Saturday, September 13, 2008

Pagan Reconstructionism

I discovered Pagan Reconstructionism around 2000. Before that I'd been heavily involved in Neo-Paganism. What is the difference you may ask? Well, Neo-Paganism derives from 20th century Wiccan Witchcraft in that it uses a 'magical circle and four elements' format, believing this to be the "authentic" structure of "Paganism" - as if there is only one "Paganism". Neo-Paganism also tends to act as if it is some sort of "outer court" of Wicca, a first step to Wicca, like the way a congregation is in relation to a priesthood. It makes sense that Wicca uses a magical circle format because Wicca is essentially magical, but "Paganism" is not. Pagan Reconstructionsim generally consists of people either fleeing from Neo-Paganism or coming from a historical re-enactment background. It tries to re-create ancient religion(s) from available primary sources such as texts and archaeology and is not usually focussed upon "magic". While intellectually I prefer Pagan Reconstructionism to Neo-Paganism (although I do agree that the latter has many good points), since going back to University specifically in order to study ancient religions I have actually become less inclined to religious practice or belief at all. In fact I'm rather fond of atheism. That does not mean that I don't still tremble in vertiginous awe at the universe and I'm still incredibly interested in religion(s) from many angles: aesthetic, structural, functional, but I can't say that I'm actually a full-on *believer* in supernatural beings - at least not to the point that I'm going to participate honestly in their cult (not that the Pagan Reconstructionist scene is very big in Australia anyway). I've been thinking that religious experience might very well be *aesthetic* experience for a few years now. I agree that there are many pleasurable sensory aspects about ancient religion and from the point of view of the 'Goddess Movement' certainly the discovery of ancient images of female deities is very empowering for women. It might surprise some people to realise just how huge the Pagan Reconstructionist scene actually is, consisting of types such as Celtic, Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Canaanite and Norse Reconstructionism. There are also several umbrella organisations. A lot of this exists on the internet where Yahoo Groups facilitate communication between enthusiasts, and there is also the phenomenon of 'virtual shrines'. Pagan Reconstructionism is also popular in Lithuania, Greece and probably lots of other places too. I have heard that Classicist, Sarah Iles Johnston, is going to write a book on Greek Reconstructionists, who, if you recall newspaper articles about them coming out of Greece in the last few years, are very vocal about having Greek Paganism legalised. This really is quite a fascinating topic that I'm particularly interested in, these days, from the perspective of the uses of "The Past" by contemporary Pagans. One of the useful books that is not exactly on Pagan Reconstructionism but is on the interaction between modern Pagans and Archaeologists and Heritage sites in the UK is Jenny Blain and Robert Wallis "Sacred Sites Contested Rites/Rights". The authors are both academics and Heathens - and this is not an unusual mix if you are aware of Pagan Studies - the academic study of Contemporary Paganism. From another angle, British Archaeologist, Francis Pryor, talks about the problems Archaeologists in the field can have with Pagans who claim "ancestral rights" to a particular ancient site. Then there is Catalhoyuk at which Ian Hodder has actively tried to address the interests of the Goddess Worshippers who frequent the site as part of his Post-Processualist approach. I could write about this all day, citing interesting example after example, but alas - no, actually hooray - I must attend to an essay on the reception of the cult of Isis in Rome.


Anonymous said...

I get what you mean about religion as an aesthetic experience. I grew up Catholic, and even though I have totally rejected all of it's beliefs and dogmas, I still have a strange affection for the church. Even without belief, from an aesthetic viewpoint the ritual, robes and incense, music, art and architecture are still magnificent.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for a thought-provoking piece, Caroline. Rather than atheism, I find skepticism appealing. I love the fellowship I find in my association with magickal people, as well as the aesthetic pleasure you refer to here, and I strive to keep my mind and heart open to new experiences. Experience, rather than belief helps me to structure my life. Reading history, lately the history of western occultism and ritual magic, is a source of great joy, and I've steeped myself in the history of ancient Egypt (and been there to visit). Music, dance and a kind of eclectic tribalism form the basis of religion for me, insofar as I have one... Good wishes to you!

Caroline Tully said...

Hi Mark, but do you need to term all these things 'religion'? Could you not just describe them as you have done here without calling them 'religion'?

Thanks for commenting, and you too Indigo.


Chas S. Clifton said...

"I've been thinking that religious experience might very well be *aesthetic* experience for a few years now"

Spoken like a true devotee of Aphrodite, I would say, but then of course you already knew that about yourself, I suspect.

Valerie Voigt said...

I've noticed that in Wicca (at least, in the forms of it with which I am involved) we have a disproportionate number of ex-Catholics and Jews: very precise and artistic ritualists.

BTW: although it seems a widespread notion that NeoPaganism is Wiccan in form, or that NeoPaganism is a sort of "outer court" of Wicca, in fact there are plenty of other forms of NeoPagan practice. These bear little, if any, resemblance to Wicca aside from the fact that they often include invocations--a trait typical of many religions, including the Protestant Christianity in which I was raised.

Margot Adler, in her book Drawing Down the Moon, reports that many of the Pagans she interviewed said that although they were atheists or agnostics, that fact in no way interfered with the spiritual joy they experienced in ritual.

The JudaeoChristian religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--define themselves in terms of belief. When you join one of them, you are supposed to renounce any other religion. Since Pagan religions, on the other hand, tend to be defined by practice than by belief, multiple paths and memberships are generally accepted. When I give talks on the subject, I often say, "In Pagan religion, you can collect them all if you have the time and energy."

My colleague Caradoc ap Cador said that he never taught anything about theology. He explained, "I teach the practices and the magic. The practices and the magic, in turn, will teach you everything you need to know about theology."

In fact, I believe this is one of the valuable features of Reconstructionism: actually practicing as our ancestors did gives us experiences--sometimes unexpected experiences--that not only give us insights into our ancestors' lives, but help us to honor and commune with them.

Anonymous said...

Caroline Tully: In fact I'm rather fond of atheism. That does not mean that I don't still tremble in vertiginous awe at the universe

Why aren't you a pantheist then?

Caroline Tully: and I'm still incredibly interested in religion(s) from many angles

Are you familiar with Unitarian Universalism?