Thoughts on Reconstructionism, Appropriation, and Multiple Polytheistic Practices
Posted on March 1, 2013
This post is entire personal supposition. The following are my disjointed views, written in order to try to tackle the issue. Any offense made is unintentional.
In modern Paganism, the term eclecticism has become something of a dirty word. Sure, there are individuals who use it to refer to their own practice, but it carries now with it a larger subtext. Let’s look at what the actual definition is:
The Merriam Webster online dictionary defines eclecticism as:
‘1. Selecting what appears to be best in various doctrines, methods, or styles.
2. Composed of elements drawn from various sources.’
If one wanders over to the Wikipedia page for eclecticism, they will find that it is defined as:
‘A conceptual approach that does not hold rigidly to a single paradigm or set of assumptions, but instead draws upon multiple theories, styles, or ideas to gain complementary insights into a subject, or applies different theories in particular cases.’
And then, later under the religion subheading:
‘Eclectics use elements from multiple religions, applied philosophies, personal experiences or other texts and dogma to form their own beliefs and ideas’
Eclectics are commonly thought of as cultural appropriationists, utilizing aspects of different religious belief in their own rituals to create an immanently personalized religious tradition. They are often looked at as ‘fluffy’, because they are seen as not caring about the traditional aspects of the religion. The term has been associated with the New Age movement, long enough to give it a flavor stemming from that.
The Pagan Theology website states that they do not:
“have a specific founder and liturgy (like Gardenarian Witchcraft), heck, they may change their Gods and Goddesses every time they gather for ritual.”
The nature of this post is not actually to dispute the validity of eclectic paths, and whether or not those are true or not. I felt that it was important to define the angle from which I’m approaching the subject. No, this post actually has to do with the opposite side of that coin, the reconstructionists.
In some reconstructionist circles, notably Heathen circles, there exists a very vocal group (I assume minority, but I have no facts to that regard) who believe that the gods to be worshiped are the only gods that should be worshiped. This is separate from the folkish circles who place genetic and cultural emphasis on religious worship, but related in my opinion.
The trend lately seems to be that reconstructionists, operating in reaction to the perceived eclecticism, edge towards religious hegemony and homogeneity. The desire to experience their tradition’s history has, instead, transformed into a desire to keep that tradition ‘culturally pure’, and prevents it from reaching a synthesis with the other reconstructionist faiths. Again, this is most notable in Heathenry and Asatru. Not because of a grudge against those traditions or that they have a higher propensity towards this experience, but because I have had more interaction with those faiths. I’m sure there are similar “Hellenism for Hellenes” movements out there, and the like.
To me, it seems like these various groups attempt to dogmatize a religion that, were it not historically geographically isolated, probably would have had connections with other polytheistic pre-Christian entities. But location, both spatial and temporal, were against the original practitioners of northern faiths, and by the 700’s CE, the remaining historic European pagans were the Norse, Sami, Balts, Slavs, and some steppe nomads.
There was a great comment on one of the blogs I frequent, but curse me that I can’t remember which blog or which commenter. Effectively, they said something to the extent of:
Any cultural and religious purity of the Norse is a result of geographic isolation, not due to theological reasoning.
If one were to look at the histories of various culture groups, this is true. And this is beyond even from syncretization that we commonly associate with the Roman experience. And no, I am not suggesting we should conflate Jupiter Optimus Maximus, or any of Jupiter’s epithets, with Odin. Although the Romans might very well have. Different culture groups adapted their religious practice, the spread of cults was influenced by the migrations of peoples into other lands, and deities were often added to other religious pantheons. Yet some still persist in claiming theological purity, and claim that those who incorporate the worship and veneration of deities from other faiths are eclectic, with the implication that they are appropriationist and least concerned with tradition and orthodoxy.
What gets me is that these people are the most concerned with historicity and accuracy. Reconstructionists are, in their own right, men and women who wish to recreate the past religious traditions and pull them forth from their timeline into the modern era. Granted, there are no specific examples of much cultural crossover beyond a few suppositions between Norse-Sami, and Norse-Slavic culture, prior to the ascent of Christianity, so one cannot vouch for the historical angle in that sense. But what we can vouch for is the correlation with other ancient traditions.
Seven hundred years earlier, for instance, Rome was spreading. And, again, this isn’t even focused on their tradition of syncretization, but simply on the cultural diffusion and cosmopolitan nature of the ancient world. The following is a lengthy excerpt from Peter Hunter Blair’s book, Roman Britain and Early England 55 B.C.-A.D. 871 (pages 138-140), published by the Norton Library in their History of England series. Apologies for the wall of text, it’s excessive, but I feel that it really helps showcase a point.
Whatever had been Brigantia’s origin, she rose far above her barbaric station in life through being associated with some of the most distinguished occupants of the imperial heavens. A centurion of the Sixth Legion at Corbridge dedicated an altar on which he not only associated Brigantia with Jupiter Dolichenus, whose cult was centered in Syria and who himself was equated with Jupiter Optimus Maximus, the supreme protector of the Roman state, but also bestowed upon Brigantia herself the title of Caelestis, thereby suggesting identification with Dea Caelestis, the Romanised equivalent of the chief goddess of North Africa.
And a few paragraphs later:
Within her northern province, Brigantia was able to accommodate a seemingly endless throng of gods, goddesses, and godlings, many of them brought by the soldiery from foreign lands, some of them native to the countryside. At Birrens itself Brigantia found room to accommodate the Tungrian goddesses, Viradecthis and Harimella. The Syrian archers at Carvoran brought with them their goddess Hamia. Not far away, at Carrawburgh, the nymph Coventina reclined upon her water-borne leaf by the clear spring which bubbled up within her shrine. A little farther south the goddess Garmangabis had traveled to Lanchester in company with its Suebian garrison. At Benwell, in a small rectangular building with an apsidal bay, a centurion of the Twentieth Legion dedicated an altar to Antenociticus and the numina Augustorum, and a prefect of cavalry dedicated another in the same temple to Anociticus. One of the buildings clustered outside the fort at Housesteads contained a small semicircular shrine built to house a triad of unnamed deities, hooded and enveloped in long cloaks. Another building yielded a crudely carved altar deidcated to the Veteres, a cult which is widely attested in the north which seems to have had for its object of worship not of the ‘old ones’, but of one whose name, perhaps Hvitir, lead to an easy confusion with the Latin adjective. A little farther away a statue of Mercury has been found. The names of several other deities could be added in demonstration of the wide variety of cults which were practiced within a relatively small area of military and civilian occupation. Although several of these deities may not have been held in more than local esteem, there were some whose worship is attested well in civil no less than in military areas in Britain. At Benwell, where Antenociticus and his companion had their shrine, there was also a temple to the Matres Campestres, one of the many guises of the Celtic trio mother goddesses whose cult was probably introduced into Britain from Gaul where it was widespread.
Granted, this is from the Roman experience, but there are similar experiences in which individual cults and mystery traditions had spread, becoming interconnected to the religious community of the then-world. The spread of Isis’ cult in Hellenic Greece and the Roman Empire, the spread of Grecian traditions which mingled with Buddhism after Alexander the Great, the spread of Levantine, North African, and other local deities in the period. These motions are all indicative of a fluid religiosity detailed around preference, and opinion, and fitting into a larger framework of personal piety. And yes, we see this even in Christianity and other Monotheisms, although in many cases those are seen as agents of colonization and indoctrination.
Now, we do not know for sure how individually the ancients on a whole viewed these deities. Whether or not they truly believed in them all as individual entities as those who are known as ‘Hard Polytheists’ would is up to debate. Different schools of religious philosophy will espouse varying beliefs, of course. It could be entirely more possible that modernist Polytheists place a great deal more emphasis on the idea of immanent individual divinity. The recorded records only offer a bare fraction of the viewpoints of the periods in which they cover, after all.
I’m sure that there is an anthropological term, beyond appropriation, to reflect this. Most likely it falls under the idea of cultural diffusion and transference. Cultural Appropriation seems to have been transformed, inevitably, into a dirty word. Particularly when those of European stock are involved – most likely a hold over from antagonisms about imperialist colonialism. Yet another rant for another day, and one that is very sensitive to approach.
It is possible that this mentality is a holdover from the dogmatization of religion in the western mind, regarding almost two-thousand years of defined religious orthodoxy. It definitely seems that the idea of strict religious dogma could be imparted by the Christian experience in Europe. But I am as of yet not well-read in regards to all of this. While social theory and cultural studies are not necessarily a new development to me, I’m not particularly well versed yet in the study of religious history.
In the circles I keep, many of my colleagues will invariably shrug their shoulders and say, “So what? I hold an altar to gods outside my path. Why bother articulating this?” I guess the fullest nature of this post is a length justification for why I feel uncomfortable at the idea of religious “purity”. Reading the comments of people who are so “historically minded” yet insist on cultural isolationism struck something deep in me. It is well attested to the ancients that religiosity was not a concrete subject.
I want to make an obvious disclaimer in that I don’t necessarily believe that cultural isolationism is wrong. If one is called to worship, or even if one wants to worship, the gods of any one particular religious tradition, that is well. I am not trying to “water down” religion, trying to turn it into a shifting morass of interchangeable faith and practice. Tradition is an important part of existence, to me. It helps to ground future generations, and it shows continuity with the past. But it is incorrect to say that people who adhere to or venerate other deities are not keeping “to the true faith” simply because they are following polytheist tendencies to recognize the validity of other religious figures. I feel that specific point is what is up for dispute.
Had Christianity not swept through Europe and forcibly displaced all other faiths it came across, there is no telling what would have risen in its stead. Would Vikings have venerated Isis? Who knows. But I do know that it isn’t correct to judge someone who does, so long as it is done respectfully. And I think a respectful polytheistic practice is what rises it up above from the cultural appropriationism that we specifically see tacked onto “eclectic” Paganism.