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Faking History: Minoan Spirituality on the Line

Figuring out ancient people's spiritual practices is hard. Even if we have written records that they've left us, they're not around any more to tell us how to interpret them. And in the case of the ancient Minoans, we can't read what they wrote, so all we have to go on is archaeological finds. And if those archaeological finds aren't genuine, then what we figure out about their spirituality may be wrong as well.

That beautiful ivory-and-gold snake goddess at the top of this post is probably a forgery. A century ago, when Sir Arthur Evans excavated the temple complex at Knossos, the world went "Minoan crazy." Museums clamored for items to display to bring in bigger and bigger crowds, and many unscrupulous folks were more than happy to oblige. This one's probably a forgery, too, based on carbon-14 dating:

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Rethinking spiritual legitimacy among Pagans

 

Recently there was a dust-up on a British Traditional Wiccan thread I often read: people debated who is or is not a genuine Gardnerian or British Traditional Wiccan. Questions about legitimacy have long been controversies due to these traditions’ concern for lineage and practice. Whenever they do, it seems some Pagans were conflicted, worrying perhaps their own groups and contact with their deities was somehow inadequate compared to others

This online commotion reminded me of other discussions of Pagan legitimacy. This insecurity is not just a BTW disease.

Consider two more examples.

The Pomegranate  began as a magazine offering serious Pagan thinkers and scholars an outlet for their writings. Some important stuff appeared there and some fascinating debates took place.  It made a major contribution to our broader community.  But in time its editor wanted to turn the magazine into an academic journal. I argued against it for the following reasons:

1. It would become too expensive for most Pagans to read. 

2. It would eliminate contributions that fit a Pagan spirituality but not an academic format. Such as poems.

3. It would let academic fields determine what was important.

My and similar advice from others was ignored.

Now, at $90.00 annually,  the Pomegranate is unavailable to most who aren't rich or have easy access to a university library that subscribes. I haven't read it in years. I am confident the Pom encourages greater respect for Pagan academics in academia, but it has little impact on our own community.

Finally, there has been a recent upwelling of essentially theological criteria as to who is or is not a Pagan or a polytheist. These arguments can be interesting, but to my mind their importance to Pagan practice is way over blown.  These questions are of great importance to monotheistic styles of thinking, but as I explained, not to oursI want to push this argument further to question how so many of us think about 'legitimacy.'  

In Whose Eyes?

Our broader culture does not seek religious legitimacy through our personal relations with Spirit and our fellow practitioners. It must first be filtered through sacred texts and often also authorities independent from us. It predisposes us to subordinate our experience to others’ judgments, even others thousands of years dead. It subjects us to attitudes and standards derived from religious traditions with assumptions that are very different from ours.

Scriptural traditions root legitimacy in some text that is supposedly without error.  But in every case these traditions fight and splinter because they cannot agree as to what is said within those pages of inspired writ. Often they end up killing one another. Making a text a final authority does not end discord and probably even increases it since all believe they alone have “the truth.”

To return to the controversy that began this piece: the Gardnerian Book of Shadows is treated by some Gardnerian Pagans as a kind of sacred text. Long and sometimes vitriolic arguments have taken place as to what is truly in keeping with ‘real’ Gardnerian Wicca, arguments made all the more intractable because there are several versions of the BOS, from Gerald Gardner’s early involvement until his death.

I have been told somewhat similar sentiments are heard from some regarding the Spiral Dance. And there are various publications using the name “Witches’ Bible.” Some are good books grotesquely misnamed. 

Scriptural issues and styles of thinking are polluting (to) a religious tradition without a sacred scripture.  Books of Shadows have never claimed the authority of a sacred text.  In the online controversy I mentioned one informed commentator wrote “The first words in the earliest BoS's - words predating Gardner - read: ‘Keep this book in your own hand of write, Let Brothers & Sisters copy what they will...’”

It is inevitable that such a text would change over the years with some new material being added, old material disappearing, and different BOSs developing along independent lines gradually becoming more and more different from one another. A phenomenon that would destroy a scripturally rooted tradition is deliberately encouraged in Wicca.

We encounter similar confusions about legitimacy among some reconstructionists who reason that unlike Wicca, their practices have genuine roots in pre-Christian Pagan practice. Supposedly Wicca was cobbled together by Gerald Gardner whereas theirs is not. NonGardnerian forms of Wicca are supposedly even less grounded in spiritual reality.

This claim isn’t valid. First, and least important for my ultimate argument, Wicca has very old roots even if not, as some once imagined, to the “Old Religion” of pre-Christian Europe. It’s grounding in a mix of ancient occult traditions and folk practices is quite real.

More importantly, no one quite knows in detail what used to happen in the old ethnic traditions now being reconstructed. Folklore, occasional surviving works like the Eddas, and accounts by Roman or other writers give important information, but these hints are limited because we no longer know the context within they originally existed.

To give one important example, the Eleusinian Mysteries were the most famous mystery religion in Classical Greece and virtually every important classical thinker was thought to be an initiate. Despite many ancient references we do not know in detail what happened in them. We are reduced to reading secondary sources.

As we know from comparing modern observers, different people reporting on the same event often produce different descriptions, especially if they report as outsiders.   This tendency helps keep historians in business. Apuleius gives important information about beliefs in his time, but his is only one description, an Isis-centric one. 

Second, some and likely all old traditions destroyed by Christian suppression had extensive oral lore, especially if they had initiatory dimensions. The Pagan Celts wrote nothing down about their practices. What we know of them comes from old poems written down by Christian monks centuries after Celtic Paganism died out at least in public,  Romuva, the reconstructionist tradition with the strongest claim to historical continuity, has had to rely on folklore to help connect their present practices with what happened in the past.  And valuable as folklore is, it has been preserved in a Christianized context where those doing research must exercise very fallible judgment as to what is genuinely old, what a newer accretion, and what its original context was. 

Reconstructionists do the best they possibly can to revive the religions of their ancestors, but they can never be sure they discovered what was known in a tradition of unbroken lineages extending for centuries if not millennia. In fact they can be pretty sure they haven’t.  At most they will have created a tradition carrying important elements of the old into the modern age.  And this is very good.

Third, judging from Native American examples I will discuss below, even within a tradition or a practice there were probably significant regional variations.  There was never “one right way,” Variety with a common theme seems to have been the real pattern. 

Today “Squat,” a commonly invoked Pagan God of parking has different characteristics and different preferences in different places. And I, for one, find Squat a wonderful force to have on my side. But I am more intrigued than bothered when a Pagan in a different region describes Squat differently.  They even make different kinds of offerings than I was taught to.  But the key question is not “Who gets Squat right?”

Tradition and Lineage

But what then makes a tradition? I would suggest lineage is about all that can do the job, and the contents within lineages change all the time.  Let me illustrate with a hopefully no-ncontroversial example from some native American religions. Ritual dances are central to the traditional practice of many tribes.  The Sun Dance is the most famous example, but there are many others.  However, when given the dance by another tribe (the legitimate way to receive a practice is to be given it) the gifted tribes would then modify both it and its meaning, if they choose.

This flexibility within respect and legitimacy seems to have involved more than sacred dances.  I was once told by a Crow Sun Dance priest “Gus, if I taught you how to conduct sweats (lodges), there would come a time when you changed it.”

I waited for a criticism of Euro-American’s lack of respect for Indian religion. It never came.

             He added “And that is how you make it yours.”

To master a practice you must be able to make it yours, though just how you do that, and even if you do that, is your call.

Using this example, we can describe lineages of a Pagan tradition, such as Gardnerian Wicca as family trees. But we misunderstand it if we expect the lineage to reproduce the same practice in detail across generations of practitioners.

The Source of Legitimacy

Legitimacy for Pagan religion arises out of practice, not text or hierarchy or dogma. Most briefly:  does a Pagan practice contribute to our ability to relate with the animate world, with deities or spirits?  If it does, it is legitimate because it is accepted by the only parties that matter: the Gods and the people dealing with Them. If the Gods or other entities do not participate we may be doing effective psychodrama, we may be celebrating the beauty and wonder of the world, or conducting a moving play but this does not demonstrate a relationship with the More-than-human beyond possible wonder and appreciation.

These are good things, do not misunderstand me. But in general Pagan religions historically, and certainly in traditional Wicca, have involved at least altered states of consciousness opening us to other realities, and often to direct experience with deities or the Sacred.

My first and still most overwhelming deity experience was at a NROOGD Midsummer Sabbat in Berkeley, California.  After my encounter with Her there was no doubt in my mind the Gods were real, that they interacted with people, and that my life was forever changed.  That NROOGD was a tradition rooted in a college class some years previously and some books by various authors was irrelevant.  

A tradition grows from the accumulation of experience among its members and its most gifted members passing on their knowledge to others, so that it grows in depth as well as width.  It is passed on by example and experience. My most powerful shamanic teacher once said he could teach everything he could put into words in a weekend, but taught that way it would be useless.  It takes time to develop the experience and the relationships to cement the connections needed for this kind of practice. That is one of the strengths of small groups, such as covens, over large rituals or being a solitary.

Modern America makes this kind of deepening difficult. NROOGD has shrunk in numbers of late and may or may not long survive.  But from a Pagan perspective the deities and other powers are always there, always available if sincerely sought.

If Gardnerian Wicca has any religious advantages over NROOGD, to my mind it is only because it incorporates a greater degree of wisdom and practice from Western occult traditions.  In one form or other it addresses every dimension of living life on this earth.  It has incorporated more depth of experience, having been around much longer. But NROOGD has the same potential.

If the Goddess or other deities appear in our rituals and workings, do we not insult Them when we wonder whether we are truly “legitimate?” What does it say about us if we seek assurances from other religions or scholars while ignoring our own experience?  We may still have much to learn (we always have much to learn), and much to learn from other traditions, but the issue of legitimacy should concern only ourselves and our deities.

 

 

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Recent Comments - Show all comments
  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis says #
    Gus, thank you for this sane article. Some information that you may or may not have, and that supports your premise: I imagine yo
  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    Thanks for you comment, Francesca. Yes, I've met Fred and corresponded with him a little bit. I don't know him very well, but he i
  • Francesca De Grandis
    Francesca De Grandis says #
    Oh, how I love an articulate nuanced reply! The teacher's role in both the short and longterm in the matters we're discussing is
  • Gus diZerega
    Gus diZerega says #
    The pleasure is mutual Francesca. And thanks for passing on that tid-bit from Fred.
  • paul mienie
    paul mienie says #
    Yes indeed....the change maybe a little or a lot , whatever you will have needed, you will have got.....lol, THE PATH IS NOT CLEAR

How to engage the reconstructionist / historical-based pagan and not get your feelings hurt:

Lesson 1: Learn to discern the differences between fact and opinion, history and UPG/experience.

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  • Amarfa
    Amarfa says #
    Part 1 of How to Engage the Other Kinds of Mod/Recon Pagans: 1. Reference the all mighty shiny fact of power. 2. Be nice to tho
  • Amarfa
    Amarfa says #
    (I mean no insult, I'm just throwing in my two cents on the foucault bit. very frustrating to read, probably because i'm incredibl
  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy says #
    He's not only incredibly abstract, he's Abstract For Your Own Good!™ I can make perfect sense out of nonsense like Zardoz, or Liq
Making Sense of the Modernist Reconstructionist (Part 1)

Before I address the title, let me first address a fact that was illuminated in some fairly recent conversations:  I am old.  Chronologically, I'm just a bit over thirty, which isn't really anyone's idea of old --and contrary to the prevalent misconceptions of ancient longevity (which is an average) generally speaking, people who could survive past the age of 15 all through the Archaic and Classical eras could typically expect to live into their sixties, so this isn't even "old" by historical standards, but I'm old.  I'm old because I retain this stubborn identity of "Hellenic reconstructionist" even though many people my age and younger, even (sometimes especially) if they practise by the same general methods I do have long eschewed the term because of reasons.  I all get to those reasons very shortly.  I'm old because I've acquired greater measures of both patience and cynicism in my approach to dealing with others, largely because of persistent misconceptions of who and what I am and am about, and when I don't have the patience to explain it, I don't get angry, I just shrug and think oh well, this isn't news and frankly I don't think they're worth explaining it to, and then I ask the other person "Hey, let's agree to disagree?"  But the good thing about being an ageing cynic (but not really a Cynic, though I do appreciate some of their teachings --my philosophy is based largely on Kyrenaic Hedonism with equal parts Empedocles, Democritus, Kirkegaard, Sartre, Camus, Crisp, and Jarman filling in the gaps, and also a huge stress on aesthetic arts bringing joy and meaning taken from famous Dandies including, but not limited to, Beau Brummel, Oscar Wilde, and Lord Whimsy)...  [coughs]  Yes, the good thing about being an ageing cynic with a blog, is I get to make things as clear as i need to, update and revise as I need to, and point people to said blog when I don't feel like dealing with them right now.

I want to make clear what religious reconstruction is and is not, because in spite of being pretty active for about the last five years in trying to promote this method of practise as both a perfectly valid and relevant "pagan path", it seems I've been met with more gross and appalling misconceptions in this last year than the previous four combined.  Now, I have some suspicions on key players who may be a large part responsible for this, but this isn't about naming names, this is about using the position afforded me on PaganSquare to clarify, perhaps even educate.  In this, I also want to stress (though I doubt that I could ever stress enough for some people) that identifying with a reconstructionist method is not synonymous with being ultra-conservative, traditionalist, neo-luddite, or regressionist.

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  • Conor O'Bryan Warren
    Conor O'Bryan Warren says #
    What a *fabulous* post. I was very confused when I saw certain people calling it Hellenic Orthodoxy. I scratched my head and sneez
  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy says #
    I've concluded that the "Hellenic orthodoxy" thing is one of those made-up terms from people who want to feel superior about follo
  • Conor O'Bryan Warren
    Conor O'Bryan Warren says #
    I know, I think they were trying to invoke the image of 'Orthodox Christianity' and all the negative connotations that has in the
  • Ruadhán J McElroy
    Ruadhán J McElroy says #
    Apparently not, cos I don't think I've heard of him. The thing is, how I see it, of course the recon method allows for adaptation
  • Conor O'Bryan Warren
    Conor O'Bryan Warren says #
    Oh no, he isn't prominent, just the most prominent for me. And yes, I agree with you. I just wish more people could realize that

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

Those of you who have been visiting this blog for a while are most likely aware I have a pretty Reconstructionistic approach to Reconstructionism. I came to Hellenismos from a Neo-Wiccan/Eclectic Religious Witchcraft path and have never been subject to the restrictions religion seems to have brought to those who came here through Christianity or other major religions. Because of this, I have no qualms in surrendering part of my autonomy to serve the Theoi (and other Gods, before my progression into Hellenismos). Today I want to talk about finding the balance between yourself and your Deities, a balance that is different for everyone.

Depending on your Tradition (and I'm just going to assume that since you're reading this, you have allowed the Gods in your life), you will describe your relationship with the Gods in a myriad of ways; work with, commune with, meet with, talk with, worship, appease, etc. I serve. I worship, too, and I appease. Sometimes, I talk to the Theoi, but above all, I serve.

Funnily enough, I'm not a submissive person. I'm a caring person, true, and I will gladly put others ahead of myself, but I do that from a place of personal strength and confidence. I choose to put others' needs ahead of my own at times, but I claim my own space and rights when I need to. I have boundaries that no one ever crosses, unless I allow them. I learned to do this the hard way, when I was still a child. Yet, when it comes to the Theoi (and other Gods before Them), I seem to be completely without boundaries.

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  • John Halstead
    John Halstead says #
    "Who am I to go against His wishes ...?" You are a beautiful and incredible human being is who you are. Who is he to say you ha
  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance says #
    Cross-reply between here and http://allergicpagan.wordpress.com/2012/12/23/the-role-of-faith-and-hubris-in-paganism Thank you for

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

             (This is a column I meant to post about eight days ago, when all the other great ancestor-related readings were being proliferated.. but I suppose this is my “fashionably late” addition to the season.)

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Posted by on in Paths Blogs

This blog post is the third installment in a very loose series focussing on the practice of reconstruction. The other parts can be found here: Standardizing Hellenismos and Thinking like a Recon. In this third--and probably final part--I will talk about trying to figure out which practices should be reconstructed, and which should not be. I can't speak for all Recon faiths on this, and I can only offer my opinion on Hellenismos. Others will disagree. In order to illustrate some of the points in this post, I will use the ancient practice of animal sacrifice. I have spoken about the practical and ethical difficulties of reviving that practice before, but it is such a fantastic example, I can not ignore it.

With the disclaimer out of the way, lets get on with this post, shall we? As previously discussed, Reconstructionist faiths work on a basic premise: those who practiced it first, practiced it best. If we want to worship these Gods, we should do it in a way which the Gods are used to and expect of us. Yet, society has changed. Other religions have come and gone. People have changed. Some practices have no place in current society but... how do we decide which practices should or should not be revived? And is it really up to us to decide this?

There are a few factors which influence the decisions of modern Recon practitioners when it comes to answering these questions. Influencing factors are current laws, the time period which the practitioner is trying to reconstruct, if the practice was part of the culture or the religion and--somewhat unfortunately-- the preference of the practitioner.

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  • Joseph Bloch
    Joseph Bloch says #
    If I may be permitted to interject once again from the Théodish perspective on Reconstructionism, animal sacrifice (Old Norse blót
  • Elani Temperance
    Elani Temperance says #
    Thank you for your reply! I am sorry that I am responding to it this late; I had a bit of a tough weekend. I really appreciate the
  • Rose
    Rose says #
    I think a great example of how to modernize Hellenismos is to look to the Jewish and Catholic religions. Recently we had a reform

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