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 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 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 even after the angel's submission at dawn. Thereafter Jacob obtains a new name which signifies his successful struggle to God and man, and names the place to commemorate his surviving an encounter with the Divine.
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. 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 The Kane Chronicles, all people and gods also have true names which give great but not total power over them.
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.
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 Bleach, the archetype of a true name is depicted as an integral element within its conceptual setting. Shinigamis (death gods) must learn the true name of his or her sword, known as a zanpakutou.
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.
- 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
- Genesis 32:22-31
- 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.