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The Magic of Names
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Jarandhel Dreamsinger
Arlington, VA

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Tuesday, 6th July, 2010 - 9:49 am
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“The beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right names.” -Chinese proverb.

So, one of my hobbies for a few years now has been researching the magic of names.  There's a lot of old lore and traditions surrounding it, but relatively little use of it in a modern context and even less discussion of the theories underlying it.  “To know a thing's true name” was to have power over it… or was that “to name a thing truly”?  To me, it seems that the real heart of name magic is not to know a secret name that is already there, but to bestow a name that speaks to the essence of what that thing really is.  A name which reveals.

I do have to admit, a lot of my take on this subject has been heavily influenced by a book I read when I was much younger… Wizard's Hall by Jane Yolen.  In many ways, it was the Harry Potter story 8 years before there was a Harry Potter, and done with far more skill to boot.  Its concept of magic was much older, darker, and somewhat more historically grounded than what J.K. Rowling came up with.  And the magic of names was a very crucial point of the plot.  While it was fictional and geared for children, and neither it nor I make any claims as to the accuracy of its portrayal of magic, something always brings me back to that book when I think about naming:

 

“Cut the Nettle, Grind it Small,

Save the day for Wizard's Hall,

White and Bee and Hedge and Red,

Blind and False and Deaf and Dead!”

 

“Rule number five – Magic happens when it's meant.”

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technobushi

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Tuesday, 6th July, 2010 - 7:03 pm
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My suggestion for you would be to study some of the language and naming conventions in other languages.

Kanji, Kana and Hangul characters each have multiple meanings.  They aren't just figures representing sounds, they actually have symbolic meanings and interpretations, and can even take similar shapes to what their images represent.  I suppose one of the nearest Western equivalents would be the Germanic Futhark.

To give a direct example: My name.  “Tenshi” means simply “angel”, however the deeper meanings encoded in the name change depending on which characters you use.  The ones I tend to use are the characters for “heaven” and “death”.  The character for “death” incidentally also associates with the number 4, and as a result is associated with death.  This convention creates a multi-layered sense of meaning; how the name is spoken as well as how it is written adds to the meaning.

I hope this helps.

(Disclaimer: I am not fluent in, nor am I an expert at interpreting, kanji,kana or hangul, or its derivatives.  Those who are more knowledgeable than I may correct me on certain points, or have more to add on this.)

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Claude

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Wednesday, 7th July, 2010 - 4:01 am
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Hmm since this is a very new thing to me and I don't recall magic in our world having much to do with words and names at all… here's the ultimate naive newbie question, how do different languages fall into this? If something or someone has a 'correct' name in one language, would an equivalent word in another language be incorrect? What about accents and dialogues and different scripts that would make it impossible for a person with a different native language (and without extreme linguistic talent) to pronounce or write it just right?

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Jarandhel Dreamsinger
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Wednesday, 7th July, 2010 - 6:24 pm
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Claude said:

Hmm since this is a very new thing to me and I don't recall magic in our world having much to do with words and names at all… here's the ultimate naive newbie question, how do different languages fall into this? If something or someone has a 'correct' name in one language, would an equivalent word in another language be incorrect? What about accents and dialogues and different scripts that would make it impossible for a person with a different native language (and without extreme linguistic talent) to pronounce or write it just right?

Well, like I said, I don't think the magic of names is really about finding some hidden secret “true name”.  I think it's about naming something truly, names that reveal.  To use an example you'd be familiar with, look at some kennings for Odin (as translated into English):

Allfather, Friend of Wealth, Enemy of the Wolf, Flaming Eye, Bale Worker, Father of Magical Songs, Wanderer, Dangler, Deceiver, Riddler

There are, obviously, many many more.  And each of these kennings is, in a sense, a true name… a name that reveals a truth about Odin.  He's a rather well-known god, so it's hard to find kennings for him that aren't already in use, but if I were to try to bestow a new name on the Old Rascal I might go with something like:

Loki's Shield-Brother

It's probably already in use somewhere, but at least it's not on that list.

The fact that it also has hidden layers of meaning… such as being an allusion to the way that Odin shielded Loki from the ire of the other Aesir… would theoretically add to its potency for magical use, much in the same manner as the hidden meanings of the characters in Tenshi's name that he mentioned.

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Claude

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Wednesday, 7th July, 2010 - 7:07 pm
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Ah, now I understand better what you mean. Thanks.

On a level between thinking creatures, I'd think I can relate insofar as there is a certain magic sometimes in being understood, either completely or else at least more profoundly than is usual. And it can pave the way for whatever further results, where a lack of such recognition would block all further paths. That of course as a very general thing as I'm not familiar with many details or a broad spectrum of magic from an insider's perspective. So in general I wouldn't know what to do with such a name then.

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Jarandhel Dreamsinger
Arlington, VA

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Friday, 9th July, 2010 - 9:31 am
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Liryen said:

Now I want to read Wizard's Hall.

I haven't read it in years (save for finding a partial copy online to pull that quote from), but I remember it being a great book.  It's very much a kid's book, but it connects with the full fairytale theme… the old, dark ones, where grandmothers and little girls get eaten by wolves and hunters have to cut them out again.

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