“That’s Not My Name!”- names, power and secrecy in Faery

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Tam Lin, by Joanna Barnum.

“They forget my name

They call me Hel,

They call me Stacey,

They call me her,

They call me Jane

That’s not my name”

The Ting Tings, ‘That’s not my name’, 2008

In the traditional Scottish ballad of Tam Lin, a handsome human boy has been abducted to Elfland to serve in the fairy queen’s retinue.  His sweetheart, Janet, agrees to help save him and bring him home but he warns her of the obstacles she will face in attempting this.  The fairies will change his form to try to scare her, but additionally he advises her:

“First, they did call me Jack, he said,

And then they called me John,

But since I lived in the fairy court

Tomlin has always been my name.”

These lines very strongly imply that, as part of his kidnapping and detention, a change of name has played a part.

Fairy Names

We know already the power of names in Faery.  Fairies often conceal their names from humans in order to preserve their power, but are as often careless in doing so, meaning that they are outwitted in the end.  Welsh brownie Gwarwyn-a-throt exemplifies this: he is overheard by his intended victim foolishly repeating his name to himself, gloating that it is a secret- and so he is undone.  In another example, also from Walespossession of the fairy maiden’s name constrained her to marry the man who discovered it (Rhys, Celtic Folklore, p.45).

Concealment of identity by this simple strategy is found in another ballad, The Knight and the Shepherd’s Daughter, although in this case a seducer is trying to avoid taking any responsibility for a child he has fathered.  Before he leaves her, the knight is asked for his name by the shepherdess and he responds, evasively:

“Some men do call me Jack, sweetheart,

And some do call me John;

But when I come to the King’s fair court,

They call me Sweet William.”

The lines in these two ballads are obviously very similar; there may well have been borrowing from one song to another, in fact.  Nonetheless, this shouldn’t detract from the significance of personal names in Faery.

On this point, I think that it’s also highly significant that the evidence from the Scottish witch trials of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries regularly refers to the existence of a king and queen of Elfame, but these royal personages never have a personal name.  This could well be because they wished to preserve their power and mystery from us untrustworthy humans.  For that matter, the few names we have for faery royalty- Mab, Oberon, Titania– are all imported from outside the British Isles.  None are authentic, native names.

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“That’s not my name!”- Grumpy fairy by Linda Ravenscroft

Human Names

Similar magic applies to human names, which should in all cases be withheld from the faes.  There is a class of stories to which I’ve referred several times in my posts, the so-called ‘ainsel’ theme, which hinges upon this point.  A human meets a fairy of some description and, on being asked his/her name, cannily responds ‘mi ainsel,’ ‘misen’ or the Gaelic equivalent ‘mi-fhín’ (all meaning ‘myself’).  Some dispute then arises between them, the human fends of the fairy’s attack and injures it, and the fairy flees to complain to a parent or to its companions.  They are unsympathetic, because the aggrieved fae has to admit that it was ‘myself’ who inflicted the harm.  This story involves simple self-preservation, but concealing a name is a more general protection against supernatural control.  Put simply, if the fairies have a grievance against you, it’s harder for them to find you if they don’t have your name!

A name can, therefore, be a source of power and of protection.  It follows-as with Tam Lin- that the fairies could very likely want to change an abductee’s name when that person is safely ‘under the hill,’ so as to make it harder for family and friends to retrieve him or her.  There could well be another aspect to this too, though. The harsh truth is that, for many visitors to Elfame, the experience is an unpleasant and involuntary one.  They are taken as captives and held in servitude, performing chores for the fairies (whether child rearing or kitchen duties) that are never-ending and exhausting.  Such conditions can only be called slavery and it has, of course, been the practice of human slave masters throughout history to rename their slaves, taking away their individuality and rendering them more clearly someone else’s property.  It would make sense for the faes to do the same: if they have a human skivvying in the kitchens, or serving at banquets, they have to be able to call them something, but they may very well wish to avoid using their proper personal names.

Finally, we ought to recognise that fairy expert Lewis Spence felt uncertain about the significance of the lines in Tam Lin.  He had made a wide study of British and world folklore and could not think of other examples of a name change being part of the magical detention of a captive.  Nevertheless, he also observed that in some versions of the ballad Janet has to keep calling out Tam’s name as she undertakes his rescue, further suggesting that there is some spell residing in the unearthly name that has to be broken to free the boy from the fairy queen’s clutches.

Further reading

See my forthcoming book, Faery, from Llewellyn International (March 2020) and my previous postings on silence in faery company, on fairy name taboos and on fairies’ personal names.

grumpy red fairy

“That’s not my name!” Grumpy Red Fairy by Jasmine Becket-Griffith