Thursday, September 6, 2012

Identifying as Recon

Fair warning: This isn't a particularly polished essay. It's mostly just my thoughts vomited haphazardly out onto the page. It meanders. I'm not altogether sure it even has a particular point. Basically, I saw this book and the discrepancy between how dry the book looked from the title and my enthusiasm for owning it amused me, and got me thinking about people in reconstructionist religions, and how (or whether) we identify as "reconstructionist".

I consider myself a reconstructionist. Of sorts. Most of the time.

Sometimes I temper that and say "recon-derived", because there are a lot of people who will hear the word "Loki" and dismiss you as far as reconstructionism goes. There are also times I think being a recon is too limited. But then a book like the one mentioned above will appear in a bookstore and I will go nuts and plan where I'm going to get the $60 for it. Like it or not, sinking my roots into books and drawing information from them has become a major part of how I build my practice, and each new piece of information gives more layers and richness to what I do, new understanding to what I believe. It's when books with outrageous price tags and incredibly dry-sounding titles get me excited that I realise how much of a reconstructionist I can be.

That doesn't mean I do everything the palaeo-Heathens did. In the first place we lack the knowledge for that to be possible; even if we know what was done we may not have a proper inkling why and that will mean that even if we went through the motions, what we're doing will be different on a deeper level. Perhaps an exceedingly important level. Secondly, Heathenry is and was a living religion, and it changed across time and geography in the ancient world. There are for example suggestions that Tyr was once considered Top God of the pantheon. Palaeo-Heathenry was not static, and nor should it be now. The world is not the same now as it was then. The practice by necessity cannot be the same as it was, and not only would it be foolish to try and make it so, I think ultimately it would leave us spiritually less fulfilled. We live now, not then. We can't block off the world around us.

Living in the past may be one of the issues with recon. I've always been a history buff, and I think that's one of the reasons recon ended up appealing to me so much. I had a long period of personal struggle with it because I worried that becoming and identifying as a Heathen would mean I'd have to eschew all other gods, which was not something I could ever do. For some kindreds and some organisations, yes, you do have to make an oath to eschew all other gods or whatever. But the way some palaeo-Heathens added Jesus to their worship in order to trade with Christians, just one extra god, no worries mate, makes me think this is more of a modern idea (or possibly an Abrahamic one) than an old one. At any rate, the gods have not been angry with me for paying homage to other deities on occasion, so all is well.

One of the issues I tend to see with some of the more short-sighted recons is "the ancients did/believed this, we must also" to the extent that truly offensive things are said. Homophobia is the big one, of course, and unfortunately you don't have to go far to see people spitting vitriolic comments about Gay Heathen alliances and so forth. I see this all the time, even among people who don't seem to be the racist types: "Heathens should hate gays because the Christian writers said the palaeo-Heathens hated gays." But the palaeo-Heathen taboos aren't about being gay. They're about being, shall we say, non-active. They're about being unable to stand up for yourself and take control. If you, like Oðinn, showed you were a hardcore badass mother-fucker in other ways, people would be less likely to comment on the fact that technically seiðr is for gurls. And anyway, who cares if the palaeo-Heathens disapproved of being on the receiving end of sodomy? I'm not going to think you less of a man for it, and I don't see why I should just because they may have.

These undertones of homophobia and racism and blind anti-Jotunn-ism and so on tend to be associated with people who refer to themselves by terms like "hard recon". The ironic thing is that often these taboos are based on poor evidence. The palaeo-Heathens weren't "racist". I mean first of all modern conceptions of race are just that: modern. They wouldn't have thought about race in the same way that we do. Secondly, they were far-travellers and happily traded with a range of peoples. Third, there's evidence of people from far-flung lands who lived in Scandinavian villages. I mean I'm not saying that there were ship-fulls of Don't even get me started on the whole Jotunn issue. The point is that early ideas, sometimes based on outdated scholarship, sometimes based on preconceived biases, can solidify into hardened prejudices, and an unwillingness to read new things and incorporate new ideas. Continuous scholarship is essential in reconstruction - if nothing else than because new information comes to light.

That's not specific to reconstruction at all, of course. You also get those attachments to old scholarship and shaky concepts a lot in fluffiness. In fact this sort of clinging to outdated ideas is just that: fluffy bunny thinking. But the term "fluffy bunny" is more often applied to people wearing sparkly fairy wings at Renn Faires, not people with long beards at barbecues. What is this association between "hard recon" as a concept and a tendency towards racism? It's ridiculous.

You end up with different factions of Heathens who look down on other factions - the way some kindreds sneer at the Troth - and call them "less recon" or even something over-the-top ridiculous like "pseudo-Wiccan". When really, each of these different modern traditions may be just as reconstructionist in their approach as the others. It's just that there's this weird perceived correlation between racism and reconstructionism, or homophobia and reconstructionism, or just generally being a hard-headed fuck and reconstructionism.... And the more hard-headed they are, the more they seem to view themselves as the only authentic and untainted reconstructionists. I don't think there is any real correlation between "conservatism" (ha) and reconstructionism. But people perceive that it's there, so a bunch of people who think of themselves as more "liberal" may be less likely to identify with that term. Even if what they do involves more study every month than a shield-pounding self-described "hard recon" will do in his lifetime.

I think it's some sort of misunderstanding of the word "conservative", as if Heathenry was "traditional" as far as the USA or something went. I mean come on, people. If conservative America had its way there would be bibles in schools, Creationism in the science classrooms, and you'd be run out of town.

Sometimes I shy away from the term "reconstructionist" because of other people maybe that I've run into recently who are louder or angrier than me, for whatever reason, who make me wary of using the term. As if I'm not good enough to be allowed to use it. As if I'm disqualified from recon for viewing a particular fact in a different way than they do, or demanding more information be sought before making a judgement call on something, or because I haven't read as much as them, or because I refuse to be a hateful bigot.

Which is ridiculous. Reconstructionism is a process. And there will always be more information turning up thanks to dedicated historians and archaeologists and so on. I'm not a "better recon" than those from 40 years ago because the information available now might be better than that available in the 70s. We're all just muddling through and doing our best. Well, maybe not all of us. But many of us.

I mean I think in a way, we forget that reconstructionism as a concept is just a methodology, a way to build a personal spiritual practice. That's the key, really. And I favour reconstructionism because it gives me the best access to ideas on which to build that practice. Heathenry has a multitude of spiritual concepts, like fylgja and so on, that give it tremendous depth - ideas that at first glance you won't even notice. It has whole cultures of ideas to absorb. Recon is a way of accessing these, rebuilding what we have into a strong foundation, and building further on top of them. Because of course we can never know everything of what once was.

I've mentioned before how much I'd love to sit down with someone from way-back-then and ask them for explanations of this term and that term and what the difference was between overlapping spiritual concepts. But we can't do this, so we have to use instinct as well as research, UPG as well as lore. Personal spiritual exploration is partly a foil for reconstruction, so we don't get too hidebound, but at the same time, personal work and reconstruction feed into and enrich one another in a way I, at least, think is pretty important.

For Heathenry as a whole, I think it's important to distinguish when we teach or write or pass on information what precisely is reconstructed practice or reconstructed thought, and what is more recently built. The modern tendency to describe a solemn drinking ritual of three or more rounds as a "sumbel" is apparently mostly a modern idea, though similar things are found in recorded blóts. I can't help but feel the muddying of the water between reconstruction and modern traditions will limit new Heathens in the future. I have no problem with branches and organisations, but when branches and organisations teach new traditions and old ones under the same banner of "reconstructionism", that's.... falseness. It limits old ideas as well as new ones. Let's say "this is what we do in our group", not "this is how it is done", in cases where what is discussed is modern tradition, not Heathen-wide concepts.

Maybe this is why I don't feel comfortable identifying as an Asatruar; I feel like this is a branch of Heathenry that's developing a "skin", sort of walls that define it as a particular entity, a particular way of doing things. Which is fine in itself - after all, it has a name. It is a valid branch of Heathenry, and it's not trying to be the entirety of Heathenry. But it is the largest and loudest, and it is described as reconstructionist, and it does have many elements that are new - the NNV for example tend to get mentioned in a lot of books for reasons I don't really understand. And I don't feel like that's for me. Does it have an underlying Americanness that a part of me can feel, but that I can't really identify? (Americanness is not bad. It's just... distinct.) I don't know. Anyway.... while Heathenry is home, there are elements of Asatru that do feel alien to me. Which is interesting, really, more than anything else. I'm not trying to criticise Asatru, by the way. Or say they're not recon. They're as recon as anyone else in their way, and that's the point. We all build on that foundation.

I very much enjoy what reconstruction can give me on a spiritual level, which I think I've discussed before. I love the cultural aspects. I love the concept of discovery, that one can open a book and find in a footnote some really fascinating idea and suddenly an old question has been answered and something that didn't before now makes perfect sense. I love delving into things and visiting a different world - as was then - and how much immersing myself in those books and so on can give to my practice here and now. While eclecticism had a certain element of liberation to it, the foundation of culture and context I think has given me a lot more room to grow.

I've heard someone describe recon as a springboard, but I think of it more like a rich loam. The deeper the earth, the further you can sink your roots, the higher you can reach your branches.