What’s in a Name?

In the distant past, the first name was not only regarded as a means of identification and differentiation, but also was believed to be endowed with magical properties containing the person’s soul essence. A name was seen as an integral part of the person who bore it. Therefore, the choice of a name was not only important, but most of all, it was essential not to reveal it to anyone. To know the name of someone rendered the hapless person into one’s power. The same principle also applied to gods, angels, and demons. To have known someone or something’s true name and its pronunciation and use was to be able to tap its power. 

Around the world, amongst most societies, the fear of keeping one’s real name secret can be traced to some or other period in that society’s history. Amongst the American Indian tribes from the shores of the Atlantic to the Pacific, a person’s real name was always concealed. Famous American Indians such as Hiawatha of the Mohawk and Pocahontas of the Powhatan are only known to us by their assumed names. Taboos on speaking one’s name still exist amongst some North and South American Indians. Such taboos are also found as far as the Philippines and New Guinea. 

All Australian Aborigines have a secret and personal name given by the elders at birth, known only to the initiated, because a stranger knowing the secret name otherwise would have power over the individual. In Aboriginal society, there were secret names, personal names, nicknames, kin names, age-status terms, terms of social status, and terms for membership of social divisions. Naming an Aboriginal child was by no means a matter for the parents alone, and near and distant kin were consulted. The name chosen was regarded as a gift, bestowed as if it were a valuable object. As in other parts of the world, the name was regarded as part of the child’s personality, not to be treated lightly. The tie between the child and someone else carrying the same name always remained a special one, and when one of them died the name went out of use, and the other was called by a different name. 

To this day, a child’s real name is concealed in Abyssinian society and a nickname used instead so that the maleficent spirit called Bouda cannot do harm to one whose name he does not know.25 

In ancient Egypt, the naming ceremony was conducted in secret, as power could be exercised over an individual by uttering his personal name. Thus, the ancient Egyptians considered it necessary to have two names: a ‘great name’ and a ‘little name’. The great, true name was kept secret, as it was a part of the person’s spiritual being, and the little name was used instead. The great name was uttered with magical spells to open the way and secure the spirit’s welfare to the land of the dead. To neutralise the powers of demons assailing the spirit on its way to the land of the dead, one needed to know and pronounce their names. In the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the names of demons, which might come on the spirit in its passage through the underworld, are explicitly given. Hence, the soul of the deceased says: ‘Not let be done evil to me in [this] land, […] because I, I know the name of these gods who are in it26 […]’. 

We find the same belief in medieval Europe, where it was believed that in cases of possession, a demon could only be driven out by calling it by its specific name, according to the ancient principle that to know the name of a being is to have power over it. 

As indicated, the belief in a secret name that had universal power was widespread in ancient times. This also applied in a religious context. Extreme reverence for a principal god’s name is reflected in ancient Egyptian religion. For instance, the Egyptian sun-god’s secret name is only revealed once to his daughter Isis.27 

The deity of the Hebrews was referred to by various terms such as Adonai or Elohim, but the personal name was considered so sacred that it was rarely pronounced aloud. It was called the Tetragrammaton, or word of four letters, ‘YHVH’, which was considered to mean, ‘I am that I am’.28 Because there are no printed vowels in Hebrew, and because the name was so rarely spoken, only the high priests were entitled to use it in the Temple’s innermost sanctuary once a year on the most sacred of days, the Day of Atonement. No traditional pronunciation could be followed, and to this day, the word’s pronunciation remains unclear. 

In the mystical discipline of the Indian Tantric tradition, where not Hebrew, but Sanskrit, is regarded as the primal language of the universe, pronouncing the name of god was thought to make him appear and his force to operate, because the name was the audible form of the god. 

Similarly, the early Celts, Greeks, and Romans did not divulge their gods’ names. Here, it must be remembered that the classical gods and goddesses were honoured by a variety of local names. One main reason for the secrecy surrounding the names of protective deities was the ever-present fear that if the enemy knew a local deity’s name, the enemy could then invoke that deity and reverse its loyalties. In this context, the Roman scholar, historian, and naturalist, Pliny the Elder, explains: ‘It was the practice before laying siege to a town, for Roman priests to call forth the place’s patron deity and promise him the same or more lavish worship under the Romans. And it is agreed that this is why the patron deity of Rome has been kept secret, for fear that any enemy should act in a similar manner’.29 The Romans even went so far as to memorise the names of enemy gods, conducting ceremonies known as elicio, where power from the enemy’s god was drawn out and directed as a negative flow at the people they were attacking. 

The power of names is, of course, a popular theme in traditional literature, and we are all familiar with Jacob Grimm’s tale of Rumpelstiltskin. As in all folk and fairy tales, when the enchanter’s name becomes known, he loses his power. 

During the witch-craze era in Europe, it was popularly believed that all cats turned into witches after seven years. Therefore, in days gone by, many people would show reluctance to discuss family matters in the presence of a cat, just in case it happened to be a witch in disguise. Often, cats were marked with crosses to prevent them from turning into witches. But, the most effective solution was to simply give one’s cat another name, a name only known to select family members, in the belief that a witch could not take on the cat’s body if she did not know its name. 

A Jewish custom of bygone days, sometimes observed in the event of a serious life-threatening illness, was to change the name of the person close to death. It was thought that by changing the name, the person’s fate would also be changed. Because the ‘angel of death’ did not know the person’s new name, he or she could not be taken away.

In the early 1900s, calling a child by its name before baptism, or even letting the name be known to anyone except the parents was still considered unlucky in European countries. Often, only the father chose the child’s name and kept it secret from everyone, even the child’s mother, until whispering it to the nominated godmother at the baptismal font, believing that public knowledge of the child’s name exposed the hapless child to great risk. Until the Christian Church had sanctified the child’s name, evil forces in spells and binds could use the name.

The fear of voicing names, speaking of sickness or death, and referring to catastrophes, is probably responsible for the birth of euphemisms in all languages. The chief objective of euphemisms was to protect one from evil influences by not speaking of these influences directly, which invited their presence. To mention a name was believed to summon the owner. The evocative power of speech was much feared, especially concerning occult forces. We still say jokingly: ‘Talk of the devil and tread on its tail!’ as it was once believed that by the mere mention of him, the devil appeared. Derived from the Greek, the term ‘euphemism’ means to ‘speak favourably’ of a person, object, or situation. For instance, in the days when fairies were feared, they were referred to as the ‘little people’ or ‘the kindly ones’. The ancient Greeks called the spirits of vengeance by the name Eumenides, meaning ‘the kindly ones’. By not mentioning the real name of the spirits of vengeance, they were not aware of being discussed and hence kept away.

Amongst the Australian Aborigines, the use of a dead person’s name is forbidden, and all knowledge of that person, except perhaps in the nearest relatives’ secret reverie, disappears. When someone dies, the Aborigines refer to the relatives of the deceased as having bad luck. Because names are not mentioned, and the word ‘death’ is never used, it is all done indirectly. The name of the dead person is not spoken for some time following a death, as is common throughout Aboriginal Australia. Anyone with the same name as the deceased has to cease using that name. George Taplin, in The Folklore, Manners, Customs and Languages of the South Australian Aborigines, describes how, amongst the tribes of the Lower Darling, the name for ‘water’ was changed nine times in about five years because eight men bearing the name of ‘water’ had died in that period.30 The reason the name of a departed person was never mentioned was because of the belief that should the name be mentioned, the spirit of the deceased would appear immediately. This is reminiscent of a quote from the Egyptian Book of the Dead: ‘To speak the name of the dead makes them live again, brings them back to life’.31   Similarly, in European countries, the topic of death is also avoided, and we say that a friend or relative has ‘passed away’, ‘passed on’, ‘taken the road of no return’, or that the ‘thread of life has been severed’, thereby avoiding a direct referral to the unpleasant topic of death, the evocative power of speech still lingering subconsciously as a fearful superstition.


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