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That was then, this is now?

Posted by Erik on March 4, 2009

I’ve continued thinking about Reconstructionism and the role of the past in the present since my earlier post this post is a collection of semi-related ponderings, rather than a single coherently ordered argument.

Most of the arguments that I hear against the Reconstructionist methodology seem to assume either that Recon worship is all head and no heart, or (sometimes “and”) that Recons want to recreate the ancient cultural context entirely. Neither assumption, in my experience, is correct. In what follows I will speak entirely of Hellenismos, since that’s the context that I know, but the broad outlines of my argument should be applicable to any of the historically-documented pagan religions that are being revived.

Cultural conditions certainly are different today than they were in ancient Greece, and that’s often a good thing – I don’t know anyone who wants to bring back slavery, even of captured enemy soldiers (well, except maybe some members of the previous administration), or to start exposing unwanted children. The fact remains, though, that this is the culture that first – at least as far as we know – had a relationship with the Gods that we worship, and I believe that fact entitles their ways to thorough consideration, although not necessarily full, automatic acceptance. Reversing Mam Adar’s comment from the previous thread, I suspect that part of the resistance to Reconstructionist methodology in some quarters is the post- (and sometimes anti-) traditionalist stance of much of modern Paganism; if looking to tradition is something that mainstream religion does, then it can’t be valid.

Another point, that I have mentioned before, is that often the Gods Themselves still seem to like the traditional ways, some more than others… and while I might be given the inspiration to do something entirely modern for Hermes, someone else might not – and I have never heard of traditional worship being out-and-out rejected in favor of innovation. There is also the possibility that different people are simply called to different practices (and yes, I know that’s a very modern perspective :).

That said, there are some traditional practices that I don’t plan to take up (without assuming that means nobody ever should) – for instance, I will probably never perform an animal sacrifice. I just don’t have a reason for it; I’m not a farmer, I don’t hunt, and the cultural context is not there to make it a reasonable practice for my city-dwelling life. However, for those who already have a legitimate reason to kill animals for food for themselves or others, I see no harm – and potentially a great deal of benefit – in making it a sacred act. I do, of course, make the traditional mealtime offerings to Hestia… and if I was ever in a position where I had to kill my own meal, you’d better believe that I would offer a goodly portion to the Gods (if nothing else, the fact that I had successfully hunted would be de facto evidence of divine intervention! :).

One area in which the present is clearly different from the past is that the Gods talk to us. According to most of the surviving literature, the Gods generally interacted with kings and Heroes back in the day (with the occasional exception such as a Baubo, or Baucis and Philemon). As far as I know, outside of certain divination practices – and of course the mystery religions, which are in a class by themselves – we don’t really know if the “average Nikos” ever experienced the Presences directly, or expected to – and yet They seem to talk to many of us, peasants though we be.

I have no idea why this is, or what it actually means, but it does seem to me to be significant somehow. Maybe They did talk to the devout of all classes, but no record exists (this seems entirely possible to me); maybe our expectations are different due to cultural differences, and They respond to that, or we just look for Them where the ancients did not; or maybe They are just happy to have worshipers again, and want to encourage us.

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3 Responses to “That was then, this is now?”

  1. Fascinating post, as always, Erik. I have an opinion as to why the gods deign to speak to us ‘peasants’ now, but it is probably not a popular one…

    Mahud lays it out here. The gods have always tried to speak to everyone, but the common people were told that the gods only spoke to the priests. Basically, the temples and governments — which were frequently the same in the old days — stole the gods from the common people, and taxed Spirit.

    Maybe this is just me being a grouchy libertarian, but in my heart it rings powerfully true.

  2. R.D. Hammond said

    Agreed, Jeff—-with a caveat.

    I still believe there were (and are) leaders, both spiritual and national, who had the best of interests in marshaling divine communication through them. If we are to expand our religious experience beyond the personal (and I’m not even saying we have to, just engaging in speculation), organization at some level must eventually happen, or else we’re a stampeding herd instead of a community. We all know what it feels like to get disconnected while talking about the same divinity (“Artemis is a vegetarian!” “Wh–“) Sometimes having someone with a vast knowledge base and a good amount of experience smooths things over.

    That being said, just because we’re not a herd doesn’t mean we have to be a flock. Recall that the Oracle at Delphi needed a male priest to “interpret” her prophecies; you can bet the farm that that situation was oft abused. That’s where it breaks down, really. When someone starts dictating how the gods speak to you, they’ve already detached themselves from the real and present situation… simply because they like to hear themselves speak in important matters.

    (Not to mention they’re putting words in the mouths of the theoi, and that can’t end well.)

  3. executivepagan said

    Jeff,
    You may have a point, although I’m not sure it tells the whole story (I don’t honestly think we can tell the whole story any more). It’s worth remembering that – particularly in Greek culture, but also in Roman, as in Judaism today – a significant part of worship was conducted in the home. Hestia, Zeus Herkeios and Ktesios for the Greeks, the Lares and Penates for the Romans… this worship was not mediated by authority (unless you count the Romans lighting their Vesta from the city’s hearthfire).

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