Thursday, May 19, 2016

Reconstructing a Straw Man

Over at the Rational Heathen, "Tyra Ulfdotter" made a post entitled Reconstructionists are Idiots.

As you might imagine, I have a couple of thoughts on the matter. I should point out that this isn't a complete Fisking of her article. I just don't have the stomach for it tonight. I'm just hitting the highlights on this one; full text at the link above.

First off, for someone who touts herself as being rational, the author sure engages in a lot of name-calling. "Idiots", "morons", "idiots" (again), "a sorry lot", "kind of like the Catholic church", "tainted", and so forth. That should give some idea of the level of discourse to be found here, but she goes much further than that, laying out a series of propositions of what reconstructionism is, and then, having knocked over those straw men with aplomb, proceeds to lecture us on how Heathenry is supposed to be done. According to her, I suppose.
After having dealt with enough of these morons, I've come to the conclusion that at best, reconstructionists are misguided. At worst, they're idiots. I say this with the utmost candor, having dealt with reconstructionists when I first got involved in online Heathenry.  I even got thrown off a list for expressing my views, albeit politely. (Yeah, me being polite -- go figure.)  I was told in no uncertain terms I was wrong for my opinions and ideas, and when I logically tore them to pieces, they resorted to ad hominem attacks, and then throwing me off their list. Oh, and then banning me.  Like that really showed me?
Seriously?  Seriously??
Ad hominem attacks are a clue to me you really don't have your shit wired, and at this point, the best you can do is just insult me.  Yeah, that won the argument.  Throwing me off the board and banning me just proves your opinions can't stand scrutiny.  
Okay, so here we see the root of the problem, right up front. Tyra apparently had some sort of dust-up with a group of reconstructionists over on Facebook, and ended up getting banned from a particular Facebook group. I have a shrewd notion of which one it was, too, but I'm not certain so won't name names...

That's what this whole thing is about; a woman scorned, and marching off to the Internet to vent her spleen. And in the process tagging all reconstructionists (which would include non-Asatruar as well, I am compelled to add, such as the Celtic Recons, the Religio Romana, Hellenismos, Khemetics, etc.) with the behaviors she claims to have witnessed in that one group.

And then to go around complaining about ad hominem attacks, when the very title of her piece contains a schoolyard insult, is just... wow.

If her article is an example of how "polite" she was in that Facebook recon group, I can't say I blame them for giving her the heave-ho.

Now we proceed to her pronouncements about what reconstructionism is. This oughtta be good.
Reconstructionism, at its core is trying to learn and ascertain how northern paganism came into being, what constitutes northern paganism, and what influenced it later.
Why, no. No it's not. Thanks for playing. Reconstructionism, at its core, is the process of trying to reconstruct a religious system as accurately and completely as possible, given the available evidence. Of course there are a variety of different definitions, but that's the core of it. This emphasis on origins is... weird. Origins might come into things if some sort of Indo-European comparative study is required, but it's certainly not the goal, and certainly not worthy of being listed first in a list of what reconstructionism is.
They [reconstructionists] look at the sagas and Eddas as being tainted by Christianity. That any semblance of Heathenry is corrupt in them and therefore they are unreliable. 

To be sure, the sagas and Eddas were, for the most part, composed and certainly written down after the conversion to Christianity. They must therefore be used as sources carefully, and there are many excellent secular books that do just that, and have been working on that problem for well more than a century. But to imply that reconstructionists throw out those sources merely because they were written down by Christians (or, perhaps, Muslims, or Romans, or Greeks, since we have written evidence beyond the Eddas and sagas that she doesn't seem to either be aware of, or chooses to ignore) is simply wrong. That's what the whole field of historiography is about, as a matter of fact; critical analysis of historical texts.

Tyra Ulfsdotter continues.
I'm not against the concept of reconstruction, per se, I'm against the way it is being used in arguments.
I doubt that, since you haven't demonstrated any real understanding of what reconstructionism actually is.
I've read through enough reconstructionist babble to decide that they've gone too off the deep end when it comes to trying to recreate our beliefs.  They argue point after point against those who do use the Eddas, Havamal, and Unverified Personal Gnosis to beat people into submission, when the reality is when it comes to science, we really don't have a full picture what Heathenry was to our ancestors.
I have a feeling I'm going to be using this one a lot in this post
Again, it really looks like she's talking about a very specific group of people who were mean to her on Facebook. Given the complete lack of any sort of examples or evidence to back up her claim (hmmm... isn't that supposed to be part of the scientific method? You know... evidence?), it's impossible to say what exactly she's talking about.

I can tell you what she's not talking about, though. The vast majority of people who call ourselves reconstructionists. I am a staunch reconstructionist, and I use evidence from the Eddas, the Icelandic sagas, and other written evidence all the time. Not as holy writ, of course, but not throwing them out entirely either. Edda-thumping sort of went out around the turn of the century, anyway:

But UPG? Yeah, gonna agree on that one. Unverified Personal Gnosis is just that... unverified and personal. It's fine to use UPG in one's personal religious practice. I do it myself. But that's a far, far different thing from having some UPG and presenting it to the world with no differentiation between it and actual historical evidence, or beliefs and practices that are imputed from historical sources, which is not at all the same thing as "Loki came to me in a dream and told me this". Then again, the very categorization of UPG has led to a conflation between "we know this is 100% true" on the one side, and "Odin told me" and "respectable scholars have examined the evidence and come to a conclusion that is supported by, but not definitively proven by, the evidence" on the other. And that's a bad thing, because the insight of scholars who are connecting the dots is not on the same plane as people who insist gods talk to them. Ahem.
The greatest problem with reconstruction is that we just don't have enough evidence to say "Yea verily, this is how it was."  We have a lot of good educated guesses by really smart dudes with letters after their names, but we don't have proof other than what others have wrote about the northern pagan cultures and what those people left behind.
This is perhaps the most commonly-found straw man argument about reconstructionism, because it is factually correct. We don't know exactly how thing were done, or precisely what people believed, a thousand years ago.

But, and I cannot emphasize this enough, that is not what reconstructionism ever set out to do!

Reconstructionism is about making best guesses based on the available data. One of the most reputable things about true reconstructionism is its willingness, nay, it's insistence, that even cherished notions and practices must be set aside if new facts or scholarship comes to light demonstrating that they are wrong. I've written extensively about it myself, here on this blog.

Don't condemn reconstructionism because it doesn't do what it never promised to do in the first place. Or, perhaps, stop applying some argument you had with a handful of people on Facebook to everyone who is a recon.
I'd argue that the reconstruction folks are more along the lines of putting it in a nice display case to look at from time to time. They're not the ones who take the cup out and actually use it the way it was intended.  They're interested in the cup as the prize and not as what the cup does for anyone, metaphorically speaking, or they're using it as a weapon against other people. It's still a cup, but it's being used as a hammer to slam people who actually agree with multiculturalism in Heathenism. 
Wait... Where the Hel did that come from?

How did we get from "you can't be sure how it was back then" to multi-fucking-culturalism?

Methinks I'm beginning to see more of the underlying problem that the "Rational Heathen" has. But she drops it for the nonce and goes back to trying to define what reconstructionists are, at least in her mind. Leave us continue.
Reconstructionists, if they had their way, would fix heathenism in some arbitrarily agreed to point and time.
Yup. here we go.
Well... no. Not really at all. I am unaware of any reconstructionist group that says "we're going to do things as they were done in tenth century Svealand and no evidence not from there will be accepted." It's an absurdity on its face, and she should be embarrassed for even suggesting it.

Now, there are some Theodish groups that attempt to reconstruct the ways of specific Germanic tribes, such as the Anglo-Saxons, continental Saxons, Goths, etc. But even so, they don't define a particular "period" (except of course pre-Christian), and will simply convert relevant source material from other times and Germanic (or even other) cultures in order to arrive at as holistic an approach as possible. Some exceptions are obvious (Anglo-Saxons not including Loki because there are no A-S sources that mention him), but on the whole the reconstructionist approach is pan-Germanic, and spans from the conversion era backwards a thousand years or more, usually trying to suss out commonalities across Germanic cultures. And it's pretty successful at it, too. But a single point in time and space? Nonsense. Nobody insists on that across the board; and if they do, I want to see it.

But now she veers, inexplicably, back into the whole multicultural thing. Somehow, in her mind, she seems to have conflated folkishness with reconstructionism, despite the fact that in my experience, it's the reconstructionists, such as Kveldulf Gunderson, who are the leading voices in the universalist movement. In fact, I addressed this very thing in detail when it came up just a month ago.

But, again, she doesn't give any actual examples, just tosses out assertions willy-nilly, and expects them to be believed without question. Protip: Some concrete examples would be helpful to let folks know what the fuck you're talking about.

But now, out of the blue, without any build-up or lead-in, she veers into a rant about folkishness. I can only guess it's because she doesn't like reconstructionists, and she doesn't like folkish Asatruar, and so they must be the same. Or something. Because there's no other way this paragraph has any possible connection to the one that precedes it:
We know that during the Viking Age our ancestors went, well, everywhere. The Vikings went everywhere in the known world.  We know they were in Sicily (conquering it twice, once by the Norse with Bjorn Ironsides and once by the Normans), Russia (the Varangians), and in Slavic countries.  They went west toward the Americas, east far enough to have genetic mutations that are only found in people with Mongolian ancestry in Iceland, south into Sicily and did have dealings with Muslims, and north, well, they are Norse.  There is a black Heathen mentioned, for the gods' sake! I've seen Viking caches that had a gold Buddha in with all the other treasure in a museum display.  Think about that and tell me that Northern Paganism wasn't influenced by other groups.  The answer is that they were.  Which means there is no way we could distill what a pure Heathen was like at any point and time.
And HALLELUJAH! she has links for some of those assertions in the original, some of which I've already dealt with in previous posts. But once again she ends up with an assertion that nobody on the reconstructionist (or folkish, for that matter) side has ever made to my knowledge, and sure as shit, that's the one she doesn't have a link for.

Who the Hel ever talked about "a pure Heathen"? It's absolutely fascinating that the only people who seem to be insistent about purity, whether it's cultural or genetic or whatever else, are the ones arguing against it. As if to say, "your position insists on purity, and purity can never exist, therefore your position is wrong", without bothering to notice that nobody she's arguing against is insisting on purity in the first place!

Please, show me someone on the reconstructionist side who is arguing that the goal is "distilling what a pure Heathen was like at any point and time." Because in my experience, as a reconstructionist for going on thirty years, it's much more pan-Germanic, and much more forgiving that whatever she's talking about.

It's handier than a broomstick.
They want to espouse their own world view as fact and use what few bits of what archaeologists have recovered to support their assertions. They're kind of like the Catholic church that insisted on an Earth-centric view of the cosmos instead of accepting that the Earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around. If they just would bend a little and look at reality with an open mind, they'd see it all fall nicely into place, instead of trying to shoehorn their own beliefs like the proverbial square peg and round hole.
I... just... what the fuck are you talking about? In the complete absence of any actual examples, this is just "I hate reconstructionists" babble. Reconstructionists only use archaeology? What planet are you on? But thank the Gods she finally gives a few concrete examples to go with her opprobrium, but naturally omits any specific references to individual cases:
I've heard them call those who try to incorporate other pagan traditions into Heathenry derisively as "Wiccatru," and while I'm clearly not Wiccan, and don't think much of spells (and don't believe in magic, per se), I don't think discouraging that branch of potential heathens is helpful. 
There's a lot of wrongness to unpack in this sentence.

"Wiccatru" is not used to describe those who try to incorporate any other pagan traditions into Heathenry. It's used to describe those who try to specifically incorporate Wiccan traditions and ideology into Heathenry. Things like the Hammer Hallowing Ritual, which is just a rewrite of the Wiccan Calling the Quarters ritual (and which itself derives from ceremonial magic). Or making up names, meanings, and even creating entirely new runes, in line with the New Age/eclectic nature of Wicca in the 1980's. Or the Eightfold Wheel of the Year, which is at variance with the major sacrifices described by Snorri in Heimskringla and other sources. Or indulge in Wiccanate theistic reduction, where all of the Gods are "aspects" of Odin, and all of the goddesses are "aspects" of Freyja. It's a term that stems from the earliest days of Asatru in the US, when Wicca was such an overwhelming force in our then-shared cultural space that a certain level of distancing was necessary, and some even wrote pamphlets to point out the differences between the two. It's a term that was used disparagingly, to be sure, but also for a very real purpose; to help guide people into an Asatru path that was removed of most of its Wiccanate elements (and the question of Wiccanate Privilege as it effects neopagan religions has recently been recognized as a problem). That's mostly the case today, with the possible exceptions of the Hammer Hallowing Ritual and the Wheel of the Year, which unfortunately seem baked into modern Asatru, despite their completely ahistorical natures. Hel, even I've been known to do an old-fashioned hammer hallowing every once in a while, for old times' sake ("old times" in this case being the 90's).

The second issue here is the notion that casting spells and using magic in general is somehow not Heathen, or exclusively the province of Wicca. I hate to break it to you, but the Germanic world-view was a magical world-view. Our sources are replete with examples of people using seidr, and galdr, and spa, and the archaeological record is stuffed to the gills with examples of magical inscriptions on amulets and weapons. But damnit, I've lost track. Is that a good thing or a bad thing with the Rational Heathen? I thought she said she was in favor of using historical sources, but not the in the bad mean way the awful reconstructionists do, but now she's saying that she doesn't believe in spells even though they're in the sources. I give up. But the point is that skepticism regarding magic is not something that is exclusive to the reconstructionist side. There are people all over all the various spectra of Asatru that are uncomfortable with the "woo" side. Recons and non-recons alike.

Finally, she describes Wiccans as "potential heathens". Sigh. On the one hand, I'm a big believer in outreach, even to the Wiccan community. If we've got something that they find lacking in their own faith, then I'm all in favor of bringing them in. But to say that we need to somehow soft-pedal our own internal discussions in order not to offend them, so more of them will convert? Or that we should change what we do to make our religion more palatable to them? That's a bit much even for me. Not to mention the fact that the vast majority of Asatruar today are former Christians, not Wiccans. Did Asatru ever tone down it's disparaging remarks about Christianity in order to attract more Christian converts?

There are the Rokkatru folks who honor the Jotnar, whom the reconstructionists say can't honor those beings because nobody in the past honored them (Like they were there? There may be no evidence of worship, but you just can't prove a negative, especially with our lack of archaeological evidence.) 
Oh, my head.

First of all, reconstructionists don't say people "can't honor those beings" because they don't have the power to stop them. Of course people are going to do all sorts of fuckwitted things because they want to, or just to be contrarian, or just to prove they can be the fringe-of-a-fringe and really be a outsider. That'll show 'em! And reconstructionists know this, which is why they never frame their arguments in terms that someone "can't" or "must" do a thing. Because that's bullshit and they know it.

Really, I'm past the point where I wish that she'd just go back to being an atheist, and leave Heathenry altogether. She'd do less damage there, because there are people over there that know how onus probandi works in logic. Because what reconstructionists say is, "there's no evidence for such-and-such a thing", which is entirely different from saying "you can't do a thing." All the reconstructionist is saying is, differentiate what we know is genuine from what we don't know, and don't pretend that the one is the other. And where does that leave the burden of proof? On the people who say that Heathens a thousand years ago worshiped Jotuns, or Loki, so it's okay to do so now. They're the ones making the claim (that what they're doing has an historical basis), so they're the ones who have to prove their assertion. To date, the proof has been somewhat wanting.

And if they don't claim it's an historical practice, who come out and say, "this is a new thing"? Reconstructionists are usually cool with that as long as it's not being forced on them, even though they might not do that thing themselves, or even think it's a particularly good idea. What we hate is people trying to present their new crap as historical. Just draw the line sharply and clearly, and nobody will get hurt. Try to pretend it's historical and we'll come down on you like a ton of bricks.
The point is we have people who want to know our gods and our beliefs -- there is no reason to exclude them.
This isn't a race to see who can rack up the most numbers as quickly as possible. If people are willing to come to Asatru and learn, that's one thing. But we don't need a zillion people coming to Asatru who have completely batshit crazy ideas of what Asatru is, the historical beliefs and practices of our ancestors, how it's practiced, what Asatruar believe (or should believe), and then go ahead and actually change Asatru according to their own historically incorrect opinions. You come in and say, "the historical record is silent on X, I think Asatru should do Y", well, then, we can have a conversation, and maybe Asatru will grow out of it. You come in and say, "I know Asatru says X, but when I was Wiccan we did Y, and it was really great and you should try doing it instead of X" then I'm going to tell you to pound sand, and probably most Asatruar will be right behind me, reconstructionist or no.

I would rather have a dozen people in my tribe who actually get Asatru, than a hundred who think it's just another catch-all bucket for whatever New Agey weirdness happens to catch their eye at the moment. Come to think of it, I do.
Some reconstructionists go as far as to be tribal. If your ancestors were not from a particular German hamlet, or didn't come from Norway, they don't want you as part of the team. Dudes, quit goosestepping in your parents' basement. Race is a construct. We're all a bunch of inbred monkey cousins with some very small genetic adaptations. Deal with it.

 And here's the preaching again. I really think she is conflating folkish and reconstructionist Heathenry, which is just not the case (see above). Maybe the meanieheads on Facebook were Folkish recons, but I have to say we're in the minority, at least in my experience. But again, there aren't any examples given, so it's just her spouting off.

As for "race is a construct", well... wait 'til next week. I've got a thing coming up. ;-) That said, admitting that race exists isn't racist, and every forensic anthropologist in the country will doubtless stand up and call "bullshit" on the whole "race is a social construct" nonsense. Race is real. That doesn't make acknowledging it racist.

That said, even the most hardcore folkish Heathen, or even if we go into actual, real, racist Heathenry, doesn't go so far as to only accept people from a single German village. Is it possible there's a Norway-only racist kindred out there? Maybe. I'm going to ask for a link.

Let's face it: our worldview is vastly different from our ancestors'.  We don't hold slaves and most of us find slavery repugnant and downright wrong (I say "most of us" because I know of some whack-jobs who probably think it's okay).  We find the idea of human sacrifice to be abhorrent (everyone except the guy I argued with in a group that said that he understood why it happened and wouldn't, when pressed, be against it), and value the individual. 
And you know what? A lot of us actively attempt to recreate the world-view of the pre-Christian Germanic people. Not for the slavery and the human sacrifice (but see Theodish thralldom and capital punishment, respectively) but for the magic, the tribalism, the honor, the view of a world controlled by Fate, the relevance of omens and divination, the honoring of women as near-supernatural figures, the warrior ethic, and many other things besides.
Some reconstructionists would like to point to the family as the smallest acceptable unit and would like to claim that Americans (and Christianity) puts emphasis on the individual only, and not the tribe.  This is patently absurd.  Here's why.
Looking at Anglo Saxon texts such as the Seafarer and Beowulf, not to mention the Norse Eddas, seem to point to accomplishments of individuals. If you look at Bronze Age folklore, it's not the family who triumphs in those stories; it's the individual.
Huh? In going on thirty years of being an Asatru Reconstructionist, I've never heard anyone talking about individualism being bad. Gonna ask for a source on this one, because it's a bizarre argument. She really seems like she's taking one or two bad conversations with a particular recon or couple of recons and projecting it to cover everyone. But at least she said "some reconstructionists" here, rather than implying that her straw men applied to all recons.
If you're a reconstructionist, you need to be at least open to allowing Heathenism to grow.  Trying to reconstruct a religion from more than a thousand years ago from a dead culture is like trying to preserve a time capsule that never existed. You may construct something, but it's unlikely it is something that resembles what was there in the past. It's a lesson is futility.  Your current world view is based on what is around you. You will never, ever come close to what our ancestors were like in your attempts at mimicking them. For one thing, technology has tainted you. Your language has tainted you. Your education has tainted you. Your nation and how it has evolved has tainted you.
See, that's something that a lot of people misunderstand about reconstructionism. It's never been about finding some idealized perfect version of Denmark in 968 CE and then staying there for all time. It's about finding a starting point. Once we have that firm foundation, that well-researched, well-reasoned, and practical starting point, then we can start innovating and experimenting and adding. But without that firm foundation first, all you have is a morass of half-assed ideas, eclectic nonsense brought in on a whim because someone thinks it's "neat", and the attempt to reconstruct what was, as best we can, falls apart.

I'm the first person to say if new evidence comes around, even favorite things should be up for change or removal. I'm also leading the charge to incorporate new ideas, new practices, and new ways of doing old things, within the framework of what we know our ancestors did. That's the core of reconstructionist theory; it's fine to add something to what you're already doing, as long as you know (or strongly suspect) that it's something that was done in the past. The fact that we don't know the details (yet) doesn't matter; the fact that a thing was done gives us the opportunity to fill in the details ourselves. Look at my efforts to include music, and dance, and animal guising into ritual. That's pretty new and radical for a lot of Asatruar today, but it's completely consistent with the reconstructionist methodology, because it's all stuff we know they did. How to fill in those gaps is where the bulls-eye theory comes in.
The gods are not stagnant beings. They don't just hang around and wish for the halcyon days of the Viking era. They know it's folly to look backward.  If they wanted that time saved, don't you think one of them could have saved that puppy in a time capsule somewhere and trotted it out for all to see? 
And now she claims to speak for the gods. That's all the commentary I'm going to give here.

Back to the preaching, and a repeat of her fundamental misunderstanding that reconstructionism and folkishness are somehow inherently related:
There's enough room under the Heathen tent to be inclusive and open to other ideas, and other people.
By "other people", I assume this is some sort of universalist "the gods call whom they will" stuff? That's a whole 'nuther argument entirely. Or is it a reference to bringing in Wiccans and such? It's really hard to tell in context.

Yeah, you can have her in your kindred
Yes, there are going to areas where we disagree, but that's normal. We need people with new ideas and new perspectives on our beliefs because otherwise we remain stagnant.
Indeed, but those new ideas and perspectives don't necessarily have to come from outside the context of a reconstructionist approach to Asatru. There are dozens of areas of belief and practice that we know existed in pre-Christian Europe that Asatru as a whole hasn't even touched on, yet. Let's work through all that material, and come up with a fully-formed and robust religion of our own, before deciding that it needs to import foreign ideas from Wicca, or whatever she's alluding to here.
Heathenry should not be something that sits on a shelf to show everyone how cool and smart you are.  Heathenry is a celebration of our gods and the old ways as they pertain to today.
Your Heathenry might be that. What gives you the right to decide what Heathenry has to be for everyone else? That's always been the problem with universalists; they keep wanting to tell other people how to do things, rather than just letting people choose their own way. You don't want to use reconstructionist approaches to Asatru? Great! Don't. Just make sure you are clear in what parts of your beliefs and practice are, and are not, based in history. Or maybe you'd be happier just calling yourself a Norse Neopagan and being done with it. Just sayin'.
We know through science that we're one tribe, not many, although we have different ethnicities.  We need to find common ground with people who want to be included.
Why? Why do we "need" to do this? Do other ethnic religions "need" to do this? Do you have the same advice for the Navajo? The Yoruba? The Cherokee? The Ibo? Just because someone wants to be included in something, doesn't necessarily mean they get to be. For a lot of us, Asatru isn't just a religion. It's who we are. Besides, it's not like there are hordes of non-Europeans wanting to come and be Asatru. Stop trying to make it a bigger issue than it is.
The only people we should not include are those not willing to consider other viewpoints and whose sole purpose is hate.

Annnnnd we're done here folks!

EDIT: Here is some more reaction to her screed from around the web (I'll keep adding to the list as I come across more):


  1. Oh wow. Did you read my rebuttals to her on the blog post itself? You and I are almost point for point picking her apart for the exact same things. Your post is far more in depth, but our points are nearly identical.

    She didn't even *try* to rebut me. She asked me to come have the argument on her personal facebook page, where her sycophants could attack me. I politely declined.

  2. I take that back. I engaged her on HHH.


  3. No, but I'll include a link to HHH in the main post. I'm not surprised we had the same reaction to some of her points; they're just so absurd, the refutations are obvious to anyone even vaguely familiar with what reconstructionism is really about. I also noticed that Reddit had a lot of the same points as well; great minds...

  4. As a point of clarity, the article "Misconceptions of Reconstruction" was already scheduled for posting, prior to her post. However, the timing couldn't have been much better.