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Names and Naming
by Dale Ivarie

Many aboriginal and ancient peoples had a different view of names and the process of naming than we do today. Today we are named at birth by our parents, sometimes after a relative or person they care about, sometimes simply because they like the sound of the name. We carry that name with us throughout our lives. Even if a person changes their name upon getting married, they usually carry the old (maiden) name with them.

Our individual names have lost their meaning. We meet many people who carry the same names we do. Itís no wonder some of us have a problem finding an identity. Many of the names we use today used to have specific meanings. If you look at the etymological roots, both first and last names used to represent much more than they do now. Sawyer was used for those who owned sawmills, Miller for millers and so on. Anderson came from a culture where it was important to know that you were Anderís son. The same goes for Bjornson. Catherine used to mean "pure one", now itís just a name. Today, very few of us are aware of these meanings and even if we have heard of them they are simply academic curiosities.

Names used to say something about who a person was, what they did, or to whom they were related. Many modern pagans have felt this hollowness. They have found no power in the names given to them. Some have found that they have become disassociated from those who named them. Their beliefs and lives have diverged. They no longer wish to be who they were. They want a name that represents their view of themselves to the world.

One of the more uniform features of naming customs worldwide is that the culture, your parents, friends, or neighbors, are the ones who name you. A name is how others identify you. Without other people there is no need for a name. What good is a name if it is never used? A name is a social tool. If a tool goes unused it simply becomes decoration. What good is a label if it tells you nothing about the person who wears it? Many native or ancient cultures had several names individuals used in different social contexts. These names were given to them. The names said something about how these people were viewed within the group. Many native/ancient cultures had a birth name and a name given upon adulthood. Both names where chosen for them by the community. It is, after all, the community who uses the name. Names sometimes stemmed from ancestry, a personís position (job), or from some aspect of their past or personality which stood out. Sometimes the names were less than flattering. The common practice among modern pagans is to choose oneís own magical name and many draw upon Native American or other cultures for inspiration for the form of this name.

I once saw a photo of Jim Thorpeís Indian football team labeled with both the Native American and westernized names. One huge linesmanís native name was "boy who bears his bottom". I havenít met any modern pagans who have chosen names like that for themselves. Ask around any pagan gathering and there are sure to be Moonravens, Greenwolves, Skydragons, and many other impressive sounding names. Unfortunately these names ring as hollow as their given names. Many pagans feel this, but few will admit it. Pagans do, however, seem to change their names fairly frequently.

To name something, and have the words ring true, the namers must know what it is they are naming. The majority of original pagan cultures were small and had an intimate knowledge of the individual by the time the adult name was to be chosen. The community knew all of the individualís strengths and weaknesses. They knew about things that happened to the person as a child. The things he/she did that were comical, childish, stupid, brilliant, courageous, or caring. The name chosen may even have been a nickname, simply given validity by the ceremony of adulthood. It is this intimate knowledge that formed the name. These names, although not always flattering, were genuine.

Imagine if person given to self aggrandizement and, shall we say, creative exageration went around his small tribe and told everyone that he was now to be called Silver Jaguar, even though he wasnít a warrior and was a relatively poor hunter. They probably would have laughed right in his face and if they didnít laugh, they would have bit their lip to prevent hurting his feelings. What they would have found funny was the irony of how he truly was versus how he wanted to be seen. They would realize that for him to become what he wanted, he first had to understand who he was at that time.

Thus a personís name served a purpose. The name helped the individual see him/herself through the communityís eyes. The name provided a view unclouded by their own self-image. Like tarot or astrology, it gave the person a new perspective. Even if the person was uncomfortable with the name, over the years they would have to come to an acceptance and an understanding of the name and of those aspects of themselves which the name represented. They did not have the option of simply telling off the people around them and moving to a different community. They were stuck with each other.

Our society makes it easy to run when we are confronted by an aspect of ourselves we dislike. We have split our lives into pieces. We have a work life, a social life, a religious life, etc... These separate lives generally involve different groups of people and we, in turn, act differently among them. Few of us associate with a group of friends in enough settings and for enough time to see ourselves truly reflected in their eyes. Often just as we are getting close enough to see each otherís spirits, we leave. We move from group to group like social nomads. We begin to focus on other peopleís idiosyncrasies, the small faults we all have. These small foibles become our reason for leaving. In truth, it is much more our own faults from which we are running.

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