“Take the name of Jesus with you, child of sorrow and of woe.
It will strength and comfort give you, take it then where’re you go.”
That old time hymn has stuck with me for years. I remember singing it with my church youth choir (sort of like Glee for church kids). I liked the idea that a name could hold power.
In Christianity, there is other evidence of the power of a name. In the New Testament, there is a story of Jesus casting out demons. To do so, he asks the demon its name. Once Jesus knows the name of the demon, he is able to command it.
I have often related this story as a metaphor for human psychology. If we can figure out what our “demons” are, we can get rid of them. Sometimes just bringing a problem to a level of consciousness is all we need to do to solve the problem.
I believe that the power of a name is more than just psychological – it is mystical as well.
Religions and cultures worldwide have a multitude of traditions around names. My focus today is specifically the names we use for Spirit, although there is much more to say about the traditions, psychology and mysticism of names in general.
In my Christian background, I was taught that the names of Spirit, such as God, Jesus and Christ held power, and should not be taken in vain.
In Judaism, the sacred name of Spirit has four Hebrew letters. Mystics often refer to this word as the Tetragrammaton. In many traditions, it is forbidden to speak the name aloud. The Tetragrammaton is also called “The Unspeakable Name of God,” and is said to hold special powers. Once written in Hebrew, it can never been destroyed or erased. The English word “God,” is often spelled “G-d” in respect for that tradition.
In Wicca, the Charge of the Goddess begins with a recitation of the many names by which the Great Mother is known, worldwide.
When I was quite young – about six, my mother and I would occasionally walk through Southampton, NY. Then, as now, it was quite a happening place. Once I saw a large statue in a store window that moved me, somehow. I was transfixed – staring, nose against the glass.
“Who is the beautiful lady with all thoses arms?” I wanted to know.
My mother told me she was a goddess. I remember the string of questions that ensued. I had been going to Sunday School for long enough to wonder why I had never heard of a goddess, especially one so beautiful.
Looking back, I am sure we saw a statue of the Hindu Goddess, Durga.
I mark that as the first time the Goddess called me. I am so grateful to my mother for the respectful answers she gave to me that day.
A few years later, when I asked her for books on witchcraft, she was equally respectful.
Fast-forward to adulthood. Over time, I came to identify myself as a Priestess of the Goddess. In my magickal studies, I learned, again, the sacred power of names.
In the mundane world, we hear the name of God invoked to create a sense of unity, as in “God bless America.” The names we assign to our Higher Power create division as often as they create unity.
Division often comes from lack of understanding. So often well-intentioned people say, “I understand you’re Pagan and so you don’t believe in God.”
Hmmm. What to do with that? I think we all believe in the same Higher Power. I don’t picture Higher Power as the Angry Sky Daddy of my Christian youth. I do better with Loving Mother than Angry Father.
But because I don’t call Higher Power by the same name you call Higher Power, you believe that I don’t believe in Higher Power. That’s what it is, really.
A few modern people are offended by the idea of Higher Power as female – the concept of Goddess rather than God. Yet the Catholic Church honors the Blessed Mother, and many female saints. Angels are often pictured as feminine. Images of Sheila Na Gig giving birth to the world still adorn Catholic churches in Ireland. Feminine power is present in much Abrahamic lore.
At the end of the day, we end up arguing about mythology, rather than talking about the Power behind the myths.
When I first experienced Goddess culture in the Eighties, we often spoke of “the Goddess within.” Much like the Holy Spirit of Christianity, we know that the Goddess is within us. We see Her in each other, and in ourselves. We strive to know Her within us, and to show that light to others.
But the Goddess within us was always a component of the Source – a Mother Goddess who both created, and somehow was, the Earth. She was Diana, Astarte, Hecate, Demeter, Yemaya, and Isis. She was known throughout the world, and throughout time, by many sacred names.
In the Nineties, I started hearing another use of the word “goddess.” It was a reference for women of size. I assume it came from the image of the Goddess of Willendorf, who is quite round and curvy.
I got that it is better to be “goddess” than “fat girl,” But I had a hard time making the leap from “all-knowing creator of the universe” to “she who eats too many muffins.”
It seemed that a sacred name was being transformed into something mundane, and the feminine nature of deity was losing its power.
Now the word “goddess,” with a lower-case g, is used to describe beautiful women of all ages, shapes and sizes. It is often meant to honor women on their journey to finding their inner Goddess. That’s a good thing.
But, somehow, the connection to Higher Power has been lost.
The offensive worship of deity in feminine form has been traded away for the more palatable privilege of revering ourselves as women.
I think we deserve both.
It’s time to lovingly claim the Goddess within each of us, and to proudly claim Goddess as one of the many sacred names of Higher Power.