Ah, April in Michigan, where spring is in the air right up until the 5 inches of snow hit tomorrow… I’m glad I didn’t get around to shoving the winter coat into the back of the closet!
Speaking of closets, I wouldn’t be the first (or the hundredth) (or even the millionth) person to compare the growth of the pagan community in recent years to the growth of the LGBT community during its own early post-Stonewall years. We’ve suddenly come into the public eye, and we’re not all sure that we like being in the public eyes, but some of us want to be more active and promote ourselves and our quest for acceptance, etc. etc. Oh, and then there are the oddballs who don’t make us look as normal as we’d maybe like to be, but the media loves to point them out because they make for a more colorful story. For the LGBT folks, it was the leather queens and drag queens and, okay I admit I don’t know a lot about the esoterica of their movement and its identity, but I’ve certainly seen the TV new stories where hundreds of normally dressed people march in a parade with ten big guys in biker outfits, and guess who gets most of the screen time? Of course, we pagans have no shortage of people wearing tight outfits that we probably shouldn’t be wearing in public, or those wearing gaudy outfits that make us feel good but make everyone else look at us funny. But this week, I’ve been thinking about another part of our “culture” that gets the attention, especially in written media. Our names.
Folks who have known me through the years know that I’m not a fan of “magical names”. Yes, I know there’s a grand tradition of selecting a name for one’s spiritual workings that date back well past the beginnings of organized Wicca, all the way to the Order of the Golden Dawn and even earlier ceremonialists. (I started practicing ceremonial magic and paganism at about the same time, and was briefly a member of a ceremonialist group – but that’s a story for another article!) And yes, I know most of the people who have “pagan names” have either chosen them as part of their spiritual work, or have been given that name by a god or spirit. I’m too much of a believer in the Old Ways to ever tell anyone that something their gods told them to do is wrong, unless it literally violates the law of the land or inflicts pain on someone else. In this case, I freely admit that I don’t get it. Very early in my occult-and/or-pagan-practicing days, I knew that one of the reasons I was starting down that path was because I felt very fragmented, and that I wanted this practice to give me a sense of wholeness and well-being, and that doing the work under a different name or “magical persona” would be utterly counterproductive to that goal.
I also know that many folks choose a pagan name for themselves just so they can publish and publicize and do other things without the people who know them finding out that they are actually pagan. Another thing I decided early on was that I would be as public as possible about my paganism without being obnoxious or proselytizing about it. Then again, I’ve lived in the Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti area for most of that time, which may well be the most liberal region of this state. I can sympathize with those who don’t feel comfortable being open, and I try to be twice as open as I’m comfortable with to make up for it. >8) But other than a few nasty e-mails, I’ve never had a problem with it. Most people react with either disinterest or mild curiosity, and I’m cool with that. It’s funny, someone posting to one of the ADF lists a few weeks ago (that post and the responses to it got me started thinking about this article, in fact) wrote that paganism still had a lot of PR work to do before its practitioners could get their holidays off from work. I’ve had a lot of different kinds of jobs in the not quite twenty years since I started self-identifying as a pagan, from fast food and supermarket work to computer programming, and I have *never* had a problem getting my holidays off from work at any of them. (Indeed, telling my supermarket boss that I would happily work on any Christian holiday to make up for it left him ecstatic!)
So, yeah, I’ve never felt the need for a pagan name. Back before I joined SLG, when a friend pressed me to think of one that I would like, I decided that “Fox” would probably be the least annoying. Given that that was the pagan name of the guy who served as SLG’s first Senior Druid, I think we can all be happy that I didn’t choose that name for myself. >8) Oh, and during one e-mail discussion about silly pagan names, and how they all seemed like random combinations of colors and animal and deity names, I did once declare that I was “Hermes Magenta-Platypus”. I used to use it a lot for humorous pieces that I posted online, but I’ve mostly stopped, mainly because I’m afraid that someone will actually think that that’s my pagan name.
So why did I bring up those drag queens earlier in this article? Maybe I like writing about drag queens. Don’t judge me! >8) No, it’s because a lot of the names that people in our movement have are, um, what word to use? “Dumb” and its variants don’t really apply. Indeed, the creativity required for some of them astonishes me sometimes. “Weird”? No, I don’t consider weirdness a bad thing in and of itself. My one true musical idol proudly uses that word as part of his own stage persona. No, in thinking about this subject, I can only use one word, well two words, to express my annoyance: “Attention getting.” And not the good kind of attention, like I’ve been trying to bring to my Grove for the last ten years, but that kind of attention where non-pagans seriously wonder whether our alleged religious movement is just an overly elaborate form of live action role-playing game. Indeed, remember my mentioning earlier those few nasty e-mails I’ve gotten from Christians who felt the need to convert me? I’ve gotten far more e-mails throughout the years from people asking me whether my Grove really believed in the gods we say we believe in, or if this is just a joke or hoax of some sort. Honestly, I’d rather get the conversion attempt e-mails. At least they act like I’m real.
“Why do you care, Rob?” I hear some of you thinking. (Yes, my ears are just that good.) “Does it matter to you what other people think of us?” And my answer is, um, yeah, it does. My pagan path does not involve setting up a compound somewhere in the Upper Peninsula and hoping that the federal government doesn’t decide to pick on us. My pagan path is one of community, not just with other pagans but with other human beings, because I really do think that our faith makes us better people, not just in the eyes of the gods but in the eyes of our families and neighbors and random passers-by on the street. Most other churches want to have an active role in their community, and (and this bit may surprise some of the pagans out there) not just as a means to get more members and more money. Yes, it matters to me a great deal what the non-pagans out there think of us as a whole.
So is there hope, or do I have to resign myself to explaining to people that our rituals don’t involve character alignments and hit points? Once again, I look to our LGBT brethren (sistren? switch-hittren?) for inspiration. Yes, they’ve had the fringe element of their own movement to deal with for decades now. Yes, it can be argued that that fringe element impeded their journey to acceptance. But ya know what? They’re getting there anyway. Twenty years ago I’d never have thought that I’d see same-sex marriage legalized in Iowa within my lifetime, Actually, I don’t think I expected to see that in my lifetime as of last week! But there it is. And just about everyone knows someone who’s open about it, and the general attitude has moved from confusion and hatred to disinterest or mild curiosity. I think we’ll get there too, if we remain true to our gods and true to our faith, even if we don’t all stick with our birth names.
Again, I will repeat (since this article is huge by my standards and even I’m forgetting what I wrote back up at the top) that if you’re using a name that your gods told you to use, I’m fine with that. Our gods often give us extra challenges in our lives, and if that’s one of yours, go for it, and maybe you (and I, if you’re in a sharing mood) will learn something from it. I may consider your name a speed bump to our collective spiritual road trip, but I’m in this for the long haul, and if you are too, then hop on the bus with me and we’ll sort it out along the way.
Rev. Rob Henderson
Senior Druid, Shining Lakes Grove, ADF