The folklore surrounding the fae, also known as faeries or fairies, has origins stretching back thousands of years. Throughout history and across cultures, a common theme found in myths and legends about the fae is their penchant for taking people’s names.
What are the fae?
The word “fae” encompasses a diverse range of mythical beings, including elves, goblins, gnomes, pixies, and many more. They are frequently depicted as humanoid creatures with magical powers who live in forests, underground, or in an invisible realm that coexists with the human world.
The fae have roots in ancient Celtic, Germanic, and Norse folklore. They were part of pagan belief systems that revered nature and spirits. When Christianity spread through Europe, the fae became associated with demons and pagan rituals. They were sometimes depicted as tricky creatures who interacted with humans out of self-interest rather than benevolence.
Stealing names in folklore
Folktales from Ireland, Scotland, England, and Scandinavia frequently involve the fae kidnapping humans, replacing human babies with changelings, or luring people into the fae realm. A common theme is that knowing a faerie’s true name gives power over them. This makes them very protective of their names. As a result, the fae seek to steal the names of humans to gain control and prevent humans from having power over them.
This motif shows up in tales from diverse regions. For example, in Scandinavian folklore there are stories of the huldra, a beautiful forest creature who takes the name of her human lover to wed him and gain his soul. An English tale called “The Fish and the Ring” features a human learning a fairy’s name and thus gaining three wishes from her.
The power of names
In many folklore traditions, names are tied to one’s destiny, soul, or magical essence. Knowing the true name of a person or creature was thought to give power over them. Jewish traditions forbid people from erasing or destroying the name of God. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the god Ra’s secret true name possessed immense power.
Therefore, the secrecy and theft of names was an important theme in folktales involving the fae. If you knew a faerie’s true name, you could potentially summon them, control them, or break any spells they cast on you. And if they knew your name, they could have power over you, too. This made names dangerous but valuable knowledge when dealing with the fae.
One of the most chilling examples of faeries stealing names is in the legends surrounding changelings. Changelings were fairies who were left in place of stolen human babies. It was widely believed that faeries would steal away human babies and replace them with a sickly or odd-looking faerie child. The imposter was a changeling.
In order to trick humans into believing the changeling was their original child, the faeries needed to know the child’s name. Knowing the name gave the faerie glamour—the ability to create illusions—and helped them mimic the stolen child. Calling a changeling by the wrong name could break their disguise and cast them back into the faerie realm.
|Changeling folk beliefs||Region|
|Changelings could be revealed by brewing beer in eggshells||Ireland|
|You could get your real baby back by abusing the changeling||England|
|Changelings were weak, ugly or had a voracious appetite||Across Europe|
Protection and deception
Beyond just folktales, historical records show that belief in changelings persisted well into the 19th century in rural parts of Europe. Parents would go to great lengths to protect their child’s name from being discovered by faeries. Baptisms were rushed, nicknames were given, and only a select few knew the child’s true name.
Ironically, not calling the child by their given name could also raise suspicions that they were a changeling. Any physical or behavioral oddities in the child might be chalked up to them being a faerie imposter. Some parents resorted to extreme measures to try and get the real child back from the faeries. This included punishing or even killing the changeling child.
The importance of names
While these are just stories, they reveal the underlying belief that names had real power and that the fae could use them for deception and control. Beyond stories of changelings, many myths involved faeries seeking to learn human names for their own magical purposes and self-interest. The theme of stealing or exchanging names recurs frequently in legends from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England, and Scandinavia. It persists into modern-day beliefs about the fae.
Examples of fae name theft
- Rumplestiltskin – Must guess his name to break his contract
- Tam Lin – Reveal his faerie name to free him
- Whuppity Stoorie – His name reveals his true monstrous form
Some common practices thought to protect against faerie name theft included:
- Not revealing a baby’s name until baptism
- Using nicknames
- Avoiding talking about the fae by name
These traditions reveal how deeply important names were considered. They were treated as a vulnerability that the fae could exploit to control mortal lives. The fae’s desire to know and take human names stems from centuries of lore and reveals a darkly mischievous side to these mythical beings. They were not always the sweet, gentle creatures of today’s fairy tales. Faeries were often viewed as clever tricksters seeking to gain power over mortals. The stealing of names was just one tool in their arsenal. It was a deeply rooted folk belief that a name had power and that the fae coveted such power over humans.
The faeries’ obsession with names spans generations of mythology and folklore. It stems from a historical belief that a name had magical power and that knowing someone’s true name gave you power over them. For the fae, stealing the names of humans allowed them to control, deceive, or exploit them. While these are just legends, they reveal the important role names played in beliefs about magic and identity.
The persistence of name theft as a motif in European faerie lore reflects both a distrust of the fae and a desire to disempower them by keeping names secret. It also represents anxieties about child abduction and impersonation. Parents went to great lengths to try and protect their children’s names, especially at vulnerable times such as birth, for fear of faerie interference. These precautions lasted well into the modern period in remote areas where folk beliefs held strong.
So the legends of the fae seeking to rob humans of their names seem to be part of a larger desire humans had for self-protection. Names were deeply meaningful, and losing yours to a faerie could upend your life entirely. These beliefs live on in the continued presence of name theft in today’s fairy tales, modern fiction, and even games. The fae’s desire for human names reflects a centuries-old folk belief that to know a name is to have power and control. This made names both dangerous and precious when dealing with those unpredictable fae.