• Jess

Return of the Old Gods: Reconstructing Religion

Updated: Mar 31

The number of people who choose Paganism as their religious or spiritual belief system seems to be increasing as disillusionment grows with capitalism, the body-mind dichotomy and the rejection of the sacredness and sentience of the earth and the other beings we share it with. As a proud Heathen and an animist, I take great joy in this shift.

While Wicca has long been a popular witchcraft tradition, reconstructionist traditions are finally attracting the attention and respect they have always deserved. As a practitioner of Irish Paganism and Norse Paganism, my practice is informed by my intuition and by the wisdom shared with me by my ancestors and wights, but it is rooted in a reconstructionist framework.

What do I mean by reconstruction? I mean a return to the pre-Christian beliefs, primarily polytheism, animism and a focus on community, honour, courage and hospitality. Reconstructed beliefs and practices can be rooted in the Sagas and Eddas in Norse culture and within Irish Paganism, in texts like the Battle of Moytura, the cattle raids, and the Book of Invasions.

Within these texts, we see an understanding of how the world was created, the origin stories of our gods, the significance of sacred sites, the genealogies of our gods, the taboos we are to respect and the language and ritual gestures we use when asking for the assistance and attention of our gods and spirits.

So, where do we as reconstructionists look for the sources of our practices? How exactly do you reconstruct broken or obscured traditions? Some of the main sources we use are history, theology, archaeology, linguistics, sacred sites and burial sites, along with the folk customs of indigenous people who kept fragments of tradition alive. We use the writings of Christian monks and scholars like Saxo Grammaticus or Snorri Sturluson to glean insights from those who engaged with the cultures and practices we are studying.

If this sounds like a lot of work, it is. Beyond reading reliable sources, we must be able to try and discern the bias of the writers and assess whether they are reporting accurately or if they had a vested interest in spreading inaccurate information for political, economic or religious reasons. Learning pieces of "dead" languages like Old Norse or Old Irish is no easy feat, and personally, I am eternally grateful to the translators and linguists who do this work for the benefit of community. It's astonishing how much is literally lost in translation because of the wide variance in our conceptual frameworks and cosmology.

In addition to examining the history of the cultures whose practices we are breathing more life into, we must also interact with their contemporary counterparts and look for the ways in which traditions have been preserved, often through folklore which many would label as "superstition" "old wives' tales" "just how things are done".

We don't learn all of this for its own sake. We learn it to inform our practice, on a daily basis and for seasonal festivals and observances, and as a way of showing respect to the deities and spirits we serve by taking the time to learn appropriate ways to address and honour them.

It's important to note that most reconstructionists are not seeking to reconstruct every aspect of the source culture of their religious practices as they were originally practiced. Ritual human sacrifice and slavery, among other things are rightly considered abhorrent in contemporary times. Recreating our historical practices must be approached with the values of the times in which we live-- respect for the sacredness of all life, uplifting the dignity and freedom of all people, respect and responsible stewardship of the earth and our non-human kin.

If we take our practices seriously, then by necessity, we must stand against racism and white supremacy, against clannishness and claims of racial purity, against the exploitation of people, the land and animals. Honour, hospitality and courage are at odds with claiming that oppression has any shred of nobility or divine order. We are responsible for our conduct, not just in the presence of our community members, but in the presence of our gods, our ancestors and the spirits which surround us.

If all of this sounds terribly serious, it's not. Many of the gods I have friendships with have a sense of humour and are quite appreciative of sincere prayers, humble food offerings (though they're delighted to receive extravagant gifts too, whether that takes the form of expensive liquour or creative works like paintings or songs).

They can meet us where we are, respecting our best effort and knowing that the world has changed dramatically since their songs were sung and their offerings made in every village in their homeland.

The friendships I've forged through mutual wild enthusiasm over new developments in burial sites, archaeological findings and the resurgence of folk music informed by the old gods has been quite something, and I'm deeply grateful for the community I've found.

The thing about old gods is they find clever ways to survive. They have learned to exist with less and are grateful to receive more. May we raise up their names and their wisdom and by doing so, make the world a more hospitable and honourable place.

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