Monthly Archives: June 2019

A Rose By Any Other Name…


In a global culture it is obvious that the name of a thing has little bearing on the nature of the thing itself: whether you call it un gant, ein handschuh or a glove it will keep your digital extremities exactly the same amount of warm. Naturally mythology and folklore, regardless of linguistic origin, are bulging with yarns which stand or fall on specific nomenclature. 

Starting at the beginning, creation myths are almost exclusively about the naming of things, sometimes to the extent that speaking names is the method by which the progenitor deity summons the elements of the universe in to being. Even in those myths where all the living things are hand made out of mud or clay, the divine sculptor doesn’t release their inventions into the wild without giving them a handy descriptive label. The implication in these naming stories is that the god given moniker describes and contains the underlying primal nature, the essential essence of the being or thing it is attached to. 

The god themself however, produces their magnum opus under a pseudonym. Often they have several. The Norse crafter of the universe, Odin, uses a series of aliases, often taunting a rival with a selection of them (the full list runs over a couple of pages of A4). Behind these sobriquets their true name remains hidden. This is because the very power to generate beings and shape reality resides in the creators own name, it is a potent cypher, a resonant sound, a word of power! Numerous creators have names so powerful they should not be spoken. In a story about the Egyptian originator god who we know as Ra, Isis tricks him in to giving her his secret name and so gains power over him. 

This theme of secret or true names holding power over their owners carries on into folklore. Fairies, witches and all sorts of supernatural beings, if asked will give names that are meaningless such as “No one”, or just a description and where they come from, as in “The Witch of Wookey” or the even vaguer “Hag Of The Woods”. 

Then of course there is the secret name story, you know, that secret name story, the one with the deal. It comes in different varieties of course, depending on where you are in the world. In Norway a troll offers to build a church in return for the priests eyes and heart, In Scotland a widow gets her sick pig cured by a fairy in return for her baby, in England an imp spins five skeins of wool each day in return for the queen herself. In each case, and indeed many others, the foolish deal maker can get out of paying the extraordinary price they have agreed to if they can guess the name of their supernatural helper, not that tricky a task if they were called John or Jane but who is going to guess “Rumplestiltskin” if they have never been told a story about him? 

Although the set up and the price may differ the end of the story is always the same: someone visits the debtor and relates a peculiar thing they saw or overheard whilst out for a walk. In every case it is, of course, the troll / imp / fairy in question and in every case they were singing a song which included their name. The visitor remembers the song exactly, and thus the hapless protagonist is armed with the one bit of information that can save them from the results of their own foolishness: their oppressor’s true name. 

It’s an odd story in many ways, often devoid of any morally good character, but it clearly shows the power and value of a name. 

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