Kent places special significance on the role of naming and how names reflect and inspire meaning. Names in Icelandic culture have different significance than names in most English-speaking cultures, and Kent even goes so far as to preface her novel with an explanation of the Icelandic naming system. The Icelandic naming system, unlike the Western European one, is patronymic, meaning that the last name of each person is taken from their father’s first name. Notably, this reflects both the patriarchal structure of 19th-century Iceland and Iceland’s cultural distinctiveness from mainland Europe.
Not only does the system of naming people clearly set Iceland apart culturally, but names for things in general are clearly extremely significant for Kent’s characters. At one point in the novel, Agnes recites the names of all the places she has lived, and when she gets to Natan’s farm “Illugastadir”, she feels disturbed, believing that “the name is everything that went wrong.” Clearly, Agnes has the sense that the name of the place is not only a word, but also the essence of the place itself and the pain she associates with it—the name Illugastadir is, itself, everything wrong. At another point in the novel, Natan asks Agnes what the “name” is for the “space between the stars,” and when Agnes responds that there is no name, Natan implores her to invent one. Agnes tells Natan the name is “the soul asylum,” and Natan says that that is the same as “heaven.” Agnes objects to the idea that they are synonymous, highlighting how different names for the same concept can radically change meaning or nuance, and how distinctions in naming matter.
In turn, the use of certain names for people becomes the subject of discomfort and scrutiny. For example, when Agnes first arrives at Kornsá, Margrét thinks it feels wrong to call such a violent criminal by a Christian name. Clearly, Margrét finds something disturbing about the use of a “Christian” name—a given, religiously linked name—for someone that Margrét sees as entirely immoral. As she mulls over the best way to address Agnes, Margrét finally concludes that the best name for Agnes is no name at all, and only silence. This silence, in a sense, denies Agnes of her personhood, and even refuses to acknowledge her existence. In fact, throughout the book, characters address Agnes through silence rather than by actually calling her a name, so uncomfortable are they with using her Christian name because she is an alleged murderer. As the execution draws nearer, Agnes worries about the silence surrounding her name and thinks that if no one says her name she will be forgotten. Although this seems to stem from the characters’ sense of morality and their respect for Christianity, it also smacks of deep superstition—as if by calling Agnes “Agnes,” they would be bringing on bad luck.
The silence surrounding Agnes’s name is not the only place that this superstition comes in, and there is plenty of mythology and rumor surrounding Natan’s name as well. Natan’s name is rumored to reveal his association with the devil, an association that people also suspect because of his relative wealth and his lack of interest in religion. According to the stories, Natan’s mother named Natan after Satan, changing only the letter “S” to “N.”
Clearly, names for Kent’s characters do not only possess symbolic meaning, but rather represent the essence of the named thing’s being and its relationship to God and morality. As characters discuss the meaning of names, evoke emotions with them, and use or refuse to use them, they reinforce the fact that names in Kent’s novel contain a spiritual power unto themselves.
Names, Superstition, and Christianity ThemeTracker
Names, Superstition, and Christianity Quotes in Burial Rites
I imagine, then, that we are all candle flames…fluttering in the darkness and the howl of the wind, and in the stillness of the room I hear footsteps, awful coming footsteps, coming to blow me out and send my life up away from me…I will vanish into the air and the night. They will blow us all out, one by one, until it is only their own light by which they see themselves. Where will I be then?
As he traveled over the north peninsula with its thin lip of ocean on the horizon, the clouds began to clear and the soft red light of the late June sun flooded the pass…The dread that Tóti had felt so firmly lining his stomach dissipated as he fell into a quiet appreciation of the countryside before him.
We are all God’s children, he thought to himself. This woman is my sister in Jesus, and I, as her spiritual brother, must guide her home… “I will save her,” he whispered.
How can I say what it was like to breathe again? I felt newborn. I staggered in the light of the world and took deep gulps of fresh sea air. It was late in the day: the wet mouth of the afternoon was full on my face. My soul blossomed in that brief moment as they led me out-of-doors. I fell, my skirts in the mud, and I turned my face upwards as if in prayer. I could have wept from the relief of light.
I prefer a story to a prayer. They whipped me for that at this farm, Kornsá, once, when I was young and fostered out to watch over the home field. The farmer Björn did not like that I knew the sagas better than him. You’re better off keeping company with the sheep, Agnes. Books written by man, not God, are faithless friends and not for your kind.
To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things…It’s not fair. People claim to know you through the things you’ve done, and not by sitting down and listening to you speak for yourself. No matter how much you try to live a godly life, if you make a mistake in this valley, it’s never forgotten…Who was she really?…she made mistakes and others made up their minds about her. People around here don’t let you forget your misdeeds. They think them the only things worth writing down.
“No such thing as truth,” Agnes said, standing up. Tóti stood up also…“There is truth in God,” he said, earnestly, recognizing an opportunity to do his spiritual duty. “John, chapter eight, verse thirty-two: ‘And ye…’”
“‘Shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.’ Yes, I know. I know,” Agnes said. She bundled her knitting things together… “Not in my case, Reverend Thorvardur,” she called to him. “I’ve told the truth and you can see for yourself how it has served me.”
He built his church from wives’ tales and the secret language of weather; saw the blinking eye of God in the habits of the sea, the swooping merlin, the gnashing teeth of his ewes. When he caught me knitting on the doorstep he accused me of lengthening the winter. “Do not think nature is not watchful of us,” he warned me. “She is as awake as you and I.” He smiled at me. Passed the smooth breadth of his palm over my forehead. “And as secretive.”
I explained that I had begun to dig a grave for Mamma. Uncle Ragnar frowned and told me I shouldn’t call her Mamma, and wasn’t I ashamed of myself, thinking to bury her near the doorstep where everyone would tread on her, and not in the holy ground of a churchyard.
Tóti nodded, and slowly picked up the swan feather… “You mean to make an example of her,” he said quietly.
“I mean to deliver God’s justice here on earth,” Blöndal said, frowning. “I mean to honor the authorities who have appointed me by fulfilling my duty as a lawkeeper.”
…“I hear that you have appointed Gudmundur Ketilsson as executioner.”
…“I do not have to explain my decisions to you, Reverend. I am not accountable to parish priests. I am accountable to Denmark. To the King…We are not her to discuss my performance. We are here to discuss yours.”
When I was sixteen years old I dreamt that I was walking barefoot in a lava field…In every direction there was nothing but rock and snow, and great chasms and crack in the ground…Just when I thought I would die from fear, a young man appeared …and even though I was still terrified, I had his hand in mine, and it was a comfort. Then suddenly, in my dream, I felt the ground give way beneath my feet…and I fell into a chasm…I was dropped into the earth, buried in silence, and it was unbearable, and then I woke.
She said Natan had started giving himself some airs, calling himself Lyngdal, not Ketilsson, though neither of us could work out why—it was a strange sort of name to have, not Icelandic in the slightest. María thought it was probably to make himself out to be a Dane, and I wondered that he was allowed to change his name at all. María told me that men might do as they please, and that they are all Adams, naming everything under the sun.
“What’s the name for the space between stars?”
“No such name.”
“Make one up.”
I thought about it. “The soul asylum.”
“That’s another way of saying heaven, Agnes.”
“No, Natan. It’s not.”
Agnes Jónsdóttir. I never thought it could be that easy to name yourself…Let everyone know whose bastard I truly am. Agnes Jónsdóttir. She sounds like the woman I should have been…She could even be the sister of Sigurlaug and Steinvör Jónsdóttir. Margrét’s daughter. Born blessed under a marriage. Born into a family that would not be ripped apart by poverty. Agnes Jónsdóttir would not have been so foolish as to love a man who spent his life opening veins, mouths, legs…She would have been assured of a place in heaven. She would have believed in heaven.
“What do you do with the kit after you kill its parents?”
“Some hunters leave it there to die. They are no use for market— the skins are too small.”
“What do you do?”
“I stove their heads in with a rock.”
“That is the only decent thing to do.”
“Yes. To leave them is cruelty.”
What else is God good for other than a distraction from the mire we’re all stranded in? We’re all shipwrecked. All beached in a peat bog of poverty. When was the last time I even attended church? Not while I was at Illugastadir…Perhaps things would have been different if Natan had let me go to church at Tjörn. I might have made friends there. I might have met a family to turn to when it all became twisted…But he didn’t let me go, and there was no other friend, no light to head towards in that wintered landscape.
I am crying and my mouth is open and filled with something, it is choking me and I spit it out. On the ground is a stone, and I look back at Margrét, and see that she did not notice. “The stone was in my mouth,” I say.
“Will they drown me?” I ask, and someone shakes her head. It is Lauga. “Agnes,” she says, and I say, “That is the first time you have called me by my name,” and that is it, she collapses as though I have stabbed her in the stomach.