Month: December 2013

On reconstruction and fundamentalism

Snow falls gently on the garden, limning the metal mesh of the fence, the bare branches of forsythia, catching all sound with its white net of silence.

This morning, I’m thinking of the sad alliance between fundamentalism and reconstructionism in Pagan thought.

A few recent threads I have been pondering: One of the bloggers I follow recently mused on it and had left ADF — an organization I, too, have left — for witchcraft because of it. He no longer identifies as Pagan. One of the members of the Henge of Keltria, an organization I love and am affiliated with, also explored the concept of UPG, or unverified personal gnosis, a term frequently used in reconstructionist circles. UPG is, whether admitted or not, a term of shame among recons, a marker of scholarly insufficiency. There is the Celtic recon group I follow on Facebook, one of whose leaders lambasted others for wishing people a happy Yule — since Yule isn’t one of the attested Celtic holidays and the name is Norse in origin.

Well, a merry fucking Tuesday to you, I internally groused in response to the last.

Despite my dedication to Keltria, I don’t consider myself a reconstructionist and never have. In short, you cannot reconstruct a faith that has been stamped out for more than a millennium, never wrote down matters of the sacred and dealt with a world far different from our own. Simply put: we don’t know what the ancient Druids did and we will never know. We have the tales written down by Christian monks and folk traditions, neither of which can be relied upon in any absolute way. We have the accounts of Caesar, the occasional Greek or Roman traveler, outsiders all. We have the occasional cultural artifact: curse tablets, offerings thrown into water — but none with the inscription: “HERE BE DRUIDS.”

This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t study those traditions and monk-penned texts, those folk tales, those artifacts, even the languages. But don’t fool yourself: you are reconstructing nothing. You are taking some old bricks — and these bricks may not be as old as you think, or as unaltered as you think — and building an entirely new edifice with them. The ADF triad of well, tree and fire? The gatekeeper god? These aren’t reconstructions, but modern ritual methodologies based on what we think an ancient people may have understood. It’s ridiculously unlikely that they used the tri-fold division of the cosmos — assuming that they all had it, in all times, which is itself quite the reach — in the same way as modern Druids.

And religions change. Reconstructionists hate to admit this, but it’s true.

An example: Ancient religions relied heavily on animal sacrifice, which makes perfect sense when you consider the times. There were no shining supermarket aisles with cellophane-wrapped chops; meat was kept on the hoof. And as your wealth, animals weren’t something you slaughtered recklessly or ate all the time. (Yep, grains and legumes were more likely your daily fare. Take that, Paleo people!) To kill an animal in a ritual was to offer not only a unique, precious life, but a valued commodity. It was true sacrifice for all involved — and a binding-together of community, since that sacrificial animal was shared in a feast with all present. Only in times of true desperation was it burned entirely, a process known in Greek as holocaust.

Indians, too, once used animal sacrifice; the horse sacrifice is referenced in the Vedas. As the culture changed and the sages pondered the implications of reincarnation, animal sacrifices fell out of favor, to the point that modern Hindus would consider it abhorrent. If you read the Old Testament, you will see animal sacrifice get a starring role; Yahweh turned his divine nose up at Cain’s hard-earned vegetables and accepted his brother’s lamb. Isaac offered Yahweh a sacrificial animal in lieu of his son. But how many Jews — or Christians, or Muslims, since they’re all Abrahamic descendants — kill animals for Yahweh today? The kosher or halal process seems to be a relic of this time, but no church or synagogue I know of accepts freshly butchered meat for the Lord these days.

Now, reconstructionists may argue that these folks fell away, that their practices became perverted or impure. Frankly, I prefer to have my religion without blood sacrifice — either of animals or of people which, in desperate times, really did occur. Granted, there are religions that still practice animal sacrifice, but these are found largely in areas where meat still is kept on the hoof and people do their own butchering: the Kalasha in Pakistan, Yoruba religions in Africa and their descendants, Vodoun in Haiti. The social conditions still make such sacrifices a viable practice.

The idea of keeping animal sacrifice but substituting said animal with pita bread, as found in Ceiswr Serith’s Deep Ancestors:  Practicing the Religion of the Proto-Indo-Europeans, just seems to me to be patently ridiculous. Our ancestors would have scratched their heads and went “WTF? Why not just offer a perfectly good loaf of bread?” Tossing metal products into bodies of water, including tablets of lead, also makes no sense in modern eco-conscious times, even though the ancient Celts did so. We don’t ride around in horse-drawn chariots as our forebears did; why should be expect to ape their religious practices?

Gods, too, change. They develop certain attributes, and others fall away. Some rise in popularity. Their names change. They exhibit regional differences. Which, then, are the “true” and “pure” versions? Is Brighid the same as Brigantia or Brigindo — or even St. Brigit? Serith’s Westya? Are Imbolc ritual practices a product of Druidic survivals, or medieval-era folk custom? Are we “allowed” to worship Danu, or is she a modern made-up earth goddess? Is she the same as the Indian Danu?

I don’t propose to answer those questions because I don’t think there are 100 percent definitive answers. Plus, I don’t think they really matter in the end. For one, if humans and cultures change, why wouldn’t the Gods themselves — unless you view them as some sort of Platonic Forms? And second, if you honor Danu and she answers back, does it matter if people three thousand years ago worshiped her in the same way, or at all? Someone is answering — whether she’s the same as the Greek Demeter, or the Virgin Mary or Joe the dead mechanic doesn’t particularly matter, and it’s not something we’ll ever find out as incarnate beings.

There is no purity and there is no certainty. The “lore” — where it even exists — tells us about the people who wrote it down and the times. They don’t tell us what people hundreds of years before it was written thought or felt, or even how they lived, with any real accuracy. Study the lore, yes, but know this.

I suppose the resistance to UPG is one of “quality control,” with emphasis on the last word. “But, but, but, if we don’t rely solely on the lore, aren’t we just Wiccans? WHAT MAKES US SPECIAL?” When it comes to religion, what makes you special isn’t the quality of your research, but your relationship with the Gods. They are pleased by effort, including research — but they are also pleased by sincerity and deep feeling.

A slavish following of lore doesn’t truly reconstruct ancient faiths. In its most negative form, it creates something akin to a Christmas pageant, in which people are playing parts and roles that have little actual relation to their daily lives. If you feel that you’re playacting, you’re doing it wrong — not because you failed to follow the lore, but because that particular set of practices is no longer relevant to your relationship with the Gods. Just because you think the ancients performed a certain act or said certain words — and it will always be speculation, because we haven’t yet invented the times machine — doesn’t mean that you must do so today.

There is a place for imbas and awen, for personal gnosis verified or not, for inspiration that allows us to take those well-worn and imperfect bricks and start stacking them. Not into a wall that keeps others out and proclaims our specialness, but into a temple that lets others in.