Reconstructionism

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.

~ by Dver on July 25, 2014.

61 Responses to “Reconstructionism”

  1. it was a wacky, wacky ‘dialogue.’ loved your comments.
    khairete
    suz (the bad polytheist)

    • Oh you bad, bad polytheist!

      Though actually, my favorite part was when Sannion was saying stuff to that person that was pointedly offensive (as he is wont to do), and I was remaining relatively calm, and the person kept calling me an asshole “unlike him”. Huh? Just can’t win with some people.

  2. This article is Thracian Party Approved.

  3. Amen to that. I am truly a polytheist and that I believe the Gods and Goddesses are more than egregoires of the human consciousness. I am not a Jungian, the Gods and Goddesses are real and connect to whom they will, and sometimes their other believers are appalled because someone not of the culture or the tribe seems to have been contacted out of the blue and seems to be getting responses that are just as real and as manifest as a shaman of a 1000 generations. That, to me, is because the Gods and Goddesses are real, not an artifact, and are free to act independently.    Charles Butler chazzer3332000@yahoo.com 240-764-5748 Clear writing moves business forward.

    ________________________________

  4. “initial methodology” Yes! That makes total sense, will definitely quote/link to you next time I discuss reconstructionism. It’s a foundation- not an end to itself. I found Celtic Reconstructionism useful for helping me zero in on good sources and immerse myself in the worldview, as you discuss (still working on that- it’s a lifelong process) and bypass all the New Age distortion. Currently I’m branching into Heathenry, particularly Pennsylvania Deutsch folk traditions, just joined & left a Heathen FB group when it become apparent they were so hard-core recon, they wouldn’t even discuss folk traditions! I found this very weird from a Celtic Recon view, without folklore we’d have barely anything!

    • Not only that, but do they honestly think these cultures, if left intact, would not have CHANGED over time? In fact, they did – there is still a Germanic culture, and Pennsylvania Dutch is part of that. Seems weird to try to freeze a point in time in amber and only revive that one moment – and as Suz said in the original discussion, *which* moment would she even choose? Ancient Greece, for instance, was really a multitude of cultures depending on polis and time period, so it’s not as if you can authentically re-create being “an ancient Greek”.

      • Yes! It’s totally absurd without all of the things like sacral kingship and feudalism that are so interwined with the religion. It’s like trying to learn a language with only some vocab but no grammar.
        I’ve moved away from the Hellenic stuff partly because it felt so culturally foreign to me. If I’d been raised around Greek/Italian communities, maybe it would be less so I don’t know, but it seems like there’s a even bigger gulf between modern Greek culture and ancient than there is with northern European cultures, at least if you include folk traditions.

  5. This is great. It’s the kind of info I need as I flail about trying to establish a practice on my own.

  6. I’ve honestly gotten in the habit of just ignoring that guy. He’s pretty much a parrot who can only repeat the same arguments over and over, completely oblivious to the fact that everyone else just wishes he would stfu. He also brings new meaning to the pot calling the kettle black insofar as he is terribly guilty of doing all the things he accuses over people of doing–like when he accused you of being aggressively, rudely attacking him, when you were unfailingly calm and rational with him and he was coming after you very aggressively and rudely. He also operates under the assumption that anyone who disagrees with him is automatically some kind of stereotype of a New Agey-monist-neopagan-cultural-appropriator.
    Also, as I think you touch on here, there is an underlying assumption with the idea that gods ‘belong’ to certain peoples that essentially strips gods of having any independent agency. Are we to believe that gods worshiped by cultures that were Christianized (or fallen under the dominion of other monotheistic religions) have just been sitting around for the last 1000+ years waiting for only descendants of the people who had worshiped them decide to again, and not, you know, reaching out to any people who might be receptive to that deity? There has to be a distinction between reviving the worship of certain deities and reviving the cultures that worshiped them (not in a mutually exclusive sense, obviously).

    • I had actually never come across him before. He definitely seemed to jump to the conclusion, though, that if you weren’t 100% for total cultural immersion and excluding all else, you were a fluffy New Ager.

      And yes, I think a lot of it comes down to if you believe the gods have agency – if They do, all our little concerns about precise reconstructionism aren’t nearly as important.

    • I used to be pretty sympathetic to him up until it was obvious that he just has a Recon & Living Tradition = Good, Anything Else = Newage Evil mentality.

  7. […] Reconstructionism. […]

  8. “spirited,” huh? I just read that exchange last night, and the fact that you’re calling it only that only furthers the incredible restraint you showed.

    Also, on the heels of the very-needed taxonomy, this might be one of the best discussions about the relationship between reconstruction and living-religion that I’ve seen in Pagan circles. The Episcopals and a few other monotheist subsets have similar conversations (and similar backlash!), but we don’t talk about this enough with the gods. Thanks, yet again!

    • Well, I’ve been doing this for a fair bit of time now, so I’ve kind of seen the gamut of approaches, and had some time to reason out the how and why of it all. I was a bit more reactionary myself, in my early days, but over time my actual living relationships with the gods taught me both why it’s important to learn from our spiritual ancestors, and why we can’t let ourselves become so trapped in reconstructing the past that we fail to experience the present. Like many things, it’s about balance.

      And thank you – *I* thought I was being rather restrained, and was surprised at the vehement reaction I was getting.

  9. There’s nothing I can say about your post other than a resounding “Hear, hear!”

  10. Reblogged this on The Dreaming Wood.

  11. I have been saying for years that “reconstructionism” is a method (or set of methods, a methodology), not a religion. I’m sometimes not sure that people really understand that.

    Anyway, I’ve been considering leaving organized “Celtic reconstructionism” behind in favor of an approach that I am (lightly and superficially, rather than definitively) calling “Fairy Voodoo”. It needs a better name than that, of course, since that could easily be seen as appropriative. I still have a lot of reflexes from twenty years of “Celtic reconstructionism” that mean that I will always be influenced by those methods, of course, but this approach would leave me more flexibility to approach the gods and spirits.

    • Will you be blogging about that? It sounds interesting!

      • Maybe? I haven’t gotten too far in thinking deeply about it. At this point, it’s more a matter of trying to figure out what I mean by it in terms of actual practice. Certainly, it will involve looking at the grimoire fairy practices as well as the living fairy faith and other things. It’s those “other things” that leave me trying to learn a new approach.

        • I’m not sure I know what you mean by “grimoire fairy practices” but I’m intrigued. A lot of my actual spiritual life revolves around beings best termed “fairies” so I’d be interested in any good resources you might have to pass along.

          • In a number of the grimoires, there are procedures for contacting fairies – frequently fairy queens such as Kalé, Mycob, Mab, Sibyllia, and the like, but also a being variously named Oberon, Oberyn, Eberon, Oberion, and so forth. Some of it is much like the normal grimoire practices, but other things like the “table ritual” (a varying procedure, centered on setting a table with place settings and food dedicated to the fairies) seem to be from elsewhere.

            Anyway, that is a part of it: looking to what there is and incorporating it into a whole practice, much like Voudon takes what it likes from the European grimoires, Yoruba practices, spiritism, and so forth, melding it all into its own thing. Thus, “Fairy Voodoo”.

            Of course, I’m also looking back to the 1st/2nd century in Gaul, Britain, and Ireland for more, which is something that has only recently become possible (well, perhaps it was technically possible before, but it’s only recently that some people, including but not limited to me, have put together some important pieces).

            • Interesting. I guess I have never really read any of the grimoires, not being drawn to ceremonial magic, but maybe I should rectify that. Any recommendations on where to start?

              I think this is a great idea. I’ll be interested to hear what you come up with if you end up sharing it publicly.

              • I can understand that! It’s only recently, the last year or two, that I’ve been paying more than token attention to those books, myself. Probably the easiest introduction right now, with the most “bang” per page, is The Faerie Queens, edited by Sorita d’Este and David Rankine. The central articles in that book, from my perspective, are the ones by Rankine (most especially his collection of conjurations from the grimoires) and Daniel Harms, but there is also other material of interest. Of course, as with most anthologies, it is of uneven quality. Also, Harms has a book coming out next year that will be called The Book of Oberon, which, from his discussion on his blog, looks like it will be of great interest in that direction.

                After that, there are specific books that have fairy operations. The Grimoire of Arthur Gauntlet (a seventeenth century Cunning Man’s book) has some Oberon material. There’s a fairy operation in the Grimorium Verum (best edition of that is Jake Stratton-Kent’s True Grimoire – and by the way, his Geosophia is a spectacular defense of the idea that the material in the grimoires owes a lot more to native European polytheist religions than had been previously acknowledged). And so on.

  12. Reconstruction of the past.. as if we know all the details of how the past has been.
    People do evolve and so does their worshipping. And it should. Because, ofcourse, the Gods are evolving also. Gods are not stagnant either.

    • “Gods are not stagnant either”

      Your evidence for this?

      • It’s a theological stance known as “process theology”. As with most theological questions, the arguments are much more extensive and complex than could be easily presented in the comments section of a blog post, though I’d be interested to see someone try.

      • Every living being is on an evolving path ( or should be on it). Gods are living beings, so they evolve. Evolution is the normal way to go. Gods just have made faster leaps in evolution than humankind. They are the Forrunners. We follow more slowly.

        • Gods are incorporeal spiritual beings so have no need to evolve!
          I think you are trying to impart philosophical materialism/naturalism on the nature of the Gods.

          • why would incorporeal spiritual beings have no need to evolve? (I am not speaking of evolution of the body but about evolution of the consiousnes)

          • Do you know what’s ridiculous about the conversation you guys are having – I mean other than the fact that you’re having it? Vishnu is a god. Osiris is a god. A nymph of a stream is a god. Mercury is a god. A pile of twigs and pebbles and grass that some superstitious Celt worships is a god. And Allah is a god. Aside from agreeing to call these beings gods they have absolutely nothing in common with each other. Quit generalizing especially across cultural boundaries and you’ll quit having arguments like this.

    • my (very minority) view is that looking at the gods as ‘stagnant’ or ‘evolving’ attempts to corral them within the limits of the human brain. we’re hardwired to view everything in linear fashion, ie we *know* about exponential growth and the possibility of the space/time continuum existing in ways outside of the linear model, but we can’t actually conceive of it in an ‘aha!’ fashion.
      and that causes us to think the gods must ‘evolve’ since our entire universe does. i don’t have any hard-and-fast theories at to what to gods actually ARE in regards to immanent or transcendent (my not helpful response is ‘both’) but i don’t think they evolve like giraffes or us or viruses. i think they may direct the evolution of mortal beings. alternately, if they do evolve, it’s on a scale so huge as to be completely imperceptible to humans.
      i have to clutch my head when people suggest that the gods were primitive and cruel back in gilgamesh’s day, but have ‘evolved’ into more just and nuanced beings now.
      as gods evolve on a human timeline, and the rest of the universe is irrelevant.
      khairete
      suz

      • I agree, I also do think Gods evolve on a huge scale. For that reason I do not believe that the God ftom the old testament is/was the same as the one in the new testament. But that is another duscussion and my english is not good enough for that.

        • with respect, we really don’t agree. from the old testament to the new testament is not even an eyeblink of time. humans haven’t evolved during that time frame, and the gods are just a bit bigger and more complex than us.
          so to the very limited degree that i can go along with the possibility of gods evolving, the chance of them doing so in a timeframe that humans could remotely observe strikes me as absurd. if you want to go back to when humans were crawling out of the primordial murk i can grant the possibility, but it’s not like anyone can make definitive statements about it.
          khairete
          suz

          • Maybe my english is not good enough, but I did not say thta the God of the bible did evolve in the timespan between the old and the new testament. I meant to say that the humans of the old testament worshipped a different gof than the one Jesus speaks of.

  13. Fantastic article Dver! I think recon is good in creating a foundation but that is about it. I would also like to say if you take recon too far it can act to falsify your beliefs etc!

  14. […] wider representation so that people don’t think the only options are Wiccanate neopaganism or reconstructionism. Not that there’s anything wrong with either approach but the greatest strength of polytheism […]

  15. I’m ignorant of the original discussion, but I agree with all of this wholeheartedly. Very well said!!

    • Don’t even bother – the other conversation wasn’t very productive, it just happened to inspire me to write something out about this. These types of posts also tend to save me time in the future because I don’t have to re-word and re-type the same arguments over and over, but can just link to my posts!🙂

  16. Reblogged this on 4 of Wands and commented:
    I’ve said something like this before in various places and at various times but not as eloquently and succinctly as Ms. Dver. Thanks to her for putting my thoughts to paper…err blog!

  17. Reblogged this on Weaving Among The Stars and commented:
    Wonderful insight.

  18. I also take the Reconstructionist approach but I do it for only the religious and spiritual aspects. I’m not a fanatic who thinks he has to dress like Shaka Zulu to worship Chango.

  19. Excellent blog post. I agree with many of your points, as I’ve always felt that the Gods didn’t mind whether or not we did it exactly like the Ancient Greeks, and that what matters most is to honour them with a genuine heart, and in a way that pleases them. I’m a reconstructionist in some aspects of my faith, but in others I do what “feels” right – not to mention you can’t reconstruct everything!🙂

  20. I don’t think you (you in general) can really make blanket statements about Reconstructions. What might be true in a Hellenic context might be patently untrue in a Celtic context. From the beginning Celtic Reconstruction has been an approach firmly grounded in culture (and living Celtic cultures, many seem to forget there are still living ones). While the person debating with you has an abrasive tone (and was terribly rude) he has a very valid point in regards to cultural appropriation and colonialism. Huge numbers of people, whether Wiccan or the new generic Polytheists, want to grab and play with Celtoiserie, a shiny product of colonial mining. People who are interested in genuine Celtic spiritual practices usually have to spend a lot of time, often years, wading through all of this shite to find the authentic. Also people embedded in the living cultures have to suffer from all this ersatz being presented falsely as theirs. I think this is all very *human* arrogance. Celtic deities can not be understood without an understanding of Celtic cultural frameworks. And the modern cultures are important in that, not only the ancient strata. If people want to invent (or find) new gods why don’t they provide some new names (as the deities they claim to be working with often bear little resemblance to actual attested Celtic deities)? It’s quite possible to be CR with an open and elastic attitude to other influences, but the cultures need to be respected.

    • With all due respect I think you’re missing her point. Certainly it’s important to understand the cultural mindset of where any gods and spirits come from and do scholarly research, that is not what she is arguing against and I ask you to point out where she is really implying this.

      Sure, I disagree with her about a few things, since as far as I’m concerned religion is after all in my opinion still a personal thing, relevant to humans, not just the spirits involved.

      But other than a few semantic quibbles I believe her thesis is cogent and sound, and I’ve yet to see any proof she’s saying you should insert Lugh in a ritual meant for Demeter or Kali, and other forms of exploitation and appropriation.

      “What might be true in a Hellenic context might be patently untrue in a Celtic context. From the beginning Celtic Reconstruction has been an approach firmly grounded in culture (and living Celtic cultures, many seem to forget there are still living ones).”

      Greek culture still lives too, but she’s hardly what I’d call a Wiccanate Fluff Bunny -and perhaps you don’t mean to imply this. However lots of cultures in the Middle East and Mediterranean aren’t dead yet either, and I don’t see why the Germanic and Celtic get singled out as so different.

      • Exactly. I definitely don’t think you should just pick and choose willy nilly, and ignore all cultural basis. But neither should you necessarily approach everything in a vacuum – ancient cultures, after all, had plenty of contact with other cultures, often absorbed each other’s deities and customs, and certainly changed over time.

        Yes, there are living Celtic cultures, but they are predominantly Christian, yes? So they have strayed in a quite fundamental way, spiritually speaking, from the ancient tradition. I’m sure there’s still a lot of useful things there to a Celtic polytheist, that have entered the folk level customs and beliefs – as there were in Greece still at least 60 years ago or so, when nereids were still worshipped – but they have not necessarily exactly carried the torch of the ancient way forward, as far as religion is concerned. One still might have to go looking in other places to construct a fully functional practice – much like studying other forms of mysticism helps one learn about nympholepsy, which is otherwise mostly lost to time.

        I get that it’s obnoxious how much bad information there is out there, which therefore makes finding the real stuff difficult. With Hellenismos, there is actually similar bad information, but it comes from childhood mythology books and extremely biased Victorian scholars, rather than from Llewellyn authors. No matter what, to get to the good stuff in any revival of an ancient tradition, you have to do some work. I don’t see this state of affairs, however, as a reason to go entirely in the opposite direction, and forbid anything with the slightest hint of modernity or foreignness. Authentic, living traditions do change, as would the ancient polytheisms had they not been eradicated – so change in itself should not be so vehemently rejected.

        • Celtic cultures have all been subjected to intense colonialism; Celtic peoples were forced to speak English, or French for starters. There is also a continuum of culture from ancient times to present within Celtic-speaking communities, a world view, a mindset, quite different than that of English speaking people or other individual-first westerners. Culture is a non-negotiable aspect of CR. Some of the important resources of folk culture practices were collected in the Victorian or early 20th century like the Carmina Gadelica or Evan-Wentz’s tome, The Fairy Faith in Celtic Countries. Arguably, the Fairy Faith never died out. Just as in so many parts of the world, rural peoples in officially Christian societies continued to practice folk traditions along side going to mass, etc. These folk sources are integral along with learning what we can through archaeology and various texts of ancient times. And for some of us some of these practices are just a few generations back in our families and connecting with those customs is profound (like berrying at Lughnasadh). And yes, doing some research in other related cultures is part of it too. I don’t know that anyone is saying that change in itself should be rejected vehemently. Just the grab and take mentality or presenting modern inventions and redefinitions as being Celtic or the ‘wannabe celebrity– it’s all about me’ attitude of certain so-called Celtic wiccanate polytheists.

          • “Celtic cultures have all been subjected to intense colonialism”

            It’s not like the Greeks weren’t screwed over by the West either, and then there was the genocide by the Turkish government in Asia Minor. Not to mention that Greeks are often still not seen as white (In fact there are people of Greek heritage who do not identify as white)-at least in Western Europe, and there are still a lot of racist stereotypes about them in particular. Indeed, there is still an incredibly simplistic view of the Ancient Greeks as a homogenous culture.

            Look, I’m very sympathetic to your viewpoints in this, I’m against cultural appropriation and exploitation as well, but I think you have a bit of a US centric view on this in the only the Celts have these types of problems variety.

            “Culture is a non-negotiable aspect of CR.”

            How is this different from any other reconstructionisms? My only disagreement is the level of degree, and personally I’m not interested in the re-enactment mentality.

            “Just the grab and take mentality or presenting modern inventions and redefinitions as being Celtic or the ‘wannabe celebrity– it’s all about me’ attitude of certain so-called Celtic wiccanate polytheists.”

            Agreed, but I’m not Wiccanate anymore than Dver is, much less arguing for that mentality or worldview either.

            • So anyway, where was my point? Oh yeah, the Greeks and Greek culture went through a lot of problems, and if I recall correctly still do. But if we wish to be consistent about it, we should not treat Greek culture differently, and demand the same cultural immersion mentality. If one does then so many polytheists worshipping the Greek gods in the reconstructionist manner are still doing it wrong. But I do not believe that they are.

            • In fairness, I think there’s a very big difference between taking culture seriously (which is what Finnchuill is suggesting), and re-enactment. I don’t think that Finnchuill swings a claymore, as far as I know, and I’ve never seen him in a kilt…and while those are egregiously cliché examples, at the same time, there’s a lot of people who think those sorts of things are “immersion in culture” where Celtic matters are concerned, but then refuse to learn how to properly pronounce (in Old or Modern Irish) the names of deities, etc., because it’s “too hard,” and “the gods know who we’re talking to,” and so forth.

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