You wake to the crying of the babe.
The fire in the hearth, burning low now, casts familiar shadows about the room as you ease from your bed to check on the child.
A quick peek into the crib and all is well, and all is well.
The restless babe is quiet again, and the room seems safe to your sleep-fogged eyes.
You ease quietly back into bed and are asleep again before head meets pillow.
And all is quiet…,
…until the things in the rafters began to whisper and move.
…until winged shadows flutter from the dark corners like leaves on a breeze.
..until the murmur of coaxing, inhuman voices, drifts up from between the floorboards.
In the dim light of fading embers, long pale fingers reach out,
…and are gone.
And if you know anything of faerie-lore, you know how this tale ends.
What the parents find in the cradle come morning, while it may look like their infant, is something altogether different. The human child is gone, and will live the remainder of its days among the hidden folk. Left in its place is a changeling, one of their own kind, grown old and feeble after a life of centuries beyond count, and magically disguised to resemble the vanished infant.
The legends speak of many different ways in which the duped parents might eventually reveal the truth and rid themselves of the cunning gremlin that had invaded their home. But the missing child was almost always beyond recovery.
The only sure defense against the faeries, it was said, was to have the newborn baptized before they could come to claim it. Now, it is important to remember that most of these traditions pre-date the arrival of Christianity, and this particular part of the legend, like most intersections of the newer faith and older custom, is a bit misleading.
It is not the act of baptism itself that protects a child from faerie abduction, although it may seem to. Rather it is the act of granting the child a name, that does the trick.
Our ancestors understood that the world around them was shaped by language. A child, unnamed, undefined as it were, did not yet fully occupy a place in our world, and was vulnerable.
A few days ago I received a phone call from a collection agency looking to collect on a debt, made in my name, of which I hadn’t the slightest notion. In very short order, I found myself speaking with an agent of the Federal Trade Commission, a Credit Bureau representative, and a detective from my local police department. Fraud alerts were issued and nefarious activities are being investigated.
Although my credit reports, as of now, appear unblemished, the full extent of the damage to my name, if any, remains unclear.
And now that the initial rush of activity is over, I find it is the nature of this attack against me, that is both unsettling and deeply familiar. There are strangers out there, whom we may neither see nor touch, reaching into our lives and stealing from us the very thing that defines our place and standing within society.
We chatter about the particulars of passwords and social security numbers, because, in this impersonal society which we have built for ourselves, we are defined by the numbers which flow around us. Identity, in the modern world, has more to do with strings of numbers in some unseen database, than it does with the flesh, blood and bone that we see when we look in the mirror.
But is that really a truth only of this modern age, or has it always been so.
For my more skeptical acquaintances, the belief that to know the ‘true’ name of a thing is to have absolute power over that thing, is pure foolishness and superstition. And yet here we are, living in a world where that most ancient axiom of magic is proven, again and again, every single day.
A numerologist would tell us that our lives are guided by a collection of numbers. An economist would say the same thing. The two might argue about where the numbers come from, but the fundamental truth of the statement is unchanged.
The naming and numbering of things is the very foundation of our relationship to the world around us. Everything that exists, every object, every idea, has a name of its own. To know the name is to know the thing, and the better you know a thing, the more power you have over it. What we think of as science, is simply a codified, ritualized system for the naming of things, and it has been around since our earliest progenitors began stacking one rock atop another.
In the old stories, to know the true name of a living being, no matter how great his power, was to have power over him. The ancient Hebrews guarded the name of their god, because to speak it was to invoke his power, and to write it down was more dangerous still. Likewise, the Druids passed their knowledge verbally, from one generation to the next, taking care to never write it down, lest the power to transform reality should fall into hands less responsible and learned, than their own.
The of naming things, the ability to understand and manipulate them as expressions and concepts that exist beyond mere physicality, is the greatest power we have as a species. As smallest child learns that ancient truth while reading Rumplestilskin, so the most studied theologian must glean the same truth, hidden within his holy scriptures.
Et verbum caro factum est — And the word was made flesh.
We are the words, and the flesh, and the power.
And until we accept that truth, we are vulnerable!
Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names, they can undo you.