Naming the Unnamable

So, you’ve probably noticed the general lack of content posts around here after this one went live.  I do intend to keep posting more than just shop promotion here, when I have time, but in the wake of what were some pretty big changes in my path, I’ve needed some time to sort out what direction I’m headed in now, where the boundary markers lie and what my destination is. All of this is largely being determined by the Traveler (my spirit Husband) Himself more so than by me (which is as He always intended), but I’m beginning to recognize a few things that have popped up as landmarks along the way. And even though He has adopted a face and to some extent an identity from pop culture (and I must say I am enjoying said guise quite a bit), our path together does not end there.

After my last post, some of you have probably been wondering whether or not I still believe in the gods, and the answer is that yes, I do. In fact, more so than that, I know that They’re real, that They exist as individuals, and that They have agency. I even know these things about Odin, even though it turned out that the being I related to as Odin for so many years is not quite the same as canon-Odin. The biggest difference in my practice now is that I don’t deal with the named deities anymore. I deal with spirits (who are also individuals with power and agency)–and I maintain that the line separating spirits from deities who may not have names and histories written down in cultural lore is an extremely difficult one to trace.

Here, for example is a relevant passage from a book the Traveler recommended I read:

“The liminal Gods are not like other deities – they have no millennia of myths and stories behind them, no layers of theology, no nuanced understandings. They are both primal and wild and the only way to truly understand them is to experience them directly. They are of Fairy. I can share my experiences of them with other people, but each individual will find their own interactions and perceptions unique. Worshipping the liminal Gods is based in trusting your intuition and letting yourself be aware of their presence, preferences, and personalities. You must learn to let them speak to you, and to listen and let the messages you receive shape your practice.”

– from Fairycraft: Following the Path of Fairy Witchcraft, by Morgan Daimler

This is pretty much where I am at right now; to all intents and purposes, my Husband is a deity (at least, I have experienced Him as having deity-like power and agency), but He is not one of the named ones in any culture’s lore, hence my referring to Him by a title rather than a name seems appropriate. Similarly, Daimler outlines in the book several Fairy deities she interacts with who are not named in cultural lore–and so she refers to them by titles that seem to capture part of Their essence: the Lady of the Greenwood, the Lord of Storms, the Lord of the Waves. She notes that, although you may recognize the characteristics of many named-in-lore deities within her descriptions of these Beings, pinning them down to cultural names seems to limit Them.

This got me thinking about the power of Names in witchcraft. I suspect traditional witches avoid naming their deities publicly because to do so seems to place limits on Their power; instead of opening ourselves to experiencing a deity or spirit fully, and surrendering ourselves to the full range of that experience, if we can box and label that deity with a Name and cultural history we feel like we’ve gained some measure of control. We’re no longer grasping about in the dark, dealing directly with the Mystery; instead, we can look in books, we can emulate other worshipers both ancient and modern, we feel like we’ve got a handle on things. We can look at books and blogs to see what Odin is like, what His preferences are for offerings and worship. It’s easier than starting from scratch and stumbling your way around getting to know Someone who might otherwise be a complete stranger to us.

I’m not saying this is wrong, by the way. It is the basis of most pagan practice, and for most people it works; after all, why struggle to reinvent the wheel, right?

But here’s a thinky thought that came to me while reading the above passage: the Names that have come down to us for the culturally known and defined pagan deities were, in the original languages of those cultures, more titles than proper names. This is most obvious when we look at names such as Freyr or Freyja (Lord and Lady, respectively) but it’s true of all of the Others as well.

Try this: repeat a word (any word in your own language, whether that’s English or something else) out loud over and over again. If you repeat it enough times, it will temporarily lose its meaning to you; it will start to sound like gibberish. There’s a term for this phenomenon: semantic satiation. If you repeat something enough times, you erase it; it becomes just a string of sounds. This can happen with names as well; we use our own names, as well as the names of others in our lives, constantly, to the point where (except as automatic identifiers) we barely hear them.

This can even happen with the names of deities.

I wonder: if pagans began referring to Their deities by titles rather than names (since the titles are, basically, Their names translated into our own language), how might this change our comprehension of Them? For example, Odin is Master of Frenzy, Poseidon is (we think) Husband of the Earth, the Morrigan is either the Great Queen or the Phantom Queen (notice the subtle difference there!), Aphrodite is Foam-Born, Persephone is (possibly) the Destroyer. What would calling Them by these titles do to our comprehension of Them? Does it cause us to surrender a measure of control over Their identities? (Or the illusion of control, at least–since you can’t lose what you never had.) Does it alter our perception? Does it open the doors to Mystery just a little bit wider?

My answer would be: all of the above. I don’t think the ancient pagans were trying to pin down or label their deities. I think they were stumbling around in the dark, using their own languages to describe the indescribable, struggling to name the unnamable.

Because, when you surrender the illusion of control over Their identities, all gods are liminal gods, really.

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13 thoughts on “Naming the Unnamable

  1. I have so much to say on this that it is cumbersome and too long to leave as a polite response, and I’m going to do my best to respond over on my blog when I’m able to word beyond nodding yes over and over again.

  2. As you mentioned in your post, one thing that keeps me grounded in regard to Deity names is recognizing that the names we have for the Gods (at least for the Gods that I honor) are actually titles. Demeter = Earth Mother, Apollon = Destroyer, and so forth. It’s sometimes easy to get sidetracked by the names we use for Them without realizing those aren’t really Their names.

  3. That the name of a deity does not lose meaning through repetition is an indication of its inherent power – but that power probably can’t be given a distinct boundary via our mortal understanding of such things. The names of the gods sound differently to Them than they do to us; whether that inherent power is due to a bargain that a deity made with a particular pattern of intention, meaning, and sound or due to some deeper and more elusive substance I’m not sure (my spirit work and witchcraft self tells me the first but certain other traditions tell me the second).

    I’m not disagreeing with you exactly; I do think that given enough time the beautiful names of our beloved gods *can* start to fit loosely and reveal certain limits that those names place on our understanding. In my case, Loki remains Loki but ‘Loki’ as a collection of letters, sounds, and associated meanings have long since ceased to be a fully accurate address of the Loki-I-know. There is another name and very probably a great many of them that have simply been lost or forgotten or maybe never revealed; I can feel their presence in the mental shadow case by Loki’s name. More and more every year trying to cram the Loki-I-know into the box created by Loki-the-name is like trying to stuff a sleeping bag back into its original packaging.

  4. *nodding in agreement with this post*

    I’m at a similar point in my path–it’s been completely torn down, and is getting rebuilt with my Husband’s guidance. (It’s just going to be a slow process because I have a lot to learn.)

  5. OH, I am so loving this. I was thinking the other day about how I did not related the stories and myths to the Gods I know by the same names because those are not the personalities I know. And even when I read invocations to Them that I have written with Their agency at one time, even if They come it seems so inadequate. Because even if it describes Them in a little bit it is so tiny compared to who They are. I suppose if I had time to do so in the morning winging it would feel better. But I need to be certain that I finish all of the offerings and get out the door and on the road. This is good stuff, and when I retire I think I will experiment with winging the invocations. – and I like the titles rather than the names…..

  6. I started with titles instead of names. If I am completely honest with myself…. something rather deflated a little when I had names to go with titles. Reverting to titles might be a worthwhile exercise for me. Thanks for the mind-food.

  7. Something like this happens with Kemetic deities. For example, Wepwawet is and is not His name, because it’s also a title of the Goddess Nit/Neith. Nepthys/Nebt-het’s name is Lady of the House. Hathor/Hethert is House of Horus/Heru. We have a few Goddesses Whose names are deity names as well as titles for many Goddesses: Mehet Weret, the Great Flood, Who is also Hethert, Nit, and/or Nut. Iryt-Ra (Eye of Ra) is a title of Goddesses and at least one God (Ma’ahes). Weret Hekau (Great of Magic) is also a title for Aset, Wadjet, and many other Goddesses.

  8. OMG I have say that this: “But here’s a thinky thought that came to me while reading the above passage: the Names that have come down to us for the culturally known and defined pagan deities were, in the original languages of those cultures, more titles than proper names. This is most obvious when we look at names such as Freyr or Freyja (Lord and Lady, respectively) but it’s true of all of the Others as well.”

    …is EXACTLY WHAT I HAVE BEEN MULLING OVER.

    I’ve been sorting out my own understanding of Hindu theology for a while now, and won’t bore with all the details, but this is the EXACT conclusion I came to. The names of the Hindu deities are titles. If we all still spoke Sanskrit, we would be saying shit like, “Well I’m praying to the Dark One [Krishna] right now, but then I’m praying to Lalitha [She Who Plays] in about an hour.”

    I ended up arriving at a different conclusion from this than you did BUT I am so happy someone else mentioned this too!! This has been a big thing that I have been wrestling with as I work out my own theological positions and try to construct a Hindu theology that explains non-duality and duality, and this is the explanation I have been leaning towards.

    Overall I’m happy you’re working out some idea of who the Traveler is to you. 🙂 Yay! ❤

  9. Pingback: Naming the Unnamable — Wytch of the North | The Forest Witch

  10. I recently had a dream where Someone showed me how the names of the Gods used to be sounds and feelings. Like with the evolution of things built from the simple to the complex, these basic concepts are still woven into the fabric of language. It was demonstrated to me backwards, from sounding the names to progressively becoming more and more incomprehensible until only a long string of sounds remained.

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