Sunday, May 30, 2010

What's in a name? Part II

Years ago when we were expecting our first child, my wife and I decided to name our son Alexander. We thought that it's a good solid name because it (a) can't be teased, (b) is not the most common but not too rare or weird, and (c) is a very ancient name. According to dictionaries, it is Greek in origin, Αλέξανδρος, meaning "protector of men" (while seemingly a lofty goal, in fact it has a martial connotation and implies one who protects others in battle).

Perhaps the most famous Alexander in history was Alexander III of Macedon (356–323 BCE), also known as Alexander the Great who conquered a big chunk of the eastern Mediterranean as well as Mesopotamia, Persia, and even bits of India. But even at this time, the late Classical Greek/Early Hellenistic period, Alexander was already an ancient name. There were earlier Alexanders from Classical Greece, such as Alexander of Corinth who lived from the 9th to 8th century BCE.

However, the name is even earlier than that. A clay tablet from the Mycenaean period (16th to 12th century BCE) of Greece found in Mycenae itself contains the sequence of Linear B signs a-re-ka-sa-da-ra (see figure 1.b), which reads Alexandra, the female form of Alexandros. Since Greek names typically can have both male and female forms, there is no doubt that Alexandros was being used as a name at least in the 12th century BCE.

Coincidentally, the late Mycenaean period is also widely believed to correspond to when the Trojan war happened. In the 19th century German archaeologist Henrich Schliemann discovered the ruins of Troy in Asia Minor (Turkey), bringing the Trojan war from legend into history. Later archaeological discoveries revealed the powerful Hittite Empire which ruled much of Turkey except for the very western part where a number of somewhat independent principalities existed. The imperial Hittite archives mention one particular kingdom named Wilusa, and one of its king was called Alaksandu (see figure 1.c) who lived around 1280 BCE.

What is really interesting is that Troy is actually Ilion in Classical Greek, and likely Wilion in Homeric and Mycenaean Greek. This means that Wilusa mentioned in the Hittite archives was probably Troy.

And what about this king Alaksandu, whose name suspiciously sounds like Alexander? Going back to the Iliad, we find that Paris, the prince of Troy who stole away Helen, was in fact also named Alexander. In other words, the mythological Paris of Troy was based on the historical Alaksandu (or Alexander) of Wilusa. Once again we find some grain of truth in myths and legends.

This brings up an interesting question. Earlier I mentioned that Alexander is a Greek name, but Trojans in the 13th century BCE most likely did not speak Greek. The most probable language spoken in Troy/Wilusa was Luwian. Does this mean that Alaksandu was actually a Luwian name that the Greeks adopted and reinterpreted into having a Greek meaning? Or Alaksandu a Greek name adopted by Luwians? Or maybe even a Greek named Alexander somehow weaseled his way into being king of a foreign city? Like the Trojan War, it's part history and part fantasy and we'll always be guessing as to what really happened nearly three thousand years ago.



Regardless of whether Alexander is Greek or Luwian, I find it amazing the depth of history and stories carried in everyday names. Why don't you investigate your name and see where it leads you?

References:
  • Chadwick, John, et al, "The Mycenae Tablets III", Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, New Series, Vol. 52, No. 7 (1962), pp. 1-76
  • Hahn, E.A., "Hittite genuš(š)uš, genuš(š)i, and pankuš(š)i", Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 85, No. 3 (Jul. - Sep., 1965), pp. 295-307

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