Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Reconstructionist Paganism: A Simple Introduction

What is Reconstructionist Paganism?

Also known as Polytheistic Reconstructionism, the specific origins of the concept are murky. The first mention in writing comes from Margot Adler's Drawing Down The Moon (1979). Some trace the beginning of Reconstructionist paganism to Ásatrú. While the term Ásatrú is an Icelandic term that is much older, the popularity of the tradition became obvious in the 1970s. Some could argue specifically with Ásatrú, that it was almost a reaction to other pagan traditions that relied less on historical information and more combining elements from many traditions, both old and new, to create traditions claiming ancient origins, but practicing ideas that may have been foreign to their ancient pagan counterparts. In the 1990s, more Reconstructionist pagan focused groups began to pop up to include Hellenismos (Greek), Religio Romana (Roman) and Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism.

With the history in mind, what is Reconstructionism? In the simplest terms, it is a method used to reconstruct ancient religious practices utilizing any remaining information we have, to create a tradition as close to what ancient societies would have understood while still keeping our modern laws and understandings intact. When one is reconstructing a tradition, they would utilize studies in ancient mythology, history, philosophy, language, rituals, and archaeology, along with any other bits and pieces that might be helpful. In some cases, that might include those practices that appear to have evolved into the modern society already, but possibly have ancient roots like modern folk traditions.

Reconstructionist Paganism: The Tradition with Homework

Ásatrú is sometimes known as "the tradition with homework." With everything that must be pieced together to get a fundamental understanding, anyone can see why this phrase would apply. While the need for individual scholastic study came under scrutiny within the Celtic Reconstructionist community recently, it seems to be pretty clear that most who identify with Reconstructionist pagan traditions would agree that in order for one to be a practicing member of any of their traditions, one must have an actual working knowledge of the above listed information in regards to their chosen culture of focus.

"In particular, the study of history, from ancient times to the present, is a profitable tool in one's understanding of the action of the Gods in human history.  If those who saw to your education left this area lacking, one must make an effort to educate one's self." Hellenismos: The Ancient Path of Aræti

"As with other forms of historical reconstructionist paganism, every attempt is made to rely on actual historical and archaeological evidence, and interpolations are made only when the primary sources are silent, and then we strive to be consistent with them." Religio Romana

Even within Celtic Reconstructionist Paganism -

"Reading is very important in getting started in CR. Knowing the history of the Celtic peoples helps connect us with those times and places, and gives us the background to understand what the Gods and Goddesses are telling us. Start with the introductory books listed here: Which books for someone totally new to CR? These are easily available and not overwhelming. Start working your way through the reading lists at your own pace, taking time to absorb and integrate the ideas as you begin to formulate ways to put them into practice in your own life." The CR Faq

Is study all that matters? Of course not. The point to the study is understanding the ancient societies to create a working practice that could as closely mirror what the ancient pagans may have done, while still staying within our modern understanding. To elaborate on "modern understanding," while ancient cultures may have taken part in things that were perfectly acceptable in those times, many societies have moved on from the ideas of both women and those of color (meaning anyone not of Caucasian European descent) being second class citizens, and most Reconstructionist pagan groups would never claim to support such ancient ideas as human sacrifice or slavery. That is what is meant by keeping modern understandings and laws intact.

Orthodoxy or Orthopraxy

A point of contention within some Reconstructionist communities seems to be a distinction in the ideas of orthopraxy being at odds with the idea of orthodoxy. Some will tell you that it is about "right practice" (orthopraxy) as opposed to "right belief" (orthodoxy) so I'll simply point to the statements made by the traditions themselves at the moment as each has a slightly different approach in regards to "belief" and "practice."

"When the belief system of Hellenismos is put into practice and organized into temples and ritual, this is called thriskeia (the organized worship and ritual of the ancient Hellenic polytheistic tradition).  To say that Hellenismos is merely thriskeia would be misleading being that Hellenismos is not creedal but philosophical, in the highest sense of the term.  In other words, Hellenismos is based more on the manner in which we live our lives rather than organized outward forms and beliefs. Hellenismos is more than thriskeia because it can exist independent of the outward forms; Hellenismos beats in our heart, our soul.  And the Gods exist independent of thriskeia, independent of religion, independent of our worship of them.  So we say that Hellenismos is both a religion and more than a religion because beyond the forms of thriskeia, we put our philosophy into action." Hellenismos: The Ancient Path of Aræti

"We hold that a Roman Pagan may be defined as a person who actively performs rites, rituals, and/or prayers to any or all of the gods and goddesses of ancient Pagan Rome as the majority of their spiritual involvement. We acknowledge also that individuals may at times work with Roman deities without considering themselves as Roman Pagans.

We affirm that the spiritual duty of the Roman Pagan Religion is to restore, maintain and promote the worship of the ancient Roman Goddesses and Gods. We seek to rebuild their influence in the world, and through piety and action preserve the sacred link between the ancient deities and humanity."  Declaratio Religionis Romanae

While Ásatrú (at least in regards to the Asatru Alliance, to which not all Ásatrú practitioners are members) do consider themselves to have “mandatory ritual observances," they do state, “We are polytheistic. That is, we believe in a number of deities, including Goddesses as well as Gods…

Some qualities we hold in high regards are strength, courage, joy, honor, freedom, loyalty to kin, realism, vigor, and the revering of our ancestors. To express these things in our lives is virtuous, and we strive to do this.” About Asatru

"As polytheists, we worship a number of Goddesses. And even some Gods!CR ethics are grounded in traditional Celtic virtues which should be embraced, adopted, and integrated into one’s daily life. This approach is known as a “virtue theoretic ethical system,” as it sets forth multiple positive guidelines for behaviour.Like any other spiritual path, we have rituals for life’s passages. We celebrate handfastings, child blessings, burial rituals and adulthood rites. Additionally, we have seasonal rites that usually involve feasting and offerings, and are held at the turning points of the year." The CR Faq

As is pretty evident, belief by the practitioner in the deities is just as important as the actions in honoring Them. For my personal view on Orthodoxy vs Orthopraxy please read Action Without Understanding Is Pointless.

Self taught vs Mentor taught

None of these traditions specifically state one should be self taught over mentor taught. As mentioned above in regards to Hellenismos, if one doesn't get a complete education when being mentor taught, they should seek out self study. It's also pretty obvious that each tradition acknowledges that there may not be a local thriving community to learn from and each tends to give seekers a place to start, as in their websites, which give the fundamentals of the traditions and some tips on starting practice, as well as by handing them a book list so they can self teach.

What you'll find on most of these reading lists are a large selection of books that are scholastic in nature, meaning they aren't written by your "average joe off the street." Reconstructionist pagan traditions tend to focus on books written by professors and experts in their fields to include history and archaeology. When speaking about mythology, generally the books include the list of direct translations by those who would be considered academics in their field as well as books written by scholars that analyze the myths and legends through an educated understanding.

In my personal opinion, if you are mentor taught and your mentor expects you to follow them blindly without actually them openly utilizing scholastic information that you can go back to and trace yourself, then they may not be teaching you much of worth. That, of course, comes down on you to decide what you trust and don't trust or if you feel you need to supplement with self study. Regardless, any good house of worship is built on a strong foundation of knowledge.

Asatru Folk Assembly

The CR Faq Reading List

Books on Hellenismos

Religio Romana Book List

No comments:

Post a Comment