“My name, my real name, that is not the point. The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, it’s like, it’s like a promise you make.”The Doctor, “The Name of the Doctor” written by Steven Moffatt (2013)
Folklore and myths, old and new, are full of references to the power of a person’s “true name”. In the Germanic tale of Rumplestiltskin, for instance, the protagonist gains power over Rumplestiltskin by learning his true name. Likewise, in Scandanavian folklore, magical creatures such as the shapeshifting water spirits known as the Nix can be defeated by calling their true name. The river spirit Kohaku in Spirited Away regains his form and freedom when he remembers his name. In the modern myth of Doctor Who, the Doctor’s true name is the universe’s greatest secret.
In Plato’s Cratylus, Socrates questions the nature of names: are they merely conventional, given by parents and society, or are they in some sense natural? Is there an ἀληθείᾳ ὄνομα, a true name that signifies something inherent to a person?
Many Pagans, especially in Wiccan and Witchcraft traditions, may choose to take on, or be given, a Craft Name or nomen mysticum that differentiates their spiritual self from their everyday, mundane life. In times of greater persecution, adopting code names like this is an obvious self-preservation strategy, but it’s continued prevalence seems to hint at something deeper and more mystical, a connection between the name and the one named. The founder of the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, Ross Nichols, used the name Nuinn, the Ogham name for the Ash tree, signifying a connection between the Druid and the tree itself.
It strikes me that the taking on of a Craft Name following some spiritual experience or initiation, and the name changes that many (though not all) trans and queer people take on share in some core essence, a significator that the person who has changed their name has themself changed.
In the Celtic tale of Taliesin, which is a central teaching-story within my own Druid tradition, the child Gwion Bach (Little Innocent) becomes, after a shapeshifting chase and three-fold incubation/initiation, the bard Taliesin (Radiant Brow), the name change signifying a formative change in the essence of who this person is – no longer the child Gwion, now the inspired Bard shining forth with the Awen.
While in a sense Gwion and Taliesin are the same, in that there is a continuity between the two-as-one, in another sense Gwion has effectively “died” that Taliesin may be (re)born. Trans people often refer to their previous name as their “deadname”, a term defined by Merriam-Webster as “the name that a transgender person was given at birth and no longer uses upon transitioning”. The dictionary goes on to include the following quote:
“Many trans people will go to great lengths to prevent people from finding out their deadnames, destroying irreplaceable photos and documents in an effort to ensure that who they really are is the only identity most will remember.”Sam Riedel
There is, as in the Gwion/Taliesin story, and as in many initiatory rituals, a symbolic death and rebirth: the old name, the old person, is gone, the True Name now shining forth as the new identity. This idea has real mythic resonance and power.
One of the first things I did when I began questioning my gender identity more seriously was think about what name I would choose. I tried out many, rolling them around in my head, practicing introducing myself in the mirror, feeling the new names, tasting them on my tongue, listening to my own voice making these unfamiliar sounds.
The name River was not on that list.
I didn’t choose it, not really. It chose me.
To explain, let me set a scene: some three or four or five years ago, me, small and unsure, walking, thinking, thinking, walking. Questioning. Am I really trans? Am I making this up? Who am I? What am I? What happens now?
Walking by a river.
Where I worked was near a fen and a riverbank. On my breaks, I would walk the footpaths by the water, crossing bridges, sitting by tributary streams, past willow trees and anglers, occasionally delighted by the petrol-blue sheen of a kingfisher darting past, or cheered by the laughing sounds of ducks and crows.
It was to that river I told my secrets. It was that river to whom I poured out my heart and my tears. It was that river which, ever flowing, ever the same and ever new, taught me that transformation was possible, that we are all at every moment flowing, changing, moving.
Water has always been my companion, my constant friend, my greatest teacher. In water is freedom, healing, hope.
So when I spoke with my counsellor about transitioning and she asked me if I had thought of a name, the answer rose unbidden, bypassing the logical thinking structures of my brain, bubbling up like a spring at the source of a cool stream, and I replied “River”.
What else could I have said? I had found my true name.
Names are funny things. We get so used to them, even if they don’t fit right, even if they are uncomfortable hand-me-down overcoats with threadbare patches. We often don’t think of them, but there they are. A word that means “me”.
I never liked the name I was given. It was a fine name, decent enough, Celtic flavoured with a regal meaning, but it was not a word that meant “me”. It was a word that meant someone else – a person my family wished I was, a person I spent decades trying to be. It became a burden, a weight of expectations not my own for a life not my own.
What we call ourselves matters. The fairytales are right – names have power. So do other labels, like “queer”, of course, but that is another post for another time, perhaps.
To choose a name, or have a name choose you, is a unique and transformative experience. To shed an old self like a snake sheds its skin, to go into the deepest darkness of your being and in that darkness find the shining light of your truth, is to be changed forever. To die, and be reborn.
River is a name that speaks of flow, of movement, of freedom. A name that sounds like water over stones, that tastes of clear cool springs, that smells of snowmelt and morning mist.
And, most importantly, it is mine.