Revisiting the R Word: Toward an Experimental Reconstructionism

Reconstructionism has become a box to tick off (or not) on the pagan questionnaire, an either/or proposition for many. I have had a complicated relationship with this term over the years. My first impression of the word was that it was a bit clunky and then when reduced to the now ubiquitous recon seemed like a children’s toy. And there’s that hint of association of the word with Christian reconstructionism, which although, a foundationless historical fantasy, is a repellant movement associated with the furthermost reaches of evangelical fundamentalism. Yet, of course, the term does suggest that there really is something worth rebuilding from the past, something worth researching as much as we are capable of. So I ardently identified as a Reconstructionist. But over the years I was increasingly put off by those who can well be called textual literalists who used the term in such a narrow sense, with their claiming a nearly fundamentalist authority for medieval texts and academic books about them.  So for a while I started calling myself a post-reconstructionist, but a friend asked me what that really meant, and I had to acknowledge that that could mean so many things, and that after all I am a person who has been using reconstructionist methodology for well over fifteen years.

My main engagement with the word has been within the Celtic pagan community (I am also involved in Hellenic practices), among those who were really trying to excavate, and then operate a polytheistic Celtic spirituality, as opposed to Celtic wallpaper or decals to be stuck on the vehicle of one’s choice. In the mid-90s there were heated debates on terminology—was what people were doing reconstruction? revival? restoration? Some of this had to do with just how much the person in question felt had to be rebuilt and put back together. Those preferring ‘revival’ may have felt the folk tradition was still going, and had sufficient to offer, but really this was a spectrum. This debate was embedded within a greater one of what to call ourselves: shouldn’t we have a Celtic word for our name? Many were offered up, like Sensitrognata, Aurrad, and others. The Imbas organization even voted on this issue with the difficult Senistrognata winning out; though, it seldom seems to be used these days.

But reconstruction became a kind of default. Other communities started using it (or had already been using it) and so there was common ground. It also came to be seen as something of an opposition to Wicca and its claims of somehow being Celtic, or at least  involved with taking a stance against Wicca’s perceived nebulousness, and ceaseless appropriations. For many Celtic Reconstructionists that simply felt a justified response to so many Wiccans claiming that their religion was Celtic (something less frequent today, but still not unusual).

However, for some of us it came to be more appropriate as an adjective that said something significant about our methodologies, but failed to describe an actual religion. Some of my practices are reconstructionist, some are not. Often enough we start from what is scholarly known but the trail—if experientially followed—often becomes indiscernible among trackless wilds. Surely as an experiential path (yes, a path), this is to be expected. By contrast freeways have controlled exits and entries and only so much can be encountered on them; the landscape will often be a blur. Gnosis occurs when one exits and starts to encounter Those that are out there, not just read about Them.

Erynn Rowan Laurie years ago called out for aisling (visionary inspiration) and archaeology! But our dominant western culture is highly dualistic, and there are those who vociferously protest against working with ‘both’ sides of what they see dualistically. Such claims seem particularly odd in a Celtic context; the emphasis on and triads and third terms is something I have long found especially inspiring about Celtic cultural perception. Yet some reconstructionists say only archeological records or historical texts are valid, or at least that which is written in an academic book. There is a problem of epistemology in that attitude, but that I plan to explore in a further essay. Since I’m focusing on Celtic matters here primarily, how does this view correlate with a cultural worldview that prized the mythic, the storyteller’s art, the romantic entangling of knotwork art, and the journey into the mists, the immran? As various classical writers noted, the ancient Celts had a penchant for the ‘irrational’. At the heart of the tradition one finds the pursuit of imbas, the centrality of poetic vision. The filidh worked in liminal zones. One also finds outsiders who are paradoxically of great importance to the society, bands of people like the fianna who are said to have frequently strayed back and forth between this world and the otherworld. Finn’s ability to access supernatural knowledge lies at the core of the Fenian tradition, his easy crossing between this world and the otherworld, his easy intercourse with the aes sidhe and other beings. Finn is a master of ‘threshold’ experiences; in one tale he achieves gnosis (which has a specific bodily location in his thumb) by getting his hand stuck in the door of a sid mound as it is being thrust shut by an otherworldly woman, who had been distributing food in a vessel—stuck in that liminal spot, his finger or thumb is half-squashed; extricating his wounded extremity, he puts it in his mouth and the imbas flows over him and he begins to chant (Nagy)! More familiar are the variants where he is cooking Fintan’s salmon and burns his thumb, and similarly in sucking it experiences a rush of imbas. Even on this ‘side’ the Fianna lived in the wild forests interacting with the non-human. On their forays into wilderness and otherworld they brought back mystical knowledge. In much more recent folk culture much could be said about practices like meeting fairies and obtaining healing powers from them, and other such boons; this is hardly a tradition locked into dry rationalizing and bound in the fundamentalist zeal of printed, fixed texts.

Disirdottir has written cogently about mystic reconstructionism at

http://disirdottir.wordpress.com/about-mrp/.

I am a practitioner of filidecht, which by its nature is a mystical practice. Therefore, I am a mystical reconstructionist. The lowercase r is intentional. There’s a constant back and forth between trying things that we know about from scholarship and then exploring them, bringing them to life. It sounds like some people using the Reconstructionist rubric today are like collectors who want to put artifacts behind glass cases or on pedestals but would never think to actually use them and see how they work and what may result. Or to use another metaphor they are interested in reading ancient recipes but would never want to get their kitchens messy by actually trying some of these things out and tasting the outcome.

Perhaps this is because when we do try them out we may be taken in unexpected directions. If we take the deities and spirits seriously we are likely to be given things to do, actions that will occur in our own contemporary surrounds. There is a gnosis involved in this approach, this experimental reconstructionism. Often enough when we communicate with our peers we find we have shared gnosis. And often enough we end up moving through shifting territories—and end up in ambiguous states between what scholarship has stated and what we experience. In any case, on a huge amount of issues scholarship proposes various theories; scholarship about anything significant is almost always contested. This is something that textual literalists seem unable to acknowledge. To give one example: Is Danu a primal goddess found in Gaelic tradition and cognate with a range of other Indo-European goddesses of very similar names, perhaps even lying behind Brittany’s St. Anne?* Or is she a backformation of the genitive Danaan and strictly relates to the mother of the Three Gods variously listed as Triall, Brian, and Cet, sons of Bres; or alternatively begotten in incestuous union with her own father Delbaeth, Brian, Iuchar and Iucharba, by the medieval Irish monks who composed the Lebor Gebala (Book of  Invasions) from conflicting local traditions (O hOgain, Kondratiev))? So often an experiential approach will lead to a lot of tramping about and then going back to the maps, and then cross-referencing, and then back again: Primal Moist Earth or an agricultural goddess of Munster? There really aren’t easy black and white answers.  Reflexive relationship shuttles back and forth between experience and scholarship. Both are vital to reconstructionist practice.

If reconstructed traditions are to flourish, people will take an experiential attitude. The medieval literature, in my opinion often misnamed ‘lore’, was written by Christian religious. We are not Peoples of the Book; unlike the Muslims and Christians our ‘lore’ is not authorized in revealed texts—in Celtic tradition at any rate. The Book of Invasions should not be read that way. The pieces we have need to be tried out, played with, and experimented with to see what effects result. We need aisling and imbas with the scholarship more than ever.

*Danu references:

Kondratiev, Alexei, “Danu and Bile: The Primordial Parents?” An Trbhis Mhor. Vol.1, No. 4 .

Nagy, Joseph Falaky, The Wisdom of the Outlaw: The Boyhood Deeds of Finn in Gaelic Narrative Tradition.

O’ hOgain, Daithi. Myth,, Legend, and Romance: An Encyclopaedia of the Irish Folk Tradition.

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28 thoughts on “Revisiting the R Word: Toward an Experimental Reconstructionism

  1. An excellent and insightful exploration of some of the ideas we’ve been discussing of late! 🙂

    (The link you give goes to the announcement of my reposting the original essay, btw; the original essay itself is at http://disirdottir.wordpress.com/about-mrp/)

    The choice of capitalization is a good point; I mostly started it because I was using the terms in titles of documents and then carried it through. I should sort out a more deliberate policy.

    Re: the idea of the infallibility of “the lore” vs. the modern individual’s mystical experiences – “the lore” is in large part documented mystical experience that someone else had once, passed along orally who knows how many times, then usually written down with bias by someone who disagreed with at least part of it. Granting that it had validity at the time of origin for the person in question, why assume it is universally applicable for all time? I certainly don’t think all of my personal mystical insights are useful forever for even just me as an individual, nevermind for everyone else at all times.

    1. Of course, on the other hand, the “lore” serves as a guide into an inherently uncertain and difficult realm. Sure and it shouldn’t be treated as dogma, but as a guide it serves its purpose admirably.

      1. Oh, the lore is incredibly valuable, with the appropriate amount of discernment applied. *grin*

        I didn’t come out of one of the “revealed” religions so the habit of clinging to the unquestioned veracity of texts seems odd to me. . . getting a literature degree probably didn’t reduce my skepticism, either. 😉

    2. Thanks! And I changed the link.

      That is such an important point that at some point myths derive from some long forgotten person’s gnosis/aisling. Eternal validity–hmm, sounds like those very large religions, siblings of the desert. Seems to me the otherworld is known for its shifting. So aspiring to barnacle nature for those want to do an echtra is problematic.

      And the lore that is in those medieval texts is not direct lore. A lot of people bandy about this THEE LORE in a way that it’s forgotten that a lot of the medieval texts were written by monks who wanted to preserve Irish stories, but also had their own agendas. I tend to think the truth lies somewhere between Jackson’s and McCone’s positions, but of course they are crucial sources for us. I think that the medieval literature is different from the lore that has been recorded in recent or relatively recent times, which truly is lore in the basic sense of the word.

  2. Excellent! This is something I’ve been struggling toward myself in recent months. I still refer to myself as a “Reconstructionist”, though with some irony as I find myself increasingly separated from so many who identify with that term (through no effort on my part, though – they seem to be getting more and more dogmatic as time goes on). As my writings on lycanthropy should indicate, I’ve also been dealing with so-called UPG (I do still prefer aisling) in plumbing the depths of that method of mysticism. I do hope that my archaeology is sufficient, as well, but without the aisling, that archaeology would be pinning butterflies to cork.

    1. Thanks! I agree aisling is a better word within a Celtic context (and intrinsic to it). There is something undermining about the term UPG anyway. Gnosis should be something quite valuable–and sure, people might be deluded, or have something that is completely personal to them only–but being resistant to it is missing the whole point, I think. I mean where would lycanthropy be without aisling? Surely, old Thiess was telling the inquisitors about his own journeys, as well as sharing an archaic mindset with them that they could not understand.

  3. Really excellent reflections, and ones that I wholly agree with (not surprisingly!).

    Being fond of triads myself (as you well know, in several traditions!), I suggested a third “A” be added to aisling and archaeology for CR folks in discussion with Erynn a few years ago–“argumentation.” And, by that I don’t mean just being bitchy toward one another and getting into heated debates just to get into heated debates (though if you’ve ever watched the Dáil meet in Dublin, everything discussed is heated!), but having actual discussions where different viewpoints are expressed, everyone is respected on each side, and individual positions are clarified and personal stances reached without one or the other side being declared “right” or “wrong.” (Think of “The Colloquy of the Two Sages,” for example…it’s a poetic Q&A, but each of the poets gives an answer that is valid, in essence.) The methodologies for many of these things are there in the texts, if one doesn’t read the texts as mere repositories of lore, but instead as concerted attempts to work out the answers to some of these questions for oneself, in however limited a way one ends up doing so…

    I’m also a fan of calling my CR practice gentlidecht, an actual Old/Middle Irish word for what non-Christian Irish practice was, even if it is one that seems to be determined by Christians. It can mean “gentile practice” (which, strictly speaking, is correct and even possibly non-pejorative!), or–in that lovely tradition of Irish etymologizing, applied here uniquely and innovatively–it could mean “practice of the geniti,” which is elsewhere identified in Irish literature as a class of spirits, who seemed to be nature spirits as well as battle spirits (e.g. the geniti glinni, “spirits of the glens/valleys” that are heard to howl when Cú Chulainn is in his warp-spasm, etc.). Gentlidecht is, essentially, Irish pagan practice as it is recoverable, even if there is some Christian and classical re-envisioning mixed in with it–but, it is not shy to admit that as a possibility and as part of the mixture. What gets on my case is people thinking that any of this lore was “written by monks after listening to druids,” rather than being largely original materials, or at least original retellings of mythic materials, re-told within a particular poetic methodology and procedure that I suspect is one of the only things largely unchanged between the pre-Christian situation and the post-Christian one in Ireland. While overt and unpalatable Christian materials can be easily removed and edited in gentlidecht, sometimes it’s difficult to do so without actually undermining the entire structure of a particular matter. But, because I am aware of how syncretism works, whether we like it or not, I’m not that bothered by such things…

    1. How about aisling, archaeology, and colloquy? Loses the triple A but unfortunately my experience is that people seem incapable of ‘argument’ in the academic sense, without losing it and descending into personal attack, smears and the like online—at least much more often than not.

      I was intrigued by what was said about gentlidecht at last year’s P’Con. I love the word play (is that one n? I seem to recall two n’s in Adomnan of Iona’s report quoted in that post-Hutton article). That it connects with the spirits of the glens is truly wonderful. And that it is genuinely from Gaelic usage adds to its value. I’m thinking of using it myself as an identifier. What would be the form for the practitioner?

      My thoughts that lore is being used in this sloppy way are based on that it seems it has become the common belief among so many CR people that the monk writers just went out there and transcribed the tales from the last druids—practically like they were anthropologists doing fieldwork.

      I think somewhat the opposite has occurred with attitudes toward Welsh matter. The gogynfeirdd being cast out as simple inventors, completely unaware of native pre-Christian traditions (I guess this could be called the Hutton position); it seems to me that they were doing their version of gentlidecht, as well.

      1. There’s a book I’m reading on Roman religion right now, that I’m only one chapter into, but I love it already, by Clifford Ando called The Matter of the Gods: Religion and the Roman Empire that is essentially arguing that the Romans had knowledge (and empirical knowledge) in contrast to Christian “belief,” and that the orthopraxy of their religious rituals was more derived from “this is what we know works” rather than from some sort of conservative traditionalism, but that in fact things were adapting all of the time based on new info, which is what would be classed “UPG” by a lot of these (uninformed) reconstructionists. So, they too were experimental reconstructionists, from the sounds of it…

    2. I was looking around my little Irish dictionary (like you do), and noticed that the modern form of gentlidecht would be gintlíocht. The word, in fact, exists in modern Irish meaning “sorcery” – which is approximately what draíocht (“druidry”) translates to, as well!

      1. Fascinating! I wasn’t aware of the continuation of the term into Modern Irish…and, it makes even more sense to adopt it as a term for what some of us are doing, particularly as it can encompass so many practices (including filidecht, etc.).

  4. To echo everyone else, this is great! I’ve said many of the exact same things before, often prefacing my workshops on Greek polytheism and domestic practice with a “So when I use the word ‘recon'” that ends along the lines of “…I really am talking about syncretism.”

    I especially like the phrase “experimental reconstructionism,” which I will happily steal from you =P And your assessment of the subject as a methodology, not a religion, is very true and something that needs to be understood more widely.

    I say that “For reconstructionism (as a methodology) to work, you have to pick a place (Chalchis!) a time (Bronze Age!) and a person (A peasant woman!). But since neither you nor I are a Bronze Age peasant woman from Chalchis, we’ve got to take what we learn about that person’s religion and then adapt it to our own lives.” Now I’ll say, “…you’ve got to *experiment.*” Thanks!

    1. Regarding experimental reconstructionism: Use and share it by all means! (and attributions are happy-making).

      Regarding syncretism: A lot of the folks who think there is something wrong with syncretism, don’t consider the origins (or emergence into a historical light) of the tradition they think of as ‘pure’. I mean, Hellenismos is so visibly of both Indo-European and the influences of the Minoans, Anatolians, plus peoples living in Greece before the Greek arrival, and other Mediterranean peoples. To say nothing of the meeting and blending of local cults within Greece to produce what is more familiar to us.

  5. Pingback: Experimental Recon at PantheaCon ’14 | Finnchuill's Mast

  6. Pingback: A Note On Celtic Reconstructionism | Finnchuill's Mast

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