Deepening Reconstructionism Locally
Over the years, I have become convinced that a deep engagement with the lands in which one lives is essential for those following a Reconstructionist path. Moving from an intellectual understanding of the gods and the source religion to an active relationship with the spiritual world in the here and now requires that one be fully present where one is. A lot of Recons tend to long for the land of their gods, and even the time when their gods were first worshipped – I have been guilty of this myself – but such focus on elsewhere can be limiting.
In fact, it is a more fully Reconstructionist approach to see the gods in the world around you. In ancient Greece, for instance, each region had its own traditions, its own versions of the gods (here Hermes is primarily a god of the gymnasium, there He roams the fields with the nymphs), its own festival calendar, and these things were often dictated by the landscape as well as the culture. If the Greeks traveled to a foreign land, they brought their gods with them and learned new things about them as the gods adapted to the local flora, fauna, weather, terrain and people.
In North America, for instance, I have felt Dionysos connected to the buffalo rather than the bull, as it is the native large horned animal. Sekhmet may manifest as a cougar in the north, rather than an African lion. Odin comes from a land of harsh winters, but what aspects will emerge in the desert? I am not suggesting that one simply imagine the appropriate associations – it’s not a game to play – but rather that one be open to a true experience of the gods as They appear in the world that one knows first-hand.
And it’s not just about the gods, either. Most if not all polytheistic religions are nearly overrun with spirits of earth, water, plants, etc. Those spirits exist everywhere on the planet. Some may be known and worshipped by a specific local religion (now or in the past), but all can be recognized by the attentive animist. Whether they be spirits native to this land, or those that came with the people who migrated here, it is important to honor them (in whatever way they prefer – to my mind, propitiating native spirits in the manner they are accustomed to is not cultural appropriation, but simply good manners; we don’t have to pretend to be Native Americans, we just need to pay attention to what the spirits want). Even if you are giving an offering unheard of in your source religion, to a spirit with a foreign name, you are actually performing a religious act within your tradition by doing so, as the ancients would never have ignored the spirits of the lands they traveled to and settled in.
One should become fully intimate with one’s local area, learning as much as possible about the ecosystems involved, paying close attention to the changes in the landscape as the seasons progress. This can be done even in an urban environment, which is never totally bereft of animal or plant life, and just as subject to the elements as anywhere. But it’s not enough to just study and observe. In my experience, the real magic happens when you begin to perform repeated ritual acts within that landscape, specifically acts that are inexorably tied to place.
For instance, there was a festival in ancient Greece for Dionysos that was carried out on the slopes of Mt. Parnassos. We do this festival on one of the buttes in our city – it is not nearly a mountain, but it is a place of power and strong spirits in its own way. After several years of climbing this butte on that night and echoing the potent ritual acts of the ancient tradition, I feel the connection to Dionysos by just looking up at it from afar. I will always love and even long for Mt. Parnassos – which is an especially holy place that I have been blessed to visit more than once – but my daily life is here, and it is much better to have Dionysos close by on our humble butte than thousands of miles away.
Returning to the same places in one’s local landscape over and over, honoring the same gods and spirits in the same manner, builds a bond between not only oneself and the divine entities but also with the land. All become intertwined in a beautiful way. You begin to see the spiritual forces at work in the world around you more easily. The gods feel closer, a more direct and present part of your life. You may discover new things about Them too, see Them in new ways, have experiences that spur you to create new festivals or cult centers based entirely on such revelations – which is exactly how it was done in ancient times.
And if you move, as we do much more often in these modern times than in the past, then yes, you will have to start again, but on the other hand you will have an opportunity to see your gods and your religious practice with fresh eyes. The Hermes I knew on the snow-packed roads of Montana is not quite the same as the one I interact with in the quirky streets of Eugene, Oregon, but both are true aspects of Him, and now I feel blessed to understand yet another face of one of my gods. And in fact, it took moving across the country (I’m originally from Maine) for me to open my eyes to the land around me, which I merely took for granted in the place I grew up.
Not only has my spiritual practice been powerfully enriched as a result of this deepening awareness and engagement, but in many ways I am now closer to practicing the ancient Greek religion than I was when I primarily identified as a Recon and spent more time reading history books than doing ritual in my environment. I offer the gods local wine and honey and grains now, rather than imports, and worship Them in groves and at streams that I can walk to from my home, rather than wishing I could be doing so in Greece (to be honest, I do still love and miss that holy land, but I love this one here as well). I hope to see more Recon-inclined polytheists doing the same, and building strong, localized traditions that will carry on the worship of the gods meaningfully and viably into the future.