Wafubeh! In this article, we will provide a detailed history as to the origin of the titles Bey and El. We would like to thank everyone for their support and wish you all the best in your endeavors. In a Wikipedia article under the title Bey, we find this definition of the term:

“Bey is a Turkish title for chieftain, traditionally applied to the leaders of small tribal groups. In historical accounts, many Turkish, other Turkic and Persian leaders are titled Bey, Beg, Bek, Bay, Baig or Beigh. They are all the same word with the simple meaning of “lord”.”

Historically, the title “Bey” is not limited to Arabic thought. An example of this can be seen in the legends of the infamous Samurai. Those who are of Japanese heritage, or heavily involved in martial arts, have noted that the title “Bei,” which derives from Bey, is found in the names of many famous Samurai. In the book, Japanese Loyalism Reconstructed: Yamagata Daini’s Ryushi Shinron of 1759 by Bob Tadashi Wakabayashi, explains the following on page 71:

“In olden days, townsmen and peasants did not have suffixed names with “emon” or “bei.” But ever since the era of upheaval and civil war, many samurai who fell on hard times concealed their lineages and lived among nonaristorats. As a result, their custom of naming gradually spread to commoners. “Emon” { gate guard} and “bei” { middle palace guard} are office titles and thus should not be suffixed to the names of townsmen or peasants.”

In the work of Bob Tadashi, we find a direct quote from Nishikawa Joken, who explained how imperial office titles became incorporated into personal names. This practice exists in both African and Japanese cultures. The Japanese term “emon” is very similar to the Arabic “iman.”  In any event, the title “Bey” seemed to denote someone who had a certain lineage, possibly to a royal house. The Turks in World History by Carter V. Findley gives us a lead into the deeper aspects of the origin of the title Bey. On page 45 Findley states:

“Many elements of non-Turkic origin also became a part of Turk statecraft. Important terms, for example, often came from non-Turkic languages, as in the cases of khatun for the ruler’s wife and beg for “aristocrat,” both terms of Sogdian origin and ever since in common use in Turkish.”

As was mentioned at the start of our discussion, and can be seen from the material covered thus far, beg is commonly known as the title Bey. However, the title “Bey” is not of Turkish origin, but Sogdian. It is derived from the Sogdian term baga, which means divine. H.S. Nyberg brings this point to light in the work Monumentum:

“Thus it was on the basis of written evidence that the majority of the native Sogdian divinities were assumed to be Iranian … Baga as an individual god, or the appellative Bag, “god”,

The title “Bey” in its original context means a divine being, or a god/goddess. Does the question now remain as to what sort of deities are we referring to here? How did the custom of attaching a deity’s name to one’s own person begin?

The idea of attaching a “divine” title to one’s name is a very ancient custom. H. P. Blavatsky, in the classic work, Isis Unveiled, states:

We find (a) the priests assuming the name of the gods they served; (b) the “Dragons” held throughout all antiquity as the symbols of Immortality and Wisdom, of secret Knowledge and of Eternity; and (c) the hierophants of Egypt, of Babylon, and India, styling themselves generally the “Sons of the Dragon” and “Serpents”; thus the teachings of the Secret Doctrine are thereby corroborated…. The Assyrian priest bore always the name of his god,” says Movers.”

 People who held positions of authority in the ancient world were often named after deities, or some quality of a specific deity. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome by Michael Gagarin, states:

 “Some gods’ names were used unchanged as personal names, but probably not by the Greeks themselves before the late Hellenistic period, this phenomena seems to be most widespread in Asia Minor,”

The names of gods were included into personal names, as it was believed that in so doing one would be protected by the said deity, or could easily cultivate the energies of a certain divine phenomenon. In its description of ancient Egyptian naming customs, Stephen Quirke, in a book entitled Religion in Ancient Egypt, states:

“The connection between hometown and its cult and personal name can be confirmed from other sources. Other worker name lists show a similar preponderance of individuals named after their local god, so placed under their protection. From the same period as the Lahun lists, a legal document from Waset names runaways in Southern Upper Egypt town by town, and here again, repeatedly, men from a particular place are named after the main deity of that place.”

Based on some of the information that we have considered so far, is it possible that the titles Bey and El are originally the names of deities from the remote past? There are many sources that define the title “bey” as lord. Bey originated from the term Baal. Baal is also a title meaning lord and El loosely translates divine being. In an online article, published by Encyclopedia Mythica, under the topic Baal, we read:

“Baal was common a name of small Syrian and Persian deities. Baal is still principally thought of as a Canaanite fertility deity. The Great Baal was of Canaan. He was the son of El, the high god of Canaan. The cult of Baal celebrated annually his death and resurrection as a part of the Canaanite fertility rituals. These ceremonies often included human sacrifice and temple prostitution. ..Baal, literal meaning is “lord,” in the Canaanite pantheon was the local title of fertility gods. Baal never emerged as a rain god until later times when he assumed the special functions of each…. Baal was the son of El, or Dagon, an obscure deity linked by the Hebrews with the Philistine city of Ashdod. Dagon was perhaps associated with the sea, as a coin found in the vicinity portrays a god having a fish tail. …Since the Phoenicians also were superb shipbuilders the religion and cults of Baal spread throughout the Mediterranean world. The worship of Baal was found among the Moabites and their allies Midianites during Moses’ time. It was also introduced to the Israelites.”

The idea of adding the title Bey and El at the end of one’s name is quite ancient and began with the veneration of the god Baal. The Storm-god in the Ancient Near East by Alberto Ravinell Whitney Green, states:

“In the early Late Bronze Age, theophoric personal names with either El or Baal were equally divided among the people of Ugarit….By the end of the Late bronze and into the Iron Age, however, Baal names vastly outnumbered El names throughout Canaan.”

One example of the honorific title of Baal being included in a name can be found with the military leader Hannibal. This point is clearly stated in the book, Hannibal: The Military Biography of Rome’s Greatest Enemy by Richard A. Gabriel, where we read:

“The Carthaginians were a religious people who worshipped the Canaanite god Baal Hammon, the chief deity of Phoenician Tyre, the city that had founded Carthage as a colony around 814 BCE. The Carthaginians were infamous in antiquity for their intense religious beliefs and rituals, which were reflected in the names often given to Carthaginian children. Unlike the Greek and Roman names, the Carthaginians’ were theophoric ones of great religious significance. The names of Hannibal’s father Hamilcar (“favored by Melkart”), his brother Hasdrubal (“favored by Baal”), and Hannibal himself, whose name means “he whom Baal helps,” were all theophoric names. Carthaginian children were given sacred names in the hope of obtaining special protection from the god’s wrath.”

Ba’al is a term that can refer to a god and a human official. In the Wikipedia article entitled, Baal, we read:

“Baal (/ˈbəl/), properly Baʿal was a title and honorific meaning “lord” in the Northwest Semitic languages spoken in the Levant during antiquity…..The title baʿal was a synonym in some contexts of the Hebrew adon (“Lord”) and adonai (“My Lord”) still used as aliases of the Lord of Israel Yahweh. According to some scholars, the early Hebrews did use the names Baʿal (“Lord”) and Baʿali (“My Lord”) in reference to the Lord of Israel, just as Baʿal farther north designated the Lord of Ugarit or Lebanon.”

We find use of the title “Bey” in how the title Ba’al is pronounced in itself. The Dictionary.Reference.Com website states in their definition of the term Baal:

“Ba·al [bey-uhl, beyl]   noun, plural Ba·al·im  [bey-uh-lim, beylim]…any of numerous local deities among the ancient Semitic peoples, typifying the productive forces of nature and worshiped with much sensuality.”

We also find the use of the term “Bey” in the Theosophical Movement. An example of this can be seen in Theosophical avatar Serapis Bey. Serapis Bey is considered to be from the “realm of Bey,” hence the name, wherein is his dwelling place.

Bey is a popular surname of the Roma people and legendary figures in its folklore.

In Ninzuwu culture,  Bey represents the combined power of the sun and moon.

Sometimes a Bey was a territorial vassal within a khanate, as in each of the three zuzes under the Khan of the Kazakhs.

The variation Beg, Baig or Bai, is still used as a family name or a part of a name in South and Central Asia as well as the Balkans. In Slavic-influenced names, it can be seen in conjunction with the Slavic -ov/-ović/ev suffixes meaning “son of”, such as in Kurbegović, Izetbegović, Abai Kunanbaev.

The title is also used as an honorific by members of the Moorish Science Temple of America and the Moorish Orthodox Church.

Bey is also a surname often appearing among Jews of Sephardic lineage.

Bey is also used in colloquially in Urdu-speaking parts of India – and its usage is similar to “chap” or “man”. When used aggressively, it is an offensive term.

2 thoughts on “The Meaning and Origins of the Surnames Bey and El

  1. Very informative article. Thanks for the clarification!

  2. Sdoe Bar El Yesuwah Bey says:

    This is a great read. I feel it is important to know the origin to names, surnames and honorific titles. European culture has used so many names to confuse the true natives of Amerex(AMERIKA).

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