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Friday, March 20, 2015

Reconstructionism - What It Is, What It Isn't, and Why I Love It

   I've said it before but it bears repeating: Reconstructionism is a very misunderstood thing. There are many reasons for why that is and why some of those misunderstandings keep being perpetuated, but mostly it comes down to assumptions and stereotypes. So today let's take a look at what reconstruction is and what it isn't. 
   Disclaimer (because I don't enjoy the sensation of being flayed): This article is meant as a general commentary on the methodology of reconstruction when applied to polytheist religion. As with anything there will be exceptions to any statement or cases where specific styles of Recon differ. I am writing it from the base of my own experience, which is primarily in Celtic Reconstructionism* and Heathenry, however I wouldn't presume to speak for all recons everywhere.
 ~ What is Reconstructionism?
     This seems like a good place to start. Reconstruction is a methodology that uses a variety of sources including archaeology, anthropology, mythology, folklore, and historical texts to reconstruct what an ancient belief or practice most likely would have been. Using this reconstruction of the old the belief or practice can then be adapted for modern practice. Or, as I like to say, reconstruction is understanding the old pagan religion so that we can envision what it would have been like if it had never been interrupted and still existed today. 
   Reconstructionism is most often applied to spirituality but it can be used for a variety of related practices including traditional non-religious witchcraft. It can also be for mystic practices used in conjunction with spiritual practices, such as the reconstruction of seership methods within Celtic Reconstruction, or of seidhr within Heathenry. 
    Reconstruction is a method that is applied to a wide array of different ancient pagan faiths including Norse, Anglo-Saxon, Minoan, Egyptian, Irish, Gaulish, and Indo-European** to name just a few. It is a method which is both sound and flexible, but which also requires personal engagement and imagination. Because of this the end result of different people's reconstruction of the same culture's religion will not be identical, although it should be similar. 
   ~ What is Reconstructionism *NOT*
   1) Recons are not mean. Well, they aren't any meaner, generally speaking, than any other community can seem to outsiders. I see this one all the time, and it is usually rooted in two things: a difference in communication style and a difference in paradigm. People within reconstructionist communities tend to have a communication style - in my experience - that is rather blunt and straightforward. In contrast people within non-Recon communities tend, again in my experience, to have communication styles that favor friendly language and more passive aggressive approaches. Recons tend to operate from a paradigm of earned respect, skepticism, and where any statement requires hard evidence to support it, while non-recons have a paradigm of immediate intimacy, trust, and acceptance of people's assertions on face value. Neither of these is inherently better or worse than the other, but they create very different cultures and expectations of behavior for the people within them. It should be obvious that these communication styles and paradigms are in many ways antithetical and it is almost inevitable that people interacting between the two groups will have issues with each other. 
   2) Recons are not re-enactors. This is another very common one, usually expressed through the criticism that Reconstructionism is flawed because "there are things that should be left in the past". Well, yes, clearly. No one is advocating the return of human sacrifice or slavery - although we are honest about the fact that these were historic practices and that understanding them is important to understanding the culture. Reconstruction is not about recreating ancient religion exactly as it was and practicing it that way, but about understanding how it was in order to make it viable today.
   I for one love indoor plumbing and refrigeration, and I'm not about to give up all modern amenities to build a roundhouse and pretend I'm living in the Iron Age. I might not mind a round house with wifi and solar panels though. Obviously just like the rest of the population there are some recons who do favor sustainable living, off the grid living, and even a rejection of many aspects of modern technology but that isn't an aspect of reconstruction itself, anymore than belonging to the SCA or going to Renn Faires is. 
   3) Recons are not books only. There is a bit of a hesitance in reconstructionist groups - or at least the ones I have experience with - to discuss actual practice and experience. I think there are several reasons for this, including that we tend to get very tangential about minutia in discussions and we get sidetracked when someone else starts disagreeing and saying their research supports a different approach. However just because we don't talk all the time about what we actually do in our daily lives doesn't mean we aren't doing anything. Just like just because a non-recon talks a lot about what they do and not much about what they read doesn't mean that they don't read anything (I like to assume anyway). Recons do like their source material, but the entire point of the source material is using it to create a viable practice. 
  4)  Recons don't hate "upg"***. This one is also often expressed as "Recons are obsessed with lore" or "Recons are pagan fundamentalists". However you say it it simply isn't true. And that's just not my opinion, I'll quote the CR FAQs here, under What Is Celtic Reconstruction (CR): " By studying the old manuscript sources and the regional folklore, combining this information with mystical and ecstatic practice, and working together to weed out the non-Celtic elements that can arise, we are nurturing what still lives and helping the polytheistic Celtic traditions grow strong and whole again." (emphasis mine). Incorporating personal experience and mystical practice is part of reconstruction, so recons obviously do not hate personal gnosis. However we do apply the same critical thinking and discernment to mystical experiences as we do to any source of information and I suspect this is where the problem comes in. Recons question everything to ascertain its veracity including spiritual experiences and that is often unpopular especially in communities that do not share the same approach. 
   But seriously people recons don't hate mystical experiences, nor do we reject anything that isn't straight out of a book. We just place a lot of value on the vast amount of combined experience and belief that is the culture we are reconstructing and we use that as a measure for the credibility of new information. 
 ~ So why do I love it? Well, honestly Reconstruction is a part of who I am. It fits my nature, my personality, and so it is something I apply to everything: my religion, my witchcraft, my fairy faith. I was always that kid who asked why and who dreamed about what something could have been. I love studying the evidence we have and asking myself what if? What if it had never stopped? What if the Old gods, the old ways, had been continuously worshiped, continuously kept? What would that look like today? I find it a fascinating puzzle and one that I am compelled to sort out. 

  Reconstruction is not a methodology for everyone, just like any other path it is simply one option among many. It appeals to certain people for a variety of reasons, and leaves other people uninterested, and that's okay. Many people who don't practice Reconstruction, and even some who do, misunderstand what it is and sometimes perpetuate stereotypes about it, and I hope this blog helped at least a little bit to shed some light on a few of them. Recons aren't out to make people cry, aren't trying to recreate the Iron Age, aren't only about reading books, and aren't against personal ecstatic experiences or gnosis. What we are about is using solid academic evidence and personal inspiration to envision what that polytheism would have looked like today if it had existed without interruption. We are about honoring our ancestors, spirits of diverse types, and Gods. We are about respecting and helping to preserve the living culture today. 
   Reconstruction isn't about living looking backwards. Its about walking forward with the past a firm path beneath our feet, guiding our steps. 

 Further reading:

*I identify publicly as a practitioner of Celtic Reconstructionist Polytheism, however I am specifically endeavoring to reconstruct Irish polytheism. 
** Ceisiwr Serith has an interesting book called 'Back to the Beginnings: Re-inventing Wicca' which is, to all intents and purposes, an attempt to reconstruct Indo-European religious witchcraft.
***upg - unverified personal gnosis, or as Lora O'Brien puts it (and I like better) unique personal gnosis. I've also been known to refer to this as personal numinous experience, but PNE isn't as catchy of an acronym.

Copyright Morgan Daimler


  1. Interesting, and thanks for sharing that. I actually wrote my post on recon without being aware that there was a debate going on around this subject. I tend to be late to catch the trends on the internet, and hadn't heard that this was being discussed. I just had a run-in with a reconstructionist who dismissed my relationships with my gods as not textually-based enough, and then claimed to know them better than me because he starts with texts (and specific kinds of texts, excluding other forms of story-telling, at that). It's great to hear your different view, but I'm a bit uncomfortable with what you're saying about "recons do" and "recons don't". The impetus for my post was encountering a recon who did many of the things that you say recons don't do. If reconstructionism is a method, not a religion, then there are no tenets that say how one has to go about it, and that's why some recons do things one way and others do things differently. So, while it's great to hear that you don't do some of the things that I've encountered, that doesn't mean *no one* does those things. Does that make any sense?

    As a former reconstructionist who couldn't cope with that method for various reasons, many of which are probably personal failings (like specific learning difficulties that mean I can't engage with texts in the way that some people), I've considered very carefully my reasons for no longer being a reconstructionist. I know fairly well what it aims to be and aims not to be. I know that it *can* embrace aisling and imbas, for example. But the method didn't work for me, in the end, for a lot of reasons. But that's OK, and I'm glad it works well for others!

  2. as to the do's and don't - hence my disclaimer at the beginning :)
    Recon is a method but like any method it follows basic parameters, which doesn't mean that some people don't emphasize certain things more than others or choose to ignore some aspects of it. And of course you get jerks in any religion. Also lots of diversity - I tend to be very mystically inclined while other CRs might not give any time to mysticism at all. Both approaches are valid.
    Thank you for the comment and if you don't mind linking your blog here I'd like to read it.

  3. Brava, Morgan, from this Hellenic Recon. I really could not have said it better myself. I love reading your blog in order to learn about my religious neighbours ;-). As I do not believe that the pantheon of gods whom I worship are the same gods under different names in the pantheons you worship, I have come to know them a bit and to respect them. Anyway, this was an excellent post, as always.

  4. Thanks, Morgan, for shedding some light on this. I'm hesitant to call myself a reconstructionist, perhaps for only being a little over a year along the path of Asatru, but the initiative to constantly learn more is definitely there.

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