Reconstructionists and Non-Reconstructionists: A Heathen(ish) Perspective
Posted on January 13, 2015
While I always knew that reconstructionist polytheists and recon-derived Pagans could be a prickly, near-contentious lot, a few events occurred recently that showed me exactly what people outside recon communities thought about these people. In particular, dissenting views on the use of runic script in popular Paganism has highlighted some incompatible mindsets between reconstructionist and non-reconstructionists.
I should begin this by saying yes, some reconstructionist movements have a bad rap. Heathens, in particular, are considered bullies by non-recons. Hell, even by non-Heathens. Most of this is due to their own actions, and is not up for debate here. I recognize this, and it’s been one of the reasons why I have not taken to self-identifying as a “Heathen” until very recently.
Otherwise, a hallmark of reconstructionism is ‘homework’. Reconstructionism is a methodological movement based on historic, archaeological, and literary evidence in order to preserve the factual understanding of a religious identity, as well as to provide a foundation for further growth. The emphasis on this empiric understanding leads many recons in to being well read at the very least, or academic at the very most. Often, they will take a moment in a conversation to correct factual inaccuracies because they’re more well-read than other people in the conversation. Sometimes these are done in a very direct, forward way, which can be off-putting for other people who might not be as used to dealing with a critique.
The emphasis on historic links and traditional understanding of practices weighs heavily on some reconstructionists or reconstructionist derived individuals. For many, they represent the only tangible connection between what we know as factual and what would be classified as fabrication or ‘making it up’. These links are what come under stress when topics of cross-cultural use occur – that is, when the practices and beliefs of reconstructionists are used or employed by non-reconstructionist practitioners.
Because many reconstructionists place a heightened emphasis on the historicity of their traditions they are often considered critical, closed-minded, bullies, or “holier than thou jerkwads” when incorrect procedural application is discussed with other Pagans. Of course, non-recons and be viewed as appropriationists, inconsiderate, and offensively rude by reconstructionists.
An example of this incompatibility in thought would be the discussion that occurred within the past week, a discussion that I had been privy to observing. An individual asked a question about the runes, admitting that he was not very well versed in the practice of them. It became clear over the course of the discussion that their education in runic lore was not only woefully inadequate (as can be expected by a first time questioner), but their interest in other areas of spiritual study was frivolously applied. Statements like “Magic is not inherently dangerous”, and the like were employed.
He was, for a better choice of words, told to move along or buckle down to be in for a long haul of the possibility of an arduous training period. His own words had showed him as being perpetually guilt ridden over his interest in Pagan and occult practices. The Heathen position, of course, elicited a challenge from other non-reconstructionists about how the individual can do “as he wanted” and learn as he wished, with no consideration to the warnings of the reconstructionists. The previous character attacks mentioned earlier were levied at the reconstructionists.
I believe that many non-reconstructionists are surprised and intimidated by the reconstructionist position, but they truly do not understand it. The case of the runes will help explore this point and, perhaps, might lead some thoughts that merit consideration.
The topic of the runes is interesting for discussion, because they straddle both metaphysical and literal topics. They are a system of language which originated sometime within the second century CE and are largely descended from Old Italic writings. They are also very accessible, the second most accessible form of divination aid used within Paganism. There are three major runic sets available for people who are interested, the Elder Futhark, Younger Futhark, and Anglo-Saxon runes, with a bevy of local, ethnic, or regional variants from different dates. Historically speaking, they were used in to the sixteenth or seventeenth century and in to the twentieth as decorative motifs. On paper, their origins seem relatively simple.
For the uninitiated and undereducated they appear to be “the same” as tarot, with a longer lineage. After all, tarot in occult works only dates to the eighteenth century. What’s the harm in treating them the same?
Quite a bit, actually.
Culturally, they’re remnants of the linguistic heritage of the Germanic peoples. Although you will not hear me saying that it should ever be the expressed purview of Heathens and Heathen-like practitioners to have the exclusive right to them. But these cultural qualities are important to reconstructionists. In Germanic practice words have power, and runes as symbolic representations of words have some serious mojo behind them. Acting with the runes without regard to the consequences of it is to disrespect that level of magical working.
Runes tap directly in to the metaphysical worldview of Germanic reconstructionist Heathens. Our cosmological makeup deals with concepts such as Wyrd and Orlæg, systems of cosmic and personal fate and governance which the runes are directly tied in to. One cannot fully appreciate the runes, how they interact with the universe and interpret any kind of universal information, ore more fully appreciating what their innate qualities are without understanding this system. Without it they become a system of cheap tricks, an easily-replicable system of lots.
The two examples above are cultural and procedural differences, or contextual differences, but there is one yet that must be touched up on: respect for the sacrifices to have the runes. The term is often thrown around when reconstructionists criticize the actions of non-reconstructionists, that they “do not have the respect” for what they’re using. In this sense, I feel that this is the case.
People forget one major point behind the runes:
I know that I hung on a windy tree
nine long nights,
wounded with a spear, dedicated to Odin,
myself to myself,
No bread did they give me nor a drink from a horn,
downwards I peered;
I took up the runes,
screaming I took them,
then I fell back from there.
– Oðin, Stanzas 138-139, the Hávamál
Users of the runes that aren’t interested in history of Germanic practice forget that Woden/Odin sacrificed himself to learn the runes. It doesn’t even factor in to their use.
This view, I believe, is more indicative of a greater reaction to the idea of dogmatism from the Christian culture that many Pagans come from. The overwhelming view is that the Hávamál is a series of stories or philosophical views, but not a religious text. The stories in it do not seem to be viewed as legitimate, but archaic myths with no major bearing on the modern world . That maybe there are some points of consideration within them, but nobody believes that they actively happened.
I think this might be one of the biggest problems I have when non-recons approach reconstructionist material. Many of us are polytheists. The gods aren’t literary characters, or human archetypes. Their myths and stories have some kernel of truth in them. Woden sacrificed himself, he hung from Eormensyll, pierced by his own spear as a sacrifice to pull the runes in to our world. Treating the runes as frivolous parlor tricks spits in the face of that sacrifice. Claiming, through one’s words and actions, that the runes aren’t serious reads to many Heathens as not believing in our gods.
If Woden has legitimacy and is indeed “real”, then Woden sacrificed himself to pull the runes in to this world. That is an act of sacrifice of the highest caliber, the sacrifice of one’s own self to further knowledge. Thought he did it for his own devices, the metaphysical knowledge of the runes was disseminated to humanity. Were it not for his actions, they would most likely be residing elsewhere, outside of our reach.
When I read someone saying that the runes “don’t matter”, or that they “can do what they want”, and that “magic isn’t dangerous”, I read that they don’t believe the sacrifices our gods have gone through are real. That they’re delegitimizing our myths as simple stories.
When I read that someone says these things, or that they’re “free to use these symbols” and calling Heathens “condescending”, I also read that they do not believe Heathens are legitimate heirs to these cultures. My train of thought goes that they believe because we’ve ‘converted’, that we’re not an unbroken lineage, we have no right to feel insulted by the inappropriate use of what we believe to be sacred. Because ultimately it translates across to me that they believe we’re “not really Heathen”.
And if I’m reading these things, someone who is one-hundred percent in favor of intrafaith/interfaith dialogue and communities of several different perspectives you can be sure that someone who isn’t will be reading the same way. There may not be any legitimate “heir” to a religious culture that has been broken for centuries, no more than I can claim that I’m an heir to ancient familial holdings in England from my mother’s side. But Heathens and other reconstructionists have every right to be offended by the trivialization of what we consider sacred. And we’re often treated like we do not have that right, and that we’re simply being self-righteous.
Reconstructionist Pagan religions are religions that are steeped in tradition, and many times they have a thorough grounding in cultural or metaphysical approaches which can explain why they do some of the things they do. And yet they – we – are consistently called upon to defend ourselves to people who have zero interest in those traditions.
It is my opinion that we do not owe the explanation in this matter, that we do not need to defend our position on the use of the runes, or of reconstructionist-specific practices that are appropriated by non-cultural focused practitioners. The persistent expectation that we are beholden to people who, for all appearances, don’t care enough to learn the intricacies of the background grows wearisome – wearisome enough to often elicit a very confrontational response. If anything, interested individuals need to put forward the effort and prove that they understand the context of what they’re practicing.
I really do not have a problem with people using the runes outside a Heathen context, or much else. I cannot have a problem with it, I cannot stress about it, because it is most definitely not my place to tell someone that they’re unable to do so. I have absolutely no authority and no right. I also am most definitely not excusing some of the rhetoric that Heathens and other reconstructionists utilize in their defense of their symbols and articles of faith. It is clear that they wield the ideas of sole propriety and historic ownership in such a way that it undermines the communal appearance and has given the lot of us a bad name.
But I can stress that we need to understand the context of the practices that we study, and we have to understand the thought processes of other people if we’re not part of that context. There are reasons for why people do the things they do, and getting incensed and upset that they’re criticizing someone from outside their practice for taking interest isn’t necessarily because they’re being “snotty”.
If we do not understand the context, and try to work with the people who treat this as a sacral pursuit, and give the whole system the respect it deserves, we’re no better than appropriationist plastic shamans who would lift some aspect of indigenous culture and package it for consumption. And that doesn’t do anything but cause bad blood between people.
Thanks for reading.
 I am well aware that there are Heathens and Asatruar who believe that the Lore fills the role of a religious text. These “Lore Thumpers” are vocally loud and, in my experience, overly dogmatic. This isn’t about the legitimacy of the traditions, but as a method of enforcing orthodoxy over an orthopraxic system. It is needless to say that I do not share the Lore Thumper view.
 Never mind that there is plenty of UPG out there by major authors to support the idea that the runes are a near-cosmic level of spiritual entity that aren’t exactly ones with the best interest of humanity in mind. Treating them with respect all their own must be considered, too.