An older piece on reconstructionism. My views have shifted somewhat but the article largely holds up I think.
I was recently asked where I stood on the reconstructionist spectrum; whether I thought one should adhere as strictly as possible to the traditional approach or if there is some value in modern divergent practices and beliefs.
To answer that question I will invoke the words of the sixth century Greek poet Theognis of Megara: “Kyrnos, ever remember that the middle course is best.” Several centuries later, the philosopher Aristotle wrote in the Ethics that every virtue is the mean or middle ground between two extremes: thus courage is where cowardice (too little confidence) and rashness (too much) meet; justice the balance between harsh judgment and indulgent mercy; and true friendship lies is neither being too surly nor given too much to flattery. Plutarch later took this approach and applied it to religion in his treatise On Superstition, saying that proper piety was the middle ground between an excessive fear of the supernatural on the one hand, and atheistic indifference on the other.
In that light, I believe that one should hold to the middle course when it comes to religious practice. I believe that there is value in the ancient way, and that we should understand what a given practice meant to the people who performed it. Most of us come from a culture that has been cut off from its roots. We are wandering in a confusing world without direction, and anchoring ourselves to the past can lend depth and meaning to our lives and our religious practice. Often even the simplest ritual action was embedded with a volume of complex meaning, at once poetic and practical, and the key to understanding what that says and can mean to us today lies in studying the ancient cultures and beliefs which produced these profound revelations. It is often difficult work, and requires lots of study and reflection and sometimes cannot be done without first divesting ourselves of our modern prejudices – but if we approach this humbly and with an earnest desire to unravel its deeper meaning, we will often be surprised at the profundity that we discover beneath the surface. Once that has been found, and its value is felt to speak to our lives across the centuries, we should hold to it as strongly as we can. After all, the ancients knew what they were doing, and there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel if something worked and worked well for centuries. When an act is repeated for so long, a certain power accrues to it and if you can tap into that power your rituals will be all the more effective for that. Additionally, it is a way of showing respect – to all the generations who came before us, as well as to the Gods themselves, who found such forms of devotion pleasing in the centuries past. For those reasons, I believe that it is important to hold onto tradition.
But there is a danger in being too conservative in this respect. One of my fundamental beliefs (admittedly indebted to Protestant theology) is that religion begins and ends with the individual and their experience of the divine. Everything that helps deepen and cement that experience is good: whatever impedes it (even if in other contexts it’s a positive) is bad. Ritual that becomes formulaic, recited by rote with no emotional investment, is a poor substitute for actual experience of the divine. Rejecting your own experiences in order to bring yourself into conformity with the experiences and beliefs of others sets up a barrier between yourself and the divine which can become spiritually destructive over time, especially when this conformity is imposed upon you from the outside. Christianity began on Pentecost, when the holy spirit descended on the disheartened followers of the recently deceased Jesus. This was an ecstatic and liberating epiphany of the divine presence and its love for mankind, and had this element of the religion persisted, history would have been very different. But instead, people began to revere institutions, began to argue about what the disciples had felt on that day instead of seeking to feel it themselves, began to suppress all the views that didn’t agree with their own, often resorting to terrorism and murder to enforce their views on their fellow Christians, and today, most people place their worship in an infallible book instead of the fountain of divinity from which it found expression.
I would like to think that we can learn from the past and avoid this error today. That we in the various polytheistic religions can continue to open ourselves to divine revelation, continue to feel the presence of the Gods however it chooses to manifest itself, that we won’t try to straight-jacket the Gods and limit the ways that they reveal themselves to us or to other people, and that we can remain open to the unfolding nature of tradition, which did not cease at some arbitrary point in history, but continues to renew itself in the lives of all of us who hold to the blessed immortal ones.
Additionally, just because the ancients knew a great deal, and developed forms of worship that were beautiful and profound and lasted for centuries, does not mean that they knew everything. Human progress has made astounding developments over the centuries and I feel that it would be foolish to turn our backs on that. While there was much that is noble and commendable about ancient civilization, there is also a great deal such as slavery, misogyny, and racial intolerance which I feel deserves to be left to the dustbin of history. Nor do I have any intention of giving up my internet or refrigeration just because the ancients lacked these things. I am not interested in some sort of SCA reenactment of antiquity – nor, for the record is any other reconstructionist that I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, despite the bullshit apologetics of some of our detractors – but rather of taking the best from antiquity and implementing that in our lives today.
Ancient religion was rooted in the lives and environment of the people who practiced it. When they were primarily nomadic hunter-gatherers, their religion centered on protection and increasing the herds. When the people moved into settled agrarian communities, they adopted Gods who could promote the growth of vegetation and fertility in general. As they developed more complex social organization, and began sending out traders, colonists, and war parties, there were Gods to look after these concerns too. Now that we live in fast-paced, industrialized, urban settings, the Gods have not abandoned us. They are still here, sharing their blessings with us, looking after us, revealing ever new aspects of themselves to us. So there is no need to hold to some romanticized vision of the past – there are spirits of parks and empty streets, of concrete and electricity, of bondage clubs and day-traders. These and all the old Gods are here with us today – we have merely to recognize them and find the best ways to worship them. Sometimes the old ways are the best ways, but sometimes whole new models need to be devised. And thus I believe that we should be open to innovation.
Sometimes this can be in the form of adapting ancient forms of worship. Most reconstructionists do not have the benefit of large local communities with which to worship. Thus it’s rather difficult to hold huge processions, make lavish sacrifices of a hundred oxen, or visit the temple of your city’s God. So most of us often have to scale things back to the private, household level. It’s made even more difficult when there are gaps in our knowledge of how a given festival was celebrated in antiquity. In the case of ancient Greece we possess a stunning wealth of material – especially compared to our compatriots in the Norse or Celtic traditions – but even here you will often find gaping holes in our knowledge, either because we possess only a couple off-hand comments about a given festival, the information highly contradicts itself, or the sources are tucked away in obscure academic journals that most of us can’t get our hands on. Faced with such a situation, perfect reconstruction is impossible, and we must make adaptations, sometimes considerable ones. I believe that it’s okay to do so – provided the spirit of the festival is preserved. If one makes so many changes that the essential message becomes corrupted and all the important details are left out, it’s intellectually dishonest to represent what you’re doing as being consistent with ancient practice. On the other hand, finding a novel way to communicate the same thing, even if the details differ in some small regard, is perfectly acceptable.
At that point, I think it’s important to remember that at least in the case of ancient Greece, there were wide divergences of practice from city-state to city-state, with each one possessing its own unique festival cycle. I think more people should work on coming up with festival cycles of their own, which commemorate important events in their city’s history, the local agricultural cycle, or which honor seminal passages in their own spiritual life. Amazing things can be done in this direction by following the ancient calendars as a rough template and using the information we have on the festival rituals to inspire the creation of new ones.
Additionally, I believe that it’s important to find ways to honor the Gods’ presence in our lives, and I don’t think that we should limit ourselves to ancient practice in order to do so. People have come up with a whole range of devotional activities that are entirely modern yet are nevertheless quite effective ways to honor the Gods and help us focus on their presence. Others still seek to honor the ancient Greek Gods within a totally modern context, such as Wicca, Ceremonial Magick, or Neopagan Druidry. While such things aren’t my own preferred method of worship, I see no problem with them whatsoever, since they are clearly effective means of worship, and the people are always upfront about the modern nature of their groups. I object only when something is passed off for what it so clearly is not i.e. doing modern shit and calling it ancient.
In keeping with the theme of this piece, however, it might be worth pointing out what I consider to be the dangers of taking a modern, improvisational approach too far. And please note the too far. I don’t believe that everyone who steps down that path is going to fall into the snares, or necessarily take it to its illogical conclusion. But it never hurts to point out these things and consider their implications.
The first danger lies in emphasizing personal experience and revelation too much. When you completely throw out tradition and communal standards, and make yourself the sole arbiter of all things, it’s very easy to fall into a pit of self-delusion, stagnation, and solipstic spiritual masturbation. Such people mistake their desires and fantasies for reality; their every whim becomes a divine commandment, and the Gods get reduced to nothing more than abstract concepts within their own imagination. It is important to look outside of yourself, to engage with objective reality, to have an Other – be it an intellectual construct or actual people – to offer checks and balances, to contrast yourself with, to inspire you to improve and grow. I know that this is especially the case with me. Left to my own devices, I would never do anything. I’m horribly lazy and prone to every vice under the sun. But conceiving of the Gods as something external, as beings with their own unique desires and demands, encourages me to action, since it is through outward-focused action that I can best serve and please them. Having that external focus as something to strive for, when I do step out of my comfort zone and apply myself it is far more rewarding than when I give in to lethargy. By being involved with others, I can curb my own excesses, which if indulged, would bring me great suffering. I need people to tell me when I’m stepping over a line, when I’m acting like a dick, when I’m not seeing something that’s abundantly clear to everyone else. And embracing tradition also gives me impetus for my own creative efforts. It encourages me to think about things in a different light, it gives me solid ground to push myself off of so that I can soar to the heavens, it provides a whole stock of metaphors and terminology and transcendent images to imbue my work with, so that it can speak to more people than just myself. And by following in the footsteps of others, I can go places that I never thought imaginable, since I don’t have to constantly cut a new swath for myself, but can tread the well-worn path and use my creative talents to improve upon it.
And one area in particular where I benefit from an engagement with the past is in ritual. When I first started off in Wicca, lo those many years ago, I was firmly indoctrinated with the whole do your own thing and constantly invent things from scratch approach. I would change everything about the rituals every time I did them. I would incorporate whatever element caught my fancy, even though I possessed only the most superficial understanding of how it worked, and often not even that. And for several years I languished spiritually. I felt cast adrift, disconnected from the Gods. I had a marvelously novel practice, but it meant nothing to me. It got me nowhere. Even though I practiced Wicca for several years, I always felt like a newbie, like I was just starting out. And in so many ways, I was. But then I began to study Hellenismos. I kept the same basic steps in all of my rituals – even though there was plenty of room for innovation – and I built up a routine, one that became so familiar it was like second nature to me. Without even thinking about it I could go through all the steps, I could recite the ritual phrases off the top of my head, I could use it as the basis for spontaneous rituals that I do on the spot whenever the feeling takes hold of me. Since my mind was no longer engaged with such minute details, I could let it flow during ritual, noticing certain nuances to the actions and words that I had always missed out on beforehand. I could focus on the sensations – the smell of incense, the feeling of the heat from the candle against my skin, the sound of the music or my words echoing in my ears, the sight of the shadows playing against the contours of the statue – and I began to feel the presence of the Gods more strongly in all these things and other areas besides. None of that was possible when I was changing things around all the time. And as I said, there is still plenty of room for innovation. I can use different incenses or music or change the types of offerings I give, I can recite different poetry or hymns, I can follow through all the steps or skip some, I can add more ornate steps to the procedure or develop something completely new based on the rough skeletal outline. But at its heart, the worship is the same, and the heart is what matters.
When it comes down to it, I don’t feel that either description – traditionalist or modernist – truly represents my practice. On the one hand, I’m not slavishly devoted to the old ways, and plenty of what I do has a totally modern origin or is rooted in my present experiences. But on the other hand, there is a solid basis for my practice, I’m not chasing after every fleeting fancy or having to start from scratch each time, and I am deeply engaged with the ancient spirit of my religion. So, instead I tend to describe my practice as trisodos or a “third way”, one that exists at the intersection of two extremes and leads off in a totally different direction. The heart is old, the expression it takes is new.