For the past few years I've been considering "coming out" with what we Witches call our mundane names.
I have a perfectly good mundane name, Aline O'Brien, given me at birth by my parents. It has served me well for over 60 years. Except for the fact that many people, in my experience, have some kind of "name bank" in their heads, so if you give a name that's unfamiliar to them, they try to fine a file folder for it in their minds and they tend to put you in one they already know. For instance, my given name, Aline, is uncommon in this country. Upon hearing it, people file it under Eileen, Elaine, Helene, Arlene. When they see it in print, they transform it into Alice, Alien and even Olive. ??? When hearing or reading Macha, they call me Martha, Monica, Mocha, and Macha with a "ch" sound as in cha-cha. It's a breathy "k" sound made in the back of throat, or even a hard "h."
How I came by the name M. Macha NightMare is a convoluted tale dating back to around 1980, nine years after I first encountered NROOGD Witchcraft. I arrived on a Pagan path via four routes: Second Wave Feminism; lifelong love of mythology and folklore; concern for the environment; and inchoate awareness of the value of intuition.
I grew up the child of what was considered in those days to be a "mixed marriage." My mother is from a long line of Methodist ministers and my father was Irish Catholic, both of them hardcore. I had a bunch of Catholic cousins and a bunch of Protestant cousins. My social environment was primarily Christian, with a token Jew here and there. That is all I was exposed to, and believe me I was totally immersed. My mother took my sister and me to church all the time -- two to three services on Sundays (church service, Sunday School, and sometimes an evening service); I went to Vacation Bible School and some church camps in Summertime; weekly choir rehearsals; and Methodist Youth Fellowship when I was older.
If I were annoyed with my mother, I'd simply go to Mass with my dad and that got me by on attendance. When I stayed with my paternal relatives, I went to Mass with them. I managed to genuflect on my left knee one time and incurred a reprimand from the nun who was corralling my Catholic school cousins into a pew at the O'Brien family parish, Our Lady of Good Counsel in Moorestown, NJ. (Isn't that a great name for a church? I still revere Our Lady in all Her aspects.)
Christians had no feminine image of the divine. Well, Catholics had Mary and some female saints, but they remained secondary to the father god. Protestants had an empty cross. As a lover of iconography, an idolator* even, I've always found Protestant iconography rather plain and institutional.
So that's where Second Wave Feminism intersects with a goddess-centered spiritual life. A polytheistic goddess spirituality, not Yahweh-in-drag.
Another cultural phenomenon American society experienced around that time was Alex Haley's Roots, and all the heritage-searching it inspired in hyphenated Americans of various ethnicities. Until then, America was a society that encouraged assimilation whose immigrants were more than happy to comply. Now I have some understanding of why my Irish grandmother from County Galway, in Connaught, the Irish-speaking area in the West, never taught me Gaelic, her native tongue, though I often asked her to -- mainly because of my interest in languages.
Feminist Witches often took goddess names as their magical names. Sometimes because we admired a particular goddess, or if we wanted to grow stronger in some of her attributes. Or because a particular goddess came from our ethnic heritage. Or because our personalities resembled them in some way.
In my case, I have always been drawn to the Dark Mother. I'm of Irish (and other European) descent. Macha is often, but not solely, a war goddess. Taking the form of a hooded crow (Corvus cornix), she incites warriors in battle frenzy. I identify strongly with crows, ravens and other corvids. Both crows and I talk a lot. We hang around the edges and keep an alert eye on things. We move our vantage point from place to place. We're common, we're found everywhere.
Irish warriors had a custom of taking the heads of their slain enemies and hanging them from the ridgepole of their lodges. This act showed respect and admiration for the qualities of the opponent. These heads were called "Macha's acorn crop."**
Macha is swift of foot and also takes the form of a mare. The Ulster Saga, The Cattle-Raid of Cooley (Táin Bó Cúalnge), speaks of her famous race on Emain Macha, now called Navan Fort, where she was forced to race King Conchobar's mounted men when she was about to give birth. She won, and immediately gave birth to twins. Then she cursed the men of Ulster that they may be struck with pains as a woman in childbirth in the hour of Ulster's greatest need.
The NightMare part ties in with the darkness and horses. The horse is one of the forms Macha takes. When I was young, I often felt like a horse as I ran through meadows with my long hair streaming behind me like a mane. The NightMare is the mare who rides through your dreams.
Macha is also midwife to the dying, easing their passage through the veil. (This last tidbit I only learned after the death of my friend Raven Moonshadow.)
There's much more to the story of how I came to be called Macha. This I can say for certain: it was not done with any marketing in mind. It was intended to be used solely within the context of my religion.
However, as I became more active in both Reclaiming and CoG, I became known among my co-religionists by that name. So when Starhawk and I were signing the contract for the publication of The Pagan Book of Living and Dying, I had the opportunity to choose which name to use. Because Pagans would have been unlikely to know who Aline O'Brien was, I chose Macha NightMare.
Pagans are known for taking some outrageous names. Obviously, with a name like mine, I cannot throw stones. It's not been easy to wear in public. Still, it's who I am.
There was also a time when prudence dictated discretion in terms of public identity as a Witch. Further, my family would never have understood. All of my living relatives I'm still in contact with know who I am. Whether it bothers them or not, I don't know. I do think it bothers my conservative born-again Protestant cousins. That's their problem. My father is gone and my mother's mind is gone, so there's no chance of misunderstandings or hurt feelings in my immediate family. My daughter grew up in a Pagan household, with two Pagan parents and a host of Pagan friends.
During the past several years I've been doing more and more work in the field of interfaith relations. This is where my funny name can be off-putting to some folks. Plenty of other religious folks take religious names. Catholic nuns do. But people are not threatened or amused by their names. They are of the name NightMare. One thing, though, is that people never forget the name NightMare. In my own interfaith counsel I'm known as Macha.
I'm not ashamed of either Aline or Macha, and at this point in my life I don't feel the need to have a separate identify in the Pagan world. We've seen tremendous changes in the past 30 years in terms of how Pagans and Witches are perceived. In fact, the whole Pagan identity thing has become something of a pop phenomenon as much as a spiritual path.
So this public name change, particularly in light of the fact that I'd like to do more writing about other things besides Pagan topics, is something that's been simmering on the back burner of my mind for some time now. I haven't quite decided yet. I guess this very public rumination is something of a test run.
If a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, would Macha?
* More about idols and idolatry another time.
** Considering the fact that my matron goddess is Kali Ma, who is often depicted wearing a necklace of skulls, I find this attribution in Macha startlingly appropriate.