Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Culture of Reconstructionism and New Paganism

I've been involved in Pagan reconstructionism for over a decade now, and I have found it to be a useful and powerful outlet for my spiritual wants and needs. I've seen and heard many perspectives within the recon world, and even embraced many perspectives from time to time, before my heart settled on its present course. At the end of my day yesterday, I had to finally open a discussion with a dear friend of mine, a discussion about labels and reconstructionist perspectives.

I'm afraid that my work with the unseen world has done what it was intended to do: brought me into close contact with my inner life and the internal workings of the Fateful weave that I call my existence. My entire perspective on being a modern religious Pagan in the modern day is enormously different from that of others chiefly because I am not just a religious person- I am a mystic, a person who intentionally works with extra-ordinary states of consciousness, for the purposes of contacting extra-sensory reality and directly tapping its timeless sources of wisdom and healing. This is central to understanding who and what I am, though it is just one aspect of me.

And in the modern day, in the world of reconstructionist religions, this makes for a problem. I am typically not surrounded by people who perform the same task, who operate in the same way. I'm surrounded by people who usually go no further in their relationship with Gods or Spirits than lifting a horn for them and belching out a toast, before going back to talking about other things.
Even in the scholarly end of reconstructionism, dominated as it is by decidedly non-mystical types, many people try to deny that the ancient Indo-Europeans had spiritual specialists, of a type we might describe in modern language as "shamanic" or trance-using mystics, even though we know they did. In a hurry to distance themselves from the dreaded "new age", a lot of people who should damn well know better have put on intentional blinders to the presence of mystical traditions among our Ancestors.

But my letter today isn't about how blind some (most) recons are towards people who work in mystical ways today. I don't care about them, because I was long ago made aware of why they choose to ignore facts and embrace falsehoods- and sadly, I understand some aspects of their fear and frustration.

My letter today is about what a person can do when they realize that there's no label for them, no way of fully expressing in words what they "are". As a mystic, (and like mystics from all times and places) I often don't feel "in place", no matter where I am. Most people know me as the Seid-man, the Witch, and the Asatruar; those words are fine to me, and they express something important to me. All are correct when taken in context- but to me, they are just labels. And they mean different things to different people. There is a danger here.

For some Asatruar, for instance, "Seidmadhr" or Seid-man means that I am a possibly gay idiot drama-queen new ager who wants to play wicca within the context of Asatru. For some other Asatruar, it means that I use trances to do sorcery, for the good of the people I am working with. Big difference! One of these definitions is correct, the other, very wrong, at least from MY perspective.

Here's another example- for some people, "witch" means "baby-killing Satan worshiper who does black magic". For others, it means a goodness-and-light follower of the ancient God and Goddess of the old days". For others still, it means "a person who does sorcery, works with spirits, and seeks for odd corners of wisdom". Two of these definitions are incorrect from MY perspective; one of them is quite right.

Shall I continue? What about the example of "Asatru" or "Asatruar"? For some, this means that I am a horned-helmet wearing idiot neo-pagan who swills beer and thinks he's a viking. For others, it means a follower of a polytheistic faith born in the group-soul of the Germanic peoples. One of these definitions is correct; the other not.

Recently, I've grown tired of fighting the definition war. People, I have discovered, use labels as a means of force, a form of violence- even if they don't realize it, sometimes they still do it. To label someone gives you permission to force them into a "place", even if it is a place they don't belong, and even if it bears no relationship to reality- labels are all in our heads. But we live in a world of labels, and we wrong other people regularly by labeling them. We take our labels and assume that we know them, that we know what they stand for, when usually, we don't.

I'm aware of the many times I've done it, and I'm very aware of how much I've suffered in the label game. People want to know where you "belong", but as a mystic, I don't belong anywhere. No label exists that is sufficient for me- there ARE words that satisfy some aspects of who and what I am, but no single word fulfills the task.

That I am a vision-seer and mystic is only a small part of it- even people who have never had a vision in their lives are also impossible to label. Even the simplest person is still a magnificently complex being, if you know how to see them correctly, and labels don't really work for them as well- if anything, what makes a person "simple" is how easily and readily they accept labels for themselves from others.

Now, I'd like to stop this line of thinking for one second, and go into my next point, which will relate, of course. My next point is the culture of reconstructionism.

Reconstructionist Pagans spend a considerable amount of time looking back to ancient cultures to get their ideas about life, their framework for belief, and clues as to how to deal with life's moral and ethical issues. They do this in their (correct) belief that the Ancestors were very wise, and that their words and behaviors are worth paying attention to.

But where does this go? I know some recons who think that they are whatever ancient people they look back to, reborn in the modern day. In their minds, there is no real difference between them and the ancients- just a time-frame difference, and some annoying cultural realities that are different, but which they dream of changing.

I also know some recons that are very much aware of the fact that they are modern people, who are looking back to older cultural traditions for guidance. They don't think that they are ancient Celts or Germans or Greeks or Romans.

This brings up my idea of "Recon Culture". I am a reconstructionist Pagan, but I don't think that I am "exactly the same" as the Pagans of the past- indeed, how could I be? I am a modern person, subject to the same modern forces and understandings as everyone else in my cultural sphere. I have taken the initiative to re-examine my cultural assumptions in light of ancient cultural assumptions, but what does that make me? An American who really likes the past, or has a preference for ancient philosophies and beliefs? To this, I answer:

Recon Culture is it's own reality. It is its own culture- a religious culture- that exists in the modern day, and it is comprised of modern people who look to ancient models of culture and religion for guidance as to how to believe today, but also how to face life's trials. I am not just an American or a modern person who really digs the "old days"- I'm a reconstructionist, to use a label that I just got done complaining about. As often as labels hamper our understanding of each other, sometimes they help to understand.

At any rate, "Reconstructionist" means something specific. It's true there are many ancient cultures that recons look back to, and that means that there are many reconstructionist sub-cultures, but the over-arching label still means something.

And here we arrive at the next issue- reconstructionists, being human, allow themselves to fall prey to the dangers of labeling, every bit as much as the next person. Apparently, looking to the wisdom of the past doesn't grant anyone any immunity to the idiocy that sometimes follows along in the world of human efforts!

It is true that our Ancestors in the past were very devoted to the idea of their own cultures, their own tribal or social beliefs and customs. Some people say that our Ancestors weren't very "free" as we know the word, because they were so constrained by tribal custom and social duty. Personally, I disagree with these angles because they aren't taking into account a broader perspective, and (to me) emphasizing only the negative aspects of ancient societies.

What these cynics never point out is that ancient societies were very aware of one another, and traded and traveled and inter-married a considerable amount. Some of the biggest extremists in the Recon world- the so-called "tribalist" Recons who refuse to have anything to do with people who are "outside" their tribal boundaries, and who seek a "tribal" identity at all costs, even the cost of ignoring reality, really hate to hear this sort of talk.

But when you have temples of Isis in Britain, Viking gold showing up in Cairo, Egypt, Runes scrawled on pillars in Byzantium, tales and evidence of inter-marriage, exchange of Gods, and people from different cultures taking part in the worship of other people's cultural Gods, you simply can't justify your cultish, isolationist fear anymore- at least not by looking to the past for an example. There's plenty of idiocy in the modern day upon which you can base some dogma of separation and distrust upon, but not so much in the past.

Somehow, our Ancestors in the past managed to hold on to their own ways, their own Gods, but also live among other peoples who had other ways and other Gods, and not compromise their cultural identity, even when they traveled or adopted new Gods. Worshiping German and Celtic Gods didn't stop the Romans from being Roman; adopting Roman Gods didn't stop the Celtic people of Gaul and Britain from being what they were; the Greeks adopting Egyptian Gods or Goddesses didn't stop the Greeks from being Greeks. When the Romans picked up the idea of using soap from the Celtic peoples, they didn't stop being Romans. When the Gauls started drinking Roman wine, they didn't cease being Gauls.

I don't want to belabor this point; I just want to say it enough to tweak the misbegotten noses of the fools out there who have caused me so much trouble in my time among the Asatru.

Now the dreaded words have to come out- we are "new Pagans". Perhaps you believe that your soul is very old, and that you were Pagan before, long ago. Maybe you think that the elements of these bodies, and the elements of the world, are very ancient, and therefore, nothing is really "new". Points all taken. But your mind and personality, constructed as they are from modern influences, is new, and your decision to be a Pagan in a modern, non-Pagan culture, marks you as a new Pagan with a big job ahead.

Now, if you're smart, you chose to be a reconstructionist Pagan, and gained access to the greatest resources available to you, in understanding the Ancestors- history and scholarship. If you're not so smart, you'll make up some stuff (or buy into those who have made it up) and claim that those things are what the Ancestors really believed. Of course, you'll end up dis-satisfied, as the Truth has a way of making itself known.

Either way, whether you are the pink cotton candy new-ager, or the hard-core scholarly reconstructionist, you're a new Pagan. We may fancy ourselves THE Greeks or Celts or Norse from history, but we aren't; we're just their fans, their descendants, their admirers, in the modern day. We're their students, their apologists, the lovers of their literature, their sacred stories, and their religious aesthetics. That's what we are.

There is a danger in getting sucked too far into some form of ancient "identity" that begins to conflict with your modern self; I've met far too many idiots in costume who really think that they are Norse or Viking Warriors, straight out of history, alive in the modern day. They import their own stupid ideas of racism and cultural superiority and graft these things directly onto the ancients, and assume that people have always believed they way they as modern people believe now. This is wrong; it is a caricature of the past, it is a crime and it's the worst sort of narcissistic immaturity imaginable.

I've met too many people who think that THEY are the "Romans" or the "Celts" now- quite absurd, when you think about it, on all counts; What does it mean to be "Germanic"? To be "Celtic"? With these two broad cultural definitions, there is no real way to know. These people in the past were countless tribal cultures, spread across the map-board; they went everywhere, mingled with everyone they encountered, and eventually vanished themselves from the pages of history, either through war or cultural change. What, are the Germans today "The real Germanics"? What about the Spanish, who live in a country that was founded largely by the Visigoths? Were the Visigoths not Germanic? What about the French, who live in a country founded by the Franks? Were the Franks not Germanic?

"Germanic" has little meaning, in the sense of "being Germanic". In RECON CULTURE, however, to be "Germanic" means to adore the cultural ideals that Asatru has studied and listed as "Noble"- the Nine Noble Virtues, and to adore your Germanic Ancestors, working hard not to disappoint them.

But what about the people who are more than just Germanic in Ancestry? Sadly, I know too many people who ignore 90% of their ancestry in favor of the 10% that had sufficiently Germanic sounding last names.

What about those pesky Celts? No culture has been more ransacked and dishonored by the forces of new-age marketing than Celtic- but what is "Celtic" culture? I've been to many of the Celtic lands. I can assure you, the people I spoke with all had this idea that THEY- and not the others, were the "real" Celts, and they were all quite different. The Irish and the Welsh were very different from one another, in a somewhat good-natured yet competitive way. Both were hospitable, but the Welsh were different, not as flamboyant or as "in your face" as the Irish that I encountered. Both lived on sacred Lands full of much mystical power; I could feel it. The blood in me could feel it, as I bear an ancestral connection to these places.

But what does it mean to be "Celtic"? What, is it that Hollywood-created "rebel" hard-drinking spirit, which thrives under the strain of mistreatment by evil empires and invaders? I hope not! That stereotype is a dry riverbed. Does "Celtic" mean that we all walk around wearing cheap Celtic knotwork Tide-dye clothes, and waving around copies of "The Mists of Avalon"? I REALLY hope not- give me "The Fields of Athenry" stereotypes any day over that! I hope being from some cool Irish place like Dublin isn't your claim to Celtic fame- the Vikings, after all, founded Dublin.

I could do this forever, just to point out that there may be general features of culture, like "Irish" or "Welsh" or "Scottish" that can be found, but "Celtic", no.

To be a Reconstructionist Celtic Pagan, however, is to look to certain strains of literature from Ireland and Britain, literature which is believed to stem from pre-Christian roots, and to look to the histories of these lands (these histories including Gaul), when seeking inspiration regarding religious practice and guidance for one's spiritual and moral worldview.

People take the term "Celtic Reconstructionist Pagan" or "Germanic Reconstructionist" and they see what they want to see- normally, they see "Celtic" or "Germanic", and they miss the "Reconstructionist" part.

I feel a great amount of love in my heart for the ancient world, and I imagine, sometimes, that maybe if I could find a time-machine and be transported back to that world, perhaps I'd find the religion to my liking, and some aspects of the culture to my liking. But I don't have any illusions about the hardships or the alien things that I would see and encounter. I may be of British, Irish, and Anglo-Saxon ancestry, but I am also a modern person, seeking to live as best I can in alignment with the ancient wisdom of those peoples. I'm not a "Celt" or a "Teuton"- I'm a modern man who reconstructs their ancient religions and worldviews, as best he can within a modern context. I may spiritually view myself as an heir of their great wisdom, and I may believe that my ancestral line, including this spirit, was once a part of their world, but there's one last thing that has to be said, has to be understood- I am also a part of this modern world. That qualifies everything, brings a needed perspective to this entire "Recon" enterprise.

I encounter people who can't see the "Reconstructionist" aspect of their culture, and only see the ancient cultures involved, and they really believe that they are THE Greeks, THE Romans, THE Celts, or what have you. They take the label, and immediately (hilariously) begin looking DOWN on other people for belonging to a reconstructionist faith that takes its inspiration from a culture that historically conquered their culture or had conflicts with them.

Yes- as amazing as it may sound, I know Celtic Recons who HATE Asatruar, probably thanks to Marion Zimmer Bradley and the recent movie "King Arthur" presenting the Anglo-Saxons as baby-devouring bloody barbarians bent on murdering every Briton they came across. That's not historically what happened, but there is an idea that the Germanic and Celtic Traditions have to be in conflict. This idea is fantasy, but it's a reality to many Recons.

I know many Asatru that believe anyone worshiping non-Germanic Gods is a traitor to Asatru- and yet, they talk till they are blue in the face about the importance of honoring one's Ancestors. Where does that leave people like me, (and there are many like me) who have mixed ancestry? Let's just come out and say it- EVERYONE has mixed ancestry, both now, and even in the past. What am I, a descendant of Ireland and Bernicia, to do? I worship the Gods of Asatru because it is part of my heritage, and because Asatru is a great Reconstructionist faith, with many resources and a large community.

But my wife is Irish; my daughter is named after the great Queen in the mound in County Sligo, and my family prays to the Gods of Ireland and Britain, too- in a fully Celtic Reconstructionist context. This isn't a new thing; Celtic and Germanic Gods have been prayed to together in many places, for a very long time. Roman and Celtic Gods and Roman and Germanic Gods were also prayed to together. Oh no! Ideas and labels of "purity" have just been flushed- except that those ideas were never based on reality.

"Asatru", according to some, means "True to the Gods"- but are people who pray to Zeus and Athena, or Brigid and Lugus, not "True to the Gods" as well? Just because the word "Asatru" may be in some Germanic language, that doesn't mean that the idea doesn't apply to many polytheists.

This is where labels come home to haunt us. I know that no label really serves to identify me perfectly, and I think this same thing can be said for everyone- we DO use labels, but how many of us really feel that the few labels we've chosen fully serve to explain us to ourselves or to the world? I feel sorry for the people who can label themselves perfectly- Oscar Wilde said "Only shallow people really know themselves".

My modern mystical vocation forces me to realize the truth about myself- I am a modern person who deals with trance-work and spiritual contact. In every culture of the human world, there have been people like me- and they have been called many things. I know what Pagan cultures I am ancestrally related to, and I proudly engage in the activity and method of Reconstruction, when it comes to guidance and religious practice. But I cannot label myself as just one thing or another, and expect to feel satisfied.

My dear friend told me something interesting last night- she told me that she prayed to the Gods of ancient Wales when operating in a formal context. But personally, in her own private religious life, she didn't use names at all- she merely communicated from the heart to those Gods or spirits that she desired contact with. I understand what she meant; even though I do use names in my private religious life, I think this idea of "Formality" is important- when I work with the Idavoll Kindred, on that formal level, we call upon the Gods of Asatru. When I work with my wife and daughter- my true family and deeper kindred- it is less formal, but still a formal level, and we pray with all earnestness to the Gods and Goddesses of Ireland and Britain.

As for me, privately, non-formally, well, that's the very best of me, and I save that one all for me.

It's more important for me to be a mystic, a seer and healer, than anything else. Of course, as an Ancestral pietist and a polytheist, I could never and will never ignore my Ancestors or what they believed. But I am not just them. My capacity for vision or mystical insight is something apart from my Ancestry; it is a universal quality of humankind that I express, not something tied to one culture. To Asatruar, I express it in the language they (sometimes) understand- Seidr. To those who are heavily invested in Irish or British Paganism, I call it Taibhsear, Druidry, Draiocht, whatever they need to hear to understand. To the Greeks, I may say "Iatromantis".

To someone from Dr. Michael Harner's foundation, I would say "Shamanic practitioner". Among my traditional Witch friends, who are by far the easiest to communicate with, I'm just Robin, that Witch and pain-in-the-ass of many. I enjoy Dr. Harner's description of Witchery as a descendant of the shamanic wisdom of old Europe, which is a definition that I happily subscribe to, for obvious reasons.

But I've become weary of labels. I use them because people expect them, but I don't use them with any real gravity. They are just so many words to me- what is real to me are the Gods, the spirits I have felt and seen, and the "other sight" that allows me to find guidance for my life, and healing for myself and others. How does a person label that? I have no choice at this point but to use the term "reconstructionist" for my religious label, but being of mixed ancestry and worship, many won't have me- which is, of course, fine; I wouldn't want to be a member of their narrow-minded clubs, anyway. So long as my family and friends are well, all is well.

But damn! Communication is hard, because everyone wants a label that they can look up in the dictionary or online, to figure out "who and what you are". I hope people will, one day, have the power to see through labels and realize that we read far too much into the labels we give other people, and into the labels they give themselves.

Recon Culture is useful insofar as it gives people a platform to build a relationship with the Gods, and helps them to be better people. But the issue has deeper angles, which will need to be explored by each in his or her own time. Until then, when people ask me "what I am", (meaning religiously) I have little choice but to tell them a polytheist- a person who worships the Gods and Goddesses of his ancestors from ancient Britain and Ireland. I am also a vision-seer, a shamanic healer and worker, but that's not something a person often gets around to asking, nor me telling.