Thursday, November 5, 2009
The 3rd of the 10 commandments enjoins us not to take God’s name in vain. Despite popular belief, “God” is not a personal name; it’s a title, a job description. (Yes, I know....try telling that to Sister Mary Sourpuss, your 5th grade teacher, when she’s just heard you say “God damn it!”)
So what was the personal name of the divine creator being in the ancient Mediterranean/Middle Eastern world—Sumeria, Canaan, Phoenicia, Syria, Judea—an area which has had so much influence on the western religions of today?
To paraphrase T.S. Elliot’s Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, “The name of a god is a serious matter; it’s not just a part of your holiday games...”
In ancient times, names were a serious matter. Not just a random combination of sounds, names were meant to convey the nature and essence of the thing named—the unique, specific, vibrational frequency that exemplified the most vital and central core of the thing. From this comes the old belief that to know a being’s name is to have power over it—an illustration of the archaic belief in the power of sound.
In all languages, vowels are what makes sound; it is sometimes said that vowels “ensoul” a word. The commonly accepted vowels in the English language are A, E, I, O, U, and sometimes Y. Occasionally W is added to that list.
The three major western religions of today’s world—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—all arose in the Middle East. Historically, the ancient Semitic languages, which came to dominate a large portion of the Middle East, did not have letters that indicated vowel sounds in words. Only consonants were written. Later, markings or ‘points’ were inscribed over certain letters in words to indicate an accompanying vowel sound.
But those familiar sounds of A-E-I-O-U-Y-W were certainly known and used in the ancient world, and were, in fact, quite often considered sacred. The reason for this is that, unlike consonants, which are made solely by positions of tongue, lips, and movements of the mouth, breath—more specifically, the movement of breath—is required to make vowel sounds. Vowel sounds are pure sound, unencumbered by consonants.
Since living beings must breathe, breath was seen as akin to life—that sacred and mysterious animating force that seems to move in and out of physical form as it wills. Being is breathing; breathing is being. In the biblical Book of Genesis, in fact, it is the Divine Breath—the wind—moving over the waters of the primal Tehom, or Deep Abyss, which triggered creation.
So it is not surprising to find that many of the ancient names of god were the sequence of vowel sounds such as would be made with the pronunciation of words such as the Hebrew IHVH/YHVH (Yahweh), the Greek IAO, and the Phoenician IEUO—all of which translate to things like, “he will cause to become; he causes to become; he was; he will be; I am the One Who Is, " or simply, "I am that (which) I am." It is the power of breath and sound that brings life into being; it seems logical to suppose that the creator’s name would reflect this.
Related to the Phoenician IEUO and Hebrew YHVY is the Ugaritic YAM/Iahu/IeuoYw/Yawu, a deity whose name—extremely similar to the Hebrew Yahu/Yahweh—means sea, as in the primordial salty sea of creation the Babylonians knew as the creatress Tiamat and the Sumerians as Nammu. Not surprisingly, it was said that Yam often took the guise of a storm or wind god. And Yam, in his turn, would seem to be a manifestation of an even older Babylonian deity, Ea (Aay-ah, Eh-yah, or Ee-yah), who in the much earlier Sumerian era was called Enki. It is interesting that Yam was said to take the guise of a storm or wind god, because Enki had a brother called Enlil— called Ilu in Babylonian and Akkadian times—who actually was the god of sky, air, wind, and storms. The main part of his name, “lil” meant wind. The word Ilu meant “god,” thus equating god with the wind. Ilu seems to be the source of the later Phoenician/Canaanite “El,” meaning God, or Lord, and as a suffix this has attached itself to names of other divine beings (or divine attributes, depending on your point of view) such as Micha-el, Gabri-el, Rapha-el, and the like.
"El" can also mean "the," as in a very specific, and sometimes only, "one."
Both Enlil/Ilu and Enki/Ea are very strong contenders for being the original form of Yahweh. As the Sumerian god of the sea, Ea/Enki was ruler of the element of water, the god of intelligence, wisdom, and the primeval establisher of law and order—all of these being also attributes of the Hebrew Yahweh. Enki, on the other hand, was a very powerful god of sky, air, wind, and storms, as we have said. The Hebrew god Yahweh seems, by his attributes and characteristics, to be a conflation of Enlil/Ilu and Enki/Ea.
It should be noted here that names of the much later-in-time Roman father god Jupiter/Jove (IOVE or IOWE) and the Greek father god Zeus (Ze being equivalent to the I in Iupiter/Jove) come from the same root and have the same meaning and similar attributes as YHVH/IEUO/IAHU. It should also be noted that in ancient Egypt the god HU (Hhhoooooo), whose name, when pronounced, sounds very much like the wind blowing, was said to be a deification of the first sound, the utterance that initiated creation. This brings to mind the first verse of the Gospel of John— “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1)
In the New Testament, the descent of the Holy Spirit (i.e. the Spirit of God) upon the apostles at Pentecost is marked by a great and loud wind (in addition to the small “tongues of fire” pictured over their heads in medieval paintings). In the second of the creation stories found in Genesis (as in several other creation stories), God “breathed” into Adam, his clay creation, thus bringing Adam to life by an infusion of his own Divine Spirit. In this we can see the ancient belief that breath, life, and the Divine Spirit are all the same.
Breath is life; breath is divine and sacred; therefore life is sacred. To take the “name” of the Lord “in vain” is to violate life/breath. That particular commandment, therefore, might well be a proscription against doing harm to living, breathing beings.
In the desert lands of the middle east where much religion originated, the winds are a very powerful force of nature, one capable of creating changes in the landscape and in life. It’s not surprising that the winds would be considered the divine breath, and their howling or soothing noises to be the words of the divine voice. This is a very animistic/shamanistic perspective, and humanity's earliest spiritual belief was animism -- the belief that all nature was alive.
The wind is everywhere, however, not just confined to deserts. It blows in forests, among mountain peaks, at the seashore, and on the sea—causing things to move and change in all these places. In fact, the movement of wind—the Divine Spirit—over water is the act of creation in more than one creation story. In the Babylonian tales, the creatress Tiamat—the primal watery salty void—is slain by her great-grandson Marduk; his weapon is the power of the winds, given him by his father Ea. From her body the world and its creatures were then created.
If the name of something is a sound which represents its essence, then the most primal name of God is the sound of life—the vowel sounds of spoken language, which often seem to mimic those of the natural world of wind and wave. We can only define or express the divine in terms of what is familiar to us, and what is familiar to us is the world of nature. At their most basic foundation, all religions are nature religions, born of early humans sitting around their campfires at night, listening to the sounds of nature, gazing at the starfilled sky, or perhaps standing on the seashore or mountain top thinking, “All this is so much bigger than me; where did it come from? Where did I come from?”
Wind and wave, fire and earth. Perhaps the question is not really what is the personal name of God, but rather, does God actually have a personal name, like any Tom, Dick or Harry?
Personally, I don’t think he/she/it does. Something as vast as the divine creator spirit fills, or IS, all things and all beings. We know it by its manifestation. To our ancestors the forces of nature were the manifestation of the divine; and the sounds those forces made were the voice of the divine speaking its many names.