At being defeated, Rumplestiltskin takes off into the night, never to be heard from again, and this classic tale ends happily for the humans, and not so happily for the gnome. This tale is repeated in many guises with the same basic plot throughout many cultures, and spirits such as Gebhart, Girle Guairle, Hipche, Kruzimugeli, Mollyndroat, Kinkach Martinko, and Peerifool have likewise been banished by someone who knows the spirit's true name.
The use of true names is widespread, across many cultures, times and paradigms. Spirits and humans alike have known since the dawn of intelligence that true names have power. Superman carefully hides his true name, because in knowing that, his enemies could destroy him by destroying the life of Clark Kent. Many hackers hide behind aliases and groups such as Anonymous wear masks, for letting the public at large know their true names could destroy their ability to wield the power that they do. Many Witches and occultists have always have kept their true names a secret, instead using aliases and magical monikers to protect their privacy and personal life. Performers and artists of all sorts likewise use stage names and noms de plume for the same reason.
Cats, as described in T.S. Eliot's "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats" each have their own secret name, too.
But above and beyond there's still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover--
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
-T.S. Eliot, "The naming of cats"
Still, true names are not limited to spirits and people. Even though I do not apply a purely scientific, psychological "it's all in your head" paradigm to my work with magic and spirits, it is still a useful fact that many emotional and mental states (particularly the undesirable ones) have been blamed on spirits in many cultures. Spiritual healers have prayed and worked over their distressed patients to pull the baneful spirits out and to heal them. I've heard some modern-day therapists suggest to their patients that they imagine their pain, anger, or addiction in an anthropomorphic form and confront it; Psychology has not strayed too far from the spirit model at all. For some who are dealing with particularly strong mental or emotional difficulties, approaching them as spirits is a very useful therapeutic angle to take. The first step in this process is to learn the spirit's name.
Addictions are one such disorder that some might attribute to a spirit. Consider this. By naming the spirit what it is - addiction - one can start to exert control over it. Looking over the 12 steps of addiction recovery programs, the first step says, "We admitted we were powerless over our addiction - that our lives had become unmanageable." In other words, name it. Harry Potter was never afraid to name Voldemort, and in doing so he eventually was able to exert enough power over him to defeat him. People in 12-step programs need to name their demons for exactly what they are first and foremost. Until those people in addiction recovery programs name the spirits that are controlling them, the spirits will always own them. Perhaps one day, Rumplestiltskin will collect his due when child services comes along to collect the children from those who could not control the spirits.
Scientists name things all the time. There's an entire discipline - taxonomy - devoted to collecting the names of every living thing on Earth and organizing them into useful classifications. Without knowing the kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus and species of that plant you just plucked, you have no idea whether it will feed you or kill you. You have only experimental data to go on, and one test subject you can rightfully experiment upon - yourself. Knowing the true name of the plant means that you can work with the plant, know its uses and understand its dangers. Knowing the true name of the plant gives you power over this plant, the power to wield and use the plant effectively.
Physicians make naming a large part of their trade. After all, how can one prescribe the right treatment without naming the bacteria or virus that is causing the disease? Spirits, too, are blamed by many for physical ailments. The healers of cultures far and wide have named them as well for much the same reason. Knowing the names of these spirits allow the healers across all of these cultures to banish them.
One of a magic worker's greatest powers is to name things. Part of working magic is naming things that do not exist yet, but will as soon as the name is spoken. Working a spell is to create something that will manifest on earth. The first thing to do, then, is to define the goal, to clearly shape and concisely summarize the intended outcome. The rest of the working is about giving enough power to the name so that it can manifest into reality. This process is true for casting a spell just as it is true for creating a business, building a house, and pretty much any other creative act I can think of. Name it, empower it, manifest it, then enjoy it.
Truth is, I use naming constantly. However, by understanding the power of names, I can work with them more effectively (thereby naming again). I seek as part of my ever evolving magical development to know the true names of as many things as possible. Still, my cats will never let me know their true names, but I'm OK with having a little mystery in my life, too.
This article was originally published at The Witches Voice.