- a collection of essays on Neodruidic Studies
- a journal of Post-Reconstructionist Neopaganism

Monday, September 5, 2011

Reconstructionism? Hmm, well...

P o s t - R e c o n s t r u c t i o n i s m
 a new (?) vector for Neopagan Druidism

First, some definitions:

Neopaganism:  an umbrella-term encompassing all forms of contemporary pagan religious activity if based largely or in part on religious ideas and customs assumed to be closely related to the ways of the ancient, non-Christian peoples.

Neopagan Druidism”:
Any group or individual since the mid 20th Century of the common Era practicing modes of activity that would qualify as both “Druidic” and “religious”, concurrently. In other words, a contemporary activity involving public or private worship conducted in a “druidic” modality.This distinction is required since globally there are a significant number of contemporary “Druid”-identified groups who define themselves as not a religious movement but rather, as being “philosophical brotherhoods”.

(Celtic Reconstructionist; Druidic Reconstructionist; Norse, Greek, Roman… etc.)
Groups or individuals strictly limiting their religious expression to the use of those motifs and modalities supported by the findings of up to date, archeological or historical research.

Initially, this is not a discussion of the reconstructionist folks within ADF. 
Here instead I am commenting on the non-ADF reconstructionists one encounters on Wikipedia subject and discussion pages and those who publish articles on pagan forums and are actually critical of ADF for using the term "Druidism" for what it's doing when in fact, they say, not only is it not exclusively "Celtic", ADF is even guilty of committing the cardinal sin of "eclecticism". Yes these are the holier-than-thou trolls who you even catch at times trying to dodge the very classification "Neopagan". 
Celtic Reconstructionism quickly reaches its limits...
It's a simple as that. It seems to me that Druidic or Celtic Reconstructionism (“CR”) loses steam especially fast. The Norse, Greek, and Roman reconstructionists have much more authentic material to work with since there survive large bodies of the lore from those ancient peoples written down in a time truly contemporary or closely-so with their original pagan practices. Due to the profound lack of Celtic lore authentically representing the ways of pre-Christian Celtdom, the CR folks quickly find themselves at a loss for the material necessary to fulfil their self imposed “reconstructionist” criteria. Once they find themselves synthesizing for their practices with progressively more speculative themes, cobbling material together from regionally and historically unrelated, albeit “Celtic” sources, and reaching ever further into to their own “UPG” * to make sense of it all… they quickly find themselves performing functionally as heretics to their own draconian standards. Then again, if you chose to be aSelf-Confessed Heretical-” Celtic Reconstructionist, you might just get by; at least until the Reconquisitors catch up with you.

Self definition and definitions based on actual practice are often two very different things. The job confronting us as Neopagan Druids and grove organizers is to create a rational and effective public ritual at least every six weeks and to actually carry it through. In ADF we have made it our obligation to serve our greater Neopagan community openly this way both to members and to non members. If we don’t make our offerings accessible and rewarding experiences to the folks who do show up, we will (and do) find that fewer and fewer folks show up at each event. We consider making our works accessible and rewarding enough to bring in more and more folks to be one of the best ways of attracting and maintaining the favor of the gods and other spirits. Surely you don’t think that just shouting “accept our sacrifice!” while plopping some oil on the fire really impresses "Them" enough?

In my experience (it sounds snarky but that's not my intention,) I’ve gathered the distinct impression that it’s easy to be a Celtic Reconstructionist, as long as you don’t actually do anything. How many of these non-ADF groups actually keep up a system of open, public rituals? How well attended are they? How many of these groups (if they constitute physical “groups” at all) last for any appreciable amount of time? The ADF grove I founded has been doing open, publicly promoted rites every six weeks since 1992 and the attendance at these events varies from twenty to over fifty persons each time. At this writing (2011) that puts us at 152 High-Day events and we’ve learned a lot in the process. We still are always very careful with our scholarship and sources, never saying or implying in our rites that what we are doing is what the Ancients did... yet I'm sure that the Recons would still turn up their noses at our work as "eclectic" and somehow beneath their standards.

So, at length, I find myself confronted with the notion that so-called reconstructionism is based on an attractive yet fundamentally illogical premise. It’s sort of like calling yourself a pro-choice Roman Catholic. Calling yourself a Celtic Reconstructionist and then changing the rules is not the prerogative of one who wishes to  keep calling oneself a CR. Another, even more basic problem here is really simple: you can’t practice an ancient pagan religion, because the fact is that you’re not an ancient pagan. You are a Neopagan, and you can’t escape that definition as long as you seek to practice a pagan religion using ancient cultural motifs which ceased being practiced many centuries ago.You either “are” or you’re “not”, and you don’t get to choose both, it’s one or the other (how dualist of me!). One factor, by definition, automatically precludes the other.

So then, “POST-Reconstructionism” ?

I could go on. There’s a lot more to be said about (my opinions on) the false assumptions and other fundamental problems with reconstructionist paganism, but we’re here to talk about a new and hopefully less contentious definition for our work, a sphere of activity I’m calling POST-RECONSTRUCTIONIST Neopaganism.

Sometimes I’m tempted to suggest that Isaac, for all of his early reconstructionist language, in creating ADF was setting up one of the first great Post-Reconstructionist Neopagan systems. From his youth onward, Isaac’s very identity was based on getting involved in whatever was going on at the time, figuring out the obvious errors involved and broadcasting it back to the community at large and (then, cementing my appreciation for his work,) NEVER doing so without presenting a constructive solution for fixing things and moving forward toward a more productive future. 

Neopaganism was needing something like ADF and Isaac created it for us. We didn’t all just crowd into that brand new ADF because Isaac was such a swell guy; it was because we found the model to be a compelling solution to the problems we encountered in Neopaganism and we wanted to carry it forward. A core principle in what Issac was offering us was reconstructionism... but not reconstructionism alone. In one sense (and I have checked this with him,) Isaac wanted ADF to be an open pagan "church", serving the needs of Neopaganism at-large, not just playing to its own membership. To do this he saw that, considering the populations involved, a monolithic Celtic Recon format just wouldn't cut it and so, right from the get-go, he wanted ADF to be able to provide high quality Celtic, Greek, Norse, Roman, Lithuanian, and even Vedic public rituals at a similar level of quality.

Today, ADF has quite a few members (and whole groves) who would describe their work as reconstructionist. From the mid-nineties through the early 2000's this manifested as a strong shift toward groves forming under the declaration of a single "hearth culture" (solely "Celtic"; solely "Norse", etc.). I have been around long enough though to see a big shift in ADF's membership since then toward a more pragmatic approach recognizing both the limits of reconstructionism and the shortcomings of single hearth culture groves.  

a bold Post-Reconstructionist strategy...

Who defines which spirits are worthy of public worship, "Celtic" or not?  
Over the years, I myself have been on hand for ritual-planning arguments such as "Are the Faery Folk (specifically, Oberon and Titania,) spirits qualified for the focus of a rite (i.e. qualified for "worshipful veneration")?". Is "Morgan LeFay" likewise, a spirit worthy of veneration, or a name from fiction? And what of Merlin? Or Arthur himself? - - These are just several of the easier yet still debatable examples; don't get me started on the sure to be inflammatory topics of the lurking scholarly challenges to the authenticity of the Welsh (and even much of the Irish) "pantheon". Some of these "gods" were actually never verifiably gods of the ancient cultures we ascribe them to; many were simply legendary "characters" in items of ancient lore, and many of those were characters who show up in one story in one piece of lore. 

The answer? :   (Conditionally...)  WE do !
The trick here is one right out of Isaac's magic hat: It's honesty and the freedom honesty conveys upon those who embrace it. It involves clearly admitting that certain (if not "many") of these "deities" on our docket offer little hard historical evidence confirming their divinity, or little significant evidence of ever have anciently been objects of worshipful veneration by their peoples. So where does that leave us? Well, there's one thing of which we can be sure for most of them: that, at the least, most of these characters would be considered ancestral spirits of a "legendary" and/or "heroic" stature. Considered this way then, we find such characters lining up as candidates for ehumerization. If not already having been elevated to such historically, then by now they may qualify for a late, contemporary elevation to the status of deity by those who now would consider them worthy of this stature. Yes, it is up to us to 'canonize' them. One might say that we have been doing that all along by giving most of them worship and assuming for decades in our practices that they were verified deities - - yet, in the context of my argument, we have been doing so on far too little evidence and thereby somewhat "dishonestly".

Ok then, if you follow me at all so far, it stands that the authenticity of these spirits' "godhood" should be satisfactorily vetted by each individual or group planning on invoking them in any public rite. Each ADF rite, for example, has a moment in it where the rite's intention and historical precedent is declared. This is the very moment which calls out for our declaration of who the Persona Divinae for the rite are to be and, (a.) why we assume they are worthy of veneration as deities, and (b.) why we are planning to honor them in this particular rite. There's our chance, and there's our responsibility.

W H A T ? 

Damn straight.

- - (more to come / article continued HERE...)

Steps toward a POST-RECONSTRUCTIONIST Druid practice:

1.) Understand, admit, and embrace the fact that, doing this work, you cannot escape being "Neopagan".

2.) Regardless, still maintain the highest standards for scholarship and source material in your public rituals.

3.) Be honest about the amount of "proof" there exists for the historical "divinity" of each of the "gods" you call on. Doing this you will make your work more cautious and prudent than most of the hard boiled CR's.

4.) Consequently, admit that there's not hardly enough "Celtic" (or other) source material to "reconstruct" much of ANYTHING... Still, there's such a wealth of MOTIF elements to work with, it almost makes up for it.

5.) And so, always make it plain to yourself, your grove, and your congregation that to a large degree, you're "making it all up"... and that, as long as you do it well and you're honest about it, THAT's OK.

6.) Understand that ADF groves are for serving their greater Neopagan communities, not primarily their own membership. A grove should be a "team", not a "club".

7.) Remember that your Rites of the Wheel are supposed to be "celebrations", not just solemn obligations.

8.) Work toward finding the best cultural fit for each particular holiday. Seasonal factors should always trump hearth-factors. Don't throw the Yuletide Spirit out with the bathwater and never turn your back on The-Sun-Above at Summer Solstice.

Dedicated to the memory of Isaac Bonewits.

- EARRACH of Pittsburgh

1 comment:

  1. I am still full of steam because my engine runs on forests of trees.