Last summer I read through the Harry Potter series again. Cracking splendid tale, those (he said in his best Posh accent). One thing that struck me was the constant fear of the wizard community (except for Harry, of course, and Dumbledore) to speak the name of Voldemort. The good guys in the book tended to call him He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, or in more familiar parlance You-Know-Who. The bad guys called him “The Dark Lord.” But both camps agreed. You don’t say his name: The bad guys did this out of respect, devotion and fear, and the good guys out of, well, fear.
One of John Lennon’s close friends said that, after John’s murder, nobody among his close friends or family will speak the name of Mark David Chapman. I believe this is probably out of pain as much as anything else, although I am not exactly in John Lennon’s inner circle or anything, and certainly haven’t interviewed them.
Nevertheless, fantasy, or reality, Albus Dumbledore’s argument was this: not using the name of something increases the fear of the thing itself; in effect, it gives power over you. In “primitive” cultures it’s common to not speak the name of something: it’s tabu. It might evoke bad luck or evil spirits. Heck, even the Hebrew community (using the religious sense of the term) refuses to speak hashem (the name). In the Bible, the name of God is peppered with the tetragrammaton יהוה, which we pronounce like Yahweh, and religious Jews don’t pronounce at all. When they see it in the text of the Bible, they automatically say אדוני adonai, or “My Lord.”
In a Christian, or Christian-like culture in the 21st century, we find this practice both fascinating and repugnant. We try to place ourselves somehow above the barbarism that is “name replacement”. Yet when I was a child, I was told not to say something aloud for fear of making it come true. It stems from those verses in the Bible that say “As a man thinketh in his heart, so is he” (Proverbs 23:7) and “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (Philippians 4:8). (Hey — I memorized them in 1611 King James speech way back in Sunday School when I was a tater tot. I’m not about to re-memorize these in NIV or anything…) The latter verse has become almost a Christian commandment not to think other things. I suppose if we spent our time thinking about good, true, honest, just, pure, and lovely things, we’d run out of time to think of bad things. I also suppose we’d be extremely dull.
But I’m wandering a bit off point. When Sister So-and-So was sick, we were admonished for thinking the opposite of Phil. 4:8 philosophy. Sister So-and-So was sure to die in the county hospital if we didn’t claim, believe, and concentrate on her healing. Now, I’m not saying I don’t believe in the power of words. I’m just pointing out that we “world-wise” modern Christians aren’t much better than the Africans who won’t say the name of a snake in certain regions (so as not to garner bad luck); or medieval occultists who wore the name of God in a pendant around their neck as a ward against golem attacks.
At least fifty times a year when I was growing up, I heard the words “Every head bowed, every eye closed, nobody looking around…” Is anyone familiar with this? It meant that an altar call was about to happen. People were about to give their lives over to God. It also meant that, despite the warning, every kid in the audience would peek from between his fingers just to see who was raising their hand to the minister’s call. But for the most part it worked, The idea was to give the meditative, repentant person some privacy. Or maybe it was because God doesn’t like a snoop. Regardless, I still think of this “incantation” and know exactly what those words mean, even though I haven’t heard anyone speak the power of repentance for 20 years.
I heard comments like “don’t say “God Damn” because it’s a commandment, and God will.” …As if we could control God’s actions by the force of our words? I think God’s got other, more interesting work to do, than to spend eternity going after the entire cast of Pulp Fiction, just because of Quentin Tarantino’s fondness for invective.
But my point is this. Whether or not we choose to deny it, words and names are powerful, if not because they have incantatory magic within them, at least because we still ascribe power to words and names. We might not be firing up golems with Hashem plates anymore, but we certainly might want to give it a go, just for fun.