Tuesday, November 7, 2023

The Path to Paganism: Part 8: The Reconstructionist Route

Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash.

As I near the halfway point (already!) in this 50,000-word writing challenge, I suppose it's about time to start digging in to more of the details regarding the specific pagan path that interests me. I've been sort of casually living the eclectic-syncretist path with my wife for several years, without really giving it much thought from day to day. In other words, it's something that's just kind of there. It doesn't shape how I go about my life in any significant way. When the next solstice, equinox, or halfway point between them rolls around, I turn the Wheel of the Year plaque on our bedroom wall. We light bonfires on some of the points of the year, with particular attention to Yule. We do family tarot readings on the first of the year. I've done some pendulum work. We play around with gemstones and crystals -- not in a this-will-change-your-life kind of way, but more in a can't-hurt-might-help way. When your health is as chronically bad as mine is, you'll try anything outside the box -- like Reiki, another practice I've taken part in. But I don't do potions or cast spells or perform Wiccan rituals naked under the full moon. (Be grateful.) I have a table with some pagan goddesses on it, but I don't have any particular worship rituals that I use for any of them. They're there more as reminders of what they symbolize to me on my spiritual walk. 

Eclecticism has been the hallmark of my spiritual life, pagan or otherwise. But now I'm going to dip my toe into something different -- something that involves focusing on a single path, rather than taking my usual salad-bar approach to spirituality. This has never worked for me in the past, but maybe that's because the practices I was involved in never quite felt right. They weren't something that I could commit to without reservation, for one reason or another. 

What I'm talking about is reconstructionist paganism, and what that means will differ depending on the people you talk to.

At its heart, reconstructionist paganism is exactly what it sounds like. Practitioners throw themselves into old pagan ways that often died out centuries ago and attempt to live out the customs and beliefs that would have been central to those ways, with the greatest amount of authenticity that they can.

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean you're going to walk around all day dressed like you're heading off to a Ren Faire. (It doesn't necessarily mean you won't, either.) What it means is that you're going to commit yourself to learning as much as you can about how the people of a specific part of the world would have related to their particular tribe's beliefs and customs and then attempt to organize your life around those principles. Some people will do this because they want to feel a closer bond to the way their distant ancestors might have lived. Others want to try to recapture a way of life that existed before Christianity came to Europe and changed everything. Still others might want to feel more in tune with the natural world and find their place within it. 

But in a lot of cases, people will do this simply because they yearn for a simpler, less complex life and look back -- admittedly sometimes with the rose-colored glasses of romanticism -- to what lessons they can pull forward from those days. What mattered to people who lived comparatively uncomplicated lives, when they didn't have electronic gadgets, running water, central heating, grocery stores, or even the assurance that they'd survive the long, cold winter if the crops weren't very good that year? How do you prioritize your life? And how can that help us live a life in the here and now, as we try to put things in their proper perspective? 

One thing that the modern pagan movement has excelled at is to bring people back into a more harmonious relationship with the earth. By observing the solstices, the equinoxes, and the festivals that we believe fell halfway in between those dates, we attune ourselves to the changing seasons, to the cycle of birth, life, growth, decline, and death that our world goes through every year. Communities would, in turn, eat and drink together, on these and other important days, to strengthen the social bonds that were so important in those times. When things got tough, you needed to know you could rely on your neighbors, and they needed the same assurance from you. 

In addition to the need for solidarity and cooperation, what really bound a lot of these ancient communities together would have been their shared belief in their tribe's deities, the ones to whom they'd give thanks for health and good fortune and make offerings and sacrifices to if things weren't going so well. The gods had a strong influence on the crops, on the weather, on fertility -- on the things that mattered more than anything else to our ancestors. And we could interact with them, because the gods were right here with us, immanent, intertwined with nature, not aloof and distant in some unreachable heavenly realm, living separate from their creation. 

It's important to note that unlike that God, the one of our Abrahamic traditions, the pagan gods weren't all powerful. They could make mistakes. Sometimes they could even die. But they could give us wisdom and aid when we needed it. They were there by our sides to point the way and lend a helping hand, not simply to stand in eternal judgment over us and demand our unwavering obedience. They were more like counselors or big brothers and sisters than angry all-powerful tyrants. There was really no need for that, because the old gods knew that if we screwed up, we'd feel the results all on our own soon enough. The punishment would not necessarily be divine but consequential. You could say that the gods would just stand back and let karma come around and smack us good and hard in the face. Then we could come back to them with contrition, make an offering, and start over, hopefully wiser for the experience.   

I have to say, I like gods like that, gods with personalities and attitudes and flaws and foibles and all the rest. They feel far more relatable than some hyperperfect omni-everything divine tyrant barking out decrees from afar. They were down here in the day-to-day muck with us. They were actually a lot like us, only with bonus powers and abilities. And also like us, they were almost always imperfect, which ended up making them much more relatable. They could put an arm around your shoulder, as if they personally understood your struggles. They could also shake some sense into you if you needed it. Whatever the situation calls for. You could trust that they knew best. And there was no need to try to rescue them from the perpetually thorny Problem of Evil, like we're forced to do with the omni-God who could stop all the suffering and yet does nothing. Sure, the ancient people believed that their actions could anger the gods, and that the gods might act accordingly and they'd suffer until they'd learned a particular lesson. But I think the ancient people also knew that sometimes stuff just happens. They were generally pretty pragmatic folk, from what we know about them.  

OK, so let's get into the specifics here. What does reconstructionist paganism actually look like? Well, there's no one specific way that it "looks," and that's because practices vary and different cultures had different ways of living out their lives and their beliefs. But we can say that the two most prominent flavors of reconstructionism today are Celtic and Germanic paganism. 

Broadly speaking, Celtic paganism takes a somewhat mystical approach to the spiritual life and places a heavy focus on harmonizing with the natural world, with particular attention to sacred sites like wells and springs. There is something of an overlap here with the Druidry movement, to the extent that Druidry is largely rooted in Welsh history and the Druids also revere sacred natural sites -- Stonehenge being the most obvious example. 

We don't know a lot about the particulars of ancient Celtic paganism. As in many other reconstructionist traditions, there just isn't much surviving written information from antiquity, and what we do have often comes to us from secondary sources -- usually Christian missionaries and monks, whose observations about the pagan cultures they conquered are going to be incomplete, biased, or both. There's also a blurring of the lines between what's pagan and what's Christian, since Christian missionaries had a habit of appropriating pagan symbols, dates, and traditions and reinterpreting them, in an attempt to make conversion to Christianity more palatable to the locals.

The most obvious example, I think, of Celtic-Christian syncretism is the figure of Brigid. She was a beloved goddess to the pagan people -- a guardian of women and children, a healer, a muse for poets, and a protector of the hearth. By amazing coincidence, we've also been handed down a legend of a Chrisitan abbess by the name of Brigid, who just so happened to share many of the goddess's attributes. They're both associated with holy wells, clooties (strips of fabric tied to tree branches as prayer offerings), and the Brigid's cross -- a four-spoked symbol woven of grass that probably originated as a pagan sunwheel but was eventually adapted into Christianity. The story goes that Brigid the abbess converted a pagan chieftain on his deathbed as he watched her weave a cross from the rushes scattered on the floor -- because the most important thing, of course, was that the pagans be converted. But it's likely that the Celtic people loved their goddess so much that they refused to give her up, and the Christian missionaries had to invent their own Brigid that the people could relate to. That's how the Christians rolled. 

We know that the Celtic people observed four major holidays, probably at the halfway points between the solstices and equinoxes. Ross Nichols, the man who was instrumental in reviving Druidry for the modern world, was largely responsible for the incorporation of these celebrations into the Wheel of the Year that many contemporary pagans observe. These four holidays all appeared to involve community revelry around food, drink, and bonfires, and of the four, the celebration of Imbolc -- today celebrated around Feb. 1 -- is most strongly associated with the goddess Brigid. It would still be cold and wintry in the Celts' corner of the world, but the first signs of spring may be starting to show, and the day was traditionally therefore associated with the sowing of the fields and the milking of the newly pregnant ewes. As Brigid was also associated with fertility and the protection of farm animals, it makes sense that this would be "her" holiday. 

Originally, the day was probably not terribly different from our modern Groundhog Day, as the Cailleach, the legendary winter hag, would either go outside to collect more firewood to see her through the season or stay home and sleep. If she ventured out, she'd make the weather nice for the occasion, which meant more winter lay ahead. If she stayed home, the weather would remain gloomy, which meant she didn't need any more wood, which meant spring was just around the corner. You can see how this legend lines up with whether Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not.  

The other three big Celtic festivals are Beltane, associated with the maypole, purification, fertility, and the coming of the warm summer months; Lughnasadh, the late-summer celebration of the first fruits of the harvest; and Samhain, the date of the final harvest and the beginning of preparations for the long winter ahead. Given its strong associations with honoring the ancestors in the spirit world -- when, according to some legends, the veil between the spiritual and physical worlds was at its thinnest -- Samhain probably looked a little bit like what we call Halloween.  

Now, let's turn our attention to the other prominent strand of reconstructionism: Germanic paganism, or, as some practitioners like to refer to it, Heathenry. In contrast to the comparative lightness of the Celtic tradition, the Germanic path can feel heavier and more intense. Where the Celts placed an emphasis on harmonizing with the natural world, drawing from its energies at sacred sites, the Germanic people would have probably focused more on how to physically interact with the natural world, in the sense of what needed to be put into the earth through human effort in order to reap the earth's bounty in return. You could think of this in terms of placing an emphasis on things like sowing crops, harvesting trees, fishing, hunting, mining, or blacksmithing, but doing it all with an eye toward establishing a give-and-take balance with nature. It's admittedly a wild and simplistic caricature, but to put it in Tolkienesque terms, you could say that if Celtic paganism is the paganism of the elves, then Germanic paganism is the paganism of the dwarves.

Germanic paganism places great importance on values like honor (including honoring one's ancestors), duty, and discipline. A set of Nine Noble Virtues, a modern idea that draws from surviving stories of old Viking lore, reflects the mindset typical of the Germanic paths. These virtues are courage, truth, honor, fidelity, discipline, hospitality, self-reliance, industriousness, and perseverance. Good, traditional, salt-of-the-earth values, if you ask me. But you can also see why Celtic paganism is, generally speaking, more popular in the modern world: In a sense, it doesn't demand as much from you. It is, in many ways, an easier path to tread. Which path is right for you really depends on your temperament, and on what you want to get out of your practice. 

Germanic paganism reaches back across time to the stories we know best through the Norse tradition. This is where the well-known gods like Odin, Thor, and Freya come from. We know quite a bit about the culture the Norse deities came from, thanks to literary gems like the Poetic and Prose Eddas that tell us the legends surrounding these characters. Snorri Sturlson, an Icelandic chieftain, composed the Prose Edda, and it's important to note that he was a Christian -- so, once again, the information we've received about the Norse deities from this particular source may be incomplete or tinged with the author's religious bias. The Poetic Edda, in contrast, was probably compiled before the Christianization of Scandinavia, so it may give us some of the clearest and most reliable information we have about the Germanic pagan tradition. 

From the Eddas we get the famous story of Yggdrasil, the World-Tree, along with the Norse creation story. Surrounding Yggdrasil are the Nine Worlds that encompass the realms of the gods above, the shadowy realms of the underworld below, and Midgard, the realm of the humans, in between. 

From this tree, Odin hung himself upside-down for nine days, suffering for the sake of acquiring knowledge and insight. He also sacrificed an eye in exchange for the ability to see hidden truths. He's quite an interesting character, clearly obsessed with the accumulation of knowledge and the cultivation of wisdom -- both things that resonate pretty strongly with me on my own spiritual journey. But at the same time, Odin is known for his deception, trickery, and oath-breaking. So even though he's the big guy in charge in Norse mythology, he's somebody you'd want to think twice about trusting with your spiritual needs. He's not exactly reliable, and there;s a good chance he'd probably let you down, or even stab you in the back, when you need him the most. It really just depends on his mood and what's in it for him. 

Some Germanic pagans like to call themselves Odinists, in his honor. But the biggest and probably best-known of the modern Germanic paths is called Asatru, a word derived from Old Norse that means "faith in the Æsir." The Æsir are the chief pantheon of gods in Norse mythology, the group to which Odin and Thor belong. There's also a second class of gods, known as the Vanir. They once went to war with the Æsir before the two groups decided to come together in peace. It's a long and complicated story -- and, fortunately for all of us, you can read all about it in the Eddas.

You'll often see folks who belong to the Asatru tradition wearing a likeness of Mjolnir, Thor's hammer, on a necklace. It's pretty much synonymous with Asatru, in the same way that crosses are with Christianity and the tai-chi symbol with Taoism. That's because Mjolnir is a powerful symbol in Norse myth: It was indestructible, it could control the weather and summon lightning, and it was also used to defend humans -- and sometimes even the gods -- from threats to their well-being. 

But Norse myth isn't the end of the story when we're dealing with Germanic paganism, because the Germanic people encompassed more than just those who settled Scandinavia. For example, the tribes that invaded Britain had their own traditions, similar but seemingly not identical to Norse mythology -- and I say "seemingly" because the historical record is extremely scant. Some who devote themselves specifically to Anglo-Saxon paganism call themselves Fyrnsidu, which roughly means "Old Ways" in the Old English language. Then there's Aldsidu, which means the same thing in Old Saxon. This group, as you might expect, focuses on what we know of the practices of the Saxon tribe specifically. There are a lot of splinter groups like these, which is probably to be expected, since there's no ruling authority to tell anyone what to do or how to practice. People dive in to what historical records are out there and find their niche. It's a very freeing way to do religion if you're used to the rigid dogma of the Abrahamic faiths.

And that really comes right from the top, so to speak, in Germanic paganism. You know how I mentioned Odin's thirst for knowledge and wisdom? Well, think about what a liberating message that sends when you compare it with institutional Christianity, which expects you to have uncritical faith in the Bible and to never question what it, the church, or its deity says. You could say that Odin, in contrast, wants you to question everything, just like he did. These gods don't want blind obedience. They stand by us and encourage us to stand tall along with them. They give us hope, courage, and resolve. They set examples for us to follow. They inspire. They're pleased not by your servile worship but by your courage, your honor, your perseverance -- all those values represented in the Nine Noble Virtues. Even if Odin is kind of a shifty guy, I'd still take him by my side over the capricious, tantrum-throwing tyrant that haunts the pages of the Bible. Because guess what? Humans are flaky and unreliable too. In that sense, we get each other. And the more we get to know these gods, the more we'll probably be able to anticipate their moods and reactions, just like you get used to the quirks that your friends and family have. They can be annoying, yes, but they can end up being kind of endearing, too. 

These are only the two main strands of modern reconstructionist paganism. There are lots more we could talk about. For example, there are people reviving the faith traditions around the old Greek, Roman, and Egyptian gods. Slavic paganism is a pretty big thing, too. As Christianity begins to lose its 2,000-year grip on the West, many people seeking spiritual fulfillment are beginning to look back to what existed before the Christian interlopers changed everything. In many cases, they're looking back to the gods that their very distant ancestors worshiped. In other cases, they've just found a god or a pantheon that speaks to them. Either way, I think there are exciting times ahead as we watch these old traditions come back to life and give us a new way of looking at the world -- by accessing the past.

As for me, I love the idea of putting my perpetually curious mind to work and digging into the research necessary to fully understand these ancient paths. I think Odin would approve of my desire to acquire knowledge and satiate my curiosity. He's my kind of deity.

So which of these reconstructionist traditions am I interested in? I'll touch on that in a future installment.

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