Tyra Ulfdottir recently wrote a piece that’s getting a LOT of attention, called “Reconstructionists are Idiots”. In it she hits on a number of issues she’s encountered within Recon circles, pointing out the all too common refrain of “You’re doing Heathenry wrong” that seems to be so abundant in our online communities. She also went into some very good points about the dangers of being trapped in the past, and the need for a Modern Heathenry. So why am I (a self identified Reconstructionist) not offended by this piece? Well, because Tyra’s not entirely wrong.
The kind of people Tyra describes are, indeed, all too common. My Baptist grandfather used to call this kind of person “Sister-Bertha-Better-Than-You”, and they exist in every branch or every religion. They’ve always read twice as many books as you, and have been doing it for at least “TEN TIMES as long as you!!!1!” Recon Heathenry is no exception there and I think we can all agree that these people tend to be fabulously annoying. That said, a few bad apples is no reason to toss the bunch! As to Tyra’s thoughts on becoming overly mired in the past, I think most Reconstructionists would actually tend to agree with her. This seems to be a common misconception regarding Recon practice. Let me just say that what follows is my own take on Reconstructionism. I do not, and cannot, speak for everyone who identifies that way, but I can explain what Reconstructionism means to myself and many like minded Heathens.
What is Heathen Reconstructionism
Tyra’s impression of Reconstructionist practice is one of stagnant reenactment, and that seems to be a pretty common reaction. It’s easy to see where this comes from, I’ve run into it plenty of times myself. I know a number of ADF members who are huge history buffs and take great joy in trying to piece together very specific periods in religious history. If that’s how you connect to your öorlog, and your ancestors, then by all means go for it! Where I disagree with The Rational Heathen is that this type of practice isn’t any kind of core element of Reconstructionist philosophy.
Reconstructionism (in general) isn’t about being locked into the past, it’s about roots. It’s about grounding modern practice in ancient tradition, not locking ourselves in a dusty vault. Heathenry is very much a living thing. Trees grow over decades, or even centuries, changing with the seasons and the climate. Some branches fall, new ones sprout, individual leaves are in a constant state of change, but without strong roots, the mighty oak would crumble beneath its own weight. Reconstructionism isn’t about zeroing in on one specific era and trying to reenact it with precision, it’s about trying to understand the whole of our history, and keep it alive in our modern practice. The tree without the roots is weak, the roots without the tree are meaningless. Only by understanding where we came from can we comprehend where we are going.
The Shattered Cup
Tyra wrote an amazing analogy for Heathenry in her piece:
“Piecing those bits [of history] into actual fact is like trying to put together one shattered cup from a pile of shattered pieces of several cups that have been left outside for years. Yes, you might get something together that looks like the original cup, or you might be missing pieces, or you might have put several pieces of another cup into the cup you were trying to restore. And even if we want to put together this cup, is it something we put on the shelf and look at it, or is it something we use?” – Tyra Ulfdottir
This bit was brilliant for all kinds of reasons, and I couldn’t agree more. The natural progression of Heathenry was interrupted by the Christianization of Scandinavia just as surely as Judaism was by the destruction of the Temple. It changed us. Much of our Lore and ritual was lost and may never be fully regained. Our cup was shattered, but we made a comeback; Heathenry is a living faith. Far from settling for a cobbled cup however, Reconstructionism is about learning make our own cup based on the knowledge of those who came before us. Further, it’s about being willing to put the craft to the test, refining the technique again and again; making a better cup every time we learn something new.
But What About the Dreaded U.P.G?
Unverified Personal Gnosis. Depending on who you’re talking too, it’s either the heart of the faith or the bane of our existence! Too often this concept is held up as some kind of Reconstructionist litmus test, and it’s ridiculous. While I’m sure they’re out there, I have never met a Heathen who didn’t have some kind of thought or opinion that could be termed “UPG”. Not only is it perfectly normal, I’d argue that it’s a natural part of religion in general. The one and only time this ever becomes an issue is when people try to use it as an authoritative platform.
If Bob likes to offer single malt scotch to Odin on the holy days because he had a dream in which Odin said he liked scotch more than mead, then that’s entirely Bob’s prerogative. If Tyr told Bob to go into law enforcement, then that’s nobody’s business but Bob’s, and griefing him over it would make you a jerk. On the flip side, if Bob tried to say he was the “Chief Justiciar of all Heathens” because Odin said so, that’s not gonna fly.
Such outlying cases may exist, but obviously they’re hardly the norm. The more pressing issue is usually one of authenticity. Not of the practice itself, but of the people presenting it. Those who often complain about UPG are usually objecting to those who claim to be sharing “ancient proverbs”, “secret unbroken traditions”, or “lost arts”. In many (most) cases, these are modern inventions being passed off to beginners as ancient knowledge in order to lend the creator credibility. The new proverbs and traditions themselves might be perfectly fine, but our history is muddied enough already without charlatans making the philosophical equivalent of artifact forgeries. There’s nothing wrong with new art, poetry, and traditions, just be honest about where they came from!!
Reconstructing a Modern Heathenry
Once upon a time even our most ancient and sacred traditions were new. They developed naturally, over time, as local communities accepted and discarded rituals as the need arose. Reconstructionism is not the rejection of new traditions, it’s the weaving together of a broken history. It’s studying the old songs, so that we can write new ones. It’s learning about the ancient prayers, not so we can copy them, but so we can reclaim the art that was used to make them in the first place. We’re not here to trim away the artists and visionaries that shade the tree of our tradition, taking in the sunlight that keeps us alive, we’re here to maintain the roots that hold them aloft and keep us all grounded. A living community needs both of these things.
Only by understanding where we came from can we comprehend where we are going. That is what Reconstructionism means to me.