Sîn in Babylon

Julia Giessler investigates name giving in the networks of the Sîn-ilī family who lived in Babylon during the 6th century BC. She uses digital tools to track the use of the theophoric element Sîn in names of family members and their friends. Here she gives an insight to her project.

Traditional Babylonians tend to bear names that express a preference for one of the many deities in the pantheon. Nanāya-ibni meaning “(the goddess) Nanāya has created” and Arad-Nabû “servant of (the god) Nabû” are typical examples of this age-old custom. When bestowing such a name on a new-born child, the choice for a specific god or goddess could be determined by the parents’ individual preferences, by local trends, and also by the child’s gender. If it’s a girl, the parents will in any event choose a goddess as theophoric name element, but never a god. This is striking, as boys’ names can contain references to both male and female deities. Names of men living in the city of Babylon during the 6th century BC can even mirror their birth-order within the family, as has been illustrated by Heather Baker. Within the families studied by her, first-born sons are for instance most likely to bear names referring to Marduk, because their role as main heir of the paternal household resembles Marduk’s supremacy in the Babylonian pantheon of this time. I was fascinated by this custom and started wondering, whether the choice of a specific theophoric element actually mirrored religious preferences, whether it could influence social group formation processes, and how name giving patterns are followed within families, whose lineage names highlight uncommon gods. The Sîn-ilī family is a perfect example, as the moon god had his cult centre in the city of Ur, located more than 200 kilometres away from Babylon. Though prominent in names over there, he had an offbeat position in the capitol city, where the Sîn-ilī family was living. 

For my investigation of the name element Sîn, I am using the visualization and exploration software Gephi. This program enables me to extend the scope of my project beyond the family itself. By filtering ego networks of family members, I can check on the names of their social surrounding too. Gephi even differentiates between casual and close friends when calculating the frequency of specific theophoric name elements. It is a very powerful tool for analysing huge data sets like this. The records of the Sîn-ilī family constitute one of the largest private archives of this era, and the prosopographical information found therein would hardly be manageably with traditional text work only. We are talking about more than 800 individual persons, who are somehow affiliated with this family. Luckily, I could import most of the personal data from the online database Prosobab that was created to advance studies on the archival material of Babylonia. I only had to modify the data it in a way that allows Gephi to assign each individual to the deity mentioned in his or her name, before getting started. It was exciting to see how the social network of the Sîn-ilī family was formed into a graph by running the layout algorithm in Gephi. And after filtering some ego networks I was surprised to see that the use of the name element Sîn even increases in the social surrounding of this family. Although the family itself assimilates to the naming customs of the capitol city, they kept close contact to friends who include the moon god in their names. 

In a follow-up study, I would like to apply this method to other private archives of this time, in order to compare the statistical distribution of theophoric name elements in the networks of the Sîn-ilī family with those of another group. The Egibi family would be particularly interesting, because they were contemporaries of, but not related to the Sîn-ilīs in Babylon. Thus, their naming preferences could serve as a comparative value.