A true name is a name of a thing or being that expresses, or is somehow identical with, its true nature. The notion that language, or some specific sacred language, refers to things by their true names has been central to philosophical and grammatical study as well as various traditions of magic, religious invocation and mysticism (mantras) since antiquity.
Philosophical and religious contexts
Socrates in Cratylus considers, without taking a position, the possibility whether names are "conventional" or "natural", that is, whether language is a system of arbitrary signs or whether words have an intrinsic relation to the things they signify.
Hellenistic Judaism emphasized the divine nature of logos, later adopted by the Gospel of John. The true name of God plays a central role in Kabbalism (see Gematria, Temurah, YHWH [the tetragrammaton]) and to some extent in Sufism (see 100th name of God). The ancient Jews considered God's true name so potent that they believed its invocation conferred upon the speaker tremendous power over his creations. To prevent abuse of this power, as well as to avert blasphemy, the name of God was always taboo, and increasingly disused so that by the time of Jesus their High Priest was supposedly the only individual who spoke it aloud — and then only in the Holy of Holies upon the Day of Atonement.
Also in a Biblical context, in the tale of Jacob's nocturnal wrestling with an anonymous angel, the angel refuses to reveal his own name to Jacob; thus the anonymous angel gains the upper hand in the struggle. Thereafter Jacob himself obtains his new name which signifies his surrender to God and his being owned by God henceforth.
Contemporary pre-industrial peoples guard secret names which are only used in solemn rituals. These names are never mentioned and kept from general knowledge.
Folklore and fantasy
According to practises in folklore, knowledge of a true name allows one to affect another person or being magically. It is stated that knowing someone's, or something's, true name therefore gives the person (who knows the true name) power over them. This effect is used in many tales, such as in the German fairytale of Rumpelstiltskin - within Rumpelstiltskin and all its variants, the girl can free herself from the power of a supernatural helper who demands her child by learning its name.
A legend of Saint Olaf recounts how a troll built a church for the saint at a fantastic speed and price, but the saint was able to free himself by learning the troll's name during a walk in the woods. Similarly, the belief that children who were not baptised at birth were in particular danger of having the fairies kidnap them and leave changelings in their place may stem from their unnamed state. In the Scandinavian variants of the ballad Earl Brand, the hero can defeat all his enemies until the heroine, running away with him, pleads with him by name to spare her youngest brother.
In Scandinavian beliefs, more magical beasts, such as the Nix, could be defeated by calling their name. For the same reason significant objects in Germanic mythology, which were considered to have some kind of intrinsic personality, had their own names too, for example the legendary Sword Balmung.
This belief is employed in many fantasy works. Bilbo Baggins, in J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, uses a great deal of trickery to keep the dragon, Smaug, from learning his name; even the sheltered hobbit realises that revealing his name would be very foolish. Likewise, in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea canon, and specifically in her seminal short story The Rule of Names, power over dragons, and additionally, men, is conferred by the use of a true name. True names and speech are the basis for magic in Diane Duane's Young Wizards series, where indeed, it is simply referred to as "The Speech". The concept is also prominently present in Vernor Vinge's famous story True Names, the Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini, and The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss. Though never a bedrock element of the game, multiple variants of magic utilizing or grounded in the power of true names have appeared in the Dungeons & Dragons roleplaying game. In Jim Butchers' The Dresden Files a wizard or other magical being can gain power over anyone by knowing their name. This requires the invoker to have heard the name spoken by its owner. Human names change with their nature so they generally decay after a time.
The term "true name" is sometimes used in cryptography and computer security to refer to a name that is assumed to uniquely identify a principal in a global namespace (for example, an X.500 or X.509 Distinguished name). This usage is often critical, with the implication that use of true names is difficult to enforce and unwise to rely on.
In popular culture
In fantasy where magic works by evoking true names, characters often go to great lengths to conceal their true names; this may be a rule for all characters, as in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea, or for those of magical inclination, as in Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away, where a wizard is revived from the dead only by another who found his name, with great difficulty.
In the Inheritance Cycle, magicians can take over someone by learning their true name, as well as make binding contracts or deals with them by using their name in the deal. In the third book of the cycle, it is thought that Eragon has found his sword's true name, Brisingr. By doing so he has a strong hold over the sword and can manipulate it easily.
Such true names are often the name given at birth. Patricia Wrede, in her novel Snow-White and Rose-Red, had a character not succumb to a spell because the caster did not know the name he was baptized by. In Operation Chaos, Poul Anderson had the doctor who delivered a baby not only issue a regular birth certificate, but a secret one, with the newborn's name; the hero, born before such precautions were routine, is glad to hide his daughter's true name. In the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud, a magician cannot have full control over a demon if the demon knows the magician's true name; as a result all magicians have records of their true names destroyed during childhood and take a new name around adolescence.
In David Gemmell's Rigante series, tribesmen have a true name, or soul name, which ties them to the earth. This name can be given by the father of the child at birth, by a wise woman, or by deep reflection by the individual. Such examples are: Sword in the Storm, Midnight Falcon, Ravenheart, Stormrider, Hawk in the Willow, Flame in the Water, Cloud in the Night.
More arcane means may be needed to find a true name. In Earthsea, a wizard must listen for and give the hero his true name; this is performed in both Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea and The Tombs of Atuan. In Lawrence Watt-Evans's The Wizard Lord, animals are described as having simple names of only a few syllables, while humans can have almost endless ever-changing names.
In the story line of Superman, the character Mister Mxyzptlk is introduced in the 1940s. The first incarnation of this character is described as a little imp who suffered from the vulnerability that if he was tricked into speaking or writing his name backwards, he would be involuntarily transported back to his place of origin.
A character remembering their true name may be an important means of maintaining mastery of their own life. In Hayao Miyazaki's movie Spirited Away, the witch who runs the bathhouse, Yubaba, ensures loyalty by stealing the names of her subjects. For example, one of the witch's most loyal subjects, the spirit of the Kohaku River, has his name taken and is given a slave name: Haku. He forgets his name, and it is in this way 'taken' from him; he warns Chihiro Ogino against the dangers of forgetting her own name. She frees him when she recognises him and he then remembers and 'takes back' his name and is freed from the clutches of the witch.
In the series Death Note finding one's true name is essential to murder them.
In the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, certain spells are more powerful if the target's true name is known. The Tome of Magic supplement presents a number of classes, feats and magical abilities which interact with true names.
In the cyberpunk genre following Vernor Vinge's 1981 True Names and the work of William Gibson, much of the plot involved interactions between people's virtual selves in cyberspace. Learning a fellow hacker's real-world name (i.e., their "true name") could allow you to turn them in to the government or otherwise blackmail them, conveying a kind of power that could be considered analogous to the equivalent concept of myth and legend.
In the video game Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, the character Doopliss has the ability to use unlimited magic, however, this magic stops working if his name is spoken to him.
In Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, and the musical based on it, each cat has – in addition to his common name ("that the family use daily") and his more dignified particular name ("that never belongs to more than one cat") – a "deep and inscrutable, singular Name" that "no human research can discover, but the cat himself knows and will never confess".
In the Doctor Who episode "The Shakespeare Code" the Doctor encounters an alien species called the Carrionites who uses words instead of numbers as a science to manipulate the universe. They can take control over other people by saying their name and can be chased away by usage of their species' name.
In the series of books, Sweep, by Cate Tiernan, every single thing has a true name. It is a common practise by one of the 'clans' to find the true names of as many things as posable, to gain power.
In Rick Riordan's The Kane Chronicles, every living thing has a true name. In The Red Pyramid, Sadie Kane uses the god Set's true name, Evil Day, to force him to surrender. In The Throne of Fire, Sadie uses true names several times to defeat gods and heal Carter Kane, who was poisoned by a tjesu heru. In The Serpent's Shadow, the Kanes use Apophis' true name to defeat him.
- Magical Name (paganwiccan.about.com)
- Finding Your Wiccan Name (wicca-spirituality.com)
- pp. 4 & 18, David Sedley, Plato's Cratylus, Cambridge U Press 2003.
- Richard Stuart Gordon, The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends, pp. 480-1, Headline Book Publishing, London, 1993 ISBN 0-7472-3936-3
- Frazer, James, "Tabooed Words" in The Golden Bough, first volume abridged edition, (New York: Mentor, 1959), pages 235-246
- Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 134, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
- Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, p 260 W. W. Norton & company, London, New York, 2004 ISBN 0-393-05848-4
- Maria Tatar, p 128, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, ISBN 0-393-05163-3
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 95, Dover Publications, New York 1965
- K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, p 115 University of Chicago Press, London, 1967
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 91, Dover Publications, New York 1965
- Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 95-6, Dover Publications, New York 1965
- Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, p 261 W. W. Norton & company, London, New York, 2004 ISBN 0-393-05848-4
- Spivack, Charlotte, Ursula K. Le Guin, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), page 27.
- The spell Trap the Soul is one such example, where knowledge of a true name allows for even those immune to magic to be captured.
- T.S. Eliot (1962, 1986). Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats. Faber and Faber. ISBN 0-571-04578-2.