Thursday, September 10, 2009

Experimental Reconstructionism

My brother Lou has coined a term to describe the approach that Afstoll Thjod is taking towards our religious beliefs and practices; he calls it "experimental reconstructionism" (inspired by "experimental archaeology"). I think it's a perfect descriptor, and would like to expand upon it briefly.

Part of what makes it such a great term is that it juxtaposes two words that in modern Paganism in general, and Heathenry in particular, have often been taken to be opposites. If one is reconstructing something, how can there be room for experimentation? And, similarly, if one is experimenting in terms of beliefs and practices, how can one really claim to be reconstructing a religion?

One of the misconceptions about reconstructionism is that we reconstructionists simply look stuff up in a book, preferably written in the 19th century, start acting out what the author says, and then spend the rest of our lives wandering about in an atavastic stupor, never looking beyond the 10th Century and wondering if there is a way to undo our childhood vaccinations. The simple truth is that no such book exists, and if it did, it's certain that some later author would write another book completely contradicting most of its conclusions.

The sources that are available to us-- and in this I include not only the corpus of written lore, but the evidence of archaeology, comparative sociology, folklore, linguistics, etc.-- are, to put it bluntly, inadequate for the task of reconstructing the religion(s) of the ancient Germanic peoples. In many cases we have only the broad outlines on a topic; the indicator that something was done, or believed, but with no meat to hang on the bone. And even then, it's possible to get those broad outlines wrong, or make some assumption that are simply incorrect, or miss something for years that later on seems perfectly obvious.

Which is not to say that we are completely lacking in specifics; far from it. One of the benefits of having a pretty extensive written corpus of lore is that there are many nuggets for the reconstructionist to mine. But despite the claims of some modern authors, we don't really have even a credible outline of how an ancient blót was conducted. We have a pretty comprehensive description of how the Anglo-Saxons practiced their sumble, but it contradicts some aspects of surviving descriptions of how the Norwegians did so. We have a very complete account of an ancient seiðr ritual, but I've never heard of any modern group that actually does it that way, completely. With all this flux and chaos, what is a good reconstructionist to do?

That's where the experimentation comes in.

Despite the fact that I'm regarded as an arch-reconstructionist by many folks, I've got to say that the way I view and practice ritual has changed constantly over the years. I am constantly searching out new knowledge, and as I do so, I find new things to incorporate into ritual, or realize that something that I'd been doing for years was, in fact, not historical at all, and jettisoned it once I found a practice that was much more in line with the ways of our ancestors.

But the experimental aspect of this goes far beyond merely adjusting to new or newly-discovered scholarship. On a very practical level, some things just don't seem to work. Other things work really, really well. The former are gotten rid of, and the latter are expanded. The whole thing is constantly being polished, honed to a fine edge, and if I do say so myself, the rituals I write today are much more powerful and effective than the ones I wrote five years ago. In some ways they are more elaborate, and in other ways they are more streamlined, based on years of practice, self-examination, and refinement.

This brings me to contrast this approach to those of more "modernist" Heathen groups. One of life's little ironies is that some of the most vociferous critics of reconstructionism have themselves not changed the way they do ritual in 18 years! Some groups are still doing their rituals exactly as they were written in Teutonic Religion (1991), Ravenbok (1992) or A Book of Troth (1992). These are the same people who complain that reconstructionists are stuck in the past. Hell, I don't do the same ritual today that I did 18 months ago, let alone 18 years ago. I've got your "living, breathing faith" right here, fella.

This extends into adding entire new spheres of beliefs and practices into our faith. Take, for example, the "everyday religion" of the worship of the land-wights and the household gods. These beings have, until recently, received mostly perfunctory attention, if they received any at all, because the Northern Revival was focused more on the Aesir (and understandably so, I might add). Among those who are "modernist", this is just fine; they are happy with honoring the Aesir and pouring out a libation to the land-wights as an almost-perfunctory gesture afterwards. To them, there is no gap; that's just how they've always done things.

But where experimental reconstructionism sees a gap, it begins to slowly fill that space, introducing new practices, seeing what works, tweaking or removing what does not. Over the last few years I've been doing just that (one of the early products of that research was the booklet available for download in the upper-left corner of your screen; it's about to be vastly expanded into a full-fledged book on the subject). The lore (much of it from living folklore) is incredibly rich with practices and information on what these beings are, how they relate to humans, and how they can (and should not) be approached. It's adding an entire layer of practice to our religion, one that existed a millenium ago in one form or another, and gives an incredibly effective counterpoint to the regular worship of the Aesir.

This is not to say, however, that the experimentation overtakes the reconstructionism. It's not eclecticism; we don't just start bolting on elements from other cultures and times because they "feel good". We only add things where there is evidence that they existed in historical practice. Often, it's the details that we need to invent or adapt, once we realize we've been missing something.

In this particular case, there is evidence that there was a vibrant worship of local spirits, including the house-gods and land-wights; what was lacking were the details. Fortunately, by looking just a little bit into the post-conversion era (as well as related cultures such as Anglo-Saxon England), we begin to find our wealth of details. It's not invention; it's filling in the specifics, breathing life into that broad outline to turn it into something that a living, breathing religion can use on a practical level.

2 comments:

  1. Excellent post.

    I think your methodology is sound. I'm not a big fan of "modernist" approaches to Heathenry and unfortunately a lot of reconstructionists get a bad rap of being "stuffy" because we find beauty and worth in tradition. You make some very good points about some things not working now, and others working very well, and it's good to look at what works, and modify what doesn't. We are ultimately our ancestors, realized, and so the key is not to pretend we live in the 10th century and make a poor attempt at re-enactment, but take an honest look at what worked then and how it can be applied to now without changing it into something completely different from what it is/was.

    And kudos for mentioning household gods and land-wights. I think both types of beings are woefully undervalued in modern Heathenism, and most days I feel closer to my house-wight and my local land-spirits than most of the Gods (save my fulltrui). I wish there was more productive discussion on the subject!

    Welga,
    Siggy of the GFS

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  2. Very, very nicely said. You've captured that line between study and experimentation that can be so hard to point out to others when the accusations of "soulless practice" or "salad bar rites" start flying.

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