Thursday, February 27, 2014

Use names and true names in our world and Earthsea

Fans of Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea fantasy series are familiar with the concept of true names and use names: All things have a 'true name'. People are generally given a use name at birth, the name they use in public life. When a person comes of age, his/her true name is revealed to him/her by a magic practitioner,1 but this true name is generally kept secret and only shared with trusted individuals.

Anyway I find it interesting that the concept of private 'true names' in Earthsea has its parallels on our mundane world of Earth. Anthrolopologist Theodora Kroeber, mother of Ursula Le Guin,2 wrote: "A California Indian almost never speaks his own name, using it but rarely with those who already know it, and he would never tell it in reply to a direct question."3

The Tohono O'odham people who inhabit Arizona and northern Mexico also have an Earthsea-like naming tradition. Karen Liptak wrote in Indians of the Southwest: "In times past, a Tohono O'odham mother and her new baby would stay in a special house for a month after the birth. Then a sunrise ceremony was held, at which the medicine man gave the baby a name that had come to him in a dream. This name was never spoken. Instead, nicknames were used."4

  1. "The Rule of Names" on wikipedia
  2. Theodora Kroeber on wikipedia
  3. Ishi apparently wasn't the last Yahi, according to new evidence from UC Berkeley research archaeologist
  4. Karen Liptak, Indians of the Southwest, p52