Archive for the ‘right naming’ Tag

The Name’s the Thing — 2

[Part 1 | Part 2| Part 3]

An understanding of the power of naming is ancient and world-wide. During his lifetime, the Chinese sage Confucius was asked what he would do if he were a ruler, and he replied that he would “rectify the names” (Chinese zheng ming). He explained that words need to correspond to reality.

Damage that alignment, destroy the match-up between word and thing, he continued, and social order collapses. Or to jump ahead millennia and borrow from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy, “enterprises of great pitch and moment,/With this regard their currents turn awry,/And lose the name of action”. In other words, to jump still further ahead in time to almost our century and to the much-quoted words of W. B. Yeats, “Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;/Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world …”. Bards get these things, and warn us sometimes centuries in advance of when we’ll need them.

Or to put it in the unpoetic jargon of our times, things suck cuz our names for them are wrong.

It’s not always wholly that simple, but it’s also not so far off.


“A rose by any other name
Would get the blame
For being what it is–
The colour of a kiss,
The shadow of a flame.
A rose may earn another name,
So call it love;
So call it love I will,
And love is like the sea,
Which changes constantly,
And yet is still
The same” — Tanith Lee
A test for each of us: does this poem clarify, or obscure?

Likewise in ancient Egypt, where knowing the true names of people and things gave you power over them. U. K. LeGuin develops this idea in her Earthsea books. There her characters have “use names”, and hold their true names secret. For mages as persons of power, this practice is even more essential. And aren’t we all “persons of power”, however unclaimed? (Disempowerment is the magic too many wield today, against themselves as much as against anyone else.)

Sparrowhawk, the use-name of the wizard hero of the Earthsea books, goes through a naming ceremony on the cusp of adolescence. The mage Ogion “reached out his hand and clasping the boy’s arm whispered to him his true name: Ged. Thus was he given his name by one very wise in the uses of power” (A Wizard of Earthsea).

Egyptians in the times of the Pharaohs as well as Native Americans and many other peoples took on new names after defining events or achievements. To cite just one example from contemporary culture, Lily Collins’ anorexic character in the 2017 film To the Bone is given a new name by her therapist to help her imagine and discover her identity as someone other than a sick young woman.

Some of us pick up nicknames from others (including ones we may loathe), as well as give them to beings that matter in our lives. Dog and cat owners know this well. We give our loved ones “pet names”. And again, among the Egyptians, if you can name someone or something accurately, write its name on a pottery shard or piece of parchment, and then destroy the object that bears the name, you lessen the power of the person or thing.

A common rationalist view (an egregore at work there, too, one claiming that reason alone is exempt from all bias) calls this the rankest superstition. But insofar as words and names matter — and you need only scan current headlines to see a myriad of examples that names do matter, and deeply — that’s exactly where we’re living, whether we think we participate or not. “Superstition” literally stands (Latin sta-, stit-) over (Latin super) us. Are government stay-at-home orders “safety precautions” or “tyranny”? What we call them matters in concrete, “real-world” ways.

Next door in New Hampshire, protesters against the virus lockdown rally in the state capital. An added poignancy or irony: the NH state motto is “Live free or die”. People are hurting, both from the virus directly, and from restrictions around it. Does the binary of “live free or die” offer a good path forward, or might the Druid practice of transforming a binary into a ternary prove beneficial?


Breitbart News, 18 April 2020

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In the previous post in this series, I asked these questions:

What is your best name? (Do you have more than one?) How can you invite it into your awareness most beneficially? What reminders of it can you build into your days?

With some time spent in meditation, you can answer the first question for yourself. Make a name-giving ritual that’s meaningful to you — an opportunity to manifest your creativity. Consider both the power of writing down your name, or wearing it, perhaps in a locket or pouch around your neck, and also of keeping it secret, guarding its energy even as you build it, and never committing it to writing.

Maybe you take on a different name for each day of the week. More elaborately, you dedicate yourself to a month of name work. A different name for each day of the month. Watch for names you are taking into your awareness. What names are you giving to things? What names do you have for the events and circumstances and people you encounter during the day, week, or month? What power do you give them (or take from them) as a result of your naming?

If your birthday or another significant day is near, how can you consecrate that day and the names you’ve given it? “Oh, that’s the day that I ___ “. So what difference does that name make in your memory and experience? Try it out, with serious and also silly names.

Sticking with these practices, even if only for an hour at first, and then a whole day — or week — can demonstrate their efficacy and value better than anything I can write here.

What prayers can you create for your (new) name? Does that sound strange at first? Maybe a simple triad: “I shine the power of today’s sunlight on my name. I give the love of my ancestors to my name. I feed my name with the pungency of nutmeg” and so on. Work with this name, and spend time using it in contemplation. “By the power of my name, I ____ ”

May you find names of beauty, wisdom and freedom, and welcome them into your lives.

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Images: Breitbart photo of NH protest;

“The Name’s the Thing”

From a distance, Devil’s Tower National Monument in Wyoming looms over the landscape, prominent against the horizon, but once you enter the park surrounding it, it seems to vanish, only to reappear in fits and starts at first, peeping over colorful hills and cliff faces.

Geologically, we’re told, the tower is properly an igneous intrusion or eroded laccolith, two fun pieces of scientific jargon, technically descriptive, but lacking something nonetheless. And “Devil’s Tower”?  Why should the baddie of Judeo-Christianity get any credit at all for this splendid rock formation?  Let him stick to devilled eggs and devil’s food cake.

Those of us over a certain age may recall the Tower’s appearance as dramatic staging in the final portion of the ’77 Spielberg sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a pop-culture association that now seriously dates us.


bearlodgeMy wife and I arrived late in the day, which helped throw the tower’s dramatic vertical striations into high relief. A park information kiosk quietly points out that the English name “Devil’s Tower” is comparatively recent. Native names from several different tribes associate the formation with the bear — the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Crow and Lakota all call it some variation of “Bear’s Lodge” or “Bear’s House” and their traditional stories describe bears marking the great stone with their claws.*  (You can read several versions under the section “Native American Folklore” here.)

Both name and thing started shifting for me as I read this: a good name illuminates the thing, and the thing itself lives more brightly and fully under a good name. I can still feel the association “stick” — now a piece at least of that older (and to me more apt) story has become part of this landscape.  Devil’s Tower, yes.  But the “real” name, well, that’s a different matter.  Invoke the place in memory by the older name — in this case a good one — and its naming story comes with it.  Misname something, or someone, and you may not be able to see that thing or person clearly or truthfully.


Bear’s Lodge, now I pass along a little of your story to others, so they too may enjoy the rightness of a good name.

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*The tower remains a sacred site for several tribes.  “In 2005,” the Wikipedia article notes, “a proposal to recognize several Native American ties through the additional designation of the monolith as Bear Lodge National Historic Landmark” faced political opposition and the argument that a “name change will harm the tourist trade and bring economic hardship to area communities.”

Image:  Bear over Devil’s Tower — park info kiosk.

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