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Reflections on Ethics 69
The Third Commandment
Names of Gods Taboo

by: Joseph Lewis

Editor's note: Another in our series of Joseph Lewis's analysis of the 10 Commandments, this time the third commandment.

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"Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain: for the Lord will not hold him guiltless that taketh his name in vain."

The Animistic Significance of Names

This Commandment follows in perfect continuity the previous one as regards the magical origin of religion and the taboos that are the inevitable outgrowth of a belief in animism. The taboo against mentioning names has the same genesis as the prohibition against making graven images. This Commandment emphasizes the vindictiveness of the priest-magician-god as exemplified by the Hebrew deity. Just as we discovered in the analysis of the Second Commandment that image making was prohibited because of the fear that a person could be sympathetically injured through his image, so we find that mentioning names was prohibited for the identical reason.

It was once firmly believed that a person's name was a substantial part of himself, and that serious injury could be inflicted on him just as effectively through the medium of his name as on his physical body. Primitive man considered his name a vital part of his soul, and his regard and care for it were a matter of serious concern.

To the primitive mind, that which had no name did not exist. Only after a name was given was a person supposed to have a "soul." In some languages the words for "name," "breath" and "soul" are synonymous. This is accounted for by the fact that a particular person responds to a particular name which he has received at birth. His name is his mark of identification, and he would be a "nobody" without it. He would feel as chagrined or hurt if he were denounced by name as though physically attacked; on the other hand, a pleasurable reaction would follow if favorable things were said about him when his name was used. [1] 

This belief, which is based on sympathetic magic, was widespread in primitive societies of the same tribal pattern as that of the early Hebrews. In order to understand the real significance and meaning of this Commandment and the reason for its inclusion in the Decalogue, it is pertinent to show its prevalence and influence upon the thoughts and actions of some primitive peoples.

The natives of the Duke of York Island believe that by persistently calling the name of a man whom they wish to appear, he will be drawn to them even from a great distance. [2] The Zulus believe that to "name a being is to invoke him, to render him present." [3]

The Indians of North America are afraid to utter their own names. Significant, as well as interesting, is the fact that the real name of the young Indian girl who saved the life of Captain John Smith was not Pocahontas It was Matokes. She was given the name of Pocahontas to conceal her real name from the British because of the superstitious fear that if her real name were known some injury would be inflicted on her. This superstition prevails throughout all Indian tribes, and personal names are mentioned with great reluctance. It is reported that on many occasions, while in court, Indians have refused to state the names of the persons involved in disputes. Often, when forced to make an identification, the Indian will move his lips, without speaking, in the direction of the person he wishes to identify. [4] The North American Indian regards his name not as a mere label, but as distinct a part of his personality as his eyes or teeth. He believes that injury will result as surely from the malicious handling of his name as from a wound inflicted on any part of his physical organism. [5]

One of the most serious charges that can be brought against a Hindu woman is to accuse her of mentioning her husband's name. [6] A Bobo wife would rather be unfaithful than commit the monstrous sin of allowing her husband's name to pass her lips. In antiquity, Ionian women would not call their husbands by their names. After marriage, an Aino wife may not mention her husband's name; to do so would be deemed equivalent to killing him. [7] The Tolampoos of Central Celebes believe that by writing a man's name his soul could be carried off.

Among the Taculius, the priest "seizes" the name of a dead man from his mouth, and "places" it on the forehead of one of those present. They believe that it becomes incorporated in him and will pass, by the sexual act, into the embryo of the first child born to this man's wife; the child will bear the name of the dead. [8]

To the Egyptian no being is complete without a name, and he believes that by the use of magic a man's life can be taken from him through the medium of his name. Cursing a person when mentioning his name will bring upon him those misfortunes incorporated in the curse.

The medieval Germans believed that if a smock-frock was laid on the doorsill, and over it was pronounced the name of a person whom one wanted to injure, he would feel every blow as though he were inside it in the flesh. [9]

The secrecy with which the Australian aborigine guards his name arises from the belief that if any enemy knows his name he can through some form of magic bring him injury. [10] The Australians believe that "the life of an enemy may be taken by the use of his name in incantation." To that end the name given to a child at birth is held in the utmost secrecy and only imparted to him by his father on initiation. At the threshold of manhood (or womanhood) a new name is conferred upon him (or her), and the name he (or she) bore during infancy and childhood is forgotten. These people are also convinced that a curse will strike a foe dead at a distance of a hundred miles.

Among the Yuin of New South Wales, the totem name is said to have been something magical rather than a mere name in our sense, and it was kept secret lest an enemy should injure its bearer by sorcery. [11]

The aborigines of Lake Tylers , in Victoria , mention the name of a member of their tribe with great reluctance. Their usual method of addressing each other is by the words "cousin," "friend" and "brother." [12]

Among some primitive tribes, it is believed that even to utter one's own name is tantamount to parting with one's soul. The Ojibwa warn their children never to give their own names lest they cease to grow. In Java the natives believe that all that is needed to kill a person is to write his name on a piece of bone and bury it in a damp place; as the name gradually fades away, so will the person to whom it belongs. The ancient Greeks used to write the names of their foes on tablets and drive nails through them in the belief that they were inflicting injury on the actual person. [13]

In Abyssinia , at the present day, it is customary to give a child a secret name at baptism and call him by a nickname which the mother gives him after the church ceremony. A similar belief prevailed among the Egyptians. Every Egyptian child received two names at birth, which were described as great and little names. The little name was made public and the great name was carefully concealed.[14]

The Indians of British Columbia have a strange fear of uttering their own names, but have no hesitation in giving each other's names. [15] The Abipone of South America thinks it a sin to utter his own name and, if asked what his name is, will nudge his neighbor to answer for him.

The Wolofs of Senegambia, even today, are very much annoyed if anyone calls them in a loud voice; for they say that their name will be remembered by an evil spirit and made use of by him to do them mischief at night.

Among the hill tribes of Assam , each individual has a private name which may not be revealed. Should anyone violate this rule, the whole village is tabooed for two days, during which a ceremonial feast is provided at the expense of the guilty one. Among the Kru Negroes of West Africa, a man's real name is always concealed from all but his nearest relations; to other people he is known only under an assumed name.

The Ewe-speaking people of the Slave Coast believe they can harm a person by "injuring" his name. This is usually done by beating the stump of a tree while pronouncing the name. This will bring the person to the stump, where he will meet his death. [16]

While a member of the Bangala of the Upper Congo is away fishing or hunting, his name must not be mentioned by those of his household for fear that the spirits of the woods will bring ill luck to his efforts. [17]

Among savage tribes the name is associated with the person and his accomplishments. The following is an admirable illustration recorded by Cadwallader Colden:

"The first time I was among the Mohawks, I had this compliment from one of their own Sachems, which he did by giving me his own name, Cayenderngue. He had been a notable Warrior; and he told me that now I had a right to assume to myself all the Acts of Valour he had performed, and that now my name would echo from Hill to Hill over all the Five Nations." [18]

Ancient Chinese physicians used to write the name of their patients on a piece of paper, burn it to ashes, and then mix it with the medicine for the patient to swallow. This was to insure the identification of the medicine with the patient. [19]

In Borneo it is the superstitious custom to change the name of a sickly child to deceive the evil spirits that torment it. In South America , among the Abipones and Lenguas, when a man died, his surviving family would change their names to cheat death when he should come to look for them. The Tonquin give their children ugly names to frighten the demons away from them. The Abyssinians conceal the names of their children for fear of bewitchment by evil spirits. [20] This accounts for the prevalence of the belief that children of different families possessing the same names should not marry, because they would be unlucky; also that families of the same name should not live in the same community.

The Hebrews believed that if a man experienced ill fortune for a considerable length of time, he could change his luck by changing his name. [21] Also, when several children in a Hebrew family have died, no name is given to the next one born. It is referred to as "Alter," in the belief that if the Angel of Death does not know the name of the child, he will be unable to seize it. Another widespread practice among orthodox Hebrews even today is to give a new name to a person who is very ill, so that the Angel of Death will not be able to recognize the one he is seeking. If the person recovers, he discards his old name and is known only by his new one. [22] Many orthodox Hebrews consider it unlucky to call an only child by its right name.

Even the names of savage animals are never mentioned for fear lest they should suddenly appear. The natives of Madagascar never mention lightning for fear that it will suddenly strike. The Boziba never mention earthquakes for fear that one will occur. In Samoa rain is not mentioned because of the constant menace of storms. In China fire is not mentioned for fear of a conflagration. The ancient Scandinavians, while making beer, would not use the word denoting water for fear that the brew would turn out flat. [23]

The Greeks avoided using the right names of the Furies (imaginary evil spirits). They believed that referring to them in a conciliatory manner would moderate them to a more desired attitude and disposition [24]

The superstitious people in parts of London and Scotland , even as late as the eighteenth century, would not mention the name of the devil when reading the Bible for fear that he would appear. They avoided this "calamity" by corrupting the pronunciation of the word to "divil." [25]

Another instance of the relationship between this Commandment and animism and sympathetic magic is furnished by the taboo against mentioning the names of the dead. Just as the orthodox Hebrew never fails to use the magic word "ava sholem" [26] as a means of protection when mentioning the name of the dead, so do the superstitious people of Albania abstain from mentioning the names of their dead for fear of disturbing the ghosts of the departed. [27] If, however, the name is inadvertently mentioned, they spit three times in propitiation for violating the taboo This is done for fear that the spirit of the dead man, which is supposed to hover over the place where he died, will return and do evil. [28]

If primitive peoples were convinced that a man's name was an integral part of himself and that revealing it would put his life in jeopardy, one can well understand how seriously they regarded mentioning the sacred and secret name of their deity. If a mere mortal could be injured through the use of his name by an enemy, it was certainly that much more vital to protect the name of one's god. If a person of lesser degree conceals his identity from evil forces by the use of a substitute name, how much more necessary to protect the name of one's god. 

Names of Gods Taboo

Just as it was believed that evil results would follow mentioning a person's name, so it was believed that if the name of a god were known and used contrary to his wishes, the consequences would be nothing short of a world catastrophe. In fact, there is abundant evidence available that primitive man, ignorant of the natural causes of events, attributed earthly disasters to those guilty of violating this taboo. [29]

It was also the superstitious belief among primitive peoples that the Creator of the universe brought the world into existence by uttering his own name. "There was a time," says an ancient Egyptian papyrus, "when no one and nothing existed except himself. A desire came over him to create the world, and he carried it into effect by making his mouth utter his own name as a word of power; and straightway the world and all therein came into being." [30] Even today Christianity maintains a similar belief with its doctrine of the creation of the world by the magical power of words: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." [31]

There is a whole literature on the subject of what the Persians call the "science of names." Long after Joshua was supposed to have stopped the sun and the moon through the medium of magic, Australian medicine men were believed to be able, by the magic use of the name of their deity, to stop the sun, cause thunder, raise mountains, and create lakes and other wonders of nature, which the ignorant thought could be accomplished only by the omnipotent power of a God. [32]

Religious leaders were supposed to have been able to talk to God solely because they could call him by his name. [33]

This taboo of mentioning the name of a deity did not prevail only among the Hebrews; it was present in the religions of nearly all primitive peoples. [34] The name of Brahma is as sacred in India as is the supposed name of the Bible Deity to the Hebrews. It is rarely mentioned, and only on the most solemn occasions. [35]

The ancient Vedic god Rudra ("the Howler") was the maleficent and destructive power of nature, in some respects like the jealous and vindictive Hebrew God. He could cause storms, conflagrations, pestilences, disease and all manner of evil. He was never referred to by his real name, but was always called "Siva" ("the Gracious One"), in an effort to flatter him and thereby escape his wrath.[36] Perhaps this same reason prompted the Children of Israel to refer to their tyrant in the sky by such endearing expressions as "The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want," "The Lord is gracious, almighty," etc.

The following Hebrew hymn, which sings the praises of the Bible Deity, undoubtedly has a motivation of flattery to placate his vindictive nature as revealed in these Commandments:

"Lord eternal, merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in kindness and truth, preserving loving-kindness unto thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin ... forgive Thou us our iniquities and also our sins, and take us for thine inheritance." [37]

Some tribes of Indians consider it a profanation to mention the name of their highest divinity. Australian natives, when initiating their youth in the ritual of their religion, very often, through fear, omit pronouncing the name of their deity. The Marutse and allied tribes along the Zambesi shrink from mentioning the name of their chief god, Nyambe.

Cicero mentions the fact that among certain Egyptians it was criminal to mention the name of an Egyptian god, the son of Nilus. On two occasions Herodotus refused to mention the name of the god Osiris. The divine name of Indra was a secret, and the real name of the god Agni was unknown. The gods of Brahmanism have mystic names which nobody dares to speak.

Valerius Soranus is said to have been put to death for divulging the name of the Roman deity.[38]

The great name of Allah is a secret known only to the prophets because it is believed that whosoever calls on him by his "great name" will obtain all his desires. Merely mentioning the name gives one the power "to raise the dead, kill the living, and to perform any miracle he pleases." [39]

The real names of Amon and of Atumn "the mysterious" are unknown. The formidable names borne in classical antiquity by Zeus, Athene and Dionysus have never been found out; these names were guarded as great secrets for centuries, and were passed on only from high priest to high priest. They were never recorded and were thus lost to posterity.[40] It is still authoritatively stated that we do not know the real name of Rome .[41]

The secret names of the classical gods were very often so carefully preserved in depositories that even today we do not know the real personal names of most of the great figures of past religions; it is only the apparent names that we know.[42]

A good illustration is the story of how the subtle Isis wrested from Ra, the great Egyptian god of the sun, his secret name:

Isis , so runs the tale, was a mortal woman mighty in words, and she was weary of the world of men, and yearned after the world of gods. And she meditated in her heart, saying, "Cannot I by virtue of the great name of Ra make myself a goddess and reign like him in heaven and earth?" For Ra had many names, but the great name which gave him power over gods and men was known to none but himself. Now the god was by this time grown old; he slobbered at the mouth and his spittle fell upon the ground. So Isis gathered up the spittle and the earth with it, and kneaded thereof a serpent, and laid it in the path where the great god passed every day to his double kingdom after his heart's desire. And when he came forth according to his wont, attended by all his company of gods, the sacred serpent stung him, and the god opened his mouth and cried, and his cry went up to heaven. And the company of gods cried, "What aileth thee?" and the gods shouted, "Lo and behold!" But he could not answer; his jaws rattled, his limbs shook, the poison ran through his flesh as the Nile floweth over the land. When the great god had stilled his heart, he cried to his followers, "Come to me, O my children, offspring of my body. I am a prince, the son of a prince, the divine son of a god. My father devised my name; my father and my mother gave me my name, and it remained hidden in my body since my birth, that no magician might have magic power over me. I went out to behold that which I have made, I walked in the two lands I have created, and lo! something stung me. What it was I know not. Was it fire? Was it water? My heart is on fire, my flesh trembleth, all my limbs do quake. Bring me the children of the gods with healing words and understanding lips, whose power reacheth to heaven." Then came to him the children of the gods, and they were very sorrowful. And Isis came with her craft, whose mouth is full with the breath of life, whose spell chaseth pain away, whose word maketh the dead to live. She said "What is it, divine Father? What is it?" The holy god opened his mouth, he spake and said, "I went upon my way, I walked after my heart's desire in the two regions which I have made to behold that which I have created, and lo! a serpent that I saw not stung me. Is it fire? Is it water? I am colder than water, I am hotter than fire, all my limbs sweat. I tremble, mine eye is not steadfast, I behold not the sky, the moisture bedeweth my face as in summer time." Then spake Isis , "Tell me thy name, divine Father, for the man shall live who is called by his name." Then answered Ra, "I created the heavens and the earth, I ordered the mountains, I made the great and wide sea, I stretched out the two horizons like a curtain. I am he who openeth his eyes and it is light, and who shutteth them and it is dark. At his command the Nile riseth, but the gods know not his name. I am Khepera in the morning, I am Ra at noon, I am Tum at eve." But the poison was not taken away from him; it pierced deeper, and the great god could no longer walk. Then said Isis to him, "That was not thy name that thou spakest unto me. Oh, tell it me, that the poison may depart; for he shall live whose name is named." Now the poison burned like fire, it was hotter than the flame of fire. The god said, "I consent that Isis shall search into me, and that my name shall pass from my breast into hers." Then the god hid himself from the gods, and his place in the ship of eternity was empty. Thus was the name of the great god taken from him, and Isis, the witch, spake, "Flow away, poison, depart from Ra. It is I, even I, who overcome the poison and cast it to the earth; for the name of the great god hath been taken away from him. Let Ra live and let the poison die." Thus spake great Isis, the queen of the gods who knows Ra and his true name. [43]

According to the Avesta, the revelation of the greatest of the names of Ahura Mazda is besought by Zarathustra that he may conquer, and not be conquered by, all demons and men, all wizards and witches.

In late Hinduism we find the belief among Krsnaites, Ramaites and Savities, that "the mere repetition of their god's name is a means of salvation, so that sinner and heretic, if he die at last with Krishna 's name upon his lips, will be saved"! [44]

The sacred and secret names of gods were entrusted only to the high priests because it was necessary that the names be evoked in the proper manner to produce the magical results supposedly inherent in them. Since it was believed that a god's name was as fragile as life, it had to be pronounced with the same awe as the thing it represented. Unless the mysterious and magical formula was faithfully and properly performed in every detail of cadence, tonality, rhythm, and accent of each of the chanted syllables, there would be no results. Thus a thousand unsuccessful attempts were explained by the fact that the uninitiated did not possess the proper combination of the formula. The "successful" results were always shrouded in the mystery of the ritual. [45]

Not only were the names of gods taboo, but the names of kings and other sacred persons were not to be used lightly and without due reverence.

The name of the king of Dahomey is always kept secret, lest knowledge of it should enable some evil-minded person to do him some mischief. In Burma it was accounted a most serious impiety to mention the name of the reigning sovereign. [46] In Eastern Asia and Polynesia the names of kings and chiefs are held sacred; in Siam a substitute name must be used in speaking of the king. In Polynesia the prohibition to mention the chief's name has been deeply impressed on the natives.[47] The name of the Japanese Mikado is so sacred that it is seldom mentioned and indeed is not known to a great portion of the public. A few years ago, when a Japanese mayor discovered that he had given his son the name which the Emperor bore, he resigned and, in propitiation of the breach of this taboo, killed himself.[48]

Religious articles associated with a deity were likewise held in awe. Anything upon which the name of God is written is considered sacred. That is why the Torah may be handled only by a rabbi. The Bible is sacred. It must not be used except in a reverent manner, as it is considered "God's Word." Children of orthodox parents are forced to pick it up and kiss it if it falls to the floor. It is sometimes kissed in a court of law before giving testimony.

Because of the association with the name of God, religious buildings, such as temples and churches, are regarded as sacred. Many bow when passing them, and Catholics remove or tip their hats when passing a church of their faith.

Images of saints are considered sacred, and many a person has lost his life during a fire while attempting to recover "sacred" articles from the edifice in which they were kept. That these things were sacred and were capable of performing miracles there appeared to be no doubt, but that they could not save themselves from being burned in an ordinary fire where common, ordinary articles are saved is not subject to explanation.

The garments of high priests are "holy," and devotees consider it a rare privilege even to touch them. A ring worn by a high dignitary of the Catholic Church is considered "sacred." Persons who make slighting remarks about holy religious things are guilty of sacrilege and should expect no mercy from a wrathful God. [49] In fact, at one time disease and misfortune were believed to be sent as punishment for lack of reverence for the name of God.


  1. There is a vestigial survival of this superstition even today. We applaud the name of a person as a mark of approval or praise, and hiss his name to express our opposition and hatred, unconsciously believing that these manifestations will have their desired homeopathic effect.
  2. Robert Briffault, Mothers, Vol. 1, p. 11.
  3. "Talk of the devil and he is sure to appear" had a far more serious meaning in the early history of mankind than its facetious use has today.
  4. Tylor, Early History of Mankind, p. 140.
  5. Frazer, Golden Bough, Vol. 3, p. 318.
  6. Tylor, op. cit., p. 141.
  7. Frazer, op. cit., p. 337.
  8. Hastings , Encyclopædia, Vol. 3, p. 134.
  9. Tylor, op. cit., p. 124.
  10. Frazer, op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 320.
  11. Frazer, op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 320.
  12. Ibid., p. 321.
  13. Briffault, Mothers, Vol. 1, pp. 9, 14.
  14. Ibid., p. 14.
  15. Ibid, p. 322.
  16. Frazer, op. cit., Vol. 3, p. 323.
  17. Ibid., p. 330.
  18. Tylor, op. cit., p. 125.
  19. Ibid., p. 126.
  20. Tylor, op. cit., p. 125.
  21. Ibid.
  22. Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 9, p. 159.
  23. Briffault, Mothers, Vol. 1, p. 11.
  24. Briffault, Mothers, Vol. 1, p. 12.
  25. Wilson D. Wallis, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 41.
  26. "May his soul rest in peace."
  27. Frazer, op. cit., p. 349.
  28. Ibid., p. 351.
  29. Encyclopædia Biblica, p. 3320: "The special importance attaching to the names of gods in the Old Testament, and the emphasis often laid on their significance, finds a partial explanation in the peculiar emphasis with which the word name itself is there employed. The name of a person or thing was for the Hebrew not simply distinctive; it was a revelation of the nature of the person or thing named, nay, often almost an equivalent for the thing itself. This is especially true of the names of God."
  30. Briffault, op. cit., p. 5.
  31. John, Chapter 1, verse 1.
  32. Briffault, op. cit., pp. 16, 17.
  33. Matthew, Chapter 8, verses 26-34.
  34. A survival of the fear of mentioning God's name is in the superstition of saying "for goodness' sake" instead of "for God's sake," as well as "thank goodness" when in reality the person wants to say "thank God." The avoidance of the use of the word "God" is prompted by the fear of the taboo of mentioning the name of the Deity which forms the basis of this Commandment.
  35. Tylor, op. cit., p. 143.
  36. Briffault, op. cit., p. 12.
  37. Jewish Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, p. 202. This hymn reminds me of the sermon at the funeral of Mrs. Murphy's husband. During the funeral oration the priest was quite fulsome in his praise of his dead parishioner. He said that he had been a good and kind husband, a loving father, a man of high moral conduct, honest in his dealings, and upright in his undertakings, etc. As the priest continued to praise the virtues of the dear departed, Mrs. Murphy, who had been abused all her life, and whose children had often been brutally beaten by their father, nudged her eldest child and said, "Bridget, go see who is in that coffin; that can't be your father the priest is talking about."
  38. Tylor, op. cit., p. 125.
  39. Westermarck, Morals, Vol. 2, p. 642.
  40. The Bible Deity is no exception to the rule, as we shall see.
  41. Hastings , Encyclopædia, Vol. 3, p. 153.
  42. Hastings , Encyclopædia, Vol. 9, p. 133.
  43. Frazer, op. cit., Vol. 3, pp. 337-339.
  44. Hastings, Encyclopædia, p. 163. There is a survival of this primitive and superstitious custom today in what is known as the "last rites" administered by a priest of the Roman Catholic Church. No matter what the character of the person was, a devout believer in the religion would much prefer to send for a priest to administer the last rites, if he thought he was about to die, than for a physician who might be able to save him. This is so well known that physicians whose Catholic patients are critically ill, inform the family so as to enable them to send for a priest before death overtakes the patient. This is but another instance of the persistence of religious ignorance and superstitious fear.
  45. Ibid., p. 153.
  46. Frazer, op. cit., pp. 374, 375.
  47. Tylor, op. cit., p. 142.
  48. Wallis, Religion in Primitive Society, p. 40.
  49. Matthew, Chapter 9, verses 20-21.