True name

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For the novel, see True Names. For the term as used in civil law, see true name (legal). For the philosophical concept, see proper name (philosophy). For The MS-DOS computer command, see List of DOS commands § TRUENAME.

A true name is a name of a thing or being that expresses, or is somehow identical to, 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.[1][2]

Philosophical and religious contexts[edit]

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.[3]

The true name of the Egyptian sun god Ra was revealed to Isis through an elaborate trick. This gave Isis complete power over Ra and allowed her to put her son Horus on the throne. [4]

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 avoid 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.[5]

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.[6]

Contemporary pre-industrial peoples guard secret names which are only used in solemn rituals. These names are never mentioned and kept from general knowledge.[7]


According to practises in folklore, knowledge of a true name allows one to affect another person or being magically.[8] 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,[9] 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.[10]

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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13]

In Scandinavian beliefs, more magical beasts, such as the Nix, could be defeated by calling their name.[14] 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.

In cryptography[edit]

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.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

In fantasy where magic works by evoking true names, characters often go to great lengths to conceal their true names. In some settings, such as Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea, this is true for all beings. In others, as in Larry Niven's The Magic Goes Away, it applies only to those of magical inclination, as where a wizard is revived from the dead only by another who found his name, and even then only with great difficulty. Finding a true name may require arcane procedures. 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 Arthur C. Clarke's The Nine Billion Names of God, when all of God's names are discovered by Tibetan monks, the universe ends.
  • In Glen Cook's Black Company series, speaking a sorcerer's true name aloud can snuff out their magical power. All the magic users in the series are referred to by pseudonyms, and many of them went to great lengths to kill anyone who knew their original names.
  • In Christopher Paolini's Inheritance Cycle, magicians can control someone by learning their true name, and use the true name of inanimate objects in spells.
  • Patricia Wrede, in her novel Snow-White and Rose-Red, has a character not succumb to a spell because the caster did not know the name he was baptized by. Likewise, in her novel The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, wizards, including the main character Sybel, can call people and creatures using their true name.
  • In Operation Chaos, Poul Anderson has the doctor who delivers a baby issue not only 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 Rick Riordan's The Kane Chronicles, all people and gods also have true names which give great but not total power over them.
  • In J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, Bilbo Baggins 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.[15]
  • Likewise, in Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea canon, and specifically in her seminal short story "The Rule of Names", knowledge of a dragon's or human's true name confers power over them.[16]
  • True names and speech are the basis for magic in Diane Duane's Young Wizards series.
  • The concept is also prominently present in The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss.[17]
  • Multiple variants of magic utilizing or grounded in the power of true names have appeared in the Dungeons & Dragons role-playing game, though never as a bedrock element of the game. For instance, certain spells are more powerful if the target's true name is known.[18]
  • In the role-playing setting One World of Darkness, the concept of True Names is very expansive. The True Name of a being is like a platonic blueprint to the creature. A human's True Name can even change after life-altering events. It is a description of the being, from its internal organs to its very soul. All living creatures have one, but those with more intelligence have more complex True Names. A Fallen has a True Name given directly by God, but they are unpronouncable by mortal tongues because they are not words or names in the traditional sense; rather, they are a collection of abstract sounds and concepts, such as the sound of a hundred children laughing at once or the wind whistling over the entrance of a cavern. A Fallen's Celestial Name will suffice to fill out the power a True Name has over other beings. Magic is also easier to cast and stronger against a target whose True Name is known.
  • In Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files a wizard or other magical being can gain power over anyone by knowing their name, if the invoker has heard it spoken by its owner; however, as humans' names change with their nature, their magical power generally decays after a time.
  • In the Doctor Who episode "The Shakespeare Code", the Carrionites are a species of witch-like beings who use words as a form of magic power. Particularly potent is someone's name, but it will only work once. The Doctor repels the Carrionites at one point using their name.[19] It is said that the Doctor's true name must never be said or "silence will fall".
  • In the manga series Bleach, a shinigami (death god) must learn the true name of his or her sword, known as a zanpakutou.

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 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.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Magical Name (
  2. ^ Finding Your Wiccan Name (
  3. ^ pp. 4 & 18, David Sedley, Plato's Cratylus, Cambridge U Press 2003.
  4. ^ Harris, Geraldine (1981). Gods & Pharaohs from Egyptian Mythology. London, England: Eurobook Limited. pp. 24–25. ISBN 0-87226-907-8
  5. ^ Richard Stuart Gordon, The Encyclopedia of Myths and Legends, pp. 480-1, Headline Book Publishing, London, 1993 ISBN 0-7472-3936-3
  6. ^ Genesis 32:22-31
  7. ^ Frazer, James, "Tabooed Words" in The Golden Bough, first volume abridged edition, (New York: Mentor, 1959), pages 235-246
  8. ^ Philip Martin, The Writer's Guide to Fantasy Literature: From Dragon's Lair to Hero's Quest, p 134, ISBN 0-87116-195-8
  9. ^ Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, p 260 W. W. Norton & company, London, New York, 2004 ISBN 0-393-05848-4
  10. ^ Maria Tatar, p 128, The Annotated Classic Fairy Tales, ISBN 0-393-05163-3
  11. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 95, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  12. ^ K. M. Briggs, The Fairies in English Tradition and Literature, p 115 University of Chicago Press, London, 1967
  13. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 91, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  14. ^ Francis James Child, The English and Scottish Popular Ballads, v 1, p 95-6, Dover Publications, New York 1965
  15. ^ Maria Tatar, The Annotated Brothers Grimm, p 261 W. W. Norton & company, London, New York, 2004 ISBN 0-393-05848-4
  16. ^ Spivack, Charlotte, Ursula K. Le Guin, (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1984), page 27.
  17. ^ Rothfuss, Patrick:The Name of the Wind, 27 March 2007, DAW Books Hardcover ISBN 978-0-7564-0407-9, pages=662}
  18. ^ The spell Trap the Soul is one such example, where knowledge of a true name allows the capture of even those immune to magic.
  19. ^ The Language of Doctor Who. Rowman & Littlefield. May 2014. p. 126. ISBN 978-1-4422-3481-9. Retrieved 3 October 2014.