Although the name “Hel” hails back to ancient Norse mythology, Iceland’s Naming Committee believes it would only cause problems for a child so named. RÚV reports that a couple who are registered in the Ásatrú Society, a pagan religious organisation that honours the ancient Norse gods, put in a request with the Naming Committee to name their daughter Hel. In Norse mythology, Hel is the daughter of Loki, who rules over the underworld of the same name and receives a portion of the dead.
While the Naming Committee agreed that the name is in harmony with Icelandic grammar and does not conflict with the language, they ruled that the name could cause social difficulties for the child. It is also for this reason that Icelanders cannot name their children Skessa (a female troll) or Þrjótur (villain), despite those names also being grammatically declinable.
Iceland’s Naming Committee oversees which new names may be added to the Icelandic lexicon. There are a number of criteria that prospective names need to fulfill, such as declining in accordance with Icelandic grammar, or having a historical precedent in Icelandic archives or literature.
The Committee has its share of supporters and detractors, but is now just one round of voting away from becoming a thing of the past. A new bill from the Ministry of the Interior proposes a number of sweeping changes to Iceland’s naming laws. Amongst the conditions in Iceland’s current naming laws that would be struck down if the bill passes are the following:
- The condition that the name be able to abide by Icelandic grammar.
- The condition that male children have male names and female children have female names.
- The condition that first names not be “embarrassing.”
- Restrictions on the use of family names (instead of patronyms).
For their part, the Committee have strong objections to many of these changes. They have cautioned, for example, that without laws about what are boys’ names and girls’ names, “it would be possible to name a boy Þorgerður [a female name] and a girl Sigmundur [a male name].” They add that, in the event the bill passes into law, “it will be impossible to avoid disputes that arise over names and their registration.” The bill as it is now states that “if a minister, head of a religious organisation or the National Registry believes that a first or middle name violates the law, it will be referred to the [Minister of the Interior].”
Former Reykjavík mayor Jón Gnarr (born Jón Gunnar Kristinsson) has long been an opponent of the Naming Committee, as they have repeatedly blocked his attempts to legally change his name to the one by which he has been known for years. Jón managed to get around this in 2015, by having his name legally changed in the US. If the bill goes through, the next generation of Icelandic parents might not have to travel so far.