Recent conversations, both on and off the Internet, but in particular this one, have given me the opportunity to think further about our ancestors, our ancestral ways, reconstruction vs. restoration, and other topics along these lines. I have stated here that I consider the logic of people (not just Pagans) engaging in practices ‘just because our ancestors did it’ to be an unsound logic. In that statement, I suggested the fact that our ancestors converted to Christianity, for example, is not really a reason why we should ourselves become Christians. While on this example, I’d also like to point out something that a lot of Pagans don’t seem to place very much emphasis on: a lot of our ancestors were Christians. I also wrote here, in my page dedicated to my perspectives on Paganism, that I am more concerned with the present state of the sources of my beliefs than I am with the past states of them.
Nature, our Universe, exists because of change and adaptation. Science, and every other religion* I can think of right now that has a creation story, tells us basically the same thing: that at the beginning of all things, there was nothing. How the first something appeared in the vastness of nothing is something that has been subject to a variety of explanations; but what remains is that change is what took place, when out of the nothing, something appeared. It is change that made existence possible, and it is change that keeps us going. I bring this up because, with this in mind, I find it highly unlikely that our beloved gods would have remained frozen in time from the moment the last of the classical Pagans converted. It defies logic, in a world where success is often determined by one’s ability to adapt to change, that our gods would not themselves have adapted with the changes brought about by the passage of time, and expected us to change as well.
This brings something else to the fore: our ancestors were, themselves, not at all hesitant about adapting their cultures and traditions. There are plenty of examples of this sort of thing taking place, one that springs to mind is the development of Odin through differing cultures and through the centuries. So, to stand upon an argument that states we should do what our ancestors did, and at the same time shut out the possibility of change or adaptation, expresses romanticism at best, and hypocrisy at worst. While on the topic of romanticism, it seems to me that a rigid approach to our ancestors assumes our ancestors never made mistakes … an assumption that is simply foolish. Yes, I believe our ancestors had a lot of good ideas and got a lot of things right. Yes, I believe it was wrong for the Church (or any other religion, for that matter) to come along and attempt to wipe all traces of the wisdom and perspectives held by these ancestors out of memory. And, yes, I do believe it is wise to trace back through history and attempt to revive and implement those things that our forebears got right. However, my agreement to these things does not mean I feel the need to try to rigidly preserve, in its entirety, a religious perspective that was not without its own flaws. I would like to think that our ancestors would have wanted us to learn not just from their successes, but from their failures as well. I think another important point that needs to be made here is that, even if we could develop a complete and reconstructed picture of the ways and traditions of our pre-Christian ancestors, we would still not be able to see the world the way they saw it. We could, in theory, mimic their traditions and we could also do our very best to understand their perspectives: but the fact remains that the world we we live in now, the world in which we have grown up, is vastly different from what it was back then. Our perspectives are different. To truly reconstruct the religious outlook of our ancestors, we would then not only need a more complete picture of their traditions than we now have, we would also need to change our world and society so that it more closely resembled the world in which our ancestors lived: we would have to unlearn our visits to the Moon.
I would like for there to be no misunderstanding here: I have complete respect for Pagans who express their beliefs with a more reconstructionist approach. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing more than a couple; and I have developed a tremendous respect for the dedication and scholarship that such an approach requires. I’m stating this here because I would not be surprised if some people thought otherwise at this point. It might surprise a few people reading this to learn that I’m actually fairly well-versed in the history and lore of my ancestors, as well. I think, for some people, it’s important to gain an understanding of where they are by having a look back at where they came – I am one such person. But I’m also aware that the way is forward. I can use the past to orient myself; but I carry with me no desire to see the past as my goal.
As I have written before, my more immediate concern is with the gods as they now are, and the wisdom they might impart regarding the world and culture I now find myself in. In a forum I once participated in, there was once a thread where a few people theorized about whether or not Thor would ride around the world today on a chopper, rather than with his goat-drawn chariot. Most dismissed the conversation as pointless; but I saw, and still see, merit to the exercise, in that it causes us to imagine how the gods would present themselves to their followers today. Oftentimes, it is through our imagination that the gods often gain the greatest access to our minds … it is why so much religious authority was placed in the hands of bards, skalds, or simply the stories told by grandparents to their grandchildren near the hearth fire at night.
I like to keep in mind that the light can be just as blinding as the darkness. It’s in a balance of both that we are able to see most clearly. This helps me to remember that extremes can be dangerous. Learning from the successes (and failures) of our ancestors is wise, in my estimation. But blind adherence to our ancestral ways, or worse still, using our ancestors to justify traditions or practices that simply have no place in our world today, is an extreme that I would not allow myself to subscribe to. I would also counsel others to avoid this mentality, as well. The gods were kind enough to grant us hearts and consciences, I think we should use these, along with our imaginations and common sense when reviving or restoring the practices of our ancestors.
*I consider science to be a religious expression in that it endeavors to explain our origin, it endeavors to explain our future, it endeavors to explain Natural phenomena, and has its own set of rituals and priests (in this case, people officiating the rituals). I am further inclined to regard science as its own viable religion because the divide between science and religion that seems to exist these days in Western culture is a fairly recent one: in other cultures, science is often regarded as a study of the tools that the gods work with. I know there are probably more than a few scientists out there who would disagree – and I fully understand why – I simply choose not to limit my definition of religion to a belief in gods the way many people do.