Friday, July 20, 2007

What's in a Name?

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.


Anonymous said...

Interesting. Aline is very pretty, but it is unusual. I can sympathize; my parents named me Cosette and that's followed by an unusual last name. When I began working as a reporter, my bosses told me I could take on another name since mine was so "ethnic" and hard to pronounce. I didn't though. If people can learn to say George Stephanopoulos, they can certainly learn to pronounce my name. Besides, I like it. It suits me well and it's what I go by, even in the Pagan community where it's quite boring and people often expect me to something more glamour-witchy for a name.

It's funny because Macha NightMare seems perfectly normal to me, LOL. That's you. We've never met, but you're a BNP. What American Witch doesn't know who Macha NightMare is? Still, I could get use to Aline.

Laura Stamps said...

Hi, Aline! I'm so glad I found your blog yesterday. You write the most interesting posts. My magickal name is Kittyfeather. I chose it because I have been in feral cat rescue for 30+ years and because I am part cat (grin). The numerology of it also matches my life path. However, I only use it in public as part of the name of my small press publishing company. The name I go by is my given name, Laura Stamps. I have been able to use it in both Pagan and non-Pagan circles, and it works well for me.

I also adore crows! They always remind me of glossy black cats with wings. Some of the spirits who come to visit me often take the form of a crow. Black cats and crows...very magickal beings!

Carol Maltby said...

The only other Aline I've known was a classmate in grade school who got the same confused versions you got. Even way back then it annoyed me that people weren't paying attention.

If you start using your mundane name more for writing, how do you think you'd handle the transition so that people could make the connection? Just heavy emphasis in author bios and interviews? ("Aline, who also writes under the Pagan name M. Macha Nightmare...")

For the past 20 years I've always used my real name when in public as a witch, and on the net, except for a very few exceptions in particular forums where I consider safety to be an issue. I'm all for it.

Anonymous said...

Macha, I can't ever imagine you as anything but M. Macha NightMare. It's always a surprise to me when I mention your name to non-Pagans and they react like it's something really freaky. I just know it as your name and it seems perfectly reasonable.And so does the basis for choosing this name, or maybe, more accurately, for letting this name choose you.

As you know, I never have been inspired to take a magical name. I think that's because it took me a while to grow into my given name of Victoria, and once I did, it seemed to have just about anything I could want. Last week, when I was at my big family reunion, several of the elders slipped and called me my childhood name of "Vicki." It's so not who I am anymore that it took me a while to realize they were talking to me. I have a brother named Eric who is less than two years younger than I. When we were little kids, we were Vicki and Ricky and oh my, do we both ever hate that! Those are distinctly NON-magical names for both of us.

Anonymous said...

Macha, I think it's wonderful that you are reclaiming your birth name and extending your wisdom and influence beyond the bounds of a Pagan audience. I think that's an even more powerful edge-walker role at this point, embracing all the spiritualities we have grown with and being our complicated selves in whatever milieu we find ourselves.

Medusa said...

Why not use both? Many writers use different names for different types of writing. I do. Or maybe it's "I have," as I'm not sure if I'll be doing any more writing under my legal name, which was reserved for dayjob writing and editing. Neither of the names I write under are intentionally magical names, though some feel that one of my screen names and my blog name could qualify.

Good luck with your new projects!

Anonymous said...

Macha, people in England know you as well!
I have not settled on my magical name yet but hope to use it when I do! Maybe a combi of magical and given name. I rather like my surname Flowers. Everyone at work knows my religion and indeed I got it on the calendar that we produce.
Your blog reminded me when I was in a Radical Anthropology Group, and a member decided to change his name to Snowdrop! The fuss made as he had a position, I think finance officer! The Radical (er not) lecturer said letters could not be sent out asking people to contact Snowdrop etc., We started a huge fight to allow people to call themselves what they wanted! it pushed lots of buttons and actually I rather enjoyed the struggle.
It always takes me forever to get new names in my head! I would be looking in my address book for the new name only to remember it is under the old.
Maybe see you at the Spiral Dance?
peace and love ann

Anonymous said...

Speaking of not recognizing strange names, when I was in Brazil, people started asking about "Ma Ha". Bewildered at first, I finally figured out they were talking about *you*!

Broomstick Chronicles said...

Oh, very cool, Thorn. I like the way they pronounce it. :-)