Names and Naming

I finished a draft of a piece for publication recently, and part of it included writing about one of my names. Names are really important in Vodou and many other religious practices, as well as in regular life (duh), and that goes for spirits and us meatsacks alike. What we address each other as has meaning and purpose, and it becomes an identifier of sorts. I started thinking about how and what names mean to me and how I ‘wear’ them.

I have a LOT of names. There is the name my parents gave me when I was born, which I don’t use any more, and there is the name that I chose for myself when I decided the parent-given name didn’t fit. I am not sure I actually chose it in that it just sort of fell out of the sky and onto my head over a decade ago, but it fit and I kept it. It took my awhile, but I realized that there are particular selves attached to each of those names, and one tastes like ashes. When people call me by the name my parents gave me at birth, I get uncomfortable but not for the common experience of being unhappy because that name is decidedly female. It’s more that it is a connection to a person and a time in my life that I have no desire to hold a connection to. I was never female, so the name was never female.

When I went into the djevo, I became spiritually nameless. I was no longer who I was, but I was not yet who I was going to be and so did not have a name in the religion. In practice, people still called me by my regular daily name or, more amusingly, addressed or referred to me solely as blan (white/outsider). I hadn’t been born yet, so there was no religious way to address me.

In the djevo, when I started to meet my spirits, some of them gave me names for themselves that aren’t in common use–names that I had to sit down and chat with my mother about to figure out who it was. Sometimes they were ‘secret’ names of spirits–almost like a true name in the way that refers to the true name of YHWH, and sometimes they were names of a particular face of a spirit (most spirit names in Vodou are family names–Damballah is a family name, since there are hundreds of Damballahs, Gede is a family name, Ogou is a family name, Ezili is a family name, etc). Learning their different names gave me insight into who they were and, in turn, into who I am in relationship with them. Those names tell me how to serve them and what place they might have in my life, as well as what areas they are concerned with.

When it is time for the actual leve/lifting part of kanzo and we are brought up from beneath the waters of Ginen/the realm of the spirits, we are still not people yet. The first part of leve kanzo leaves us blind in a way–since we are not named yet, we do not have the privilege of seeing clearly or being seen clearly, and so our eyes and gaze are hidden from the community. Our baptem/baptism gives us a name and reveals us to the community in celebration with the removal of the ayizan that protected us prior.

Prior to kanzo, I was not even concerned in the least of what my godparents might name me. It was a detail that was sort of lost in the shuffle of the plane crash that was getting to Haiti and into the djevo. My godfather had explained how names are often selected–they are usually given to the godparents by the spirits–and he later told me how mine was bestowed, which pleased me.

At my baptem, my name was announced as Bonkira (full name: Bonkira Bon Oungan Daguimin Minfort). Our baptem names are really important names. They tell a story about who we are and who we will be, what we will do and what we need to strive for. It’s not a name that is (often) used in casual address–if anything, we might address each other as ‘houngan’ or ‘manbo’ in passing, but mostly we use our common names. Though, if my mother ever came out and called me by my initiatory name, it would sort of be like when your mom shouts your full name and you know you are in trouble.

My kanzo name means ‘what is good is rare’, and that is a large and heavy name, being both a blessing and a burden. I have a lot to do, and I think about it a lot. It’s not an axe over my neck(that is my spirits if I don’t do what I am supposed to do) but it is a weight that pushes me. The work of my hands can be good, but it also means I have to hustle to make sure it is–after all, it could be a rare occurrence if I don’t keep my nose to the grindstone and learn and practice and perfect the work of a priest.

Bonkira is not my only name, either. We all receive a secret ‘inside’ name from Papa Loko, the father of all asogwe, directly. If my kanzo name references who I am in the world and what is possible of me, then my inside name is the deepest reflection of who I am as a person and priest who walks as a direct descendant of Loko, with his tools and blessings on my head and hands. There are only two people in the world who know what that name is, and if I ever heard it come out of a spirit’s mouth, my head would spin around Linda Blair style and I’d be on my belly in the dirt asking before anyone around me could catch a breath. It would be the spiritual equivalent of a nuclear bomb going off at my feet.

There are names that have come directly from spirits that seem to be vaguely like pet names or names that describe a relationship. Some of them are funny and/or embarrassing, and some of speak to larger or more serious topics. Sometimes they behave as a pass key–if I get called that name, I know who exactly is speaking to me.

Spirits outside of Vodou do the same thing, too, with names and titles. I have a spirit who has simply addressed me as ‘priest’ for years, particularly when she is unhappy with me. She also says there’s an actual name for me from her, but she isn’t too talkative and I’m not asking. When Esu started kicking in doors and taking up residence, he started calling me by a particular name (nothing like waking up from a dream with words from a language you don’t speak running through your head) and when that phrase comes up, I know I better than to just think it coincidence.

It goes the other way, too–I have names that I use for particular spirits to reference a relationship, and I have spirits who I am still harassing to actually tell me their true name (looking at you, Dead Man). Sometimes the chase is a lesson itself.
Now, I am mulling over another name thing–a spirit whom I have grown close to has requested I change my name to match his, which feels…weird. I mentioned it before, and the potential reasons why are still true–it is likely because I either truly don’t have a family name because I am not related to my father, because I am about to get married and names often change with marriage, or just because that spirit wants to be clear that I belong to the spirits. This came up when I started writing the above referenced piece for publication, in the ‘you should publish it under this last name’ sort of way. I have requested that the publisher do so (and they will), but I have basically put off any larger change until after the wedding, in the likely vain hope that the spirit will relent. A name change like that will cause drama in that people will think they know something about me, like I would be silly enough to advertise my head so clearly, and I am not particularly looking forward to that sort of insanity. I am also not looking forward to another complicated project, and especially in the Age of Trump. But, they know they almost always get what they want so it’ll probably happen anyway because I love them and am a sucker for happy spirits.


~ by Alex on May 3, 2017.

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