The Significance of Names: A Brief Exploration

(This is an archived post written by Red, who has since moved to

The topic of names is something that has been on my mind for quite some time, and it seemed fitting that with the launch of this new blog, I’d write about and explore that which is customarily associated with births and new beginnings. Cultures around the world will attest to the fact that names are not only essential out of practicality, but also deeply influential on the future of a child. They are wards and wishes, blessings and protections, but in fairy faith, magic and witchcraft, they can also be weapons wielded against you—give the wrong spirit or witch your name, and be prepared for all manner of malice, mischief and misfortune to be unleashed upon you. After all, one of the most renowned pieces of folklore surrounding the Good Folk is that you should never give them your name. But what specifically is it about names that make them so important?

The most obvious answer, of course, is that they are what you are identified by. Names, in essence, are a summation of your identity and personality, and often reflect pre-existing circumstances—betraying occupations and regions from which they originate. But they are also definitions: to name something is to define them, to grant it purpose and meaning. It is why we name tools, emotions, children, spirits—to bestow upon them our hopes and intentions for their purpose, to create an identity they can grow into and fulfil. This, of course, strengthens with the choice to continue using it as a representation of yourself, both in your eyes and that of others.

In Chinese folklore, names are believed to be tied to fate, as it is believed that a child’s name will shape and determine how the rest of their life will play out. As such, great care is taken before a name is determined, and elements including but not limited to the meaning of the name in question will be thoroughly considered. It is not uncommon for parents to consult experts in Feng Shui or religious leaders and diviners before choosing a name for their child. This often takes the form of consulting Bazi charts to analyse the conditions of a child’s birth and how it will grow to affect their lives and personalities, then selecting names to balance out any deficiencies in any elements found in those charts. My name, for instance, was primarily intended to balance out a deficiency of water in my chart. That said, it is also believed that a name can grow inauspicious with time, and there are numerous stories of those struggling with issues regarding their health, finances or romance who change their names and experience a drastic reversal of fortune as a result. This addresses the question of significance, while also providing some ideas for those of you who are magically inclined: the warping or changing of an existing name for a target could be used to reverse, harm or heal.

In a similar vein, some cultures choose names for their children that mean ugly, sick, or unremarkable, as this is believed to thwart spirits that might steal them by convincing them that these children are just that. This suggests that the names we choose might be just as important or even equivalent—to spirits if not to other humans—as our own natures. 

Then, of course, there are the names, or more specifically, titles, epithets, or descriptors one may use in lieu of a name. This comes in more specifically with the names given by certain deities and spirits, namely the Fair Folk, who are notoriously loath to part with their true names. These can either be derived from historical or folkloric sources, obtained directly from spirits, or fashioned yourself from your observations and interactions with a spirit or deity. While perhaps not adhering to our expectations of what a name is, these can be comparably significant as they still contain information and power, being that which these spirits are and can be called by. In addition, it could be extremely revelatory—providing clues as to the nature of the spirit, the aspect of themselves they wish for you to work with, and the form of relationship they wish to take with you. Similarly, if it is an epithet you have fashioned for them, it can serve both as an offering of praise or a tool with which to share your perspective and intentions for the relationship. It is not an unwise habit to utilise these, as it encourages specificity that can ensure you are, in fact, reaching the spirits that you intend to call upon, while also assisting in strengthening your bonds with them. To that effect, calling upon deities using epithets can strengthen your prayers, invocations and workings with them, both as an exploration of their depth and power, and as a clarification in prayers or magic that allow them to know which aspect of theirs you are calling upon—and what sort of help you are seeking—in any given setting. In the context of Hellenic polytheism, for example, to call upon Aphrodite Areia would be to invoke Aphrodite’s warlike aspect, which would make sense in prayers to her to aid you in seeking justice, whereas to invoke her as Aphrodite Pandemos would serve you better in matters of sensual pleasure. 

The numerous epithets, euphemisms, and names people have given to the fae over the years expand on this, while also providing an example of names as a vessel of hope: they are names that seek to flatter or remind the Folk of their better natures to avoid drawing their ire. There is an example of this in an old poem:

“Gin ye ca’ me imp or elf
I rede ye look weel to yourself;
Gin ye call me fairy
I’ll work ye muckle tarrie;
Gind guid neibour ye ca’ me
Then guid neibour I will be;
But gin ye ca’ me seelie wicht
I’ll be your freend baith day and night.”

— transcribed by Robert Chambers, from ‘Popular Rhymes of Scotland’

(“If you call me imp or elf
I advise you look well to yourself;
If you call me fairy
I’ll work you great misery;
If good neighbour you call me
Then good neighbour I will be;
But if you call me blessed sprite,
I’ll be your friend both day and night.”)

Here, the advice imparted is that to call one of the Folk by a name that is either unflattering or reflective of their more mischievous nature would be to invite their mischief or malice, and to utilise a name that calls upon or reminds them of their better nature would be to enjoy better company. It suggests and reaffirms my previous point that the names you choose to invoke your gods and spirits by can determine the aspects of them that answer.

The significance of names boils down to this: they are a summary of who you are, what you consider yourself to be, and everything else laid out in front of you. They are the essence of your identity: what is, what has been, and what will be, and all the hopes and wishes tied to that. They are what you answer to, what has been chosen for you and what you have chosen. They are what you are known by. So guard, choose, and examine your names well, for within those simple syllables hold the key to you: your past, your present, and your future.

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