E-mail From Copenhagen: Return of the Vikings

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Starting next April, Danish newborns will no longer be required to share a last name with either of their parents, following the adoption of a new law that allows a return to the Viking tradition of patronymics. Instead of maintaining a single last name across generations, each generation of children, in this system, is given a last name that consists simply of the father’s (or in these gender-egalitarian times, the mother’s) first name with the suffix “son” or “datter” (daughter) added on.

Patronymic nomenclature prevailed throughout the country from Viking days and until 1828, when it was banned by law in favor of family surnames as institutions like public education and conscription required that the authorities keep records on large numbers of people. The 1828 law simply froze the process, dictating that new generations would keep the patronymic of the head of the family at that time. The unfortunate result was that two thirds of Danes still carry a limited selection of names such as Nielsen, Jensen and Hansen. (Both the former and current prime ministers are called Rasmussen, and foreigners often wonder whether they are related. They aren't; they're just Danes.

All that may change, however, following the adoption of new liberal naming legislation to take effect next year that, among other things, allows parents to give their offspring a patronymic rather than a family surname. The only change from the days of horned hats and pillage is that parents can also choose to use the mother’s first name with the suffix “son” or “datter.”

Concern for multiculturalism also prompted drafters of the new law to allow for other exotic forms of nomenclature, including Tamil and Arabic patronymics and Slavonic traditions of gender-specific suffixes such as -ski for men and -ska for women.

What allowed the liberalization? Computerized public records that turn people into numbers rather than names. "Names are simply not so important anymore," says Michael Jorgensen, spokesman of the Department of Family Law. "The authorities have other ways of identifying people than by their name so there is no longer any reason to stick to rigid naming rules."

What has made patronymic names practical, however, doesn’t explain what made them fashionable. The revival of Nordic traditions may be a reaction to the cultural impact of globalization. Two years ago, some descendants of the Vikings took another major step into to the past when the pagan Asa religion was granted official recognition, granting tax benefits to those organizing the worship of Odin, Thor and other Norse gods. "It's all the same movement," says Senior Researcher Else Marie Kofod of the Danish Folklore Archives. "In these years, many old traditions are revived because there is a need for it. We live in a complex and material world where people have to create their own identity and perhaps find a new spirituality — and a way to do that is by searching for one's roots."

How far this nostalgia will go is hard to predict. Although the popularity of plays recreating legendary battles and love stories of the Viking era has been increasing in recent years, there are still only a few thousand Danes who attend full-moon services to Norse gods and goddesses and other pagan rituals. And no-one has yet begun building longboats to reclaim past glories. Chances are that the Danish Viking nostalgia will be satisfied with reviving patronymic names.