Say My Name, Say My Name

Names have a lot of power. Just try saying someone’s name when they’re across the room, and see how quickly they turn to look at you. The idea that names are somehow magical is something I first came across in Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea Trilogy. In this world, your parents initially name you, but when you reach a certain age a wizard reveals your True Name. The person will then typically take on another name for common usage. People in Earthsea only give their True Names to those they trust deeply, because it can give power over them. It’s linked to the concept of a language of magic, in this case the Old Speech in which all things are known by their True Names, and hence learning it is the basis of magic. It’s also what dragons speak in their day-to-day lives.

While this idea is used in a lot of places, it seems like it might have originally come from Egyptian mythology. There is, for instance, a myth about how Isis gained power over Ra by learning his real name.

As in Earthsea, these names are not often used. Names of gods are particularly tricky, and it’s pretty common that the name by which humans call their deities are not their actual names, which could be devastating if they were known. The power of the Name of God is part of Judaism, and is why it’s generally not used.

I’m not sure if “Yahweh” is considered to be God’s True Name, or if it’s a case where even an alias is too risky to utter aloud.

I know devout Jews will refer to God as “ha’Shem,” which literally means “the name.” Yes, that also presumably means that Noah named one of his sons “Name.” Maybe he filled out a form incorrectly. Commanding demons often requires knowing their names, and as such it’s also a big mistake to reveal your name to them.

This is presumably why a lot of demons have names that are so difficult to pronounce.

There are many variations on the True Name concept, some of them listed on the pages related to the subject on Wikipedia and TV Tropes. It can vary between a True Name being something of an inherently magic nature and the name you were given by your parents being sufficient. For instance, the Librarian of Unseen University in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series was turned into an orangutan in an early book, and since he doesn’t want to changed back to a human, he refuses to reveal his name.

This becomes a plot point in The Last Continent, and Rincewind presumably DOES know it. According to official material outside the main series, it’s Horace Worblehat. In the Bartimaeus Trilogy, wizards change their names upon studying magic so that demons can’t control them. The dragon Fafnir cursed Sigurd upon learning his true name while dying, and this might have influenced Bilbo Baggins’ decision not to tell Smaug his name. Rumpelstiltskin was also driven off when the princess learned his name, but he was the one stupid enough to incorporate it into a song.

I have to say that a lot of people know my birth name, and if I have a secret True Name it’s as much of a mystery to me as anyone else. That’s why I don’t deal with demons or dragons. Well, that, and they presumably don’t exist.

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9 Responses to Say My Name, Say My Name

  1. Yahweh (or some similar pronunciation) is how God identifies his name to Moses in the book of Exodus (and honest English translations reflect this). The Old Testament liberally used God’s name, along with his various titles, without compunction. It wasn’t until well after the destruction of the Second Temple that the Jews developed a superstition regarding the use of God’s name, substituting it for Ha’Shem. As you noted, however, the origins of not using God’s name are pagan and should have no place amongst Jews or Christians, yet Bible translations have followed that custom, substituting the divine name for titles.

    On a side note, this 1st rule of magic that Gaiman notes may explain why the Wicked Witches of Oz tend to be known by their titles only (and perhaps why Baum doesn’t name them). The exceptions are interesting: Mombi, who was once a Wicked Witch of the North, but appears to have no real interest in either reclaiming that title, or in hiding her name. The other is Singra, a Wicked Witch of the South, who had no real power in the South, since she could never take control with Glinda there (and I imagine that Princess Cozytoes presents another deterrent).

    I suspect that the East and West witches were raised under certain traditions and rules, some of which they still followed (such as naming conventions). Mombi is from a completely different peoples and traditions altogeter (as will be revealed in an upcoming story.)

    • Nathan says:

      I know Jared Davis has used the idea that witches can sell their names in exchange for power.

      • Yeah, he and I have discussed that, and it’s an interesting premise. And, of course, there’s the Oziana story, “Witches of the West,” in which that idea was brought to the fore. My only gripe with that story was the incorporation of names from completely different Oz universes. I don’t see how in Baum’s Oz there was ever an Allidap (Padilla spelled backwards), or an Evillene, or an Elphaba. I think universes can occasionally cross, but not haphazardly like that.

      • Nathan says:

        I think just about any name goes when it comes to Oz. I mean, this is a place with people named Kuma Party, Totter Off, and Peer Haps.

      • Don’t remind me! :) But in those cases, it’s not the name but the concept they represent. It’s no different than bringing MGM influences into the picture. Just as there are no ruby slippers, there’s no Elphaba in Baum’s Oz. But I’m admittedly more of a purist in that regard.

      • Nathan says:

        Yeah, I’m okay with references like those as long as they fit the universe. I’d probably even be okay with ruby slippers, as long as they were different from the Silver Shoes that Dorothy wore.

  2. Interesting post! A note on “elohim” — I read once that this Hebrew word is a plural word which indicates, not the singular word “God,” but the plural word “Gods.” Scholars identify the Genesis story in the Old Testament as a mashup of a couple of different judaic creation myths and it is speculated that the part which refers to “elohim” is from a time predating monotheism. Similarly, there are references to the Divine Feminine as a being separate from the male Yahweh. These nuances are not clear to us reading the English translation because these words are either not translated, or not translated accurately.

    • Nathan says:

      I remember hearing about some artifact that associated Yahweh with Asherah, more commonly the wife of one of the Baals. Parts of the Bible do seem to indicate polytheism, quite likely holdovers from before Judaism became strictly monotheistic.

    • That’s a common misconception, but in fact Elohim is plural majesty, and is correctly translated with singular verbs. It’s an ancient usage, but medieval kings and queens borrowed from it, so that it’s not uncommon to hear a royal speak of herself as “we.”

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