Still on my colonial history kick, I’m reading Jill Lepore’s The Name of War, about the worst conflict in early American history, King Philip’s War of 1675-76 (although, as she says, “Its very name, each word in its title—’King,’ ‘Philip’s,’ ‘War’—has been passionately disputed”). I checked it out of the Athenaeum because I couldn’t resist the title of Chapter 1, “Beware of Any Linguist,” and I’m glad I did—I’ve found all kinds of goodies just in the introduction, “What’s in a Name?” The first one I want to share is this discussion of the name of the eponymous Wampanoag leader:
It is possible that Philip called himself “Philip” when addressing the English and “Metacom” when talking with Indians. But it seems more likely that he simply abandoned the name Metacom after 1660. After all, Philip was raised in a culture in which people commonly adopted new names, leaving old names behind. Edward Winslow had observed in 1624, “All their names are significant and variable, for when they come to the state of men and women, they alter them according to their deeds or dispositions.” For just this reason, it is possible that Philip renamed himself during the war, to mark a new stage in his life, but surely he would not have returned to Metacom, the name of his youth. That no record of Philip’s new name survives should come as no surprise. Those who knew Philip by the name he went by at the time of his death, in August 1676, would not have uttered it: a strict naming taboo prohibited it. As Roger Williams had reported, “the naming of their dead Sachims, is one ground of their warres”; in 1665 Philip himself had traveled to Nantucket to kill an Indian who had spoken the name of his deceased father, Massasoit. If Philip took another name during the war, it has not survived. (Although one small, uncorroborated bit of evidence suggests that he may have been renamed “Wewesawamit.”) And, since he seems to have initially taken “Philip” in earnest, calling him “Metacom” today is no truer to his memory, especially because “Metacom” became a became a popular substitute for “Philip” only in the early nineteenth century, when white playwrights, poets, and novelists sought to make the war sound more authentically, and romantically, Indian.
I love this kind of detailed discussion. And something that completely delighted me was discovering the reason he was given the name Philip when he and his brother asked the Plymouth Court for new names after their father died:
But, in 1660, naming Metacom and Wamsutta “Philip” and “Alexander” after the ancient leaders of Macedonia was most likely a reference (oblique to us but obvious to them) to the seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, an engraving of an Indian mouthing the words, “Come Over and Help Us,” and itself an echo of Acts 16:9, in which the Apostle Paul sees a vision of a Macedonian begging him, “Come over into Macedonia, and help us.” Plymouth authorities, like their Massachusetts counterparts, saw Indians as pagan Macedonians who, at heart, were desperate for the light of the gospel.
Philip and Alexander… Macedonia… Of course! You’ve got to know your Bible to understand the thinking of those learned Puritans.
Incidentally, you can see a reproduction of the Bay Colony seal accompanying a talk that Jill Lepore gave at the 1998 Advocating Massachusetts History Forum.