Monday 17 April 2023

Naming and Identity in Myths, Legends, Fairy Tales & Fantasy

To begin near the beginning: the name Adam was originally not a proper name at all. In his book The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary, the Hebrew scholar Robert Alter remarks of Adam’s first appearance in Genesis 1.26:

The term ’adam, afterwards consistently used with a definite article, which is used both here and in the second account of the origins of humankind, is a generic term for human beings, not a proper noun. It also does not automatically suggest maleness [...]. And so the traditional rendering “man” is misleading, and an exclusively male ’adam would make nonsense of the last clause of verse 27:

And God created the human [the ’adam] in his image,

in the image of God He created him,

male and female he created them.

In case you’re thinking, ‘Wait a minute, there’s a ‘him’ right there in the second line,’ Alter adds:

In the middle clause of this verse, “him”, as in the Hebrew, is grammatically but not anatomically masculine. Feminist critics have raised the question as to whether here and in the second account of human origins, in chapter 2, ’adam is to be imagined as sexually undifferentiated until the fashioning of woman, though that proposal leads to certain dizzying paradoxes in following the story.

I love this and feel it could well be true: it’s a reminder that translating a word from one language to another is often far from straightforward. In the second chapter of Genesis, God fashions the ’adam from the ’adamah (‘the human from the soil’: an etymological pun) like a potter moulding a figure out of clay. ‘A person’ in French is une personne, grammatically feminine even if the person in question is male. French la table is feminine while German der tisch is masculine, but no one thinks tables are male or female. Grammatical gender need not and often does not correspond to biological gender. In any case, a clay figure has no biological gender. Whatever it looks like, it is asexual.

Name-giving is an act of power, 'deep magic from the dawn of time'. Even to speak is to exercise that power. Few of us choose our own names; they are given by our parents when we’re so young we can have no say in the matter, and as Adam and Eve ‘ruled’ over the animals, parents hold authority over their children. No matter how benevolent the relationship, this is probably why when children go to school, they often abbreviate their names or adopt nick-names. It’s a small act of self-assertion, part of the journey towards detaching themselves from parental rule. To change your name is in some way to change yourself.

This brings me to the Old Speech in Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea series. In the first book, ‘A Wizard of Earthsea’ (above, see my much-read copy of 1971) the hero Ged, whose use-name is Sparrowhawk (a true name is kept secret) arrives at the Wizards’ School on the island of Roke to be sent with seven other apprentices to the Master Namer, Kurremkarmerruk, in the Isolate Tower.

No farm or dwelling lay within miles of the Tower. Grim it stood above the northern cliffs, grey were the clouds over the seas of winter, endless the lists and ranks and rounds of names that the namer’s eight pupils must learn. Amongst them in the Tower’s high room Kurremkarmerruk sat on a high seat, writing down lists of names that must be learned before the ink faded at midnight leaving the parchment blank again.

Hard as this is, Ged does not complain. ‘He saw that in this dusty and fathomless matter of learning the true name of each place, thing and being, the power he wanted lay like a jewel at the bottom of a dry well. For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.’ He learns that the Old Speech is the speech of the Making, ‘the language Segoy spoke who made the islands of the world’ and still spoken by dragons. We never learn much about Segoy, but in this origin myth it’s Segoy’s naming that brings Earthsea into existence – just as in the Book of Genesis, God brings the world into existence.

God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. [...] And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And it was evening and it was morning, first day. And God said, ‘Let there be a vault in the midst of the waters, and let it divide water from water.’ And God called the vault Heavens, and it was evening and morning, second day. And God said, ‘Let the waters under the heavens be gathered in one place so that the dry land will appear.’ And so it was. And God called the dry land Earth and the gathering of the waters He called Seas...

In Genesis 2, in contrast to the order of creation in Genesis 1, God creates animals after having created the ’adam, bringing each one of them to the human ‘to see what he would call it, and whatever the human called a living creature, that was its name.’ It’s as though, having created human beings ‘in his own image’, God delegates the naming of things to them. There’s a strong hint that the naming of things – language – is an integral part of human ‘rule’ over animals.  Names, or nouns, are single-word descriptions, the beginning of categorisation and a typically human and cerebral form of knowledge. When in prehistory did spoken languages begin? Probably we’ll never know, but the Language of the Making , the Words of Creation – is a powerful myth.

In learning the true names of things, Ged gains power over them, a power that should be used sparingly and never selfishly. He finds this out the hard way when prompted by pride and anger, he summons by her name the spirit of beautiful Elfarran, a thousand years dead. And she appears.

The shapeless mass of darkness he had lifted split apart. It sundered, and a pale spindle of light gleamed between his opened arms, a faint oval reaching from the ground up to the height of his raised hands. In the oval of light for a moment there moved a form, a human shape: a tall woman looking back over her shoulder. Her face was beautiful, and sorrowful, and full of fear.

She is glimpsed only for a moment. Then the gap Ged has opened widens and rips ‘and through the bright misshapen breach clambered something like a clot of black shadow, quick and hideous, and it leaped straight out at Ged’s face’, tearing and clawing him. It costs the life of the Archmage Nemmerle to close the gap, and for the rest of the book Ged is pursued by the shadow-beast he has let loose – until at last he has the self-knowledge to claim this darkness as himself and calls it by his own name.  


Many a medieval alchemist or renaissance doctor attempted to conjure up spirits using what they conceived to be the power of holy or unholy names. Katharine Briggs in ‘The Anatomy of Puck’ appends a spell from Bodleian MS. Ashmole (1406) ‘To Call a Fairy’, parts of which run:

I.E.A call the. Elaby: Gathan: in the name of the. father. of. the. son. and of the holy ghost. And. I Adjure. the. Elaby. Gathan: Conjure. and. Straightly. charge. and Command. thee. by. Tetragrammaton: Emanuell. Messias. Sether. Panton. Cratons. Alpha et Omega. [...] And. I. Conjure thee. Elaby. by. these. holy. Names. of God. Saday. Eloy. Iskyros, Adonay. Sabaoth. that thou appear presently. meekely. and myldly. in this glasse. without. doeinge. hurt. or. daunger. unto. me. or any other. livinge. creature...

Knowledge of the fairy’s name was only half the battle: the magician clearly felt the need of divine protection when it did appear. 

An even more egregious example is given by Reginald Scot in his scathing take-down of charlatans and superstition, ‘The Discoverie of Witchcraft’ (1584). Of many examples, he includes a ‘prayer’ (!) for binding and commanding angels ‘throwne downe from heaven’, which runs in part:

I require thee, O Lord Jesus Christ, that thou give thy virtue and power over all thine angels which were throwne downe from heaven to deceive mankind, to draw them to me, to command them to do all they can, and that [...] they obeie me and my saiengs, and fear me. [...] and I require thee, Adonay, Amay, Horta, Vegedora, Mitai, Hel, Suranat, Ysion, Ysesy, and by all thy holie names [...] that thou enable me to congregate all thy spirits throwne down from heaven, that they may give me a true answer of all my demands, and that they satisfy all my requests, without the hurt of my bodie or soule, or anything that is mine...

The word ‘require’ in the late 1580s hadn’t the force it has today; it meant something more like ‘request’ or ‘desire’ – but this magician is clearly attempting to bend Christ to his will by the use of the various ‘holy’ names he attributes to him, and through Christ to gain magical power over (and immunity from) devils. Talk about nerve! Some of the names look very made-up. ‘Vegedora’ sounds like a brand of soft margarine, but whatever is the Norse goddess of the underworld, Hel, doing in that list?

Besides summoning, it was of course possible to banish or exorcise an evil spirit, if you knew its name. In the Gospel of Mark, Chapter 5, Jesus casts out an ‘unclean spirit’ from a madman who was living ‘among the tombs’ and whom no one could restrain even with chains, for he broke them all. 

When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and bowed down before him, and he shouted at the top of his voice, ‘What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I adjure you, by God, do not torment me.’ (For Jesus had already said to him, ‘Come out of the man, you unclean spirit!’) Then Jesus asked him, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘My name is Legion, for we are many.’ [...] Now there on the hillside a great herd of swine was feeding, and the unclean spirits begged [Jesus], ‘Send us into the swine.’ So he gave them permission. And the unclean spirits came out and entered the swine, and the herd ... rushed down the steep bank into the sea and were drowned.

In his book on the New Testament, ‘Scripting Jesus’ (2010) L. Michael White points out that ‘the demon actually tries to exorcize Jesus by saying, “I adjure you by God, do not torment me.” The word usually translated “adjure” here is the Greek orkizein (“conjure”), just as was used in demon spells.’  So, ironically, this demon tries calling on the name of God to negate Jesus’ power. It is unable to resist when Jesus demands its own name.

Given the belief that you could conjure up demons or fairies by name, it’s unsurprising that magical characters in fairy tales and folklore often keep their names secret. If they were known, others would wield power over them. In ‘The Water-Horse of Varkasaig, a folktale from Skye, the dangerous water-horse is foiled of his prey (a young maiden) when the girl’s mother threatens to ‘cry his name to the four brown boundaries of the earth’ and to prove she can do it, whispers it in his ear. On hearing it, with a terrible shriek the water-horse plunges into the river and vanishes.

Rumpelstiltskin famously tears himself in two with rage when the young woman whose straw he has spun into gold guesses his name. Variants of the story are found across Europe, and many’s the hero or heroine who manages to wriggle out of similarly unwise bargains. In his 'Teutonic Mythology' Jacob Grimm tells how King Olaf of Norway (later Saint Olaf) hired a large troll or j√łtun to build him a fine church on the agreement that once it was finished, his payment should be the sun and moon, or else Olaf himself. Olaf set conditions which he thought the troll could not possibly meet: the church should be so large that seven priests could preach in it at once without disturbing one another, and the pillars and carvings were all to be made from the hardest flint. But soon the church was almost finished, with only the roof and spire left to complete. Understandably worried, Olaf ‘wandered over hill and dale, when suddenly inside a mountain he heard a child cry and a troll-woman lulling it: “Hush, hush! Thy father, Wind-and-Weather, will come home in the morning, and bring you the sun and moon, or else Saint Olaf himself!”’ Hurrying home in delight, for ‘the power of evil beings ceases when their name is known’, Olaf found the troll just placing the spire on the roof. ‘Vind och veder!’ he cried, ‘du har dat spiran sneder’ – ‘Wind and Weather! You’ve set the spire on crooked!’ – upon which the troll fell off the roof and burst into a thousand pieces. All variants include this accidental overhearing of the supernatural helper’s name. In a Danish version, St Olaf’s role is taken by one Esbern Snare (historically, a 12th century Danish chieftain and crusader), who hears a troll woman within a hill singing:

          ‘Lie still, baby mine!

Tomorrow comes Fin, father thine,

And giveth thee Esbern Snare’s eyes and heart to play with.’

It’s possible to feel rather sorry for the trolls or imps who lose their labour (or lives!) in this way. My friend the writer Inbali Iserles has remarked of Rumpelstiltkin’ that it is ‘a story where the greedy succeed, the victim is unsympathetic, and the villain curiously wretched.’ But it’s hard to feel sorry for the gleeful little imp Tom Tit Tot, eponymous villain of the splendid Norfolk dialect version. After the Queen has failed for the second time to guess its name (‘Is that Methuselem’ – ‘Noo, t’aint that neither’), the imp

looks at her with that’s eyes like a cool o’ fire, an’ that says, “Woman, there’s only to-morrer night, an’ then yar’ll be mine!” n’ away te flew.

However the King her husband has overheard the imp’s name. Remarking casually to his wife that ‘I reckon I shorn’t ha’ to kill you’ (seeing that she’s successfully spun the skeins each night so far), he sits down to supper with her and tells how out hunting he came across a curious little black thing singing, ‘Nimmy nimmy not/My name’s Tom Tit Tot’. Next day the Queen is well prepared:  

[T]hat there little thing looked soo maliceful when he come for the flax. An’ when night came she heerd that a knockin’ agin the winder panes. She oped the winder, an’ that come right in on the ledge. That were grinnin’ from are to are, an’ Oo! tha’s tail were twirling round so fast.

          ‘What’s my name?’ that says, as that gonned her the skeins.

          ‘Is that Solomon?’ she says, pretending to be afeared.

          ‘Noo, t’ain’t,’ that says, and that come fudder inter the room.

          ‘Well is that Zebedee?’ says she agin.

          ‘Noo, t’ain’t,’ says the impet. An’ then that laughed an’ that twirled that’s tail till yew cou’n’t hardly see it. ‘Take time, woman,’ that says’ ‘next guess, an you’re mine.’ An’ that stretched out that’s black hands at her.

          Well, she backed a step or two, an’ she looked at it, an’ then she laughed out, an’ says she, a pointin’ of her finger at it –

          ‘Nimmy nimmy not,

Yar name’s Tom Tit Tot.’

Well when that hard her, that shruck awful an’ awa’ that flew into the dark, an’ she niver saw it noo more.

Characters in fairy tales are often referred to either by generic descriptions 
– ‘the king’s daughter’, ‘the boy’, ‘the maiden’, and so on – or by the common names of whatever country the tale is set in, such as Hans, Klaus, Ivan, Kate, Jack. But many fairy tale names are purely descriptive. Little Red-Cap or ‘Red Riding Hood’ is so called after her red head-wear. The faithful servant in ‘The Frog King’ is named Iron Henry because ‘he had been so unhappy when his master was changed into a frog, that he had caused three iron bars to be laid round his heart, lest it should burst with grief’. The names Snow-White and Rose Red describe the innocence and beauty of the characters, and ‘The Mastermaid’ is an apt description of the lively, clever, magic-working young woman of that Norwegian story.

Sometimes these names are insulting. Cinder-lad, Aschenputtel, Tatterhood, Dummling are given their names by families which despise them: but since fairy tales always favour the underdog, we know they’re going to succeed. The princess known as ‘Allerleihrauh’ (All Kinds of Fur) escapes from her incestuous father dressed in a cloak of, yes, all kinds of fur. ‘Coat o’ Rushes’ disguises herself in a woven reed coat after her King Lear-like father throws her out, and the princess in the Norwegian fairy tale ‘Katy Woodencloak’ wears a clattering cloak of wooden laths. All three serve as kitchenmaids in these guises, and all three restore their fortunes. The names derived from their actions come to define them: ‘real’ names, if they had any, would be superfluous. It’s all very existential.

As I’ve said above, to change your name is to change yourself.  A seven year-old boy called Setanta son of Sualtim (his true father is Lugh of the Long Hand, Irish god of light and war) kills Culain the Smith’s savage guard-dog. When Culain complains, the boy offers to train up another hound for him, until which time: ‘I myself will be your watch-dog, to guard your goods and your cattle and your house.’ Hearing this, Cathbad the Druid renames the boy.

‘I could have given no better award myself,’ said Cathbad the Druid. ‘And from this out,’ he said, ‘your name will be Cuchulain, the Hound of Culain.’ ‘I am better pleased with my own name of Setanta, son of Sualim,’ said the boy. ‘Do not say that,’ said Cathbad, ‘for all the men in the whole world will some day have the name of Cuchulain in their mouths.’ ‘If that is so, I am content to keep it,’ said the boy. And this is how he came by the name Cuchulain.

                    Cuchulain of Muirthemne tr. Lady Gregory, John Murray, 1907, 11

Cuchulain’s offer of substitution – ‘I will be your watch dog’ – and his new name ‘Hound of Culain’ suggests that from now on dogs are Cuchulain’s kindred or totem. He is laid under two geasa: never to refuse a meal offered to him by a woman and never to eat the flesh of a dog. At the end of his life, riding out to fight against Maeve’s great army, both geasa are used against him by three witches.

After a while he saw three hags, and they blind of the left eye, before him in the road, and they having a venomous hound they were cooking with charms on rods of the rowan tree. And he was going by them, for he knew it was not for his good they were there.

          But one of the hags called to him, ‘Stop a while with us, Cuchulain.’ ‘I will not stop with you,” said Cuchulain. ‘That is because we have nothing better than a dog to give you,’ said the hag. ‘If we had a grand, big cooking hearth, you would stop and visit us, but because it is only a little that we have, you will not stop.’

          …Then he went over to her, and she gave him the shoulder-blade of the hound out of her left hand, and he ate it out of his left hand. And he put it down on his left thigh, and the hand that took it was struck down, and the thigh he put it on was struck through and through, so that the strength that was in them before left them.

Like the actions of those fairy tale princesses Allerleihrauh, Katy Woodencloak and Coat o’ Rushes, Cuchulain’s boyhood decision to ‘become’ Culain the Smith’s hound triggers his renaming, and changes the course of his life. Cathbad the Druid says, ‘All the men in the whole world will some day have the name of Cuchulain in their mouths.’ Cuchulain’s future identity as a hero is somehow bound up with his acceptance of this new name.

In Ursula le Guin’s collection ‘Tales From Earthsea’ there’s a wonderful story called ‘Dragonfly’, about a young woman who travels to the Isle of Roke hoping to enter the School for Wizards. Her use-name is Dragonfly, but the Doorkeeper asks for her true name – as he asks everyone who wishes for admittance – and her true name is one she’s accepted but has never felt really comfortable with.

‘Do you know whose name you must tell me before I let you in?’

          ‘My own, sir. It is Irian.’

          ‘Is it?’ he said.

          That gave her pause. She stood silent. ‘It’s the name the witch Rose of my village on Way gave me, in the spring under Iria Hill,’ she said at last, standing up and speaking truth.

          The Doorkeeper looked at her for what seemed a long time. ‘Then it is your name,’ he said. ‘But maybe not all your name. I think you have another.’

          ‘I don’t know it, sir.’ After another long time she said, ‘Maybe I can learn it here, sir.’

Irian does not find her other true name here on Roke; but she does discover her true nature and her power: and when Thorion the Master Summoner (who is literally a dead man walking) attempts to bind her, he fails.

Slowly he raised his arms and the white staff in invocation of a spell, speaking in the tongue that all the wizards and mages of Roke had learned, the language of their art, the Language of the Making: ‘Irian, by your name I summon you and bind you to obey me!’

          She hesitated, seeming for a moment to yield, to come to him, and then cried out, ‘I am not only Irian!’

The Summoner lunges at her, running up on to Roke Knoll where all things become their true selves.

They were both on the hill now. She towered above him impossibly, fire breaking forth between them, a flare of red flame in the dusk air, a gleam of red-gold scales, of vast wings – then that was gone, and there was nothing there but the woman standing on the hill path and the tall man bowing down before her, bowing slowly down to the earth, and lying on it.

Thorion’s return to death restores the Equilibrium, although from now on there will be a new balance. Irian departs ‘beyond the west’ to find the dragons, ‘Those who will give me my name. In fire, not water. My people.’ In dragon form she springs into the air and flies, and as ‘a curl of fire, a wisp of smoke’ drifts down through the darkening air, the men stand silent, watching. ‘What now?’ asks her friend the Master Patterner. And the Doorkeeper of the Wizards’ School on Roke answers simply, ‘I think we should go to our house, and open its doors.’ 

It is the last line of the story. And the story is all about difference. Who is Irian? Is she indeed a woman? Can you be two things at once? What is her truth?

In the world of Earthsea as Ursula le Guin developed it over decades, humanity and dragons were once one kind, one kindred: the dragons were there at the beginning: the Eldest, born knowing the True Speech. Then came the Division, the separation of dragons and humans: but some still are of both kinds. Irian is not only such a one, she is also female, a woman, considered by most of the Mages of Roke as less than a man. ‘I am not only Irian!’ she cries, refusing to be limited to a single identity. So yes, the story is about difference and prejudice, about names and the changing of names and the discovering of new identities. And it asks us not to prejudge, but to accept and open our doors to those who come to us with their differences. I think it is good advice.

Picture credits:

Adam and Eve in the garden with God: Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights, c. 1490-1510

A Wizard of Earthsea, Penguin 1971, cover art & design Brian Hampton

Dr John Dee (1507-1608). Artist unknown, Ashmolean, Oxford, image from wikipedia

The Discoverie of Witchcraft, title page, British Library, image from wikipedia

Rumpelstiltskin: Walter Crane, 1886

Tom Tit Tot: English Fairy Tales by Joseph Jacobs, ill. John D Batten

Setanta Kills the Hound: ill. Stephen Reid, imagefrom wikipedia

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