The mythical power of knowing someone's "True Name"
April 17, 2019 8:43 PM   Subscribe

In some European myths, from Plato's Cratylus to Rumplestiltskin, knowing someone's True Name means having special knowledge about them, or power over them. What kind of powers are those? What about other cultures of the world?

I want to write something about this topic, and I don't want to use exclusively examples from an European/Christian tradition, which is my background and what I know about.

I'd also like to have a better granularity of examples of the power of knowing someone's True Name: Does it give dominion over that person? Ability to defend against them? Power to find them, or power to hide from them?

My starting point is the Wikipedia article, but I was hoping people in the MeFi community with a wider range of backgrounds could add to my research.

And to give an example of a question I have about a non-European culture: In the manga Death Note, people can be killed by writing their true name in a Shinigami's notebook, but what part of this is traditional Japanese culture and what part of this is the contemporary author's invention?
posted by kandinski to Religion & Philosophy (18 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Linguist Sasha Aikhenvald has written about her experiences with naming practices in Amazonia and Papua New Guinea, which you might find useful:
The magic of names: a fieldworker's perspective
You should be able to access the text from academia dot edu.
posted by nomis at 9:03 PM on April 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: A wizard of earths by Ursula le guin features peoples and creatures "true names" having power over them
posted by Dr. Twist at 9:09 PM on April 17, 2019 [5 favorites]

Best answer: That should be "a wizard of earthsea" my accursed phone autocorrected.
posted by Dr. Twist at 9:39 PM on April 17, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You can't overlook "True Names" by Vernor Vinge, which takes the concept of "true names give you power over someone" to cyberspace. It was written in 1981 and is considered a seminal proto-cyberpunk work.
posted by kindall at 9:56 PM on April 17, 2019 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: (Not to threadsit: Yes, Vinge's book and even the very title "True Names" gave me the idea for this thing I'm writing, I forgot to mention it in the post but thanks for bringing it up!)
posted by kandinski at 10:03 PM on April 17, 2019

Best answer: In some respects it's like sympathetic magic, i.e. “voodoo dolls” and other effigies, right? Though you're not doing something to the target by doing something to the name.
posted by XMLicious at 11:30 PM on April 17, 2019

Best answer: Wikipedia also has articles on Naming taboo, Taboo against naming the dead, and Names of God in Judaism that might be of interest to you.
posted by euphotic at 12:24 AM on April 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Someone once pointed out to me that your mother using your full name to yell at you when she's really angry is a contemporary version of this myth and I loved that.
posted by corvine at 1:47 AM on April 18, 2019 [41 favorites]

Best answer: TV Tropes: I Know Your True Name.
posted by zamboni at 4:20 AM on April 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: In Beloved by Toni Morrison, names have almost magical qualities, and they determine identity and character, and the power to name denotes ownership

Slaves have their real names stripped away, and are given dehumanising or inappropriate names. When freed, they rename themselves symbolically.
posted by Dwardles at 4:45 AM on April 18, 2019 [4 favorites]

Best answer: Mormons are given secret names at their endowment ceremonies. Women reveal these names to their husbands when they are sealed (married in the temple). I think I've read that this is so the husband can use to call them by name and wake them on the day of judgement, but I can't find anything on that right now, so maybe I'm misremembering.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:43 AM on April 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: "Island of the Blue Dolphins," a children's book by Scott O'Dell. "It is based on the true story of a Nicoleño Native American left alone for 18 years on San Nicolas Island during the 19th century," off the coast of California In it, revealing one's true name is considered possibly hugely consequential.
posted by goofyfoot at 11:37 PM on April 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Names are significant in the Jewish (and to some extent also in the Christian) Scriptures. Adam named all the creatures, over which he was given dominion. God renamed Abram/Abraham and Sarai/Sarah, as well as Jacob/Israel - although apparently that one didn't stick. Various Biblical figures said things like "Don't call me X, but Y". This doesn't seem to have been an actual renaming, but it implies that the misleading connotation of their original (?) names was significant and had to be corrected. A number of prophets either predicted what a child would be called and found significance in that name (e.g., Isaiah with Immanuel) or gave their own children symbolic names. I don't know what the significance of that was, but possibly it was locking a prophecy into reality through incorporation. Also, a lot of children were named because of something immediately relevant - "child of my sorrow", "child of my people", "See! A son!", etc. That's not magical-ish, but I include it for completeness.

In the Christian scriptures I can only think of Jesus renaming St Peter (originally Simon) and again, I'm not sure of the significance.
posted by Joe in Australia at 12:36 AM on April 22, 2019 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You also might be interested to read about taboo avoidance / taboo deformation, where something is given a new name because using its own name might "summon" it. The classic example is the word for bear in many languages is a euphemism, like 'the brown one' or 'honey eater'.
posted by Gordafarin at 3:07 AM on April 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Yes, and similarly many cultures have taboos on mentioning the names of deceased persons. The linked article gives sone examples. I feel that this avoidance speech implicitly ascribes power to the names that are replaced; there are consequences to using the wrong name.
posted by Joe in Australia at 4:08 AM on April 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Really old school Diné people do not give their names. They will show an ID card or even a Social Security card with their name on it. If a Dinè person passes away, their name is not spoken again after the burial. Their belongings used to be buried with them and the hogan was actually burned.
Dinè people have a stronger than average fear of disturbing the dead and of witchcraft.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 5:03 AM on April 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

Best answer: In Spirited Away by Studio Ghibli, the main character Chihiro has her name taken away by Yubaba and is given a new name, Sen. This makes her forget her previous name and gives Yubaba power over her, similar to western name magic. I'm not sure if this is common to Japanese myths, but it might be a starting point.
posted by ananci at 6:46 PM on April 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Best answer: kandinski: "what part of this is traditional Japanese culture and what part of this is the contemporary author's invention?"

It's hard to provide evidence for a negative hypothesis, so I may just be straight-up wrong, but I think this was just the author's invention.

Japanese names don't have any particular power, but they are fairly immutable.

The only way you can get your name changed, except in pretty extreme circumstances, is to get married. You can't just change your name because you feel like it, as you can in many Western countries. You also can't get your name changed to anything strange. would be absolutely impossible in Japan for a multitude of reasons.

Furthermore, pronouns aren't used very often to refer to other people. They exist, but while in English it would sound super unnatural if I were talking to you (kandinski) and I said "So, where does Kandinski live?" in Japanese, that would be the normal way to say it.

Also, there are no middle names, just a first and last name.

Because of all of these factors, there's not a lot of name secrecy; you're far more likely to know someone's full name. It's not like Western countries where you can know someone for years and never learn their full (real) name.
posted by Bugbread at 1:15 AM on April 25, 2019 [1 favorite]

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