What is Reconstructionism?
If you’ve heard the word Recon in pagan circles, you may find that it refers to a highly educated individual who has some differing views from the rest of the group. Often this individual will correct others on various pieces of information from history. This is not to say that they are correct, and that everyone else is wrong. It just reflects a completely different point of view from modern neo-paganism.
Reconstructionist pagan religions start with a religion that has not been worshiped for hundreds if not thousands of years and attempts to bring it back. It is imposable to bring a religion back exactly the way it was, because the culture that the religion developed in is now gone, but we can bring back the traditions and the beliefs in order to honor the gods.
There are various religions that we cannot reconstruct because we don’t have enough information about them. If we can’t read the language of the people and not enough was written about the people, then we cannot reconstruct the religion. This is what prevents people from reconstructing Minoan and Etruscan religion. We simply don’t have enough pieces of the puzzle to make out a picture.
There is more to reconstructing a religion than simply getting a list of the gods and worshiping one or more of them. It does no good to worship a god or goddess if you have no idea who they are, what they have done, and what they want from their worshipers. To find this information out we need research and study. This is what gives Recons the reputation for being obsessed with research.
How to Recon
The first thing to do when reconstructing a religion is to find out who the people were. This allows you to get an idea of how to approach the gods, what sort of mind set that they instilled in the people who worshiped them. We may not be able to reconstruct an ancient culture, but we need to understand why they did what they did.
Once you have a good idea of who the people were you need to understand the gods. The best way to do this, at least at first, is to read the myths. The myths give us a glimpse into the lives of the gods. They tell us who the gods were by showing us a glimpse of some of the notable things that they have done.
Many of the ancient myths are damaged or flawed. We should attempt to figure out what those myths meant and what might have been in the places that are damaged. On the other hand there is a point where speculation should stop. A real Recon will never make up the ending of a myth. It is considered particularly despicable to make up sections of a myth simply to forward one’s own religious beliefs.
Some stories were humor and not meant to be taken seriously at the time. This needs to be kept in mind. Ancient peoples had a sense of humor and were sometimes even allowed to poke fun at the expense of their gods. Some of these stories reflect humorous views of the myths, where others were meant to depict some comical aspect of the gods. Either way they are useful in telling about the nature of the gods.
In some religions when one section of the religious doctrine contradicts another section of the religious doctrine the worshipers are encouraged to ignore the contradictions as though they weren’t there. Reconstructionist religions have many myths that contradict other myths. There were many differing groups in most ancient religions, and each of them had a different way of looking at the gods. There will be times when two conflicting myths must be reconciled. One view will need to be accepted while another view will need to simply be understood.
Myths and ancient belief sometimes do not mesh well with modern beliefs and scientific knowledge. The ancients weren’t always right. Occasionally the ancients were completely wrong about something. We don’t simply throw out these ancient beliefs as foolish. Some of the beliefs were meant to be taken spiritually, while others make sense given the context that they lived in. The earth might not be flat, but the sections that they lived in might be.
The myths don’t tell us everything about a god. There might be a god known for farming prosperity that has a myth where they are a warrior. This doesn’t mean that they were a god of war, just that they have taken up arms at one time. It would be like presuming that a person who joined the military for four years was a military commander.
To find out more about the gods you need to read literature written by ancient sources and the scholarly studies that have been written about them since. This requires more research and study. It also requires access to a moderate supply of books and journals.
Once you are this far you can start to reconstruct the rituals and forms of worship. You have enough to know how to be respectful of the ancients, and have probably picked up useful pieces of information along the way.
Be careful as you reconstruct a religion not to throw in old beliefs and biases. If you came from a religion that believed in reincarnation for example, then you might try to see reincarnation or karma in your new religion. If these elements are not there, then don’t add them. If you are forced to disregard what the ancient peoples held dear, or if you are unwilling to give up a strongly held belief, then perhaps Reconstructionism isn’t for you.
Many of the ancient religions have already been reconstructed to some extent. Greek, Norse, Egyptian and Roman religions have been reconstructed and are there to provide support for the interested Recon.
There are also small pockets of Recons who can be found here and there almost at random who are not part of a community, but who would like to be. They may worship less popular pantheons such as Sumerian, Canaanite, Aztec, or Welsh just to name a few.
The first thing to do when looking into a community is to check to see if they are a healthy community. If they tell you not to do research or that they will tell you all that you need to know about the gods, then you should stay away. Religions with a large number of secret teachings or that all live in one big house are other things to be cautious around.
Get to know the texts that your prospective community draws from. The community shouldn’t hide the myths from you or twist the myths to suit their own purposes. They should be free and open with information and act as guides and teachers who help you understand myths and scholarly texts.
A good community should provide education and emotional support. They should stimulate the mind rather than provide dogma. They should provide answers to why they believe what they believe, and how their beliefs differ from the beliefs of other similar communities.
Above all a community should expand your social contact with others rather than restrict it. If the community tells you that they are to be your only contact with the outside world then they are attempting to indoctrinate you rather than educate you.
It is sadly true today that there is a lot of bad information out there. It is easy to assume that something is correct when you see it in two or three sources. There are several things to keep an eye out for when reconstructing a religion so that you don’t fall into bad habits, or get bad information.
Almost all ancient pagan religions were polytheistic. They believed in the individuality of the gods as well as believing in a multitude of gods. This is to say that with a few exceptions the gods were not treated as archetypes. If one were to say that a god was a war god this does not mean that there aren’t other war gods, or that being a war god was the only defining feature of that god.
If you were to say that your mail carrier were not a real person, but simply the modern representation of the concept of a messenger, then your mail carrier might get offended. Saying the same sort of thing about your nation’s leader would imply that one leader is just as good as another. This may sound reasonable, but the argument is quashed the moment a truly bad leader comes into power.
The maiden, mother, crone belief is another example of archetypes. Most goddesses were not able to be categorized in this fashion. Inanna, a popular goddess among neo-pagans, was taken from a Sumerian goddess of love and war. She is no maiden, being in fact a goddess of prostitutes. Though some scholars suggest that there is a chance that she may have had a child, she was never motherly, and is certainly not a mother goddess. She is also not a crone as she is described as a youthful goddess without whom sex does not happen. So what is she? She is Inanna, an important individual goddess among many individuals.
In modern neo-paganism there is a movement to include some aspects of Christianity into their spiritual paths. Since many Recons come to the religion from one neo-pagan path or another, this trend has been brought into some Reconstructionist communities. If your religion didn’t have angels, heaven, hell, a universal force of good and evil, a belief in sin, or an all powerful god, then don’t feel the need to add these elements. Some religions will have some of these beliefs, but others will not. Respect the ancient beliefs enough not to mix and match where you don’t have to.
Recons, being a part of the larger pagan community, are surrounded by neo-pagan beliefs. As with Christian beliefs, you shouldn’t add reincarnation, karma, and matriarchies where they aren’t appropriate. If your religion had an afterlife, then with a few exceptions they wouldn’t have had Reincarnation, and it certainly wouldn’t have been universal. Karma is incompatible with any religion that doesn’t have universal reincarnation, and the more outlandish rule of three was not found in any ancient religion.
Recons tend not to mix religions even if their patron culture adopted other gods and goddesses. This is because they don’t want to blur the lines of their religion any more than the erosion of centuries already has. Mixing and matching religious beliefs leads to beliefs that don’t mix well with each other. It wouldn’t do for example to worship an underworld goddess and also believe that you were born with bad karma from your previous life.