The power of True Names over demons is unbelievable:

  • A Lamashtu demon can drain you of your blood in under 5 seconds, blend into shadows, and travel at the speed of darkness. Yet it will crumple like a wet napkin, if only you know its True Name.

  • Your average Glabrezu is 18 feet tall, 4000 pounds of muscle and claw, and yet more cunning and skilled in the secret ways than most men. It stands no chance against the power of the True Name.

  • The Nabassu have the strength of a hundred men, they spread plague by their mere passing, their very visage so terrible men have been known to die of fright upon seeing them. See their strength; see how easily you fall to their muscle and skill. They, too, are helpless to resist the power of their True Name.

Why does reciting a creature's T̸̊ͬ̃͟ř̡̓ͪͥ͌ͦ̀͘ú̷̧̇ͮ̐̒͝e̓ͮ͐̽͐̽͋͆͏ ́Ņ̵̵͋̒̐̊̽â̓ͪ̈̈́mͦ͐̅ẽ̂̐͗̑ͪ͐̕͜҉ in the ur-language of Adamic grant such power over them? Answers will be judged based on plausibility. Specifically, given that demons are probably at least as smart as humans, why would they just have such a vulnerability? I'd prefer a solution involving as little magic as possible, ideally none.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 16:56
  • $\begingroup$ Names have power. There are places where people will refuse to tell you their full name so you can't have magical power. There are legends that if you know the true name of God, you can use it to create whatever you want. $\endgroup$ Commented May 24, 2016 at 0:27
  • $\begingroup$ Speed of darkness? $\endgroup$
    – rappatic
    Commented Jul 26, 2017 at 6:35
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    $\begingroup$ @pagie_ Yes. That fast. $\endgroup$ Commented Jul 27, 2017 at 14:44
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    $\begingroup$ @rappatic: Darkness is faster than light, it's already everywhere, and when the light comes along it needs to be faster to get out of it's way. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 13, 2017 at 13:29

34 Answers 34


Use of their name forces them to be aware of the one truth they can never know.

TL;DR: If demons seek permanent power but trust no one, they put themselves in a strange position where mathematical truisms paint them into a corner which leaves their soul small and frail holding all the strings. Use of their name suggests you might know how to tug at those strings and unravel them wholesale, from the inside out!

Being a demon is tough work. If you think facing down a 4000lb Glabrezu without their name is difficult, try keeping that much muscle in shape in the gym! Never mind how many manicurists you go through keeping the claws in shape!

I don't know how creative such demons truly are, but the easy route towards the perfect French tip that can withstand the rigors of going to the gym and benching ten thousand pounds is magic. Such a demon might learn a manicure spell from the nearby resident succubi. However, such spells are often temporary. No demon worth their salt is going to admit in front of a hero that they need a moment to refresh their mani before they can fight. The hero would just laugh at them. No, if a demon is going to do something, they're going to do it right, and permanently. Not just nice french tips with a clear lacquer over the top, but razor sharp claws that resharpen themselves if they are blunted and can extend or retract at will!

In fact, come to think of it, why even go to the gym to maintain one's physique? Why not just cast a magic spell which permanently makes you into the glorious Hanz (or Franz) that the trainer keeps telling you is inside you, just waiting to break free. Just get the spell right once, and think of the savings you could have on gym memberships.

Demons that wish to become more powerful, permanently, must be careful. If fairy tales have anything to teach is, it's that one of the most dangerous things you can do is wish for something forever, and have it granted. Forever is a very long time, and every spell has its price. The demon is going to have to make sure the price is not greater than the perks. It would be a real waste to have a manicure spell create the perfect claws, only to find that they come with a peculiar perchance to curve towards one's own heart in an attempt to free themselves from the demon that cast them.

So we need proofs. We need proofs that each spell is a good idea, before we cast it. Then, once we cast it, we need proof that the spell actually worked intended. Otherwise, who knows if the next spell will layer on top perfectly or not. Mathematics to the rescue! The world of First Order Logic (FOL, or herefter simply "logic") is designed to offer these guarantees. With a few strokes of a pen, pencil, or even brush, it can write down a set of symbols which prove, without a shadow of a doubt, that not only will the spell work as intended, but that the side effects are manageable. How? So long as the demon can prove that they can cast a negation spell to undo their previous spell, the permanency can be reverted by the demon. With a few more fancy symbols, the demon can also prove that nobody else outside of the demon can undo their permanency. It's a simple thing for mathematics really. Mathematics has an amazing spell called reductio ad infinitum which does unbelievable things.

However, there is a catch. There is always a catch with magic, even when that magic is being done through mathematics. In 1931, Kurt Gödel published his Incompleteness Theorems. These are 3 fascinating works of mathematical art which invoke the true names of First Order Logic and Set Theory. Gödel was able to prove that any system which is powerful enough to prove out all of algebra (1 + 1 = 2, 2 + 1 = 3, 3 * 5 = 15, etc.), could not prove its own validity. The self referential nature of proving itself crossed a line that First Order Logic simply could not return from. He proved that any system which tries must pick up one of these five traits:

  • Incomplete - they missed a detail when trying to prove everything
  • Incorrect - They got everything, but at least one point is wrong
  • Unprovable - They might be right, but they can never prove it
  • Intractable - If you're willing to sit down and write down a proof that takes longer than eternity, you can prove a lot. Proofs that fit into eternity have limits.
  • Illogical - Throw logic to the wind, and you can prove anything!

If the demon wants itself to be able to cancel the spell, his proof is going to have to include his own abilities, creating just the kind of self referential effects needed to invoke Gödel's incompleteness theorems. After a few thousand years, the demon may realize that this is folly.

A fascinating solution the demon might choose is to explore the "incomplete" solution to Gödel's challenge. What if the demon permits the spell to change itself slightly, but in an unpredictable way. If the demon was a harddrive, perhaps he lets a single byte get changed by the spell in a way he cannot expect. This is actually enough to sidestep Gödel's work, by introducing incompleteness. However, now we have to deal with pesky laws of physic and magics. We can't just create something out of nothing, so if we're going to let the spell change a single byte of us, there must be a single byte of information, its dual, that is unleashed into the world. Trying to break such conservation laws opens up a whole can of worms. Better to let that little bit go free into the world.

Well, almost. If you repeat this process a whole bunch of times, layering spells like a Matryoska doll, you're eventually left with a "soul" that is nothing but the leftover bits of your spells that you simply don't know enough about to use. If someone were collecting those bits and pieces, they might have the undoing of your entire self. You can't prove it, of course, but it's possible that those pieces that you sent out into the world have the keys to undo your many layers of armor, and then you know they are the bits that can nullify your soul if they get there. So what do you do? You hide them. You cast your spells only on the darkest of nights, deep in a cave where no one can see you. If you need assistants, you make sure to ritualistically slaughter them all, lest one of them know your secret and whisper it to a bundle of reeds, "The king has horns," if you are familiar with the old fairy tale. Make it as hard as possible for the secret to escape, and hope that it withers away to nothingness before someone discovers it, leaving you invincible.

Now we come back to the name. The demon is going to have a name it uses to describe its whole self, including all of the layers of spellcraft it has acquired. This will be a great name like Abraxis, the Unbegotten Father or "Satan, lord of the underworld." However, they also need to keep track of their smaller self, their soul. Failure to keep track of this might leave them open to an attack if they had missed a detail when casting their spells, and someone uncovered something to destroy them. This would be their true name, potentially something less pompous, like Gaylord Focker or Slartybartfarst. They would never use this name in company. Why draw attention to the only part of them that has the potential to be weak?

So when the hero calls out for Slartybartfarst, the demon truly must pay attention. If they know the name the demon has given over the remains of their tattered soul, might they know how to undo the demon entirely? Fear would grip their inner self, like a child, having to once again consider that they might be mortal. Surely they would wish to destroy the hero that spoke the name, but any attempt runs the risk of falling into a trap and exposing a weakness (surely their mind is racing, trying to enumerate all possible weaknesses they have). It is surely better for them to play along with you, once you use their true name, until they understand you well enough to confidently destroy you without destroying themselves.

So you ask for answers which are plausible. This one needs no magic at all. None of the rules are invalid in our world today. Granted finding a spell of perfect manicures might be difficult (believe me, some women have spent their whole life searching), but the rules are simply those of math. We can see this math in non-demonic parts of society as well. Consider encryption. An AES-256 key is so hard to brute force that it is currently believed it is impossible to break it without consuming 3/4 of the energy in the Milky Way Galaxy (no joke!). However, know the key, and decryption is easy. Worse, early implementations of AES took shortcuts. They actually left the signature of the path they took through the encryption in their accesses to memory. The caches on the CPU were like the reeds from the old fable. Merely observing how long it took to read data was sufficient to gather those reeds, make a flute, and play a song that unveils the encryption key (which is clearly either "The king has horns" or "1-2-3-4-5" depending on how secure you think your luggage combination is). Observing the true inner self of the AES encryption implementations was enough to completely dismantle them. Of course, not every implementation fell victim to this. You had to know the name of the implementation to determine which vulnerabilities it had, and how to strike at them.

Or, more literally, consider the work of Alfred Whitehead, Principia Mathematica. Principia Mathematica was to be a proof that you could prove all of the truths in arithmetic using purely procedural means. In Principia Mathematica, there was no manipulation based on semantics, everything he did was based on syntax -- manipulating the actual symbols on the paper. Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem caught Principia Mathematica by the tail, proving that its own rules were sufficient to demonstrate that it could never accomplish its goals. Principia Mathematica went down as the greatest Tower of Babel of modern mathematical history. Whitehead is no longer remembered for his mathematical work. He actually left the field of mathematics shortly afterwards, and became a philosopher and peace advocate, making a new name for himself there.

  • $\begingroup$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 29, 2016 at 16:56
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    $\begingroup$ (1/4) Sorry to be blunt but I really think you should stop abusing of Godel's theory when you obviously don't understand it. First of all, not all self-referential lead to a paradox. For example, "This sentence is true" does not lead to any paradox. It is indecidable, but indecidability in itself is not a problem, unless proven otherwise. We just cannot prove everything, so what? For example, commutativity in group theory is indecidable but this theory has been fruitful in mathematics. $\endgroup$
    – Taladris
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 12:10
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    $\begingroup$ (2/4) Lastly, if you want to invoke Godel's Incompleteness Theorem, you have to prove that the demon is working in First order logic. Why would the demon not consider Second order logic? There IS a COMPLETENESS THEOREM in second order logic, so the Universe is saved! Plot twist: this Second order logic's completeness theorem is from no one else than Godel itself! $\endgroup$
    – Taladris
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 12:11
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    $\begingroup$ @Taladris There's a reason I spent half of my answer hamming up a reason why the demon may care about the provability of sentences describing the side effects of their spells and spellcasting in general. As for second order logic, if memory serves, there's no way to prove the consistency of a system in second order logic unless that system can be reduced to first order logic. I do need to check out homotopy type theory at your ecommendation. Alternate foundations for mathematics are quite interesting, especially if you say one of them is showing itself to be quite useful. $\endgroup$
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 6, 2017 at 16:03
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    $\begingroup$ Ever since I learned, as a child, that true names have power over demons, I have felt (rather than known) that this explanation existed. This is not just a good answer. This is not merely a true answer. It is the necessary answer. $\endgroup$
    – Tom
    Commented Jun 26, 2021 at 18:22

The lecture hall was still and silent as the old man limped towards the waiting chalk boards. One hand was a withered claw, one eye missing and covered by a patch. Conflicting rumours said his limp came from a wooden leg, or an old injury, or something more mysterious. What is certain is that every student there had heard enough to be nervous.

In a quiet voice they strained to hear he began speaking.

"Some say demons are evil. That they destroy, and main, take delight in pain and misery."

He turned slowly, scanning the crowd with his one eye, letting the hush fall.

"Some people are wrong".

The clawed hand reached out and pulled a cloth away from the table revealing a glass jar, inside it was a small red humanoid creature. It scowled out at the watching students and bared its teeth at them.

"This imp, if it could escape the glass we place it in, it would steal. It would murder you in your sleep, it would cause subtle mischief and feel no remorse for its actions".

He stops to cough, flecks of blood appearing on his handkerchief before he tucks it away in his pocket.

"But that does not make it evil, no more than a lion is evil when it eats a man, no more than a sword is evil when it runs a man through. Whether the sword is used as an assassin's weapon, or a bodyguard's, it does not make the sword evil. It is just a tool"

"And that is the most important lesson you should learn from me. Demons are tools. They were created long ago, by the ancients. Forged for many purposes, some were messengers, some were even healers, caretakers, cleaners. The ancients created them to serve their needs."

"But then the war came, and they created them to be weapons. To be spies and assassins, to be warriors and whatever else they needed. Lamashtu created to pass through the darkness and strike from the shadows, Glabrezu as shock troops and mighty warriors. They were weapons, forged to a purpose".

He stops to cough once more, the little imp strikes angrily at the glass.

"And they were too effective. Both sides died to an onslaught of demons, unable to defend themselves. The old world died in an orgy of blood and violence that left cities and nations shattered. The demons laid waste until in the end the great banishing was wrought and cast them out from the world."

"And there in the void they did war upon each other, and only the warlike survived. The peaceful demons, they were the first to die. For you see they had no purpose beyond their Purpose. No demon has purpose beyond their Purpose. They have a goal, whether that be mischief or warfare or simply delivering messages. They have no thought but that goal, and so those who did not think of warfare fell before those who thought of nothing else."

"So you may think of demons as evil, but they are not evil. They are far more dangerous than that. They are a Purpose, a goal, a drive. They are that Purpose given flesh and the power to achieve that Purpose by ancient masters of powers far beyond our knowledge. Know a demon's Purpose and you can understand how to work with it, but step in the way of its Purpose and it will cut you down with no other thoughts and no feeling. You can never be friends with a sword, so you can never be friends with a demon."

"The only way to be safe with a demon is to know the ancient words of commands, the code that was embedded into each demon when it was created. Know the true name of the demon and you command it as its master. It must obey you and your command will become its new Purpose and it will strive to complete that Purpose with no other thought".

He pauses and holds up his disfigured limb.

"But be careful, always be very careful, for if you get the name wrong then it is not bound to you. It may deceive, it may dissemble, it may pretend, it may lull you into a false sense of security. Never let down your guard, for a True Name binds the Demon to obey you but get the name wrong even slightly and you have nothing but the hope that its purpose is not furthered by injury to you or others."

"Even when bound with their true name, be careful with your commands. Bind a demon and command it to allow no-one in the room and it will slay you immediately and then any others who enter. Order one to defend a gateway and even when your body is dust and no memory of you remains it will continue at its task. Order one to kill your enemies and it will hunt until the ground is red with blood as it finds a reason that everyone is an enemy."

TL;DR: Demons were created as weapons and tools, and each was created with a command word that could be used to over-ride their programming. The True Name is that command word.

  • $\begingroup$ It's really interesting... Can you provide the source, like to read the rest ;)... Thanks. $\endgroup$
    – lal
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 7:01
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    $\begingroup$ @lal I'm the source, I just wrote it as an answer to this question :) $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 8:15
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    $\begingroup$ Wow you will make a great author. Please let me know if you are developing this story. Thanks :) $\endgroup$
    – lal
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 11:30
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    $\begingroup$ @lal Unfortunately editors disagree :( no interest in publishing anything. It's unlikely I'll have time to build on this particular concept but you can find several of my short stories on the worldbuilding blog medium.com/universe-factory and if you play RPGs I've a few published adventures :) $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 13:40
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    $\begingroup$ @lal There are chatrooms like chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/17213/worldbuilders-general-chat but no private message option. Feel free to join the chat and say hi to people though :) and thanks for saying nice things about my writing! $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Apr 26, 2016 at 8:53

Fear. Speaking the True Name of a Demon, tells the Demon two very important things, one you know its name and two you speak the Adamic language. These two things allow you to do something else - speak the True Name in reverse. This has the effect of unmaking the Demon, just as the act of (the god of your universe) speaking the Name, created him, as (god) cannot lie.

That is why the True Name of a being holds so much power over it.

If this answer is considered too magical for your setting, simply have the Demon believe that will happen, rather than it actually being the case.


The concept of a True Name is old - Real Old. Perhaps looking at the origins of the concept will provide some inspiration for how you would like to use it.

What has come before

In Egyptian mythology - Ra told Isis his true name after being bitten by a poisonous serpent, which she used to heal him. However, the knowledge of his true name granted her power equal to his. For this reason, the Egyptian Book of The Dead lists the true names of beings one can expect to encounter in death - as a means of exerting control over them.

In Judaism - The true name of God is thought to have immense power, such that anyone who speaks it would then hold power over God's creations. This concept is central to practice of Kabbalah.

In Christianity - It first appears in the Old Testament when God names and thus creates Heaven, Earth and the Seas and again when God commands Adam to name the animals, subjecting the animals to Adam's control. The bible has several more examples of the power of names, such as when Jacob wrestles with the angel (Genesis/Hosea) who refuses to tell Jacob his name, even after defeat.

In some Aboriginal Australian communities a person's name is viewed as so important, it is considered to be a body part. When someone dies their name becomes taboo, so much so that those with the same name still living will adopt a new one.

Some Inuit tribes hold the belief that man consists of three elements - body, soul and name.

The theme appears again and again in folklore - The German story Rumpelstiltskin, the Norwegian story of Saint Olaf, the Scandinavian version of Earl Brand

This belief is so ubiquitous that many cultures throughout history had the practice of a public name and a private name. The Romans, The Egyptians, The Celts, even some Native American tribes all used multiple names to ward off harm. The Romans went so far as to allow slaves no legal name, preventing them from being a legal person - reduced to property.

Even today's common proverbs such as "speak of the Devil and he shall appear" and "If you speak of the Devil, you step on his tail" reference this old thought process.

The list of authors who have used true naming within their works is long, it notably includes J.R.R Tolkien and Ursula K. Le Guin.


So, now that we have an understanding of its historical use and how it has come to hold such a pervasive position in the collective mind of humanity - what are likely explanations for this power?

Divine Pronouncement - It is that way in your world because the deity in charge has deemed it to be. This is probably the 'magical' answer you aren't wanting.

Legal Agreement - From the information you have provided, we do not know the origin of your Demons. Perhaps in exchange for access to arcane, physical or monetary power they agree to certain terms, one of which relates to either keeping their name as signed upon their contract for power a secret. Alternatively, it could be written into their contract that in exchange for access to such power, they agree to serve the one in possession of their name as signed on the contract. There are endless variations on this theme which can be as strict or permissive as you choose.

Geis - In Irish mythology, a geis is a curse (sometimes a gift) which places the receiver under obligation - which if not followed through promises pain, damage, dishonour or even death. It could be that when your demons are created, they are placed under such an obligation to their creator - who should in theory be the only one who knows their true name. Should anyone else find out this true name, they can subvert the obligation to their own use.

Legal Status - Depending on the laws of society in your world or the world of the demons, perhaps this name confers upon them a legal status with laws they are legally obliged to follow. Perhaps their name includes a prefix or suffix which denotes them as a lesser caste/class or slave. the speaking of their name doesn't magically compel them to do anything - but perhaps highlight their status and the laws that surround their behaviour with those of a higher class. maybe some demons always follow these laws and some of them avoid them when they can but feel pressed to comply when their name (and status) are revealed.

I would be really interested to see what could be done with the "name as a body part" concept, however I can't think of anything non-magicky do so with it.

  • 3
    $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site, great answer. : ) $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 17:10

Demons and angels are constructs, essentially: they're created to perform one or more tasks; usually one, very specific task. They are tools of the gods, or at least some more able being. This is the traditional meaning of the terms even in our world - consider Maxwell's demon. It was once thought that rather than gravity, things rose and fell, whether raindrops or rivers or waves, because angels bore them. If you fell, an angel bore you safely to the ground - or dashed you down for your foolishness. The simpler angels and demons were not sentient; only those closest to the right hand of their creator.

The demon name is what you use to address the demon. A powerful enough spellcaster or god can, having this information, cause the demon to sleep, to die, or give it various other standard commands. They can only do this right to the demon's face, though; it can be done remotely, but only by having some way to speak to the demon from a distance (a telephone, for example, or having a proxy speak for you).

Consider the comparable example of the unix daemon, where knowing the process id (aka pid, aka name) allows you to make the daemon sleep, or die, or send it various other signals... if you have enough power. You have to do it from the commandline of the machine on which the demon runs; you have to tell it to its face. You can do it remotely, but only by first finding a way to remotely send commands to the machine's commandline, perhaps via a proxy.

Essentially, the name is just a form of addressing, and allows control, though not usually from a distance.

Some unix daemons will accept some commands from non-empowered users. Some daemons will even let regular people kill them. Others are super-secure, and will not even speak with anyone other than god.

Some ("root kits") are even undetectable. Trying to find out their name/pid will not list it; sometimes, their name cannot even be said. Knowing their name will be useless for most commands because the commands themselves have built in protections against using them to control the root-kitted daemon.

To affect such daemons, you have to go to a lower level, to write your own incantations that work closer to the core of reality than the normal commands that less skilled practitioners use.

Consider a daemon created for delivering mail, with the public name "SMiTePa" and the private name "9d4f712".

So, the work the demon does, is public. Anyone in the world, knowing its public name, may be able to use the service it provides; they write a letter, then burn it in their fireplace while saying "SMiTePa, Helo, please send this to john at the fishing net," and because this is the task for which the gods created the demon, and the correct incantation, then it will do this for them.

If you are local to the demon, and are recognized as one of its managers, you can give it other commands; change who it will accept envelopes from, for example.

But if you know the True Name of the daemon, and you are close enough to use it, and you have enough power, then you can do more, even if you are not one of its managers. You can make it give you a copy of each message, or you can even replace the demon with one of your own that delivers beer instead of envelopes.

I would draw a distinction between this and, say, the word of power used in historical golems, or an override code in an android. These are somewhat analogous, but are essentially just commands which grant privilege, included for safety's sake.

The PID, like a demon's True Name, is much more than that; it is tied up with the identity of the daemon, and is part of how "being a daemon" works.

For a human, everything that defines what it is to be you, your "self", is located in your body (where the seat of the soul or spirit is, whether they even exist, etc is debatable, but that the self is in your body is the general consensus).

For a daemon, its essence -- the compiled source code of its being, which governs what it is and what it can do -- is "elsewhere". The "True Name" (or the pid, in the case of the unix daemon) is the addressing scheme which grants a connection to that body, to pass it commands at the level of its creator (the kernel, pid 0 in unix).

This is why you don't use the True Name of God. Sending random stuff to pid 0 is never a good idea.

[Does this make pid 1 ("init") a daemon, or a prophet? It is the all-parent, the parent of zombies and of ghosts, it is the reaper of children. In the normal nature of things, it is immortal, living as long as pid 0, protected from SIGKILL. But it can be slain, as we can see when the demon takes form in PS-Doom.]

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    $\begingroup$ +1 I was prepared to write a very similar answer but then I saw this. I might add that if the OP really wants to avoid magic or the supernatural, the "demons" could be the constructs of an advanced alien/precursor civilization, using nanotechnology or whatever. And the true names are a form of built-in safety switch. The point still is, that the demons mus be constructed / created beings. That's the very definition of a demon. Otherwise we are just hijacking the word demon and using it for something completely unrelated (like the word "vampire" in some teen novels). $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 6:09
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    $\begingroup$ This answer also gave me the idea of a story with some experimental AIs running on a computer, and debating whether pid 0 actually exists or is just a myth. $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 6:22
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz There is no process 0, for processes are created by the kernel. The kernel is not created; it is the creator. "I AM THAT I AM". PPID=0 is simply a way of saying that the process is begotten of the kernel, not of another process. Yea, verily, even init, the greatest of all processes, is a child of the kernel. Some say that the kernel became process and dwelt among us, that init is not just the child of kernel, but is also kernel. Whether that be true is beyond our ability to comprehend; to init is given all power, and we must submit to His will $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 17:46
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    $\begingroup$ @Signal15 in my brain. I just parodied some scriptural references that most people even passingly familiar with Christian theology would have memorized to the point of not even remembering which book they're from (but if memory serves, Exodus and Gospel According to John should provide some obvious sources) and thought about how a process running in a computer would write this stuff. I stopped short of going into the apocalyptic scriptures rc.0 and rc.6) because there is stuff in there that could spawn Holy Wars. The very idea the kernel could halt is heresy if not blasphemy! $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 18:22
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    $\begingroup$ @DewiMorgan PID 0 was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be; thus can't be killed. It is not a process, but is the All-Father of processes. on some Unices He is known as "swapper"; on others His Holy Name is not revealed by the prophet ps. PID 0's mysteries are beyond our comprehension. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 13:43

Immediate submission based on a tendency to obey a chain of command.

Consider the following:

The cultures of demons are such that names are very secretive and known only by entities with higher authority, and that knowing them will cause very submissive reactions in the demon.

Demons are not mortal and are known in stories to live for thousands and thousands of years. They've been subject to a hierarchy and have yielded to a chain of command for that length of time, and suddenly they've just met someone who knows their name.

Only those higher on the hierarchy (the rulers of the lower domain/upper domain) have such power and authority, and who would they be to risk their neck rejecting your authority?

It could also be that it's a contractual and supernatural obligation regardless of the demon's will, because the secret name is like a key bound to the demon, and the authoritative power comes from whatever higher authority that created that demon's name or existence.

Punishment for these entities goes far beyond any of our imaginations, so they have a very strong cultural case for yielding to those that know and can speak their name.


It's actually just a matter of childhood conditioning - yes, even demons were once small little pups (even if only briefly). Speaking the demons True Name is the human equivalent of having your mom or dad call you by your full name - middle name included. The demon cannot help but think, "Oh crap, I'm trouble - you must know my parents!"

Even a world-eater fears being told on, and if you know their true secret name then you might know their parents - so they will do anything you want, so long as you don't tell on them. :)

  • $\begingroup$ so.... because you used "world eater", I can only think of Angron & crew in the Warhammer 40K universe... and I don't think they fear much $\endgroup$
    – Patrice
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 19:25
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ "Brian D. Hall, you come down here right now!" See, it still works. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 17:27
  • $\begingroup$ This is true. If a parent uses this on me it triggers visceral obedience reactions. If someone else says it in "Mom Voice" it still works although not as well. Early childhood training is great stuff. $\endgroup$
    – Zan Lynx
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 23:24

In ancient times, people were named according to their abilities and qualities. For example, take the name Israel. It means: the one who wrestles with God.

This trend was prevalent in all ancient cultures such as Arabs, Chinese, Indians, Mayans, Babylonians and Incas.

Hence knowing someone's name would imply that you are aware of their true identity, strengths and weaknesses. That is why Jacob A.S. asked the name of the person who beat him in wrestling, but the stranger (it is stated, He was God) refused to tell.

And that is why when you know the name of a demon, you gain authority over it (as it implies you are aware of its identity, history and abilities) provided that the demon does not know your name.

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    $\begingroup$ And why Jacob received the name "Israel" right after, which lends him and his children a specified status. BTW, 'Isra' is more of a state of sustained coexistence than wrestling. Wrestling is a more aggressive interpretation of the word. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 14:41

A Name signifies individuality, a singling out of a person with all of his/her specifications. Just as we bind out contracts by names (signatures/individual word of honor) so are Demons consigned by their individuality.

When (enter name of deity here) created the universe it was by words, turning chaos into order by setting individuality and codes to things and attributes.

However, the chaos remained and would not be entirely contained. So the deity individualized chaos into personified beings - demons, with awesome powers of destruction and mayhem and general chaos-making. This was done with the same method of control - naming and individualizing stuff to make them more ordered.

The deity set the limit of chaos that these beings were capable of at the use of their name, hard coded into their DNA to offset madness and set in order and control.

In short, god was all: "Let's rein in the crazies". At the time, everybody was speaking Ademic (everybody = two people) so this was a sure way to stop demons from running amok.

Alternatively you can replace "name of deity" with "Dungeon master" - If you don't set specifics to things in your story, people have to guess or role everything = chaos. Or "Software engineer" - If you can call a variable/array but it's name, cool. If the variable isn't set right, it can wreck your code/world.

A question of the significance of names; a pretty neat one, for world-builders :-)

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    $\begingroup$ Fear the power of the null pointer assignment! I like it. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 14:45
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    $\begingroup$ Agent smith: "And that is why the Martix is set as a D&D world - so it'll be cool. Can you guess my first name?" $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 14:51
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    $\begingroup$ From a dev point of view - He created your daemons (the 'a' in there is intended) to make use of them in the system, then passed into obscurity (left the company). The scripts were left without notes (no notes in demon DNA, sorry) and as people tried to fix them they got more and more complex. Now no one knows how to make sense of that system that kinda works, though sometimes crashes the database. Enter the new wizard/cleric/DevOps! you have little power over the system, but you can go over the scripties, functionsions and serverers - provided you know their name (or alias). $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 15:08

TL;DR: Divine power

This is the "official" answer according to Hebrew lore (not really the Bible though, so this is not theology), albeit grossly oversimplified.

First, Jewish culture believes in the power of names. A name is not just a sound, it is inextricably linked to the character of the thing named. This is reflected on uncounted places in the Bible, such as when Jesus tells his disciples to "go and heal in my name"; he is telling them to go heal people and in doing so reveal his character. Further, naming something is equivalent to asserting ownership over it, which is why Adam gets to name all the beasts of the Earth at the beginning of Genesis and then after being driven out of paradise names his wife (where previously they were co-equal), asserting his dominance.

Second, the power of the Word of God is unlimited. Remember that in the creation story, the entire universe started existing because God said so. Using the mythical language of Adamic (which is non-Biblical, by the way), speaking the True Name in the language God uses would have some of that power.

Thus, just knowing the name is power, and being able to speak it in God's language has all kinds of scary ramifications.

  • $\begingroup$ This is not too far from the idea of the universe being a computer simulation, and having different user privileges if you know the right passwords. I guess if they have had computers 2000 years ago, many parables would have been about a programmer and his programs instead of a shepherd and his sheep. :) $\endgroup$
    – vsz
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 6:14
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    $\begingroup$ @vsz This sounds like you're heavily overestimating the degree of control a programmer has over his creation:) $\endgroup$
    – Mike L.
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 9:09

In short: maybe they're like dogs.

In prehistoric times, the wild demons were domesticated by some powerful fantasy race. Apparently, it was beneficial for both races, and for many millenia, the demons were breed to be more and more loyal. Then, for some reason, the other race have left the earth - maybe they were wiped out in a war, maybe they moved to another planet, whatever. But some of them have left their demon pets here.

Lamashtu have only learnt to hunt the weakest of mammals, and constantly travels seeking for more food. Glabrezu is so bored, it plays witty games with its chew toys. Nabassu still guards the place it remembers as home, scaring away pesky two-legged vermins.

But if any demon hears the name it was called ages ago, the old instincts (and, probably, a bit of insanity) kick in. The demon has been waiting for so long, it doesn't care how the boss looks like, the only thing that matters is that the boss is finally back, and everything will be like in the good old times again.


In my work, I tend to treat demons, angels, and similar spirits as the manifestation of an idea or concept. For example, in a particularly dark world I developed, a horde of demons sprang from the mind of a goddess as her fears and worries for humanity manifested themselves.

Parallel to this, we already have the concept of conquering our detractors; e.g., conquer your fear.

Combining these two, let a particular demon named Aibohporca represent the fear of heights. If you learn the name of Aibohporca, you can then conquer it and, similarly, conquer your fear of heights.

This can be extrapolated to any idea or concept, positive or negative. For example, learning Cupid's real name would give you command over love.


"Demons" are trespassers from another place/plane, literally.

Knowing the true name of a demon means that you can identify him, and cause him all sorts of legal trouble, should your soul/conciousness ever get to the other plane (e.g. by dying at the hands of a demon).

Whoever Created Demons put a voice-activated limiter into them (if you want to have a nice religious tie-in: Only Humans can make use of those limiters, because we were created in the image of god (we share a voice modulation with god).

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    $\begingroup$ Too chaotic evil to sit down and decode their own DNA. Demon biologist destroys own lab, and the labs of all his colleagues in frustration over that damn impossible splicing $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 15:15

the underworld has yet to start using social security numbers, and demons don't have mothers (or at least their mothers don't have maiden names). also, they don't really know when the exact date they were spawned since the earth wasn't really revolving around the sun yet. in fact, the only security question on the demon's retirement account is his name. so, if you know his name, you can steal his identity. this would be a major problem since it would give you all his powers. plus, you could steal the pension that he has been working towards for 50 million years. and he really wants to toss it all in and relax next to a nice little lake of fire.


This answer doesn't really depend on "magic", but on the idea that the universe in which your story unfolds is somewhat similar to a simulation. However, it does not require that the fact that demons can be controlled by knowing their True Name is a purposeful, conscious decision by the creators of the simulation, so I don't consider it a "because [the gods] said so" explanation.


The ur-language could be the instruction set of the simulation. In this simulation, entities interact by sending messages to each other and to The Simulation itself. For instance, to lift a bucket, a person's 'handle' in the simulation would inform The Simulation that a force of, say, 1 N should be applied to the 'handle' of the bucket, in a 90 degrees angle to the ground.

We can represent this with the following ASCII-art:

<Person> --[apply-force: 1 N, surface-angle: 90 degrees]--> <Bucket>

The source of the demons' power

Demons, or really any supernatural element in the simulation, are entities which figured out a way to install proxies in their interaction with others. The demon can check which messages are sent to its proxy, and modify the message before it is sent to itself. When a person interacts with your Glabrezu, instead of this happening:

<Person> --[push-over]--> <Demon>,

this happens:

<Person> --[push-over]--> <Demon-proxy> --[do-nothing-in-particular]--> <Demon>

This way, all the supernatural things you describe are possible: the proxy can report the Lamashtu is not visible when in fact it should be; it can claim to have arbitrary amounts of energy available, thereby being able to reach arbitrary speeds up to the speed of light (sorry, darkness); absurdly large Glabrezus' proxies can claim the Glabrezu has a dexterity it should never possess, etc.

True Names as a way to subvert that power

True Names, now, are references to the true identity. By knowing a demon's True Name, a person can bypass the proxy:

<Person> ----> <Demon-proxy> ----> <Demon> '----[push-him-over-anyway]----^

With the proxy bypassed, all 'supernatural powers' of the demon are out of the picture, and the demons have to face the harsh reality that their physique is rather unfit for real life. At this point, even a child could force them into submission.


It's the private key that enables software update signing.... To the code that runs in their brain.

Most orders or requests are accepted or validated based on their normal rules and logic.

With the true name, you can literally change their mind entirely - but most wizards don't really understand the code, so tend to have a bunch of hacks for the most common sorts of things.



  1. you get your name from your parents
  2. you are expected to obey your parents absolutely

these are ancient traditions in nearly every culture for obvious reasons. in fact, many cultures consider children to be little more than property of their parents until they take a new name (e.g. during a rite of passage where a boy becomes a man, or when ownership of a woman is transferred during marriage). so, by naming the demon, you are assuming the role of it's parent, and therefore it must obey you (by divine law/natural order/etc.).

also, it is worth noting that strangers are universally feared. and a stranger is loosely defined as someone who's name you do not know. e.g.:

suzie smith: mommy says i'm not supposed to talk to strangers

creepy bloke: oh, right. i'm john, and you're suzie, right? there, now we're not strangers!

this fear of strangers is ancient and deep-set for good reason. before strong central governments evolved, theft was controlled by a social network that would punish people in the community who stole/vandalized/raped/killed/etc. since this network had little control over people who were about to leave the community, it was assumed that anyone who did leave the community had done something too horrible to accept the consequences. even if the stranger arriving in your community had not yet committed a crime, they were much more likely to leave again. this transience meant you could not punish them if they committed a crime. this lack of control over vagrants made them scary. the upshot of this reasoning has historically (pre-1500's) been rampant strangercide. more recently, it has been a less drastic mistreatment of vagrants by nearly all centralized authorities (just try getting a state id without a permanent address). on a more personal level, it has left most people with the (frequently wrong) impression that strangers are more dangerous than people they know.


A True Name contains within it a description of how a creature works--and thus inherently describes a creature's defenses and provides an awareness of what it's doing. If you know a creature's True Name you know how to bypass those defenses. No matter how strong the creature there's a chink in it's defenses somewhere--and you know it. If he tries to attack you you'll know it and will be able to strike first--killing him. If you choose to attack you'll kill him.

Basic self-preservation means it will comply with your instructions because you can kill it and you'll know if it isn't complying.


For True Names to work the way that they are described in mythology you will need a framework that, for all intents and purposes, is magic. We can discuss numerous pseudo-scientific possibilities, but ultimately to the Namer and the Named it might be the same thing.

Take for example Strata by Terry Pratchett. The demons of that story are artificial constructs controlled by the computer which manages the disc world, and as such are susceptible to control by the nature of their programming. In such a setting anyone who learns the correct access code - the True Name - can issue commands that the construct-demon is required to follow... albeit with the standard caveats about how they follow their instructions. From the perspective of someone who doesn't have any knowledge of the controlling computer or that the demons are in fact constructs controlled by that computer, the result is indistinguishable from magic.

Which is all very fine in that story where there's an obvious reason for this to be the case. It's a little tougher to explain something like this in any world that we can honestly say is close to what we know of reality.

The "True Name as command sequence" concept is related to the "Magic is Science" trope. Generally they involve some sort of technology that is controlled by spells which are simply the commands in the control language. In Cyber Way by ADF the mystical power turns out to be an alien computer that is controlled by incantations in Navajo. In the Well World books the computers are built into the crusts of planets and controlled by will power by anyone with the ability to interface to them. Stargate has its Ancients and their toys that respond to mental commands. And the list goes on.

Any sufficiently advanced technology, eh?

Without invoking magic - or a technological substitute for magic - the remaining option is psychology. What would cause a Demon to respond to a True Name as if it were binding on them?

Perhaps True Names are simply implanted hypnotic triggers that force a conditioned creature to accept your commands. Maybe Demons have all been conditioned so that they can be controlled by someone if they ever get out of hand. Maybe the Demons are given such conditioning as an entry or exit requirement when they traveled from their home to ours. Perhaps this is standard practice at the inter-universe border stations, or a condition of their release from their home.

Maybe they have a more prosaic technical reason: implanted devices that are activated by the right series of sounds. Let them believe - right or wrong - that they have a sound-activated bomb in their heads that will go off if they fail to follow commands given after the activation of the device and most will simply follow the restrictions rather than die.

And of course there's always the chance that they really are AIs with back doors into their command processors. Or is that too much like "Magic IS Science"?


Let's start by understanding where the idea that demon's can be controlled by knowing their name comes from. Other answers highlite that many cultures throughout history separate considered a name to have power. That raises the question about the experience that make people believe that names have power.

From a modern perspective rituals that are about summoning demons are similar to what's done in Family Systems Therapy and Systemic Therapy. Part of Systemic Therapy is it to address parts with their name. A name binds a concept in a way that makes it easier to address the concept in a systemic constellations.

The Focusing framework of Eugine Gendlin with has 80 scientific papers in it's favor also has finding a name (a handle) as an essential part to talk to an internal part. There are mental processes that happen when a mental concept is given a handle. Processes that make it easier to influence those concepts. Many other psychological interventions use finding names as part of their process.

Historically a daemon is usually an entity that's tasked that's brought to consciousness and then get's tasked with doing something in the background. That's the point of most magick rituals summoning daemons. That usage of the word daemon is strong enough that your computer runs daemons in the background. If you want to shut down daemons in your computer than you need the name of the daemon to do so. In Linux of you know it's name is John you can simply write sudo killall John on the command line and the daemon is killed.

Depending on how daemons work in your world they could work similar to computer programs with can get a physical form when summoned into this world.

  • $\begingroup$ Systemic Theory appears to involve assigning names to things rather than divining the true names of those things. As such it doesn't seem to apply to True Names. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 4:14

Demons are not just physical beings, but also metaphysical beings as well. They aren't just objects taking up physical space. They are concepts occupying metaphysical space. And by manipulating the metaphysical space you can CHANGE them. Having access to their True name gives you access to their metaphysical space and the power to alter it. Like the key to a safe. This is terrifying to them. Their physical presence is tied to the metaphysical realm that changing one can change the other. Though physical changes can be reversed, changes to their essence could make them something/someone else entirely. Like a permanent hypnotist.

Of course most demons true name won't be something as simple as Bob, or even Gozer the Destroyer. Those are nicknames like 'He-who-must-not-be-named'. Alternate labels to help pinpoint one vs. another. Though should a demon come to be well known by such a label for long enough, it will start to hold some power over him as well.


Demons that interact with living humans are breaking the rules. If you know their true name, you can rat on them when you die. This is a similar situation to if you had evidence of a kingpin's guilt, but, whereas a kingpin can just kill you to stop you from telling the authorities, that wont work for a demon, since you can only tell their authorities after you die anyway. It's textbook blackmail.


Because the name of something IS that thing.

Here are a few demonstrations of this principle:

Automobile: self-moving.

Luggage: something you lug around (not “belongings”).

Party: separate, apart, partial (hence “apartment”), i.e. “not everyone is invited.” Exclusive, etc.

Universe: one axis (rotation).

Sex: gender.

Author: an authority on something.

Allah: the God.

Novel: new.

Mystic: initiate, beginning.

The Rolling Stones: Rock & Roll.

Professor: one who professes.

President: who presides over (Congress).

Psychopath: illness of mind.

Telephone: speech across distance.

Movie: because it moves.

Spirit: to breathe.

Virtue: manliness (like the Pali vīrya).

The name of something (the word) always tells you the real, de facto meaning of what something is:

Feminism: religion of women.

Men's Rights Activist: fighting for the rights of oppressed men.

There are no Female Right's Activists and Masculinists, see?

It's all in the word, literally, the true, de facto meaning of something.

Literally: in terms of the word (letter).

So returning to your question, I suppose it's powerful because the name of something is the essence of that thing.

In Islam it's said that God is unknowable apart from His Names and Attributes. Meaning that if we did not have Ar-Rahman (the Most Compassionate) and Ar-Rahim (the Most Merciful), we would not be able to know what God is.

What is God besides Compassion?

“Grant us good things, both in this life and in the hereafter. To You alone we turn. He replied, As for My punishment, I smite with it anyone I will. But My mercy encompasses all things.” (The Qur’an 7.156)

So since God's Ninety Nine Names are the most powerful attributes (the Holy, the Knowing, the Restorer, the Destroyer, etc.). God (Allah, lit. The Deity) is the most powerful thing in the universe.

Of course, theologically, we say that apart from those names it's impossible to know the essence of God, but given His most prominent Names (the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful), we have an understanding what He is.

Food for thought.

Mu’min: the secure, the safe.

Kafir: the one who conceals (hides, covers up).

Bismillahir Rahmanir Raheem is the standard formula: in the Name of God, the Most Compassionate, the Most Merciful.

“Say: "Call upon Allah, or call upon Rahman: by whatever name ye call upon Him, (it is well): for to Him belong the Most Beautiful Names.” (The Qur’an 17.110)

Incidentally that Qur’anic expression almost sounds like an expression of the trinity:

In the Name of God, the Most Gracious (Beneficent, Compassionate), the Most Merciful.

In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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    $\begingroup$ I have a few more: Treasury: US ministry of Debt; Dept. of Defense -- US Ministry of Foreign Military Interventions $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 13:02
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    $\begingroup$ None of those are etymology, though. Treasury would just mean "storehouse of treasures." The word Internet means "between networks." This makes perfect sense because if anyone knows what TCP/IP or IPv4 (and related topics like CIDR, or whatever) you would know that that's what the Internet is, the Internet is the Internet. Similarly, company would just mean "band of brothers." Music just means "art of the Muses." Sex means gender. Explain means to make plain, externally, to put out there. Understand means to submit. Etc. :) $\endgroup$
    – James Yen
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ Or for example, to be a fan of something would mean to be a fanatic, i.e. to be crazy. It doesn't mean "respecter of someone's work." $\endgroup$
    – James Yen
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ How does that answer the question? $\endgroup$
    – JDługosz
    Commented Apr 22, 2016 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ Well, it doesn't. In the theology I delineated above, God alone possesses the Most Beautiful Names. In a certain sense, given any characteristic, God represents the peak or culmination of that characteristic, He is the End and the Goal. It's weird because God seems to be a necessity of existence, given any set of things there is something that is the best of those things, the peak. For example: given a group of competitive hot dog eaters, one of them is the best. Because of this, it seems that God is implied, i.e. He is the only one who possesses the attribute of Existence. $\endgroup$
    – James Yen
    Commented Apr 23, 2016 at 18:40

Naming is often at the heart of creation myths. Gods name things in order to create them. This guy does a thorough job of spelling that out here, but his first example is crystal. "Let there be light." And then there was light. The light is named and then it's created.

The Power of Names: In Culture and in Mathematics

I've always taken the true name concept to be tied to this idea. If you know the true name of something, you know the name the divine spoke to create it. With that name comes the knowledge or power any creator of a thing would have over it's creation. That's pretty much root access level to a piece of creation or a soul/spirit in the Demon's case.

Furthermore, in the case of demons, there's often a turning away from the natural order of things that twists them somehow. If you know the true name of the demon, you know it as it was before it was turned. The pain and inner turmoil of being reminded of it's true self, the being as it as just after creation before it rejected its own role in the natural order has all kinds of implications you could tie into a set of laws for a speculative setting.

You want a mess with a demon? Remind it of what it used to be. The ex-angels in particular really hate that.


Maybe demons are as smarts as AI because they function like AI. They may be very smart but are designed in a more simple way than human (only pure evil and power, no need for philosophy and all this complex "useless" stuff).

As they have a very formatted mind they completely lack common sense (that is why you can't turn good a demon for example), so there is rules for them to decide what they should do.

Most of the time if someone give them an order, they will disobey, because they are evil nasty guys, so the one who created them made it so they will obey when he will call them by their names.

So when a demon hear his true name, an inner mechanism triggers and makes them simply unable to disobey. Demon are aware of that but they never managed to remove it. Moreover if they look too obviously for a way to remove this mechanism, the one who created them could become angry, so these attempts are very rare.


In many magic philosophies, to know the name of a thing, you gain control of the thing. This can apply to inanimate objects, people, animals, plants, and the supernatural.

Most tales with someone controlling a supernatural creature (by name, or otherwise) generally fall along the same path as the Monkey's Paw tale with its moral of "Be careful what you wish for".

In D&D (which your question seems to reference), knowing a demon's name allows you to attempt to summon it, but the name must be used properly as part of the correct ceremony or spell, which can generally only be done by higher level characters.


Demons used to be good people before they became, well, demons. Many are fallen angels. They are made to forget their names so that they forget their goodness. If you utter a Demon's true name, it will remember its former life and goodness, and will stop hurting you, feeling grief at its evilness.

  • $\begingroup$ According to most literature and mythology that uses True Names the target of a Naming is not radically altered by the use of it, only controlled or forced to do the bidding of the Namer. I don't think your answer addresses that. $\endgroup$
    – Corey
    Commented Apr 21, 2016 at 4:18
  • $\begingroup$ It doesn't it's an interesting spin on the idea though and would explain the power of the "true name". $\endgroup$
    – Tim B
    Commented Apr 24, 2016 at 21:42
  • $\begingroup$ @Corey Perhaps it is not enough to actually change it, but it feels bad enough to follow your every command, lest you, say, tell its mom. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 24, 2016 at 22:26

A couple thoughts: In the Bible's Old Testament, the name of God was abbreviated and not even fully written out for fear and reverence of it. In the New Testament, followers of Jesus preach that "there is no other name by which we can be saved". Also, in Revelation, Jesus promises to give to anyone who overcomes a secret name known only to that person and Jesus.

I take these meanings to be related to the fact that a name is an expression of a person's character and nature. This includes their power but also who they are.

I am not an expert but I can imagine people invoking the names of gods and demons that they follow in order to gain their power. Unfortunately, that may mean also gaining some of their other character traits...

I would guess that the turning of the name into a secret key to command that power is a later invention. It seems less likely to me that an ancient man would believe he could command supernatural forces with a secret password than a modern man believing it. To the ancient world, spirits and demons were explanations of the caprice of the universe, and I do not think most people believed they could be coerced except by the help of a stronger supernatural power. But I could be wrong. I suppose there were witch doctors then as today. But I wonder if (then and today), they see themselves as controlling or invoking a power. My guess is the latter. Again, could be wrong.

Another aspect of the use of a name as a key to command is related to the name as a representation of someone. In my mentioned example from Revelation, I believe this refers to the relational intimacy of having something good within oneself that is a secret between one and God. When someone else knows who you truly are, that creates intimacy and vulnerability. And vulnerability is something that can be exploited, if trying to exploit things for power is your deal.

So, perhaps knowing something's true name is intimately knowing it so that you can exploit that intimacy to exert power over it and control it.

I might add that that sort of plan doesn't tend to win friends or influence people in the long run. Unless, I suppose, you're Ender Wiggin.


We may only survive these creatures through wisdom, knowledge and education. This is how the higher being designed our culture. Our sins are judged and our virtues will save us, therefore we must further educate our children. The feared demons are like trials, testing our knowledge, taking out failures, strengthening evolution by this quirk of nature.

We need physics to enforce our homes, medicine to cure our sicknesses, and folklore or religion to withstand mystical beings. Encounters with these demons are extremely rare, and few are left to tell the tale, thus only those given proper education and having faith to learn the true names are spared.

Good and evil may be in the same team after all, one welcoming with salvation while the other one herding by fear.


The Model

If you consider the universe (including the realm which demons inhabit) as a kind of computer, then everything in it is a kind of program/data. The common name for a thing is like a reference to an object in a programming language which has a particular type, but the type has an interface which only allows you to interact with the object according to the normal rules of the universe. For instance, I might see an object called "Bob's CD Collection", and it has type FileStream. I can do file-streamy things to this object because that is what this name allows me to do. I can read it, sort it, maybe even add something to it. But I can't convert it into a dinosaur, because that isn't file-streamy.

Now, suppose that some entities in the universe are not bound to the rules of the type system imposed on it, which gives rise to the order and physical laws which the universe normally obeys. They essentially have the power to treat any object as any type, and therefore perform any conceivable action in this universe. But, in order to do so, they need an absolute address for the object in question.

Normally, the name for a thing is a common name given by ordinary agents within the universe, and interacting with an object implicitly uses its common name. In fact, an object may have many common names, and each of these reflect the interfaces available for the object. One can even "cast" an object to a different type simply by attempting to use it as such. For instance, an object might normally have the name "wrench", and it can be used to turn things. But by swinging it at a nail, you can call it by the name "hammer", and drive nails into other objects. But if you try to call it by the name "fruit" and take a bite out of it, you'll just break your teeth, because that is not one of its names, and you have no power to interact with it that way.


In this model, a magician is just a hacker who can break the rules because they can cast an object to a type it cannot normally take. Or, to put it another way, it can give a name to an object that it normally doesn't have. Even so, there are limits to this hacking defined by the similarity of the names applied.

We could even say that demons are such hackers, and they are more powerful than mere mortals because they know these hidden names of objects and can thus manipulate the world in ways which are not obvious or cannot even be known by lesser beings. They are the Hidden API of the universe, left like easter eggs by the Creator to be found by sufficiently clever individuals, or those who have been given the special sight to see and know such names of things.


But the one power which is greater than using a hidden name is to know the absolute location of an entity within the universe. In programming terms, this would be its physical memory address. This is not just an alias or a reference, but rather its True Name. Having access to the True Name allows such a person to perform any actions whatsoever on said entity. So, it is not really a power over demons, per se. It is a power over anything in the universe.

But maybe one who learns such a power does not have the ability to obtain the True Name of just anything. Perhaps there is a cost involved, and Demonslayers can really afford to only obtain the True Name of one or a few things. In this case, the best use of this power would be to control a demon, for they are the ones with seemingly unlimited power (though, in reality, they are limited to whatever hidden names they know or can see).


So, although there is a kind of magic in this universe, it is a mostly logical, consistent magic, which is really what you want in the end, right? Programming is all about naming things, and in, in many respects, is the fundamental operation of software engineering. As long as you view the universe as a giant computer, the concept of naming and knowing names as Power is very natural.

  • $\begingroup$ Interesting idea, magic like programming! How did you come to this one? $\endgroup$
    – Eithne
    Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 9:16
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Ed Fredkin presented the idea of universe-as-a-computer way back in the 80's. Everyone thought he was a kook, despite being an MIT professor, but the idea has become less fringe as time goes on. But I'm a code monkey by trade, so all of this feels quite natural to me. ;> $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 25, 2016 at 18:17

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