For a long time I’ve been fascinated by names.
In many traditions we are given different names and titles as forms of initiation. During the confirmation ceremony of Catholics children receive a Christian name, usually to honour a saint or a relative named for one. In medicine traditions people are offered names by teachers and guides. We nickname one another (I personally love doing this) as intimate terms of endearment and to allow for a more soft engagement.
Names are a type of mask we wear. It’s fine to wear different masks, we live in a world where many roles are required of us and the different name creates a different level of boundary and expectation. In a workplace where a man is referred to as Mr. O’ Keefe, he is wearing a mask, maybe of a teacher, maybe a solicitor. He is not in his essence, his naked self, but in the clothing of Mr. O’ Keefe. There is a wall between him and those present and that wall is the boundary of professionalism. That allows him to take his suit off in a metaphysical sense as well as in the physical.
Names of expectation, like the Saints name given at confirmation, or the coming of age names given by the Elders of different societies, give us something to chew on in terms of self identification. How do we associate with this acquired name? Where does it fit into how we see ourselves in our society? Our family? Our private world?
What does it mean to be a little bit Francis of Assisi, or Jeanne D’Arc? What does it mean to a Standing Elk? Or The One Who Sings Rivers? What is being seen that you have yet to know? Or what is in conflict with what you already believe? Truthfully we are players, dancers and creators in the great cosmic play. All of this world is a stage, as Shakespeare stated.
My own journey with names began with my older sister. She insisted on naming me Katie. I am grateful for this, as she is a natural intuitive and I am sure she heard my soul calling this name in. When I was born the idea had been to name me either the Irish translation or some other translation of Catherine, but the nurse was no nonsense and harried and wrote on my birth certificate Catherine.
My middle name is Louise, named for my great aunt, the first female psychotherapist to practice in Ireland. Although I never met her, this name carries much power for me. Especially seeing as when I was a child I knew I was in trouble when I heard across the pitch ‘Katie Louise!’.
Finally my last name, Ni Mhathuna, or O’ Mahony, translates in old Irish ‘daughter of the little bear’ (Inion Mathun). To me this has been the most potent and difficult name to honour.
On my journey through life, I have been offered many medicine names and nicknames. I have chewed on many versions of my own names. Nicknames from friends last a season or two and fall away. Some funny, some sweet, some awful. Some sticking, while evolving and changing turning into word plays and tongue twisting. It’s sweet to think of them. They are tender things to swap, these names between kith and kin.
The first medicine name offered me that I recall was Shakti-ma.
It was on a very long bus journey when I was twenty, through the Himalaya. I had made the terrible decision to accept as hit of charras (intense Indian hashish) from a man who transpired to be the bus driver (only in India!). Slowly as we lumbered into the traffic chaos at the foothills of the great abode of Shiva and Parvati, I began to turn white.
My blood pressure dropped and through the jumbling stutter of gears, the dust, humidity and fumes I passed out with my head rattling lightly at the window.
The blurry time that followed that were moments in and out of lucidity. When, finally, I awoke there perched next to me was a small man with a benign face, a gentle cloudy grey beard and an orange dhoti clutching an orange mp3. He smiled up at me and showed me his player telling me his students had bought it for him and it was full of beautiful chants. I smiled back at him and found I could barely speak.
Meanwhile the bus driver whose hashish had blown me away was now standing opposite me while someone else drove the bus. The sadhu sat with me for the entire journey, as this man bartered with him and begged to take his seat, offering him money and charras. He sat and gently shook his head. This man had little more world possession than could fit into his bag. Yet he was not tempted to offer his place to the man, redirecting him to ask another passenger for their seat.
Yet that man only want the seat next to me.
Before he disembarked in a cold rushing glacial mountain town in the morning he said to me ‘You are Shakti-Ma; this is your name’. I could never know what it was I was thanking him for in that moment. He disappeared off, his small shoulder bag bouncing at his hip and I felt a slow awe come over my Western suspicion to all things spiritual…
Shakti-Ma is on of the Sanskrit terms for the divine feminine creative principle. At 20 I was completely oblivious to my own potency as a woman. I had no idea that I held all this energy of life and sexuality stored within me. Many others could see, but some with greater respect and intention than others. Learning the medicine name of Shakti has required owning that feminine creativity and animating sexual force. Sometimes it is overbearing and sometimes it is underwhelming, just as Shakti dances with Shiva (the divine masculine principle) it is always in flux.
The next name I was given I chose myself during a great healing in ceremony. I was under the guidance of Ayahuasca, or Yage at this time. At this point in my life I was transitioning to a space where I was acknowledging my wounds, and also my gifts with sincerity and a determination to actualise and heal. As three great beings of light shook my body they offered me a new name. I chose one emphatically, having reclaimed much of my soul that evening I was so excited to begin life again with a new name.
The name I took remains a secret, known to two people only.
I have since found many names in many medicine realms on my journeys. They have been totems, touch stones to guide me through different epoch of self knowledge and healing. For example my shadow inner child gave me the name Iris, the Goddess of the Rainbow, as a great healing tool to accept the spectrum of life.
Lately I have been returning to my own given names. The names my soul chose. Catherine comes from the word Catharsis, the process of purification, healing and release. Louise is Of the Light, (sometimes Warrior of the Light) and Ni Mhathuna, is the Daughter of the Little Bear (the constellation Ursa Minor is where star Polaris is).
In these names are my medicines. All the names that came before were so that I could honour these from a place of Authenticity.
They are the place of great safety, for in them I am truly myself, in my life and my personal history. The medicine names I held before were necessary so that egos could be worked through and shed, and they we all a part of my destiny.
We all wear a mask in the underworld. It is natural to develop alter egos for various spaces, even within yourself. Doing so consciously, with boundaries and conscious expectations of this alter ego stops it from becoming consuming. There must always be a space where we can be wholly truly ourselves.
I encourage clients and students to examine their names or in their own inner work ask their archetypes for names to work with, see what arises. Often our medicine is held within our names and often our deepest wounds are revealed through them. They are the key in which our souls are sung. Notice your name and who or where it comes from, why it was chosen and how you feel with this name.
I hope you have playing with this idea and it leads you into a great space of self discovery.