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Shannon McDermott

A Superstition Transformed

[Editor's note: Say hello to Shannon McDermott. She wrote this piece after reading the Wingfeather Saga and she's agreed to let us use it here as a guest post. Thanks, Shannon.]

Outstanding among those beliefs that are universally characteristic of the religion of superstition is the conviction that “a man’s name is the essence of his being” (one Hebrew text says “a man’s name is his person” and another, “his name is his soul”). —Joshua Trachtenberg, Jewish Magic and Superstition

There’s an old superstition that names are powerful. Many cultures have believed that to know a person’s name is to have power over him, or to be freed from his power. The principle has been extended to the supernatural, with people seeking to conjure up the power of gods, angels, and demons by invoking their names.

Like all superstitions, this one shows both fear and a desire to control. Magic, real magic, has made great use of it; sorcerers, too, believed in the power of names. From the eleventh century come reports of witnesses – “learned and trustworthy men” – who claimed “that they had themselves seen magicians write names upon reeds and olive-leaves, which they cast before robbers and thus prevented their passage, or, having written such names upon new sherds, threw them into a raging sea and mollified it, or threw them before a man to bring about his sudden death.”

This idea has endured in folk tales – most famously in Rumpelstiltskin – and is now an established trope in modern fantasy and even, on occasion, sci-fi. Despite its various disreputable associations, it has a presence in Christian fantasy.