The Ale House


Live Fast, Die Young


No one argues that a name isn't powerful. Because a name is the sign for who we are in the world, it becomes a powerful entity in itself. It brings abstract concepts like "me" and "you" into concrete ideas like "Patrick" and "Margarette" and "Jamie." A name is the image of ourselves in other peoples' lives. For the early Indo-Europeans, living in the southern steppes of Russia seven thousand years ago, the name was not just a symbol of strength; it was the meaning of life.

The Indo-Europeans were a semi-nomadic nation with a tightly-woven social structure. Power revolved around the kings for the accumulation of goods; the priests for the favor of the gods; and the poets for the preservation of the name. For the Indo-European people, who lacked a concept of a life after death or an imperishable soul, the death of man or woman was final. There were no see you laters and second chances to make ammends. The soul was your breath, your force of life. Last gasps and death grips were not signs of the soul leaving the body but the soul itself dying. For them, the power of a name as a vestige of our memory was everything; and between the king, the poet and the priest, the poet towered over them. The king could destroy a man, a priest could sway the gods, but only the poet could sing the songs that would preserve your memory for all eternity. To curse the poet was to ensure you were forgotten forever, rendering your entire life meaningless.

Over thousands of years, the Indo-European nation fractured. Tribal migration away from the homeland took the Indo-Europeans into Europe, the land of the pastoral Iber, Basque and Fir Bolg; into the Middle East, where mighty empires of Sumer, Egypt and Hattia controlled all; into China where Turkic and Sino-Tibetan ancestors eeked an existence among the bones of their western desert; and faraway India, where proud Dravidian city-states were pushed further south or absorbed by the Indo-Iranians altogether. Wherever the Indo-Europeans went, they conquered. They tamed the horse and invented the chariot, enabling them to journey vast distances over a period of weeks, rather than years. They conquered in the search for immortal fame, a fame that does not die and ensured that kings would live forever in the memories of their people.

The search for glory as the fuel for conquest created what Watkins called the "central Indo-European question:" die young in battle and achieve eternal glory, or choose a long life and be forgotten. We see its impact in the hearts of the poets. Homer records Achilles hearing tell of a forthcoming war between the Greeks and the Trojans. Achilles, despite being the greatest warrior of all time, knew that he could not survive this war. So the warrior had to choose,

Then lost is my return home, but my fame will be imperishable; or return and lost is my noble fame, but my long life will endure. (Il. 9.413-6; Watkins 1995; Mallory 1997; modification is my own)

Achilles chose to go, slew Hector, the greatest Trojan fighter of all outside the gates of Troy, and then found death by Paris' arrow. Even before Achilles' own time, we see the Greek obsession with eternal glory. A young Mycenaean woman around 1400 BCE named Aqitito "imperishable fame." Poems of Hesiod and Sappho speaking of immortal fame. Epigraphs on burials dedicated to their thirst for eternal glory (West 2007).

Or consider the Irish, who among the ancient Indo-Europeans travelled the furthest west, beyond the coast of what Herodotus called the edge of the world. The Irish hero Cu Chulainn is prophesied by a druid, and that while his life will be short, his name will live forever in the memory of Ireland (Mallory 1997). 

Travelling to the far east, we find the Indic people, children of the first Indo-Iranians who left Iran to settle India. In their oldest text, the Vedic Sanskrit, we find the blessing, "let your fame be imperishable" (3.77.26). Or the Old Norse, the North Germanic people whose Viking warriors terrorized Europe for several centuries, lived by the credo "I know one thing that never perishes, a dead man's fame." 

To the converse, we can see the damnation of being forgotten. The Roman state's greatest punishment damnatio memoriae, to be damned from memory. A horrifying curse as the state could control the very afterlife of a name. The tradition of damnatio memoriae is poorly attested, but it survived at least until the Rennaissance, when the Venetian doge Marino Faliero was condemned from memory after a failed coup attempt.

The power of a name is a lesson for us today. When I hear of mass murderers, I can't help but think of adopting damnatio memoriae for ourselves. For the teen that murdered dozens of children in Sandy Hook or the young adult at the Batman premier in Colorado (I shall not reward them by using their names here), we can choose to damn their names from memory, and end the media coverage of these disaster that concentrate on the murderer and their body count; we can focus on the names of the victims of their terror and give them the gift of eternal glory. The killers sought imperishable fame so give them the curse of oblivion.

The central Indo-European question lives today and the poets are still waiting for an answer. There is A. E. Housman, who writes "to an athlete dying young"

Now you will not swell the rout, of lads that wore their honours out. Runners whom renown outran, and the name died before the man.

Housman consols an ailing, sick athlete who is about to die after having won his village an important race. Though he wrote it in 1896, Housman unwittingly continues the tradition of the Greeks twenty-five hundred years before him, who established the Olympic Games so their youth could demonstrate their skills, win glory for their towns, and celebrate the memory of heroes past. The poet was the great weaver of fates. Entire empires and lives rose and fall in the name of our memories; thanks to the power of a name.

Continue to Part II.