Take a moment to look around yourself. Everything you see has a name, a symbol of existence. Our entire experience of our world(s) depends on drawing distinctions through identifying symbols and sounds. The faiths that many of us grew up in recognized this:
Genesis 1:4,5 God saw that the light was good, and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, a first day.
In the story of Genesis, the Hebraic god separates the light from darkness, but light is not Day until it is named such. Likewise with darkness and night.
The mythology and lore of a great many religions, as well as magical and spiritual traditions, abound with stories of the power of names and naming. From the fairy tale of Rumpelstiltskin, to Isis learning the true name of Re and in doing so becoming his equal, to the Judaic child naming and blood sacrifice ritual, to the taking of a partner’s name in a marriage, and the choosing of a new name as a step of gender transition, the importance of names is easy to see. Names bind us together into tribes, whether based around nationhood, faith, or a preference in computer technology or truck manufacturer. The first part of an introduction is someone’s name. It could be said that until a person has a name to go with their face, they aren’t really known to you.
I travel frequently in two worlds in which people frequently take new names and identities. In the pagan world we call them circle names. In kink/BDSM they are scene names.
On the surface the two seem the same, and for some people they likely serve an identical purpose. However, if we delve a bit deeper into the two cultures we see some critical differences. In the pagan community a circle name is often representative of one’s pagan identity. Perhaps a deity one relates to, or much like my own name, characteristic of an individual’s place in the spiritual world and pagan community.
In kink/BDSM space, a chosen name is often a shield. It serves as a layer of insulation designed to separate one’s kink identity and activities from the real and potentially disastrous consequences of having one’s kinky life known to an often hostile non-kinky world. Despite advances in pagan visibility, this reason remains a secondary, or even sometimes paramount reason that circle names are taken as well.
What both communities share is that they put great weight in knowing someone’s real name, by which I mean the name on one’s government issued ID. This is a fascinating concept, that one name is inherently real. By extension, it implies that the others are, if not false, then lesser. How would this concept be extended to the gods? I serve the Lady, does my service of Her in that aspect in some way diminish the worship of those who know Her by another? In my own tradition at least, that idea is patently ridiculous.
In our spiritual tradition we believe that while the gods are unique and separate entities, they can have different aspects to their being. Perhaps where I have seen this most dramatically, has been in my Work with the Northern Tradition deities. Odin the Allfather, Odin the Wanderer, and Odin the Shaman-King, are but a few of His immense number of names or titles. Likewise with his oath-brother: Loki the Husband of Angrboda, Loki the Trickster, and Loki the Mad/Destroyer of Worlds, arguably an aspect in itself of Loki the Husband of Sigyn, represent distinctly different aspects of the deity and phases in His existence.
A colleague of mine Works very closely with Odin the Wanderer, and when He appears to her, He comes with both of His eyes intact. That aspect of Odin exists in a state before His transformative journey that cost Him one of His mortal eyes. My own patron has multiple names and titles. Other deities have called Her The White Lady, or Tashrisketlin’s White Lady. To us, She is simply the Lady, or the Mistress of the Forest Fire. For over a decade we strove to learn the name that She is more widely known by, having been assured that there was one. Only when we stopped caring, did we finally come to learn it. But worshipping Her in that aspect is as foreign to me as any unfamiliar deity.
The gods are not unique in having names and titles with power. Over a half-lifetime as a magician and spirit worker I have accumulated my share of titles, which have their time and place. Likewise I have and have had a number of names.
Wintersong Tashlin or on occasion Wintersong G. Tashlin is the name that carries me through the world. In Vreschtik tradition, our names have to have some form of symbolic meaning. Wintersong is quite specific: the sound that a winter wind makes whistling and tearing through bare branches in the forest.
Wintersong is not the first chosen name I have had. Before I was Wintersong, I was Stardancer. Before that, Oceandreamer. Oceandreamer looked towards the future with expectations and hopes as vast as the great ocean, but like the ocean herself, was helpless to resist the push and pull of outside forces. Stardancer, is a story for another time. There is also a spirit name known to a few intimates, which is where the G in Wintersong G. Tashlin comes from. Like some other magicians, I took a spirit quest long ago to find my true name, and having done so, never shared it with another soul, living or otherwise. All that said, of course Wintersong was not the name given to me by my parents.
The name I associate with myself most often is Wintersong Tashlin. But while not a stranger to her, my mother does not relate to me as Wintersong. To her I will always be Eric, a name that in its own way represents an aspect of me as clearly as Wintersong does. I would never expect my mother to call me Winter or Wintersong, because to her I am not a mage, shaman, or kinkster. Not the cold wind in barren trees, but rather the child who’s diapers she changed, and who she watched grow into a man. There is no reason for me to expect her to relate to me as Witnersong, and doing so would reject a vital part of myself that is Eric. Becoming Wintersong did not make Eric cease to be in the way that Wintersong supplanted and replaced Stardance and Oceandreamer. For that matter, when I changed my legal last name, Eric L. Leshay was in fact supplanted by Eric L. Tashlin, an evolution of one aspect of self.
Where a name comes from can have a great deal of power. A frequent, and inappropriate question asked of transgender individuals (or others who have changed their names) is what their name was before transition. Even with the intense work involved in changing one’s gender legally and socially, the attitude persists for many that one’s name given at birth is somehow more real than a taken name. The name we grow up with can be seen as shaping us, whereas a name taken is shaped by who we are. To know someone’s birth-name is to understand a piece of their journey.
There certainly are those who take names and titles frivolously or without due consideration. In the BDSM scene this can be seen in people who assume the name or title of master, in some cases without understanding the power and meaning of the word, or the work the community requires of one before that title can be used. Likewise, I have seen the terms shaman and spirit worker used to self-identify by people who see in those words either aspects of their own experience or echoes of their future selves, but whose spiritual journey as yet does not fulfill the weight and nature of the Work associated with them. Names and titles have power, and sometimes the assumption of a title can set one inextricably on a path that can be longer, and more complex than one would ever wish.
The powerful, and often nuanced nature of names and titles is something that bares deeper consideration in many traditions and communities.
Certainly much strife could be eased in the pagan and spirit work worlds if the varied aspects of deity were more greatly respected. Infighting has consumed segments of the community in recent years, much of it over whose perspective on individual gods and traditions is right. Understanding that one who calls on the One-Eyed King will have a very different experience and relationship with Odin than one who calls on the Wanderer would go a long way to defusing tensions that leave many of us walking on metaphorical eggshells, and has rent more than one community asunder.
In the kink/BDSM community we need to learn how titles should be earned and claimed, and develop constructive language for addressing people who take on titles that they perhaps do not yet have the right to. Also, recognizing that while the names people use when in BDSM space may or may not be the name on their government ID, for some a scene name is far more real than the name used in their non-kinky lives. This goes equally for circle names in pagan space.
Personally, I travel through the pagan, LGBT and kink/BDSM worlds as Wintersong Tashlin, although most people simply call me Winter. In a sense, it is my real name, if indeed there can be such a thing. In keeping with the traditions of my Lady and the nature of my shamanism, I strive to exist at the intersection of many worlds while remaining inherently myself. The continuity of my identity is vital to maintaining that role. What my name means to people in different spaces may vary quite a bit, that is the power and weakness in a name.
Finding words to define the people, objects, and concepts in our world represents one of the greatest powers every thinking person wields. Like any other power, names and naming require care and attention to understand and to wield to great effect.