A Superstition Transformed

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[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.

So how is a superstition transformed into a staple of fiction? It begins when people stop believing. If you genuinely believe in the mystic power of names, you will take it seriously – hiding your real name like people hide their PIN number, or worrying that you’ll curse your child by giving him an unlucky name. When you stop believing, the fun begins. What in our world would be bad science, or mere superstition, is the operating laws of different worlds. Everyone who reads speculative fiction knows this.

In Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga, names and their power are at the heart of the story. The villains transform human beings into monsters by melding them with other creatures and then giving them new names. Their old selves are submerged and they become willing pawns for the villains. But unless and until the new name is given, the transformation remains incomplete. The victim’s old self is much closer to the surface and it’s easier for him to come back.

For these people, to hear their true names is painful. But it is also, if they don’t rebel, healing – and not for any magical, other-world reason. Their true names hurt and heal because the hearing reminds them who they were and what they lost; it brings them back to themselves.

The power-of-names theme is echoed throughout the saga. A lesser villain calls his enslaved workers ‘tools’ and tells them they have no names; the revolution begins when the workers start to share their names and band together. “What is a real name?” asks one character early on, hinting at hidden names and the truths hidden with them. And through it all the admonition and reminder comes again and again, Remember who you are.

Names, a character within the books says, have power. But it would be more true, even in his own world, to say that names have meaning. A person’s name is representative of his self, and to forget your name is to forget who you are. Unlike the old folk tales, there is no danger in telling others your true name, only in forgetting it yourself; there’s no power in knowing the names of others, only in making them forget their names.

Such subtle alteration is another way to revive and change old myths into new stories. Most legends and fairy tales, along with the fairy tale-worthy superstitions, are open for this sort of reconstruction, pagan origins or no. Have you ever been struck by a story’s transformation of a myth or superstition? Is there a myth or superstition you think ripe for such transformation?

Note: This article has been cross-posted to SpeculativeFaith. Visit Shannon’s website here.


9 Comments

  1. Stephanie

    I first found myself intrigued by the power of a name reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. The thought has stuck with me ever since. So much so that I am using the idea in a story I’m currently working on. And I now see it in many stories I read, especially the Bible — Abram and Sarai received new names, as did Saul; so many were given tasks based on their names or named for their purpose — Gideon, Simon Peter, et al.

    The stories we read and hear are meant to be something of a guide in our own lives, with our own stories (“We’re all just stories in the end.” Thank you Doctor Who – a show that also plays with the power of a name) and so I often wonder about my own name which means “crowned” or “crowned ruler” and how I will or how I am living up to that.

    Speaking of “guides” that is another myth I am playing with in the story I’m currently working on using the myth of the Greenman’s wife whom I’m calling the Forest Wife — in Scandinavian culture she was a guide.

    Thank you for the post — it is much needed encouragement/motivation/inspiration for my writing.

  2. Brandon

    As I read Wingfeather I was also struck by the importance of the name. What echoed in my mind again and again was the promise given through Isaiah – “you will be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will bestow” (Is. 62:2) and then later by Jesus in Revelation – “To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” (Rev. 2:17).

    What greater joy could there be than to be named by the God of the universe, and called by that name? I don’t know exactly how that’s going to work when we get to heaven, if suddenly he’ll give us a new name altogether or if we’re only to take this symbolically. However, in this life it is amazing to know that through Christ we go from the name “Fallen Sinner” to “Child of God,” with nothing asked of us in return.

  3. Hannah

    I don’t know if this quite fits your request for other examples (since this isn’t a myth), but I love Tolkien’s retelling of the creation story at the beginning of the Silmarillion. The idea of a creation song is so beautiful, the addition of a discordant second melody so clever that I want it to be fact, that I need to reread that chapter again.

    And, like Stephanie, I think about living up to “full of grace” and have written “grace” on the chalkboard hanging over my dining room table to remind me to be full of grace, gracious, graceful, grace giving.

  4. Matthew Benefiel

    I loved the way Andrew used names. Beyond the magic of names it is interesting to consider what really is in a name. The Bible used names to describe an atribute of a person, but also used names to describe the surounding context like Hosea’s children which were named depressing names as Israel continued to walk away from God. Sometimes a name can be used to simplify something too. I have this fantasy story that I keep puting on the back burner that seemed so hard at first with names and maps and all that. Taking cues from Andrew with his Toothy Cow I named my major countries Kingsly, Whiim, Populace, and Stalist. It made it much easier to describe those countries when the reader already knows what is inherint in the name (or variation of anyway).

    Of course then there are names that you have to look up otherwise you miss out like in So Brave, Young, and Handsome. I’m also intrigued with names like Wii and iPod that sound so stupid when they first come out, but then become so common and normal that you couldn’t think of a better name.

  5. Drew

    In my own “novel on the backburner” it’s the names I have the hardest time with. I know who my characters are. I know what they’ve done and what they’re supposed to do. I’ve carried this story in my head for decades. What completely escapes me are their names. Any name I come up with doesn’t seem to fit. It has become a stumbling block on actually getting the story down on paper. I need to discover their names, and I think once I do, everything will start to flow.

    And in thinking of my own name, “Andrew” is shortened either to “Andy” or “Drew.” I was “Andy” for 20 years. It’s the name by which I am known to my extended family and to everyone in my old home town. In my 20s I got called “Drew” by a group of friends, and it stuck so fast that it’s how I’ve been known to everyone for the last 30 years. It’s how I introduce myself today.

    Until today, I never gave it much thought, but now I’m wondering what it means that I have essentially abandoned my childhood name. If it means anything.

  6. Jane

    In a world where so many children are being labeled with gibberish, I applaud any work that focuses on names having meaning, roots. I knew of a man redundantly and ironically named Paul Little. Yes, he was over 6 ft tall!
    Every name used to have and should have a meaning. As a student of heraldry, I learned a bit about that. I like using words borrowed from other languages to name characters!
    I’m really surprised no one has commented about the frequent use in Scriptures of the phrase “the name of” as in ” ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ” or “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

    My favorite instance of name-dropping was Acts 19: 13-15 Then some of the itinerant Jewish exorcists took it upon themselves to call the name of the Lord Jesus over those who had evil spirits, saying, “We exorcise you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” Also there were seven sons of Sceva, a Jewish chief priest, who did so.
    And the evil spirit answered and said, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?”

  7. J. Stephen Smith

    Names do carry rich, and sometimes poignant meanings. Think of Abraham’s promised son who was called Isaac (laughter) because of what his parents did and what their neighbors would do when word of his birth to 90-year-old Sarah got around. Or consider the story of Jabez in 1 Chronicles 4:9-10–he was called Jabez (sorrow) because his birth caused great sorrow.

    I am concerned about a misunderstanding of a name change mentioned in the New Testament. Contrary to what many may have been taught, Saul was NOT given a new name several years after his conversion. Rather, on his first missionary journey, Saul (Sha’ul in Hebrew) chose to use his other name, Paul (Paulos in Greek), to better identify with his primary audience-Gentiles. Saul/Paul retained his Jewishness throughout his life, as evidenced by his desire to attend feast days in Jerusalem and his willingness to participate in purification rites. He just used his Greek name because he primarily ministered to the Greek-speaking world.

  8. Amber Leffel

    This reminds me of two writings that have proven really significant and impactful in my life — L’Engle’s Time quintet and Lewis’s “Is Theology Poetry?” essay. First, L’Engle knowing the audacious power of naming, and the authority to do so being given to some… It emphasized to me my own power with words and naming, even if I’m *not* (but I’m sure in many ways we all are) Meg.

    Second, it was this essay, I believe, in which Lewis pointed out the similarities between Myth and the Christian story. Every good Myth told of a hero who was defeated then became victorious and brought a kind of salvation to his world, even before the time of Christ. So the story of Christ, then, has been burning in man’s heart long before the first Christmas… And by placing it within man, God prepared the fulfillment of man’s deepest desire to be saved by one from among, yet so far beyond, himself, then brought that fulfillment about.

    Lewis says it much more poignantly. Powerful.

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