On the Sacredness of Names
What’s in a name? The custom of adopting a new name upon an initiation is very old. Many cultures and traditions use the practice of giving or adopting a new name to mark the delineation of one’s changing identity or status, from child to adult, from member by birth to member by choice, from outsider to insider. It is a custom in witchcraft to adopt a new name upon initiation that reflects one's new identity as a witch.
Within some covens, one’s craft name is to remain secret. Within other coven’s there is an “inner circle” craft name used only by coven members and an outer circle name that need not remain secret. One reason for secrecy is that an ancient legend says that to know one’s secret name is to have power over the bearer. Other’s claim that a witch receives a true name directly from the divine. It is forbidden to reveal this divine name to anyone, and thus it matters not whether any other name is made public because the true name preserves the bearer from harm.
Craft names are individualistic and may reflect elements in nature, one’s heritage, one’s tradition or one’s hero. Craft names are divined through meditation or study. Some coven’s High Priestess chooses an initiates first craft name. Some children are given craft names by their parents to identify them as belonging to a pagan family. In the course of a lifetime, most witches will have more than one craft name.
My mother was one of a kind. In every way she wanted her children to be unique too. She gave her children names that would bring them a challenge. She named us all after beloved friends whose names had become icons for their talents, intellects and dynamic personalities. Both my siblings adopted nicknames to escape the challenge. As a little girl, no one had ever met anyone with my mundane name. No one liked it. No one could pronounce it. In grade school, everyone had a prettier name than mine, or so I thought. When, I took Spanish and French in school, my name in those languages was unpronounceable or there was no equivalent, so the teacher would try to give me a similar name (meaning one that started with the same letter). No nick name was forthcoming for me.
In my teens, I grew into my name and decided to define it by my works, my achievements, and my personal identity. Craft names followed that did not replace my name but expanded my identity. My first initiation name was given to me at age 15 by the gods, according to my mother, when I committed to a course of study which lasted nearly fifteen years. It was the unflattering, “Hammer and Tongs,” a blacksmith’s saying for hard working or more precisely to work with a will. To go at something Hammer & Tongs means passionate commitment until a job is done or a goal is achieved. What is unflattering in that? It also means loud. Sigh. Youthful exuberance, I certainly had. Mother assured me that it was a compliment.
As I chose my goddess path and began my Gardnerian studies I became Breet...a pronounciation of the name of the Irish goddess Bridget. I have been Breet for most of my "working" life and the goddess that is Breet's personification has become my patroness. When I learned my goddess, Bridget’s attributes were fire and inspiration and those things fed by these, I was not surprised to find that she was also the goddess of blacksmiths and one of her symbols was a hammer. It was my name throughout a ten year course of study until it was made clear to me that I was on a priestess path.
After several years of feeling compelled to come out of the closet...after more years of feeling that some of my vows of silence should be broken about my family's spiritual tradition...knowing that I was going to seek out an online community... I knew that I was heading for a transformation/rededication/initiation period in my life. I was not sure what that might be, but a name change has marked every spiritual "boundary crossing" I have ever made.
I'm not sure why a non-goddess name marked me for my journey to Priestess. Something about the fact that my biological family rejected my mother's royalty and wisdom. That the original "den" (not coven) of practitioners are now either fallen away or dead...made me feel that I was the last of my kind. (I was even more alone since I was even resistant to fully revealing myself to my children...They did not know that I was a practitioner until they were in high school.) It was such a shock to The Red One who had been hiding her paganism from me. Sweet irony.
Ard Ri...is Gaelic for High King. Ard Rian is High Queen. Honesty...without ego...I know I am a teacher, guide and sometimes a force in my environment. (Still Hammer & Tongs!) The meaning of the word just felt right. Timely. I felt I had earned the name. I had fought the battles...made the sacrifices...weathered the storm of rejection and disapproval to find that I had a family who wanted me to dare to step into my mother’s shoes and guide them. She was a goddess. Queen did not seem so high by comparison.
It began as an internet screen name. Ardrian was taken (with gods know how many numbers after it to say that the user was the 9,043rd person with no imagination using the name)... So on a whim...I added an "a". It took. Adding an "a" to a word...usually makes a diminutive of a word...so Ardriana...was "little" High Queen...as my domain is very, very small. More simply, I turned a title into a name. Funny how--to my family … Ardrian/Ardriana is a name that they find quite comfortable on me. As usual, I'm the only one sensitive to what other people might think of my ego. (Damn those negative buttons firmly place in the depth of my self-consciousness by my evil wicked, mean, and bad and nasty step-sister!) But with time, I fully internalized the name and have made it my own.
A surprize to me, on the night of my dedication to the path of Priestess, I was given a sacred name, a private name used only before the gods. It took months to figure out what the name was because I spelled it phonetically and thought it was one word. I finally figured it out that it was Welsh and it was two words that begun with “My…” It’s a lovely name, one I am not fully comfortable with, maybe too sweet for me, maybe even predictable or common. That it was given in a language I didn’t understand is the only reason I accept it. But it reminded me of the movie Indian Summer, where Alan Arkin, the camp director, would give a struggling camper an Indian name to make him or her feel empowered and special. The camper was forbidden to tell his Indian name, as I am forbidden to tell my sacred name. The camp director bragged that he could remember each and every Indian name he had given out. As it turned out the camp director gave each struggling camper the same inspiring name. I wondered as if in the movie, the gods had a sense of humor, or more seriously a true sense of equality in their love for each and we are all given the same sacred name that we must never reveal.
The longer I dealt with the force and art of naming a thing, the more I fully appreciated the value, power and sacredness of a name. (It wasn’t a new idea, I had just never dedicated myself to an in depth study of the philosophy.) Every adjective that describes a great person: talented, intelligent, giving, understanding, strong, conscientious, means nothing if not applied to a name.
With the trouble that I had with others pronouncing my mundane name incorrectly in a foreign language; and thus having my name taken away from me, I began consciously learning how to pronounce foreign names correctly to honor them. In journalism, nothing points out a rookie louder than mispronouncing a name. First rule of journalism, get the names right.
In the Craft, one follows both a historical and religious tradition of getting a new name when points of maturation or elevation are achieved. None of my names fit me at the time I was given them. Each name seemed to hold something just out of reach, just above me that I was expected to rise to. And I have enjoyed the journey, learning what I must do to achieve my new name.
There is also a tenant that a thing without a name has no value. This tenant says that to name a thing gives it substance and to know the name of a thing gives one power over it. Though I do not need “power over” - I do need “power with.” In my initiatory days, I believed that was a member of a nature religion and I deeply understood nature; that I work magickally with nature to achieve positive change. Then it occurred to me, how could I fully understand the nature of nature, if I didn’t know all of nature’s names?
I began introducing myself to the wildflowers that grew around the family’s summer cabin. I introduced myself to each as I learned each by name. Then I researched their lore. I learned the names of all the trees and their lore. Then, I learned the names of the birds. The bigger guys were easier to name, moose, elk, buffalo, but I worked to name the Pronghorn Antelope, the Rock Chuck (or Yellow Bellied Marmot), and Mule Deer.
Then this naming magick went further, it wasn’t enough that we had a bat living in the rafters of the cabin, I named him Renfield. Fifteen generations of Renfields have lived in the rafters of our cabin. Just one, every summer (except for the year one brought his blonde girlfriend!). My magickal tools have names. My home has a name. The two large pine trees in my back yard have names. My cars have names. My computer has a name. (She who is the Magnanimous One, Who is Worthy of Worship and Adoration For Being Too Great A Spirit to Crash on Her Lowly Servant, Who is currently Behind in Updating her Back Up Files.)
When Mother passed, I clung to every thing that she ever loved or touched. Over time, I realized that I loved looking at her signature. This was ink that flowed from a pen that was held in her power hand, writing the thing that identified her unique individualism from every other person throughout history.
I collect signatures now. I cut them off birthday and Yule cards that I don’t want to save intact. I keep them in a small box on my witchly shelves. I use them to direct magick to the one named, I use them in memorials, I use them to connect to the core of the person named. They pulse with the life that wrote them; echoes of a singular spirit, unique and precious. What’s in a name…?
Magick and beauty, import and purpose, essence, memory and the infinite power of one.
© 2002, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 Ardriana Cahill
Top of Page