Recently I was having a “spirited” discussion with someone in the comments section of a blog post about, basically, how immersed one needed to be in an ancient culture to properly practice its religion (and how virulently one must eschew all other influences….clearly, if you are familiar with my path, my answer was “not very”). Now, it’s kind of ironic, in that I spent quite some time in my early days on the Hellenic lists arguing in favor of Reconstructionism as an approach, and now I find myself having to argue against it, at least to the degree that some people are taking it. Because, the thing is, I think Recon is a very good initial methodology when approaching the gods of an ancient religion. But when taken too far, it risks fetishizing the culture – in other words, humans – rather than focusing on how best to honor the gods. Once again, it becomes an issue of “It’s Not About Us.”
If the gods are real, independent beings and not a product of human imagination (and if you disagree with this, my comments are not really relevant to you), then They did not originate with us and They do not belong to us, not even to the ancient culture who first (to our knowledge, as such) worshipped Them. Those are just the folks with the most history with Them. Now, that’s very important, in that those people accumulated a lot of experience with those particular deities; they had centuries to figure out what They liked and didn’t like, what They wanted out of human beings, etc. Certainly, it would be foolish to disregard all of that and start from scratch. But that is the reason for adopting a Reconstructionist approach – not because that ancient culture was somehow more pure, or worthy, or even more inherently connected to the gods than any of us have the potential to be (though of course, the culture as a whole was more connected than our culture is, but that’s not something we can control no matter how much we play at being ancient Celts or Greeks; we are coming from a fundamentally different position and that’s okay, we can still have very meaningful relationships with the gods, They certainly will not reject us because of it). In fact, every one of those ancient cultures had plenty of problems we would not actually want to take upon ourselves.
My view is that the ideal process when beginning to worship ancient deities (assuming one’s goal is to know and honor those deities as deeply as possible – again, if this is not your goal, or if you’re more interested in human culture, then I am not addressing you) would be to immerse oneself in the ancient *mindset* in regard to the gods – through lots of research and reading primary sources and all of that good stuff – for a good long while, perhaps several years at least, while simultaneously getting to know the gods in whatever ways one can, and *then* once the mindset has been fully understood and internalized, extrapolating and creating new practices when/if called to.
Imagine your friend set you up on a blind date with a woman he’s known since they were both kids. Of course, you’d want to learn something about this woman ahead of time from your friend – maybe what her favorite flowers are, so you can bring some to the date, or what she’s like, and an interesting story or two about her. But you’ll only be getting that one person’s perspective. His view of her is probably flavored by his own experiences, and maybe he still thinks of her the way she was when they were teenagers and not the way she is now. In any case, once you get to know her, you would put much more weight, hopefully, on what she tells you about herself, and how she acts, than on what he said.
Again, I wonder how much the insistence on adopting an ancient culture in its entirety is a symptom of the tendency for many polytheists to focus more on people than they do on the gods. I am fortunately immune from this because I am a raging misanthrope! And I just have a hard time believing that almost any gods would refuse to accept worship from someone who has gone to the trouble to learn what They want and like and how best to approach Them (and yes, this can most easily and reliably be done by looking first to the past) simply because that person does not in other ways resemble the worshippers of the past, or has some parts of their religious practice that come from other cultures and times. That seems like a more human concern to me.