Monday, December 20, 2010

Evolution vs. Reconstruction

Recently I find myself increasingly dissatisfied and frustrated by reconstructionist Paganism. This is a bit of a turn-around for me from earlier years when I was very much impressed by the apparent scholarly acumen of people willing to dig into medieval and ancient history to retrieve bits of information about pre-Christian religious beliefs and practices that could be built upon anew. I still respect the scholarly enterprise of investigating the past, but I have become increasingly suspicious of certain aspects and implications of the reconstructionist enterprise.

First of all, the attitude of a good many reconstructionists seems to be to privilege the past over the present, to judge that those living in the good old days of medieval or ancient wherever were really in touch with spiritual truth whereas we moderns and post-moderns are sadly misguided creatures cut off from primal reality. And so, we must strive to emulate the wise ones of the past as much as possible. I see a major problem with this, in that we don't know enough about the past practitioners of Paganism to make such grand statements about their superiority. We have some of their traditions in fragmentary form; that is all we have. I enjoy those fragments of myth and belief and take inspiration from them, but it seems intellectually dishonest to assume that we today can know past traditions completely or how to follow them just as the past masters supposedly did.

I also note that in America, many modern followers of Paganism, at least Norse-Germanic Paganism/Asatru, interpret the Norse-Germanic traditions in ways that are suspiciously similar to American conservative views and values. I have commented on this many times before, so I will just give the short version, with just two key points: (1) emphasis on machismo, war and militarism, equating modern soldiers in places like Iraq and Afghanistan with Viking warriors or Odin's einherjar, and making this the most holy of holies, as if Odin and Thor were employees of the Pentagon; (2) interpreting medieval eddas, sagas and texts describing small-scale, pre-modern, pre-industrial communities through the lens of typically American conservative anti-government attitudes that prioritize rugged individualism and small-town living, and disdain modern government attempts to provide for collective welfare, as if Ayn Rand were the reincarnation of Freyja. This is a thoroughly American conservative version of Norse-Germanic lore, with some parallels in right-wing European thought, and is by no means the sole possible or self-evident interpretation that can be applied to Pagan traditions. It is not the "one true faith," in other words. I am not saying that this is not a viable interpretation for those with such conservative views and values, but it is an interpretation that rises out of a particular ideological viewpoint, and it should not be imposed on those of us who do not share such conservative ideology.

Reconstructionist Paganism, by prioritizing the world of the past over the society of the present time, lends itself to conservative political interpretation and manipulation, because the fundamental conservative impulse is to fear and hate the new and the modern. For those of us of more liberal or progressive ways of thinking, who believe that the society of today is better than the society of the past because there has been steady progress in such areas as human rights, respect for women, appreciation of cultural diversity, and the use of government programs to provide for human needs and to not simply leave the old, sick and disadvantaged to wither and die, strict Reconstructionism is a spiritual and political dead end. What we need is an open-ended Paganism that has affection and respect for traditions of the past, but realizes too that we live in a modern world and must not be bound and gagged by the ways of the past.

This means accepting that religions, like any other aspect of human life, will necessarily evolve over time. A great injury done to the Pagan traditions of Europe by the process of Christian domination is that they were not allowed to naturally evolve in a healthy manner. Therefore we are stuck with medieval tales and myths that do indeed feature a good bit of slashing and smashing with swords, spears and other medieval weapons, along with other aspects that speak to other areas of human endeavor, such as family, fertility, beauty, art, agriculture, love, laughter and mystical experience. If Christianity had not come along with its harsh and oppressive influence, how might the religions of Europe have further evolved?

This is an open question that no one can answer definitely, of course. It is hard enough to know what was but impossible to know what might have been. However, I see one analogy that we can at least consider: the case of Hinduism. The earliest forms of Hinduism, the Vedic traditions recorded in such texts as the Rig Veda, are something rather similar to European Paganism, which is why we can talk about Indo-European connections between pre-Christian Europe and early Hindu India. In the Vedas, we find nature-centered polytheism, veneration of ancestors, tales of war, animal sacrifice, gods of many functions.

If India had followed the same trajectory as Europe, and Hinduism the same sequence of events as Paganism, with Christianity coming in and freezing development of this religious tradition, this could have been the end of the story, and Hinduism would be associated with meat-eating, animal-sacrificing, wealth-loving, nature-worshipping warrior tribes. Hinduism however continued to evolve, most spectacularly in the period of the Upanishads. These were philosophical texts from the first millennium BCE that move Hinduism from simple polytheism and a somewhat materialistic view of life to ideas of karma, reincarnation and transcendence. Later came another stage of intense devotion of personalized deities, known as bhakti. All three of these stages still exist and are still respected as spiritual options within the larger fold of Hinduism.

Perhaps if Paganism had been allowed to evolve, it might have undergone some such further stages of development. Well, there is no time like the present. So, let's evolve! New horizons are waiting. You don't have to keep living in a thatched hut, sharpening your axe!

I find exactly this kind of open, progressive attitude among my Scandinavian and German Pagan friends. They are inspired by the Pagan traditions of the past, such as these can be known, but they are not prisoners of the past. They embrace the modern world, and this is also seen in their politics. They are grateful for modern government programs that can provide a better life and better security than in ancient or medieval times. They are not looking to retreat into the past but to build a better future. They have evolved. Can American Pagans do the same? I hope so.


Pitch313 said...

There's a lot to be said for doing our best to revive and reconstruct notions, outlooks, and practices from cultures and spiritualities of our past. But, as you point out, the world of the past is not the world we live in.

A vibrant and nurturing Pagan spirituality reconstructed from past sources has to inspire us as we live in the world of today.

Besides, the world changes. We change. Pretty much everything changes. Even Paganism.

Mike said...

I've made similar arguments but not as eloquently. Both Pagan's and Heathen's can learn a lot from the Hindu's. For instance, the financing and maintenance of shrines and temples. The training of priests and priestesses. The Hindu's have a whole infrastructure for doing these things and that is what Pagan's and Heathen's need, desperately.

There's also the problem of, what I have termed, protestanist heathen's. Where the Edda's and Sagas are taken literally and "That's the way our ancestors did it and it can be done no other way". Just like they did for the bible when they were Christians. Completely disregarding the fact that the little we have of their ways is fragmented and distorted by time and Christian scribes.

Then there's the problem with racism in Heathen groups. It seems that every Heathen group in my area are neo-Nazi wanna-be's. You'd think a liberal state such as Washington would have at least one group that wasn't full of white power fuktards. It's gotten to the point that I don't want to meet other Heathen's because I'll just be disappointed. Other recon groups aren't like this. I've met Celts, and Egyptian groups and none of them seem to have this problem. I've got Facebook friend Heathen's in the mid-west and they all seem to be open minded non-racist sorts. I just don't get it, why reproduce the evils of Christianity.

The path I follow, I call revivalism instead of reconstructionism. You learn as much as you can about the ancestral ways, and take what makes sense from that and base your practice on that. Then you reinvent the rest in the ways your ancestors would have done had they been allowed to keep their religion. Seek inspiration from the gods and wights.

Maelstrom said...

Mike, I feel your pain. Keep fighting for the non-racist way, brother. I know many who visit this blog are with you all the way.

Anonymous said...

Not much new in here. People should stop using the word "heathen", "pagan" and "neo-heathen" etc. and they should stop guessing what is right or wrong. Facts are that there are bloodlines and a never ending tradition from Asatru. You might choose to not belive this and you should ask yourself why. There is a shaman tradition and old families that have kept secrets during the age of despair. Reconstructionism is for la-la-wica-retards and the like.
Assuming that "all we have" are fragments from the "pre-christian" religion says it all. Who are "we"? Also it is sad to see people fall into these mindtraps that Asatru was dead when shitstianity started to threat people to death. Not all of "we/us" are frightened of lies and propaganda.
The neo-christians and other people in slavery will never accept that their so-called gods are just stealing and using the Aesirs names and traditions, so they lie and lie and work hard at it.
We must fight it back. And work hard.

Henry said...

Personally it seems to many that most conservative Heathens aren't actually all that in tune with reconstructionism.

The Asatru Lore board, which is dedicated to reconstructionism, has some very sharp posts critiquing Folkish Heathen ideas as being out of step with history.

I don't think you should be so quick to cede the recon ground - actual historical research shows the Germanic peoples were extremely cosmopolitan and open minded. The runes themselves emerged from cross-cultural exchange!

So a stronger position is to point out to conservatives that they are out of step with history and therefore contradicting themselves. This seems like a much more powerful stance to take.

Maelstrom said...

Thanks for the encouragement, Henry. I would like to know more about the Lore Board. If you want to send me anything in confidence, send it as a comment and I will not publish it.

Anonymous said...

..some thoughts on what I see in the background in this – and the previous – article.
I read your texts with interest. With intellectual interest, to be accurate.

I always find it appealing and often agree to your general opinions. Once again; As an intellectual, to be accurate.

To read about fundamentalistic ideas applied in a heathen/polytheistic context makes me laugh and shake my head.
Letters and texts considered holy, rather than inspiring. childish and plain stupid from a heathen point of wiew. And certainly not true to pagan traditions. The song, the storytelling, the dance, the humble talk, the solitary walkabout, the meditation and the celebration always was , always is our way.
Theology and belief may be results of lithurgy and practice, but it´s never ever the other way around. Or to prefer.

And these reconstructional ideas. It has nothing to offer. What can I gain from it?
The pagan traditions emphasize development and processing, and look upon Midgard, with us humans, as one of the worlds, one of the mighty forces in The Ash-tree, one of nine worlds of uni/multiverse. As such. we ARE enough. We are, and take part in balance of Creation.

It´s an insult to our ancestors not to carry on, not to develop and refine. To go back, when they strived to make sure that we – their children – might live easier lives than they did, is to spit on our grandchildren. That’s not the way of a heathen, no!

I can carry on writing in this manner… But:
I find it hard to grasp the very idea of political wiews on religious matters as such.
This makes it hard to take part in your discussions.

As a religious human being, I can not judge reconstructionalists or fundamentalists.
It becomes morally impossible to apply my opinions, rather than my insights, to life.

As a – in a religious sense - experienced human I see that my thoughts, opinions, intellect and schooling have little importance. It is heavily dependent of perception. My perceptive possibilities tells only what I think or what my culture thinks.

My morals may be in line with the ones you suggest and want to discuss, but my experience tells me: no, I am not the one to judge.

In the experienced moment of meditation, celebration or other truly spiritual practice, I have no fingers to point at any wrongdoing on the behalf of others. Instead it is my own wrongdoing I consider, if any at all.

I find it impossible to look at things from a “right” or “wrong” perspective, when I so clearly experience “important ” or “need ” to be the issues of heart.

So, when I think of these “stupid” and “bad” fundamentalists and recreationists you describe, I also see how I rapidly become just like them. Pointing fingers and judging, making rules.

And this despite my, your and also their absolute place in the mighty Tree.

Aldo, Stockholm, Sweden

Maelstrom said...

Thanks for offering such a very thoughtful perspective, Aldo.

Seeing Eye Chick said...

Perhaps this is simply a stage that needs to be gone through. It's not just Reconstructionism that suffers. But also what seems to be overcompensation by other traditions in response to Abrahamic cultural values and the like. It's just going to take time. I was laughing about the idea that modern military members being compared to ancient *heavenly warriors in eternity. My experience was {and this was some time ago} was that if that is true, it was at that time reserved for males. Maybe that has changed--I honestly could not say. At this point I am so put off by all relion that I just cannot stand much at any given time. Maybe after 2013 when we didn't burst into flames or when we haven't been turned into pod people or when Christ or Balder or Satan hasn't returned, we can get back to the task of living in this world and appreciating, rather than longing for crap that isn't in reach or even ours to begin with.

Anonymous said...

i'd like to add my 2 cents to this discussion . altho not as extreme we have the same sort of problem in the druid [ celtic]ways . we have even less information from the past to base our belief s on . but the old celtic ways ,atleast the worriors ways , have alot in common w/ the norse path. we have an honor code as well , even in the non worrior ways , a druid is expected to act in a certain way , but we also use scholarly info and adapt this to modern times tis not always easy , but i live my life in service to our gods and by a strict code of honor and ethics . the celts were strongly influenced by our norse neighbors.we share most of your beliefs and my grove is celtic and norse in focus . our strict recon celts do have more problems blending w/ the modern world as well . but most celtic druids use the old ways adjusted to the modern world , keeps us sane that way . kilm

Henry said...

sorry it took me so long to respond!

The Lore Board is at

This article picks apart the AFA's tenets as being either ahistorical or even universalist. I think a more compelling critique than this could be made actually, but its a good start:

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