Names, Words and Mythology
Names, follow us from the birth(at least a very young age) to death. Sometimes they change, they give one identity and the ability to distinguish oneself from others at a time in life when we don’t have too much in the way of personality.
But these names play huge and different role in fiction and mythology. Here I will conflate mythology with fiction a lot. As these are both works of brilliant literature.
The True Name and The True Language is something we see across several mythologies, starting from the one of the most deceptive uses of it in Krishna saying “Ashwathamo, hatha” and halting before finishing his sentence saying Kunjaraha. Here Ashwathama was a warrior who was chiranjeevi, an immortal son of Arjuna. Krishna uses his name as an invocation of Arjunas wrath against his enemies. But Ashwathama isn’t dead, only an elephant named Ashwathama died on the field of Kurukshethra that day, but this invocation works. It helps turn the tide of the battle. If you think this is deceptive it’s got nothing on what Isis did to Ra, when she learned his true name and supplanted him with her son Horus.
Then we have the Scandinavian folklore and mythos of Nix, a changeling of whom you need to learn the true name of to defeat. The druidic “Law of Names”, the idea that everything in creation has a true name. The knowledge of these “True Names” gives the wielder or shaman power over nature, everything from the ability to bend the forest to your will to the ability to skin change came from this knowledge of the True Name
The most common interpretation of the True Language mythos though across regions and religions is “The Language of the birds”, it comes from the Indo European languages in the largest quantity but even older languages such as Tamil have a “Crow Tongue” mythology.
But the most interesting interpretation of the language of the birds probably comes from pre renaissance alchemy. Where this language was called the “Langue Verte”, or the green language. It is the very language of nature itself. The language of the harvest and the forest and of fertility.
But this is all mythology where is the fiction you say, and where is all my contemporary literature you ask? That is where Giacomo Puccini and the opera Turandot come in.
Giacomo Puccini, was possibly the earliest of the modern writers to use this device, though with a twist when ever Ms Turandot learned the names of men her father sends to her as Suitors she can kill them. Of course a hero comes in and undoes this neat little scheme etc. But that’s almost par for the course in early fiction.
“True Names” and words of power are most prevalent in fantasy literature of course, starting with the master of the ring of power, The Professor, JRR Tolkien. His most enigmatic character Tom Bombadil is a very Adamic figure in possession of powers of those uncorrupted by the world after the breaking. He can handle the one ring, sing and name creatures who then respond to that name alone, like the ponies the hobbits take to him, even others like the Old Man Willow in the Barrowdowns.
Singing to Old Man Willow in his own cheerful and carefree way to release the hobbits
“Poor old Willow-man, you tuck your roots away!
Tom's in a hurry now. Evening will follow day.
Tom's going home again water-lilies bringing.
Hey! Come derry dol! Can you hear me singing?”
This demonstrates the druidic power over nature mentioned before, as Tom is also a slanted representation of the spirit of the country side of North England it makes perfect sense that he has some powers which are druidic in nature.
The Prof doesn’t stop here, Fangorn is another subtle nod to the power of naming and language, as a linguistics professor you could say he had a vested interest in this. But it fits so beautifully into his world that you cannot fault him for showing us the power of language and by extension that of words
” Elves began it, of course, waking trees up, naming, and teaching them to speak and learn their tree-talk. They always wished to talk to everything, the old Elves did. But then the Great Darkness came, and they passed away over the Sea, or fled into far valleys and hid themselves, and made songs about days that would never come again. Never again. “
And when the elves stopped talking and naming and singing Fangorn grew silent and sad and lethargic, with the Ents slowly becoming more like the trees they guarded.
“Things have changed. Some of us are still true Ents, and lively enough in our fashion, but many are growing sleepy, going tree-ish, as you might say. Most of the trees are just trees, of course; but many are half awake. Some are quite wide awake, and a few are, well, ah, well getting Entish. That is going on all the time.
When that happens to a tree, you find that some have bad hearts. Still, we do what we can. We keep off strangers and the foolhardy; and we train and we teach, we walk and we weed. “
There is much and more in the Silmarillion on words and their power, the very nature of the world was changed when Melkor (Sauron Sr for the uninitiated) changed the tune and his words, he corrupted the nature of reality by his very words, and bound his will, power and his very being to it, and it became his ring and this in turn settled the doom of man as to sing into being the reality of the next Kalpa with their words to become their reality like the first kalpa was that of the Vala, Maia and Elves.
One more familiar to everyone is the tale of the two Gandalfs.
‘Gandalf,’ the old man repeated, as if recalling from old memory a long disused word. ‘Yes, that was the name. I was Gandalf.
”Yes, you may still call me Gandalf.’
Gandalf the Grey fell out of the mortal realm, darkness took him and he strayed out of thought and time, he was essentially moulded into what Saruman was meant to be by Eru and sent back into Arda to fulfil his mission, this straying out of time and thought and his semi death had returned Gandalf back into his true form into Olorin, and his remembrance of his time as Gandalf was faint, and hence he says “Yes, you may still call me Gandalf” though he’s nothim any longer. This granting of a name gives Olorin familiarity and purpose and also the ability to call on the characteristics,friendships and debts of his former self, from Shadowfax, to Theoden,to even Aragorn. This is very similar to an avatar, but I digress.
The last one from Tolkien, I promise.
Bilbo Baggins before he was elventy one went on an adventure where he met Smaug the Dragon, whom he carefully avoids revealing his name to, The Professor doesn’t actually tell us why this is. But having read everything above it is quite obvious now isn’t it?
Moving on from Tolkien as difficult as that is, I have a short mention for one of my other favourite authors, George R R Martin.
Though, ASOIAF doesn’t actually have a true blue “True Name” or “Words of Power” trope. There’s something similar.
“He had asked Gilly about that, but she said it was bad luck to name a child before he was two.-Sam”
This though is as dark as the world itself where the wildling parents to avoid getting too attached to their children before the age of two as the infant mortality beyond the wall is high don’t name them.
This might be the most grounded use of names and power in fantasy. Now that, that one is out of my system.
Onward to one which is cut from a different cloth,
Arthur C Clarke wrote a story called the Nine Billion Names of God, a story which still causes debate on whether it was Sci fi or Fantasy. I prefer to think it is horror, it’s written to challenge and unsettle the reader. Want to know how?(Spoilers I guess)
“Well, they believe that when they have listed all His names – and they reckon that there are about nine billion of them – God’s purpose will be achieved. The human race will have finished what it was created to do, and there won’t be any point in carrying-on. Indeed, the very idea is something like blasphemy.’
‘Then what do they expect us to do? Commit suicide?’
‘There’s no need for that. When the list’s completed, God steps in and simply winds things up … bingo!’
‘Oh, I get it. When we finish our job, it will be the end of the world.’
Chuck gave a nervous little laugh.
‘That’s just what I said to Sam. And do you know what happened? He looked at mein a very queer way, like I’d been stupid in class, and said, “It’s nothing as trivial as that.”
The premise is simple, there are Tibetan monks who think that finding all nine billion names of god will bring the end of the world and hire a bunch of computer scientists to brute force all the combinations to them, they are obviously sceptical but once done they find that starts begin to go out in a very Doctor Who kind of way( or is it Vacuum decay?). This story plays into the Adamic Languages “Name of God” concept where knowledge of or use of the name of god can cause either very favourable or catastrophic consequences.
Tolkien,Clarke and GRRM all use the Power of Words and Names but the way they use it is not overt, if we want to study a more overt use of this concept we need to go a bit deeper into post Tolkien fantasy. Starting with Dave Duncan,and his A Man of his Words.
A Man of his Words uses “Words ofPower” has an inheritance. Passed from one generation to the next, knowing one can make you proficient in your trade, knowing two can make you competent at everything, know 3? Now you’re a wizard. Know 4? You can bend the very laws of nature.
A Man of his Word is quite obscure, but Duncan through the eyes of Rap and his companions show us a magic system in the books which is so robust and built entirely on the words of power that I believe this is the most comprehensive view of this magical trope we have ever seen in a fantasy setting.
The only one which comes close is as surprising as it may seem to some, is a game. The Elder Scrolls series has a magical mechanic called “The Thu’um” the dragon tongue, these are words with specific meaning and powers.
“Drem yol lok” Greetings.
This is what Paarthurnax the dragons says to you the moment you meet him,it means “Peace fire sky” it is both a signifier of where we are when we meet him how the language came into the world of men, through Kynareth, the goddess of the sky and wind.
This is very similar to a lot of real world mythology like Vac, the vedic goddess of language, the first utterance, she was essentially “Brahman” the prime creator. Though Kynareth isn’t the prime creator she is life-giver in more ways than one. As she is aedra one of the creators, but as she is also the god of wind and air, she is the breath of life.
Two more references and I promise I’ll get to the point.
The first of these is probably the most obscure of these (Unless you’ve playedVampire: The Masquerade), it’s something I found in a library and bought for 20RS back in 2004 and played with friends. It’s a role-playing game called “One World of Darkness” it had one of the best uses of this concept outside of a full-fledged novel that I personally have seen.
In the lore True Names are essentially the schematics of the being. It explains everything from your organs to your soul and the more powerful/special you are the more complex your True Name is, the Fallen Angels have the most complex ones, unpronounceable by mortal tongues and incomprehensible to mortal minds(HP Lovecraft’s looking at you, One World of Darkness). But if you knew these names, these True Names you have near complete control over that being. Making your weak rolls strong and powerful against anyone whose true name you know.
The second one, Spirited Away has a witch who takes away the names of her subjects to take control of them by giving them slave names. Haku is a sad example of this.
Bonus round! Doctor Who had an episode called “The Shakespeare Code” which had a similar concept with the aliens called Carrionites who are essentially alien witches. But let’s not go into that episode.
The Why?(You expected Cleversubheader 4 didn’t ya)
Let’s get down to it, why does all this matter. Why is this even a thing in fiction or mythology? Why do we people have an obsession with names and languages?
As Bertrand Russell in his“Descriptivist theory of names” explains the name is not just a reference to a referent, but to a set of descriptors of the referent. A great example is Aristotle, whose name refers to the “Tutor of Alexander the great”.
“The only kind of word that is theoretically capable of standing for a particular is a proper name, and the whole matter of proper names is rather curious.”
Bertrand Russell, Logic and Knowledge, 1988
There were several extensions of this view, the most notable were probably by John Searle who says a true name refers to a cluster of propositions about a referent from which meaning arises.
What does all this jargon and philosophy mean though?
It means that people since the time when we thought the sun was a hole in the sky and that cows could speak have been wondering.
Why do we name? And by extension what are words? This is crux of the philosophy of the True Name and True Language.
We want to think that everything we say or think at some point had absolute meaning and if we discover that again, we will understand it all. Maybe Deep Thought was right, maybe the true name of the world is 42 or maybe not.
Names define the thing, and this gives the thing meaning or is it in reverse? That is the crux of the question which people have been trying to answer since the Dawn Age, and continue to assign this several forms in culture. This is why names and words and language are at the centre of most of mankind’s earliest works, and why names and language are how we do everything from express love to declare war to insult people on the internet.