Heathen Round Table: August

Not this kind of recon... (Image from Google)

Not this kind of recon… (Image from Google)

This month’s Heathen Round Table post is coming slightly late, due to life and work commitments throwing me off track a bit lately, but here it is:

The question for August is How recon are you? Is historical accuracy important to your practice? How do you strike a balance between reconstruction/practice of an ancient religion and living in a modern society?

“Recon” for those who may not have encountered the term before, is short for “reconstructionist” and refers to a type of Paganism or Heathenry that attempts, as far as is possible, to re-construct the actual beliefs, practices and religions of pre-Christian Pagan societies rather than create a “new” form of Paganism ex nihilo.

Patricia Lafayllve, in A Practical Heathen’s Guide to Asatru, says that reconstruction is:

“A method by which we interpret our primary source materials, secondary scholarship, historical documents and the archaeological record in order to piece together details about what ancestral heathens did, how they did it and why they did it. Then we bring those practices and beliefs, as we understand them, forward to the modern era and apply them to our lives”.

Thus, “recon” is a scholarly approach to Paganism: finding out what the ancients actually did, and more importantly, why they did it. ADF likewise places a great emphasis on real scholarship, stating:

“The Pagan revival has been troubled from the beginning by shoddy scholarship and indulgence in esoteric fantasy. When wishful thinking and poor science take the place of true knowledge, all of Paganism is harmed”.

Many forms of modern Paganism have their roots in 19th and 20th century Romanticism, literary forgeries and fantasies of ancient matriarchal goddess-worship, witch cults and the “burning times”. Recon provides an antidote to the spurious pseudo-history often propagated as fact among modern Pagans.

At the same time, reconstruction does not necessarily mean attempting to turn back time and live in the Iron Age. We are modern people, with modern scientific knowledge and modern morality, and I for one am grateful for that. There are practices in ancient Pagan societies that we would rightly find morally abhorrent today; human sacrifice being the most obvious example. Recon does not mean bringing back all of the past, but rather re-interpreting practices and beliefs in a “modern, scientific, ecological and holistic context” as ADF puts it.

For me, recon is important for providing a solid foundation to modern Paganism, based in real history and real knowledge, that gives us a rooted connection to the real past, not some imagined “golden age”. It keeps us grounded and serves as an anchor against new-age fantasy and delusion.

However, recon is not the be-all and end-all for me. Some practices and beliefs are simply not relevant to the modern age. Not everything ancient is better, and not everything new is suspect. I would rather have modern medicine than bloodletting and trepanning, for instance. I think that for it to be a worthwhile practice today, Paganism needs to look to the future as well as the past, and build practices and ethics that address contemporary life and the unique global challenges we face today.

It’s funny how people insist on the newest technology in so many areas of life, but insist that spirituality must be ancient to be valid. I think recon is important for making claims about the historical facts of what ancient Pagans did, but in our modern practice we should be free to re-interpret and innovate, inspired by the past but not enslaved by it.

Norse recon altar to Frey, Sweden 2010. Image from WIkimedia Commons.

Norse recon altar to Frey, Sweden 2010. Image from WIkimedia Commons.

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