Today I figured I’d write a bit about an interesting phenomenon in Scandinavian folklore: the concealment of the true names of some of our wild animals.
The idea that a true name holds magical power is fairly universal; it pops up in everything from Egyptian mythology to German fairytales, and nowadays it’s a pretty common fantasy trope too. In Nordic folklore in particular, it was often believed that speaking the true name of a dangerous creature could actually summon it. For example, the English idiom “speak of the devil (and he shall appear)” has as its Swedish equivalent “speak of the trolls (and they stand in the hallway)”, stemming from the belief that trolls would appear if you mentioned them by name.
Now, what’s really interesting about all this is the way it’s shaped the Swedish language. You see, the danger of speaking a creature’s name out loud also applied to wild animals that were feared in the old days: bears, wolves, and so on. As a result, people invented new names for these animals - false names, if you will, that could be spoken without risk. Nowadays, such false names are said to be “noa words”, while the true names are “tabu words” (these terms are borrowed from Māori, just like the English word taboo).
Over time, the noa words for many of these animals became their de facto names. That’s just kind of how language works: call something an X enough times, and voilà, now its name is X. Even today, many of our animals’ true names are archaic words that a Swedish speaker would never use naturally. Here are some examples:
Wolf: The true name of the wolf is ulv, which shares its etymology with the English word. Ulv is archaic; the average Swedish speaker would recognize it, but never think to use it. Instead, we say varg, which originally means something along the lines of “killer” or “criminal”.
Magpie: The true name of the magpie is skjora. This word is still in use in some dialects, but most Swedish people would not have heard it, and it is not officially recognized. Instead we say skata, meaning “something long and thin” or “something that sticks out”, referring to the tail. The magpie might not seem like an animal to be afraid of, but they were considered bad omens, thieves, or even harbingers of death… and besides, have you ever been swooped by a magpie?
Fox: The true name of the fox is räv, and in this case, it has actually remained in usage. I guess the fox wasn’t intimidating enough for its name to become completely forbidden, hehe! In the old days, farmers would sometimes refer to the fox as Mickel to avoid summoning it. You see, foxes weren’t direct threats to humans, but they did have a tendency to break into hen houses and run off with the chickens. (This is also why foxes are known in our folklore for being cunning and sly, rather than outright dangerous). I’m not entirely sure why the farmers chose to refer to the fox by what is essentially a Scandinavian version of “Michael”, but I did a bit of digging, and it turns out that old Danish uses Mikkel as a generic insult for an incompetent or foolish man. So, I guess it’s a little bit like calling the fox an asshole.
Bear: The true name of the bear has been lost to history! No one actually knows what they were originally called, since all Germanic languages use “bear” or some variation thereof, and Slavic languages use medved (meaning “honey-eater”, from what I gather). In any case, the contemporary Swedish word is björn, which - like the English word - seems to just mean “brown”. Historians speculate that the true name of the bear might be similar to the Greek ἄρκτος (arktos), but I guess we’ll never know.
There are more examples on Swedish Wikipedia, but sadly there seems to be no article in English. Still, I hope you learned something interesting from all this!
Now, imagine the kind of power we would have if we knew the bear’s true name…
Same in Finnish (though it’s normal because we’ve been independent only 100 years and before that belonged either to Russia or Sweden). We don’t either have name for bear, because its original name is forgotten. No one dared to speak bear’s name out loud, because that could summon the bear. Bear in Finnish is Karhu, coming from word karhea (rough), because bear’s hide is rough.