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!

Spotlight on: Jacob

The consultation and birth announcement I posted recently have me thinking that a spotlight on Jacob would be a good idea.

Jacob! Who doesn’t love Jacob! It’s been America’s darling for years now — it’s currently at #4 but it was #1 from 1999-2012. Thirteen years at #1! Top ten for nearly 25 years! The lowest it ever got was #318 in 1950; it was in the top 100 for a good portion of the first decade of the 20th century and jumped in again in 1974 and never looked back.

jacob
Screen shot from the Social Security Administration web site

Jacob has so many things going for it — it’s Old Testament, for one thing, and a big Old Testament name at that: the Patriarch Jacob, son of Isaac, son of Abraham; his name was changed to Israel after wrestling with God in the Book Genesis, and a whole nation took its name from him. Pope Benedict discussed the name change in one of his public addresses, including the significance of names in general, awesome stuff. (As a side note, Jill Duggar named her baby Israel.) It’s also got the amazing nickname Jake, one of my forever favorites. It’s also — hold onto your hat! — the same name as James:

james

I mentioned that on Instagram the other day, and one of you commented:

According to ancestry.com, one of my mom’s uncle’s middle name switched between Jacob and James on different documents.”

How cool is that?! Name knowledge is helpful in so many areas! So if you’re looking to honor a James — saint, family member, friend — and for whatever reason can’t/don’t want to use James, Jacob is a perfect alternative. At the same time, Jake has history of use as a nickname for James, so that’s an option too.

Even though the Church recognizes the holy ones of the Old Testament as saints (CCC no. 61: “The patriarchs, prophets and certain other Old Testament figures have been and always will be honored as saints in all the Church’s liturgical traditions“) (I wish I had come across that when I was researching this post!), including Jacob the Patriarch, I suspect that Jacob doesn’t come across to most people as saintly and/or as Catholicky Catholic as some other names. Any of the Sts. James can work as patron, but little Jacob Miles’ birth announcement really inspired me to find some holy Jacobs. CatholicSaints.info lists several (here, here, here), and Bl. Jakob Gapp was the one I chose for the IG post for the birth announcement. I’ve been thinking about him ever since — I’d never heard of him before, but what an amazing and holy man he was! He fought in WWI, then became a Marianist priest and teacher. The Marianists have a beautiful profile on him, and this part really got me:

Required by his superior to wear a Swastika badge and greet people in public with a “Heil Hitler,” he conscientiously refused. He felt it his duty to continue in the schoolroom and in his sermons to denounce Nazism as anti-Christian. When a fellow teacher was reported as telling the children they should “hate and kill Czechs and Jews,” he considered himself
duty-bound to refute him in his own class.”

He was eventually arrested, interrogated, and beheaded by the Nazis:

One of his interrogators (who is still alive) says that Heinrich Himmler, head of the Gestapo, insisted on reading transcripts of all that the Marianist priest said. Himmler eventually observed to one of the judges, that if the million Nazi party members were as committed to Nazism as Father Gapp was to Catholicism, Germany would be winning the war without difficulty.”

If that isn’t an amazing, holy Jacob, I don’t know who is!

Besides James, other variants of Jacob include Giacomo, Yakub, Iago, Jaime, Jamie, Seamus, and Jacques, and there’s also the feminine Jacqueline, Jacoba, Jamesina, and Jamie. Nicknames include Jake and the super cute Coby, Cubby, and Jeb; A Dictionary of English Surnames by Reaney & Wilson also says that the English surname Cobbet(t), dating back to 1275, is from:

Cob-et, Cob-ot, diminutives of Cob, a pet-form of Jacob.”

Such a cute, unusual nickname idea!

There is so much fun info regarding Jacob, a truly great name! What else do you all know about Jacob? Would you name a son Jacob, or have you? Does he go by a nickname, and if so, which one?

 

Papa Benny on the significance of names

I was doing some research for a spotlight on Jacob, which I’ll post later this morning, and came across this bit from our dear Pope Emeritus Benedict, regarding the incident in the bible when Jacob fights the unknown assailant (Genesis 32:23-33):

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.”

It’s commentary like this that reinforces for me that our interest in names isn’t frivolous at all — names are so important!