dip and therefore refer to immersion baptism.4 The alternative Xian tradition is of course the use of the holy water to make the sign of the cross on the baby’s forehead, but the ancient heathens who were converted as adults were always required to walk into water, generally a river; merely being “signed” was called in Old Norse primsigning (from the Latin prima signatio, “first sign”) and was a preparatory step used by some Icelandic traders to enable them to sell in Xian Europe; after the conversion, malformed babies to be rejected were “prime-signed” but not baptized, and babies who for whatever reason died after “prime-signing” but before baptism were buried at the edge of the churchyard, without a funeral service.5 Non-immersion baptism of babies—whether by sprinkling them with the water, splashing them with it, or merely “signing” them with it—is likely one of the influences of heathenry on medieval Catholicism and clearly only gradually came to be enough for the Church.6

But the references to making the sign of the cross on babies suggest that parents did not simply try to ignore their child until the tenth night, but did do an initial non-public ceremony. So when your child is born, go ahead and sign him or her on the head with the hammer as a sign of acceptance, welcoming into Midgard/Middangeard/Mittigart as a heathen, and warding by the Thunderer.

Then hold a public naming ceremony on the tenth day of the child’s life, at which either the father or a goði/gyðja or equivalent should sprinkle her or him with water. Both Edred Thorsson and Kveldulf Gundarsson envisage the mother presenting the child to the father, who accepts and names him or her.7 Edred has the father take the baby and it on his lap, cradling it with his left arm, and say “I sprinkle this child with water and give him/her the name ___ after his/her [forbear].” Kveldulf has the mother say: “I have borne you this bairn, hale and whole. Will you know him/her as your own, born of your clan? Or shall he/she be cast clanless out of the garth, to live or die with troll and warg?” and the father inspect the baby, then if it is acceptable, raise it high and say:

All worthy in might ween I the bairn,
Come he/she now to clan of my blood.
High ones and holy hear now my words,
This name I give good wax my child!
If it was ever heathen tradition to reject and expose unwanted children (and the argument has been made that it was far more likely after the conversion, with the Church laying emphasis on legitimacy and heathen tradition being notable for concubinage and less concerned about premarital sex), it would be an outrage now. Nor is the mother asking the father whether he chooses to keep the baby the way things are done now. And most modern parents choose the child’s name in advance and state it for a birth certificate shortly after the birth; in fact that process usually includes recording the father as parent. And since one of the reasons to hold a naming ceremony is acceptance into the kindred or other heathen community, in many cases it is presided over by a priest(ess).

This should be a ceremony with family present; if necessary, divide it into two parts, a family ceremony and a kindred ceremony. The parents can present their child to the family with words such as these, spoken by either of them:

Today we are all gathered together to meet and welcome into the family our new daughter/son. We give him/her the name _____ [sprinkling a few drops of water from a bowl on the baby’s head May the gods and goddesses smile on her/him; may our dísir [or idisi, or idesa] guard and guide him/her; the norns grant her/him a fine orlög.

A similar form of words could be used for a kindred ceremony, perhaps that evening; the kindred could say in unison “Welcome, long life, and happiness, ____ !” If the family is not accepting of heathenry, the last sentence could be omitted; but it would in any case be a good idea to first hallow the bowl of water. And in such a case “signing” the child with the hammer at first opportunity after birth is all the more important. There is a known tendency for Xian nurses and family members to take it upon themselves to baptize a newborn when they do not approve of the parents’ religion, or simply because the hospital is sponsored by some church.

However, the name-giving should be a time to bring family (and/or kindred) together in welcoming the child. It is a public ceremony of the beginning of a new life. It is also a time for well wishes; especially since in Germanic tradition, a name-giving requires a gift. Each family member or friend in turn should give the child a blessing or a wish; long life, happiness, luck, wealth, success, health, fame, a happy love life . . . whatever one would wish to bestow. There is a model in “Nornagests Þáttr” and another in the fairytale of “Sleeping Beauty,” but both have a warning about the power of these wishes: a slighted guest wishes the baby ill and the ill wish cannot be negated, but only modified, by another well-wisher.8 A naming gift from each guest to the baby keeps up the ancient tradition and starts a lifetime of being prosperous and cherished.

The choice of names for children is of course very personal. It is nice to give at least one Germanic name, but family requirements may mean it has to be a middle name, or a name like “Robert” that is not recognizably Germanic. Naming for a living or dead family member is a tradition in many families, and was also traditional among the ancient heathens (Edred assumes the child will be named for a forbear), but the family names may all be non-Germanic or from other religions. Older tradition, continuing in many noble families, was to repeat either the first or the last element of the name: Theudahathus, Theudomir, Theudorucus, and Theudimundus; Amalaberga, Amalafrida, and Amalasuintha; Æþelstan, Æþelred, Æþelflæd, Æþelswiþ, Æþelweard, and Æþelwulf; Theudovald, Chlodovald, Gundobald, and Sigivald; Bishop Wulfstan was the son of an Æþelstan and a Wulfgefa.9 This explains why the two elements of ancient names sometimes fit together oddly (“wolf-stone”?); the purpose was to reduplicate the megin/mægen of the family as well as to associate the child with an ancestor (whether under their blessing or receiving some of their luck, or seen as a reincarnation). A minimum form of the tradition is to give siblings the same initial: Henry, Harold, Harriet, Hilda. So there are some ideas for those starting a new naming tradition.

1 Jan de Vries, Altgermanische Religionsgeschichte 1, 179, 180 and n. 4 (2nd ed. Berlin: de Gruyter, 1956, repr. as 3rd ed. 1970), citing specifically the Salic Law of the Franks and the Northumbrian Priests’ Law.

2 There is a lengthy list in the Oxford Icelandic-English Dictionary, commonly referred to as Cleasby-Vigfusson (2nd ed. Clarendon, 1957, repr. 1975), under “ausa.”

3 de Vries 1, 180 with no reference; the statement appears to be in Hygeia (De Sanitate Tuenda) (Hygiene: On the Maintenance of Health) and has been passed on without question in many places, for example Lloyd deMause, Foundations of Psychohistory 34 and n. 164 (New York: Creative Roots, 1982) (found online).

4 de Vries 180; Cleasby-Vigfusson.

5 Cleasby-Vigfusson, “prim-signa.”

6 Since the mechanism for “heathen baptism” was different, although the difference may not be obvious since the Xians have in large part changed their tradition, it is worth noting that except for the use of a sprig (teinn) it is exactly like the sprinkling with hlaut that the temple and blót description in Kjalnesinga Saga ch. 4, Eyrbyggja Saga ch. 2, and the Heimskringla Hákonar Saga Aðalsteinsfóstra or Hákonar Saga Góða ch. 14 describes in Xian terms as being like asperging with an aspergillum at the mass. (See my article on blót on this site.) Apparently heathen rites were more consistent, and there may be a connection with the blót ritual. Kveldulf Gundarsson’s ritual outline in Teutonic Religion: Folk Beliefs & Practices of the Northern Tradition 243 prescribes a leek leaf as the sprinkling tool at a naming ceremony (St. Paul: Llewellyn, 1993).

7 A Book of Troth 154; Teutonic Religion 243.

8In “Sleeping Beauty,” of course, the parents did not invite someone, who curses the child to prick her finger on a spindle and die; the last well-wisher changes “die” to “sleep.” In “Nornagests Þáttr,” a norn (dís?) who feels disrespected curses the child to live only as long as a candle burns; another guest snuffs it out and tells the parents to keep it locked away, and Nornagest lives 300 years before choosing to let the candle burn down.

9 de Vries 182; Henry Bosley Woolf, The Old Germanic Principles of Name-Giving (diss. Johns Hopkins 1936; Baltimore, Johns Hopkins, 1939); Otto Höfler, “Über die Grenzen Semasiologischer Personennahmenforschung,” Festschrift für Dietrich Kralik (Horn, Austria: Berger, 1954) 27.