The Reconstructionist Method
Reconstructionist Heathenry. For a phrase that’s so widely used throughout our community, there seems to be an awful lot of misconceptions about what it actually means. Even people I’m close to, people I would call friends, sometimes come to me complaining about how terrible “Recons” are. They go on about how some Recons are idiots or trolls with a ‘holier-than-thou’ attitude, and therefore all Reconstructionist Heathens must be absolute jerks. This usually ends with me pointing out that I am one of the Recons they’re hating on, and them telling me that I couldn’t possibly be because I’m not a schmuck.
Part of the issue seems to be that there’s a lot of debate regarding what Reconstructionist Heathenry actually means. There’s those who say it’s synonymous with ‘holier-than-thou’ Heathenry, or Tyra’s idea of a Heathenry stuck in the past. Sometimes it’s actually self-described Reconstructionist Heathens who muddy the waters of that particular discourse. I’ve seen far too many newer Heathens who decide to follow a Reconstructionist path somehow become convinced that being a Reconstructionist means cutting out any and all spiritual practices or disregarding ALL written Lore because it must be ‘tainted’ by Christianity.
Reconstructionism is a METHOD, not a DOGMA.
There are no specific strictures of theological or spiritual belief that Reconstructionists must adhere to because that would defeat the entire purpose. Instead, Reconstructionism is about grounding modern practice in ancient tradition, not locking ourselves in the dusty vault of history or yet another dogmatic subset of Heathenry. Reconstructionism is an investigatory philosophy, not a canonized orthodoxy.
The Reconstructionist Method
Reconstructionist Heathenry is based on the practice of investigating our history and traditions in a way that both provides a thorough understanding and attempts to minimize the influence of an individual’s personal biases. This is not intended to silence individual opinions, but rather to protect them by providing evidence and allowing each individual to reach their own conclusions. It’s essentially a use of the scientific method as applied to a field of research as opposed to experimental phenomena.
To quote Óðinn, “The wise man knows how to ask a question”.
Björn loves zombie movies. He knows a bit about Draugr, and wants to know if the undead of Heathen Lore were like the zombies in the movies.
Look for scholarly works that might contain topic relevant to your questions, and then mine them for their source materials. Collect all the relevant information together for your personal reference. (This is usually the longest stage.)
Digging through his library, Björn finds plenty of examples of ‘the restless dead’ in the Eddas and the Sagas.
Based on what your research has uncovered form a preliminary answer.
There are some pretty awesome stories about heroes going down into crypts and fighting zombies, and some cool battle scenes. Sounds a lot like Björn’s favorite movies. He decides on some key traits to test. ‘Mindless’, ‘killed by a headshot’, and ‘eats people’.
This step could also be called “Source Proofing”, and it’s all about critically examining your sources. Who wrote those scholarly articles you found? Have those articles been refuted? What about the source texts, who wrote those? Is that Saga you found truly representative of the common conceptualization at the time, or is it a statistical outlier? What about the archaeological record? This is your chance to polish your body of evidence into something more reliable.
The most common mistake made at this stage is to cut out any conflicting sources, thereby shaping the body of evidence to fit your conclusion instead of the other way around. The goal of Refinement is to remove erroneous sources, like articles that have since been disproven by newer scholarship or singular data points that don’t fit with the rest of the statistical model. Like the Piltdown Man.
In hindsight, one of those articles Björn found had no citations and the cool Saga with the heroes going down and fighting the undead ended with them calling on the power of Christ. Still cool, but probably not reliable sources for what the Heathen tradition actually says about the undead.
Gathering together your research materials and check your hypothesis against the existing body of evidence. Does the evidence seem to predominantly support, or refute your position? If it seems like the evidence doesn’t really support your preliminary answer, back up and repostulate the hypothesis before trying again.
Having sorted out his sources, Björn reviews them to see how many seem to confirm or refute the idea that ancient Heathens believed in something like the modern horror genre zombies. He finds nothing in the literature about mindless man-eaters, instead finding examples of fully conscious and intelligent undead. They aren’t even always BAD. Björn revisits his disproven hypothesis, taking this new information into account.
Many aspects of Heathenry are intimately tied to time and place. How does that context affect your answer?
Many of Björn’s later sources seem to frame the undead in a negative light. However, some earlier archaeological evidence seems to indicate that at one point in our cultural history the dead were kept close to home as if to watch over the living. Sometimes people were even buried in the doorways of their houses! So what the walking dead were supposed to be like seems to have changed a lot even before Christianity took over the area.
Summarize and organize your findings. Even if you’re not planning on sharing what you found with other people, this is a good idea just for your own sake. You may want to revisit the topic at a later date and it’s important to be able to retrace your steps if only so you don’t have to do them over again!
One of the most important parts of Reconstructionist Heathenry is realizing and embracing the fact that answers to good questions are rarely simple. Most of the time, you won’t get a cut-and-dried conclusion. Instead, you’re often left with something like a statistical ‘line of best fit’, and THAT’S OKAY. History is a messy subject filled with contradictions, but by stepping back and looking at the bigger picture we can see the trends our traditions took throughout the ages.
In this example, Björn was able to determine that the Old Norse concept of the walking dead didn’t look much like what most modern Americans would recognize as movie zombies, but he also didn’t find a completely definitive explanation of what the undead of Heathen Lore were like either, because there was more than one correct answer. Now Björn knows more about the topic and has a better understanding of how the idea has evolved over time.
That’s it. That’s Reconstructionist Heathenry in a nutshell. Note that Björn didn’t decide that only the oldest interpretation he could find was the ‘correct’ one. Nor did he proceed to the local graveyard to see if his grandmother was literally kicking around in her mausoleum. Reconstructionist Heathenry is not about cherry picking your answers and claiming that your findings are the one and only truth. People who describe themselves as Reconstructionists but then insist that you must believe exactly as they do are missing the entire point. Reconstructionist Heathenry is an ongoing debate. It’s an exploration of both past and present in an effort to better understand where we’ve been and where we might be headed.
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 or differing opinions. 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.