The power of names in literature and the bible

Hubs and I are reading Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea — we’ve only gotten through the first couple of chapters, but already there have been some interesting mentions and discussions of names. My husband specifically commented on these:

The doorkeeper answered, ‘Say your name.’  … Then again Ged stood still a while; for a man never speaks his own name aloud, until more than his life’s safety is at stake.” (37)

For magic consists in this, the true naming of a thing.” (50)

Thus, that which gives us the power to work magic sets the limits of that power. A mage can control only what is near him, what he can name exactly and wholly” (55)

Hubs commented on how interesting it was, this idea that knowing someone’s or something’s name gives you power over that person or thing — it was something he’d seen in other books (fiction) he’d read. I immediately remembered this from Island of the Blue Dolphins:

I am the Chief of Ghalas-at,’ he said. ‘My name is Chief Chowig.’ … I was surprised that he gave his real name to a stranger. Everyone in our tribe had two names, the real one which was secret and was seldom used, and one which was common, for if people use your secret name it becomes worn out and loses its magic. Thus I was known as Won-a-pa-lei, which means The Girl with the Long Black Hair, though my secret name is Karana. My father’s secret name was Chowig. Why he gave it to a stranger I do not know.” (5)

My father lay on the beach and the waves were already washing over him. Looking at his body I knew he should not have told Captain Orlov his secret name, and back in our village all the weeping women and the sad men agree that this had so weakened him that he had not lived through the fight with the Aleuts and the dishonest Russian.” (23)

It’s also a very biblical idea! I’m reading Bishop Barron’s Catholicism: A Journey to the Heart of the Faith to my three older boys this Lent; we’re in chapter three, and just read this bit, about Moses and the burning bush:

When Moses asked for the name of this mysterious speaker, he received the following answer: ‘I am who am’ (Ex 3:14). Moses was asking a reasonable enough question. He was wondering which of the many gods — deities of the river, the mountain, the various nations — this was. He was seeking to define and specify the nature of this particular heavenly power. But the answer he received frustrated him, for the divine speaker was implying that he was not one god among many, not this deity rather than that, not a reality that could, even in principle, be captured or delimited by a name. In a certain sense, God’s response amounted to the undermining of the very type of question Moses posed. His name was simply ‘to be,’ and therefore he could never be mastered. The ancient Israelites honored this essential mysteriousness of God by designating him with the unpronounceable name of YHWH.” (61-62)

And a while ago, I read this reflection on the story of Jacob wrestling with God by Pope Benedict XVI, which included a note about the biblical view of names:

His rival, who seems to be held back and therefore defeated by Jacob, rather than giving in to the Patriarch’s request, asks him his name: “What is your name?”. And the Patriarch replies: “Jacob” (v. 28). Here the struggle takes an important turn. In fact, knowing someone’s name implies a kind of power over that person because in the biblical mentality the name contains the most profound reality of the individual, it reveals the person’s secret and destiny. Knowing one’s name therefore means knowing the truth about the other person and this allows one to dominate him. When, therefore, in answer to the unknown person’s request Jacob discloses his own name, he is placing himself in the hands of his opponent; it is a form of surrender, a total handing over of self to the other.

(That article has really interesting insight about Jacob’s surrender actually being a victory, and his new name being both a positive counterpart to the negative meaning of Jacob’s previous name and a nod to the fact that God was, in fact, the victor.)

I’ve read that this idea of knowing a person’s name equals having mastery over them may even be why the Church discourages us from naming our guardian angels, and was part of this discussion regarding naming aborted babies. Heavy stuff!

What other literary works have similar perspectives or storylines about names? Do you know of other Catholic writings that discuss this idea?

(The book links are Amazon affiliate links.)


My book, Catholic Baby Names for Girls and Boys: Over 250 Ways to Honor Our Lady (Marian Press, 2018), is available to order from ShopMercy.org and Amazon — perfect for expectant parents, name enthusiasts, and lovers of Our Lady!