The Moons of Jupiter

The other night by boyfriend and I were discussing the naming of children.  I have always loved the names of the Galilean Moons of Jupiter; Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto (for those of you less astronomically inclined).  Names are important.  They are the first step of self identity.  I’ve always liked the tendency in Native American culture to change your name as you pass developmental milestones.  Or if you participated in a significant event, for good or ill.

Interestingly, in prison, there exists a similar culture.  You’re often not known by your given name.  Officers are required to call you by your last name (first names are taboo under fraternization rules).  Your friends call you by your prison “nickname” which is bestowed upon you by unwritten, informal consensus.  There’s no time limit.  You could go years without a “nickname”.  But eventually, if you’re there long enough, you’ll receive one.  You don’t get a vote on what it is.

You enter prison without a history.  You never ask why someone is there.  Personal questions are frowned upon.  Everyone starts from their first day as a blank page.  It’s a microcosm of how our self identity is created, both by what we actively do, as well as how we are perceived by others.

Often we choose our relationships, or our jobs, or our hobbies, as the fundamental building blocks of our identity.  “I am a mother, I am a engineer, I am a birdwatcher”.  When perhaps we should be choosing how we interact others.  I am kind, I am considerate, I am humble.

Recently my grandmother passed away.  As I listened to her being eulogized by her friends and family it struck me that no one spoke about her job, or her clothes, or her hobbies.  They spoke about how much she loved her family.  And I thought that’s not only how I want to be remembered but how I want to live my life.

2 responses to “The Moons of Jupiter”

  1. I don’t know if this occurred to you, but the system of assigning nicknames in prison sounds identical to the system by which nicknames are assigned in high school.

    I too think it’s interesting how Native Americans would adjust a person’s name to match the sort of person the referenced was, or the sort of life that he or she lived. But do you think it also happens the other way? That the name given to someone can often have a significant impact on what becomes of them? (I mean aside from the obvious outliers, like naming a kid something outlandish like “Unicorn” or naming a girl “Thomas” and a boy “Sue”)


    • I’m sure the positive ones did. But some Native American names referenced negative moments as well. Like “He who runs from a fight”. So perhaps the negative enforcement encouraged the transgressor to change his ways. Like an early public shaming sentence. It’s an interesting thought.


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