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a plaque of a naked woman (or godess) standing with her hands clasped in front of her stomach

An Old Babylonian terracotta in the Louvre, Paris

In the past few weeks I underwent a kind of Inanna’s Descent with the help of some dear friends who were kind enough not to point and laugh as I did what had to be done. Another thing which helped was classical music, and listening to my favourite radio station gave me an excuse to talk about ancient history.

Papponymy is the practice of naming a son after their paternal grandfather, so that names alternate between generations. Many ancient cultures sometimes practiced it, just like Anglos today sometimes name a son after the father. The satraps of Dascyleium / Hellespontine Phrygia included a Pharnabazus son of Pharnaces son of Pharnabazus. If you know to look for papponymy, you can use it as a clue in guessing family relationships and how many generations stand between individuals who happen to be mentioned in surviving writing. If the names are the same, one or three generations are probably missing, if different then two or four.

Listening to that radio station, I learned about a family which practised papponymy in the 20th century:

An ancient historian would call these Dmitri II Shostakovich, Maxim Shostakovich, and Dmitri III Shostakovich (Dmitri I was the composer’s father) because ancient historians value genealogy and umambiguity and have learned about regnal numbers. But in ordinary circumstances, nobody is likely to confuse the grandson and the grandfather.

The Shostakovich family also shows why “sometimes practiced” is important. Most families don’t have a simple rule for choosing names, and even if they do a death, taboo, or an unusual marriage can throw it aside. There were times in China when using a character in the emperor’s dynastic name was taboo for commoners; some cultures are forbidden to name a dead person. But when you are trying to reconstruct family trees, it can be good to know that generations often alternate names. And as Xenophon teaches, networks of gift-exchange and kinship last when we have given up our tiara and our necklace and our loincloth.