Thor Odinson: what patronymics can tell about our ancestry
While watching the latest Thor movie with my sons I noticed that Thor was referred to by his full name Thor Odinson several times. Of course, it’s not hard to guess what Odinson stands for: son of Odin. This linguistic feature is called a patronymic or patronym. As my children are half Russian, I sometimes jokingly refer to them using the Russian patronymic: Andrej Andrejevich: Andrej, son of Andrej. Putin’s full name is Vladimir Vladimirovich (son of Vladimir) Putin.
As a linguist, I have always been fascinated by such language features. Patronymics used to be frequent and productive in most languages. We see them frequently, but not productively in English, for example: Dadvison, Peterson, Johnson. As someone who tries to find reasons behind phenomena, I asked myself what is the reason for the widespread disappearance of patronymics? Is there any pattern behind the use of patronymics in the first place?
As I have been reading a lot about nomadic pastoralists recently, I noticed that the use of patronymics is particularly common among nomadic pastoralists. I check out Wikipedia and indeed, patronymics seem much more common in areas and ethnicities that are historically connected with herding: Arabic (ibn), Hebrew (ben), Somali, Maasai, Zulu and Mongols.
So, widespread active use of patronymics may indicate a relatively recent presence of nomadic pastoralists. This is certainly true for Arabic countries, but also for Scandinavian countries where pastoralists arrived relatively late. You can consider the Vikings (including their deities) as an extension of the pastoralist lifestyle.
Why would patronymics be more important for pastoralist herders than settled people? To begin with, pastoralists are organised in segmentary clans and some lineages have higher prestige and status than others. In general, patronymics serve as a kind of clan membership ID. In her book The Last Nomad Shugri Said Salh writes:
As they moved about the terrain, herding camels and other livestock long distances to find water, the nomads came into contact with each other, so they not only knew the land but knew where other tribes were currently located. To access this information, my mother had to give the “ nomadic password, “ which was her full name and the name of her subclans . The Somali clan system, with its myriad clan wars, is remarkably complex and difficult to describe. The four core clans are Darod, Hawiye, Dir, and Isaaq. Each main clan branches into four or five main subclans, and they, in turn, split into many more sub-subclans, and so forth. Think of a big family tree, but with warring squirrels on the branches. Somali society uses a patrilineal system, so children always belong to their father’s clan, not their mother’s.
Christians and Jews are familiar with this system from the bible: Jacob son of Isaac son of Abraham. This is a good indication of the Hebrew religion having its origins in a herder religion. Others are that God followed his people in a tent (tabernacle) or the presence of holy mountains (important for herder transhumance, but not for farmers). A patrilineal system is also an indication that women were not equal and therefore of a possibly patriarchal society. Interestingly, Jesus is referred to as “Son of Mary” in the Bible and as Īsā ibn Maryam among Muslims. There has been some speculation as to the meaning or stigmatisation of this form.
Patronymics, like horses, chariots, battle axes (Thor’s hammer was really a battle axe), as well as a number of language families (Indoeuropean, Afroasiatic, Altaic) may be the legacy of herders.
For more information check out my book Foragers, Farmers and Pastoralists : How three tribes have been shaping civilization since the Neolithic
Originally published at http://the-big-ger-picture.blogspot.com on August 5, 2022.