Ekunyi's Embers

On the Significance of Names

There is a trope common throughout literature, film, and mythology that if you know the true name of a thing, you have power over it. I have found that the names given to us, as gifts or in moments of ritual, often serve as a starting point in a journey to gain better power over ourselves by means of self-discovery and personal exploration.

For example, the name I use on this blog was given to me (at least) six years ago, during a meditative experience. I received it from a spiritual entity I’d worked with extensively. After a lengthy, fire-based ritual that dealt with matters related to coming-of-age, I was told that I would, from then on, be known within that territory of the unseen as Ekunyi, “little alpha” or “little leader.” It has no equivalent meaning in any human-based language that I’ve encountered, beyond the number “ten” in several Bantu languages. That said, the knowledge of earning the title of a little leader, someone behind the scenes whose efforts nevertheless played a significant role in organizing groups and helping others, led me to take on several challenges in college, and even graduate school, that I might have been too timid to take on before.

On February 6th, I received a new name, an important component of my recent Shemsu (“follower”) vows to serve my parent gods and my Kemetic Orthodox community. With these oaths, and my initiation into the community,  came another charge: to consider the name I was given, and discover the depths of its meaning in my life, my goals, my sense of self.

The name, which Kemetic Orthodox believe to come from their Parent deities through Hemet, is Sarytsenuwi, meaning: “Standard (bearer) of (my) Two,” or “Two Standards (for me).” 

I’ll grant that I had just had a small surgical procedure that morning, and was more than a little emotional from the worries and fears wrapped up in the possibilities of what that biopsy might mean, but I suspect I might have teared up a bit at this name even if I’d been perfectly sound, body and mind, coming into the ritual. You see, the day before had marked the end of a very difficult week. I had struggled to keep my focus despite my health concerns, worked hard to get through a substantial amount of effort required for my thesis, courses, and teaching responsibilities. The final project to complete before I could relax and ready myself for the procedure involved several hours of transcription of an interview where I spoke with a Civil War re-enactor about the significance of regimental banners. When I finally finished it, I got up to get something from the fridge, and as my mind cleared from the haze of listen-type-repeat, I heard the following in the mental voice I associate with Set:

 I will never let you doubt. Your name will have meaning you cannot deny.

Excited as I was, I then proceeded to react in a perfectly rational manner: by scouring the kitchen for anything around me that might relate to a possible name. “Are my Parents going to name me after Water? Food? Nourishment? AAAAAUGH.”

Perhaps not so rational. *wry grin*

But yes, given that I had mentioned this comment to no one, in the moment of Naming there was little question of accurate discernment: this was too much for even skeptical me to take as coincidence. Set had done exactly as He said, as He has from our first meeting, nearly two years ago.

But what, exactly, is a “standard” in the Ancient Egyptian context. I’ve become familiar with flags and banners in American military settings courtesy of my thesis research, but this was new to me. I found the following by amateur Egyptologist André Dollinger (emphasis mine):

  Ancient armies were generally small compared to modern mass armies. The Egyptian army of the New Kingdom was composed of three divisions under Seti I on his Canaan campaign … The overall command lay in the hands of the pharaoh himself or one of his close relatives, generally a son. Similar to the administration of the whole kingdom, the army was divided into a northern and a southern corps overseen by Chief Deputies. The line of command included ranks corresponding to the modern generals, battalion commanders, standard bearers and adjutants at the company level, lieutenants leading the platoons, and non-commissioned officers in charge of squads.

Standards themselves were not the waving flags I am accustomed to, but generally featured the visage of a god, or other important symbol, atop a staff. Included below are photographs of Neb-Re, carrying the standard of Sekhmet and  Khaemwaset, son of Ramses II, carrying the Abydos standard.

Neb-Re and Sekhmet Standard

Khaemwaset and Abydos standard


Katherine Griffis-Greenberg of the Oriental Institute offers a bit more insight into these images:

According to the Liverpool website, Neb-Re was indeed of high status, with other texts noting him as the commander of the fortress at Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham. Apparently, god Ptah and his wife, the goddess Sekhmet, were the patron deities of the area around Zawiyet Umm el-Rakham.

Carrying a standard of the deity of an area was a high honour, and often imparted that the bearer had religious duties to the deity/ies as part of his duties. A similar statue of prince Khaemwaset, son of Ramses II, now in the British Museum, interprets his bearing of the Abydos standard as “…Khaemwaset displaying his piety before Osiris by holding one of the god’s symbols, the emblem of the nome (province) of Abydos.”

With all of this in mind, carrying a standard (sryt from the Gardiner dictionary), comes with quite a bit of responsibility. If I am to be a standard bearer (t3w-sryt or TAw-sryt) of my two Parents, I have duties to uphold to both of them, goals that must be met. I take this as the second time I have been given a name as a call to leadership, albeit on the small scale: the military standard bearer led the company, not the entire army, but nevertheless made an important difference at that level of command. The religious standard bearer made visible his devotion to a particular, regional Netjeru, and upheld that sacred Name in action and word. 

I am happiest when I have some project that I am helping to guide. I founded the graduate student organization in my department upon discovering the lack, was quite successful in my position as assistant to the head event planner for all important occasions that were held at my undergraduate campus. I enjoy leading in educational environments, and am capable of leading in situations which are less pleasant. I have also become painfully aware that the lack of human interaction in my current lifestyle, as I spend hours each day at the computer,  delving into my research, is becoming increasingly harmful to my emotional well being. This Name’s historical associations were an important reminder of that, and I hope it will continue to assist me in my future challenges as I seek a path that better suits me.

Yet this Name also has several meanings to me beyond what insight ancient history provides:

For one, I feel like Set establishing that direct connection to my thesis work is a gentle reminder of support that I can and will finish this damn project. When I keep thinking of how much more I have to write, how my energy for the topic is waning, the name reminds me of the incredible significance of standards, banners, symbols that communities latch on to in times of trial. It makes me excited about it again, in a way that I never could have expected. It gives that extra bit of “oomph” to keep going so that I can get this degree and move on to the next phase of my life without dragging things out more painfully than necessary.

The Ancient Egyptians also enjoyed exploring the various meanings held within a single word, often in the form of punning. If I look to the Egyptian, sryt, it also means “cough.” As someone who has struggled with her asthma for her entire life, giving up certain opportunities because I so easily become ill, struggling for air in places where a healthier person might thrive, this just made me shake my head. I am “cough.” Or more accurately, I’ve allowed myself to become “cough.” I’ve defined myself around my nebulizer, whined and complained when, yet again, a cold crawls steadily towards pneumonia despite my best efforts. I’ve backed out on opportunities saying, “Oh, no, sorry, I can’t, I have asthma.” The biggest of these was a career in singing: I assumed, because I was so ill, that I would never be able to sing professionally. But I’m not my cough, I’m not my lungs, I am all of me, and I will never know if I can handle singing at that level if I don’t try.

Which leads me to another pun, this one off of the english translation: “standard.” How many times have I had a request to sing a jazz, blues, or pop standard, one of the songs so beloved to people of all generations that they are considered part of the canon? One of my most defining moments was at age 14, stuck in a hotel after being evacuated from the path of hurricane Isabel. We went downstairs to the lobby where the hotel had tried to throw a hurricane party to “lighten everyone’s spirits,” but the room was full of quiet, frightened, albeit mildly intoxicated people. My father pushed me up to the karaoke machine, and asked me to sing something, anything: given the crowd I picked Mary Chapin Carpenter’s relatively well known country hit, ”Down at the Twist and Shout” and by the time I reached the bridge “They got a alligator stew and a crawfish pie / A gulf storm blowin’ into town tonight / Livin on the delta’s quite a show / They got hurricane parties every time it blows”  there were people singing along and we just… forgot about the threat of windows blowing in and whatever the hell was happening to our houses near the coast. I learned the power of singing in that moment, and have never let it go.

There’s also the idea of the “standards” to which we hold ourselves, and there most assuredly are “two standards for me” in that regard. I am much, much harsher on myself in matters of emotional, physical, and academic perfection than I am on anyone else. It’s something I’ve struggled with for years, that self equals others, and that I don’t have be so damn cruel to myself when I don’t quite reach the bar I’ve set for myself.

Yet, last but not least, to bring things back to the historical concept, there are “two Standards for me.” Two banners waving, two deities who I must carry and represent, but who support me in turn. They were with me during last week’s medical procedure, They are with me as I’ve struggled to catch up on work this week, They will be with me through the trials ahead. They want me to succeed in my studies, but They want me to remember that I am a “little leader” and a singer and that I should seek these things out, become them again.

I am so, so very grateful.

Dua Set! Dua Bast!

(And much love as well to my sibling Emky/Tenu, for hir love and support during the past week, keeping me excited about our special, shared naming day.)

4 Responses to “On the Significance of Names”

  • [...] A little over a year after my divination, I had settled in: with my gods, with my akhu, and with my community. I had proven to myself that I could participate with and bring value to the people I came to admire and enjoy, and that I could devote myself to many gods without enormous conflict. And so I felt I was ready to take Shemsu vows and become a “follower” of Kemetic Orthodoxy, swearing myself to my Netjeru and my community. I received a Kemetic name when I took those vows in February of this year, alongside my sister. [...]

  • [...] now I am Sarytsenuwi. I’ve previously written about what that name means to me, how it related to my relationship with my Parents before I [...]

  • This is something our two paths have in common. Many within the Asatru community choose to take a “Heathen” name. We don’t have a set ritual for the practice though. (I love reading all of thr history and ritual on your blog! I always learn something new!)
    Sometimes the name is chosen by the worshiper, other times it is given by ones peers or ones gods. When I asked my patron, Skadi, if I needed a name I was told to search for one that she would approve of. I took the name Sjalfslain. The Self Made/Forged.

  • […] I am focusing on the right span of time (massive though it may be) was a recognition about my Shemsu name. The use of standard-bearers as regimental leaders came about as part of the reorganization of the […]

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