Recently on the Caer Feddwyd forum there have been a few threads that stretch into realms of scholarship that I have difficulty keeping pace with. We are blessed in having some truly fine minds sharing information in that forum. These minds raise issues that I either didn’t know about before or hadn’t really considered and then I’m left reeling, almost battered by a storm of ideas and thoughts. If I’m lucky a ray of sunshine breaks through and in a moment of calm I see the world anew, bathed in splendour.
The issue that I have been thinking about the most is reconstruction and its place in modern paganism.
“In discussions of religions of antiquity, “reconstruction” refers to the process of building a model of previous historic and pre-historic traditions, and then examining that model for ideas of how to implement those traditions in a modern, practical sense. The specific definition of “reconstruction” which fits our usage best is, “an interpretation formed by piecing together bits of evidence”.”
“Pagan Reconstructionism (also known as “Recon”) is a lesser-known modern Pagan movement, that differs from other types of modern Paganism primarily on its reliance on solid academic and historical sources regarding deities, worship and symbolism.”
My path at present is pretty heavily influenced by ideas within Celtic Reconstruction (CR). I’ve only recently come to learn that in all probability the reliance put upon many of the sources used in CR (such as surviving Irish and Welsh manuscripts) is probably much higher than it should be. Like many modern pagans I had brought into the idea that the Welsh and Irish myths were written down from older oral tales by monks who, understandably, put a Christian gloss on things. I’ve recently come to understand that actually many of these tales were crafted from scratch in medieval times. As I understand it some of them used names and basic characteristics of individuals in older tales but they also added in characteristics that suited the plot they were crafting. Not unlike the re-envisioning of Arthurian stories that has taken place in the fantasy genre of literature such as the well known Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley.
These Welsh and Irish stories are wonderful but they do not contain large amounts of information about how our pagan ancestors might of viewed the gods or about their ritual practices. There maybe the odd snippet but how to tell what is invention of the monk that wrote the story and what is an echo of something much older is probably going to be beyond the vast majority of pagans reading these tales in translated form.
Reconstruction implies a knowledge of what something looked like originally and frankly as far as I can see we simply do not have enough reliable information. I am coming to think that the best information sources we have access to are the archaeological and they are usually open to a wide range of interpretations.
So if we can’t really reconstruct what do we do? One possibility mentioned elsewhere which I like the idea of is Reconnection. This is the idea that we make new associations or relationships with Gods or spirits we know of from inscriptions on shrines and offerings found by archaeologists. We try and reconnect with these beings and learn from them. We try to reconnect with the land, learning to work with the natural rhythms of the land we live on. But reconnection is difficult and because it is about relationships it is also going to be highly personal. We may be able to share some things about our relationships but that doesn’t mean we are going to be able to develop a group perspective on any one deity or spirit. We might manage it eventually but I think it will take a great deal of trust and perseverance.
Perhaps it’s also time to stand up and say openly that what we also need to look at is Reinvention. We will need to create some things again, to remake them in a different form. There is nothing inherently wrong with this but we do need to be able to admit that in some cases we are simply re-inventing practices and stories for our modern age. What we need to be honest about is what parts of our practices are re-inventions.
Perhaps the best way forward will be to take the slender threads of information found by archaeologists and snippets in historical sources, combine them with our own experiences and personal relationships to build a chariot of knowledge and then re-invent the wheels.