Words and names have power. In many mythologies, the world came into being at the utterance of a particular word or sound. A magician who knows the true names of things has power over them. That is why, in A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin, everyone has a secret name, and a nickname by which they are usually known. It is why some Romani mothers give their children three names: a secret name whispered in the child’s ear on giving birth, and again when the child becomes an adult; a name which they are known by among their own tribe; and a name for use among the gadjo (non-Romani) – but see update below.
The Enchanted Garden of Messer Ansaldo by Marie Spartali Stillman (1899) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Why have a Pagan name?
Many people decide to have a Pagan name because they want to celebrate an aspect of Nature with their name. Hence people choose the names of plants, animals, or birds that they particularly like. Fortunately for me, the name Yvonne means “Yewtree” anyway. My last name is probably derived from the Anglo-Saxon for fortified town (burh) but it may just possibly be derived from the Anglo-Saxon for burial mound (beorh), though in that case my last name would probably be “Berrow”.
There are many reasons why someone might want a Pagan name: to feel more in touch with a particular deity, animal, bird, or tree; to emphasise a quality that you possess, or to which you aspire; to celebrate a connection with a particular animal, bird, plant, place, or being that you already feel.
Choosing your own name is a powerful magical act. Sometimes a name is suggested to you by others; if it feels right, go for it. Sometimes the name only fits in a particular group or context. I am known by a particular nickname to a particular group of people, and it feels very odd indeed if anyone outside that group uses that nickname.
Using a pseudonym
When I wrote my first book, back in 1992, I considered using a pseudonym. Ironically enough, when it was published, some people apparently thought that Yvonne Aburrow actually was a pseudonym.
At that time, many Pagan authors used pseudonyms, because it was still legal to discriminate against Pagans at work in the UK, and everybody could still remember the “Satanic Panic” in which fundamentalist Christians tried to convince social workers that there was an epidemic of Satanism in the UK, and that Pagans were Satanists.
Fortunately, the 2003 legislation on religious discrimination in the workplace means that Pagans are protected by employment law. Pagans were explicitly mentioned in the ACAS guidelines on the Act, which have the same force as case law.
Employers should be aware that these Regulations extend beyond the more well known religions and faiths to include beliefs such as Paganism and Humanism. The Regulations also cover those without religious or similar beliefs.
It is not necessarily the case that Pagans are protected by law from discrimination in the workplace in other countries, however. So some Pagans may still feel the need to use a pseudonym.
When creating a pseudonym, it is always a good idea not to use the pseudonym to claim a living ethnicity that you do not possess. So don’t make up a fake Native American name, or a fake Celtic name. It’s tacky, and it’s cultural appropriation, and it’s potentially fraudulent. It’s fine to create a Latin pseudonym, because no current ethnic group uses Latin, so it is obviously not intended to be fraudulent.
Why have a magical name?
In initiatory Wicca, a witch-name or magical name is generally used only in circle, and known only to other initiates. The candidate for initiation is invited to choose a name prior to first-degree initiation.
When a witch is in circle, and using a witch-name, it feels as though we have stepped into our magical persona or power. Now we are ready to do magic, and have entered sacred space and sacred time. The magical name can reflect qualities we aspire to, or beings to whom we feel connected.
I read a book by Alan Richardson once, in which he suggests the following for “taking off” your mundane name and “putting on” your magical name in circle. What you do is intone your mundane name, knocking off one letter at a time, like this:
Then build up your magical name one letter at a time. Imagine that my magical name was Yewtree:
Alternatively, you can just introduce yourself as your magical name once the circle is set up.
How to choose a name
Not many people know immediately what their magical name should be. I had been given a name as a sort of joke a couple of years before my initiation, and when I was invited to choose a name, that was the one that immediately came to mind. I considered a few others, but that name kept coming back to me, so I stuck with it. I have never regretted it.
That said, don’t just choose the first name that comes to mind, or that sounds cool. And I would advise against using an internet name generator – fun though they are to play around with. Patti Wiginton has some excellent advice on how to choose a name, including how to work out if it is a good fit by using numerology (though how to do numerology with the Latin alphabet is disputed, since numerology was invented for use with the Hebrew alphabet).
Some people get their names in a dream; others choose their names from mythology or from Nature. Using the name of a major deity is regarded as a bit hubristic, and somewhat risky in that you are taking on the whole of the archetype of that deity. Minor deities and spirits, human heroes, plants, birds, animals, and abstract qualities are generally regarded as a better source of names.
Meditate on what qualities or virtues you want to embody, or which you find yourself embodying a lot of the time, and think about what animal, bird, plant, or mythological person best represents that quality. That will probably be a good source of potential names.
Once you have found the right name, you will know, because it will just feel right.
This post is part of a series, Paganism for Beginners. All the posts in this series will appear in the category ‘A Beginner’s Guide‘. You can find them by clicking on the ‘FILED UNDER’ link at the foot of the blogpost.
UPDATE on Romani naming practices.
The information about Romani naming practices in the article was an oversimplification. And please note that I was in no way advocating that Pagans should appropriate Roma naming practice.
My source was a book by Jacques Prévert about the Romani of Eastern Europe. Here’s a better explanation of the practice, from a library of Roma culture at the University of Graz:
Gadžo names are the Christian (first/personal) names registered in official documents (on identification papers, in registry offices; on passports, etc.) In the past, it was very rare to find a Rom with a Gadžo name. Very few Roma called their children or each other by their Gadže (official) names. Some small children did not even know their Gadže names when they started school.
Roma use their Roma name when they speak to each other. In the past, there was not one Rom who would not have had a Roma name. Even today, it is hard to find even one.
When a child is first born, he is spoken of as “the little one”, “the tiny one”, because his character is not yet determined. Only when he has grown a bit does his Roma name usually reveal itself.
Relatives determine the Roma name for a child in various ways.
The name can reflect a personality trait or something about the appearance of the child: Kalo(Black), Cikňi (Little), Šuki (Slender), Papin (Silly), Pušomori (Little Flea).
An “other name” is a Roma name with a specific function. Many Roma have forgotten this function, but in Roma settlements around Snina and Zbudské Dlhé, Roma traditionally still have an “other name”.
An “other name” protects a child from illnesses and impure forces. Let’s say that a child is named Gejza, but his mother calls him Toňu. Gejza is often kept secret from other Roma. It can happen that some illness may appear, for example oja (epilepsy), and this illness wants to possess the child. It looks for a child named Toňu, the name by which his parents and the other Roma call him. But no such Toňu exists. Toňu is merely the “other name” for the child. The illness does not know that the child’s real name is Gejza because the name Gejza has been kept secret. Therefore, the illness does not find the child and cannot hurt him.
A similar explanation is offered on this less academic site, the Patrin Web Journal, which as far as I know was set up by an actual Romani person.