Recently, I read a post on Of Axe and Plough about what happens after reconstructionism (in the “post-recon” environment). The concepts of renovātiō (renewal), resitutiō (restitution), and reparātiō (restoration), which the author applied to considering modern revived polytheism, are a good start and an excellent seed for discussion. From the post:
We must then collectively begin our processes of renovātiō, renewing the virtues and lifeblood of our religious paradigms through individualization, group engagement, and social views. We must engage in resitutiō, some manner of restitution to the world around us, the numinous and the ethereal, for though we are independent beings we are still products of a system that has eschewed propriety for this world and our gods. And we must reach and have as our goal reparātiō, the restoration of our religions in a self-sufficient, vibrant, and living groupings of entities that recognizes the worth of the world around us, the gods themselves, and seeks to better the relationships between humanity and the other world(s).Marc, “‘Post-Recon’? What happens next?”, 23 May 2020
In the modern polytheist movement, though, we have a few more things to consider than “what comes after research and reconstruction?” because religion is complicated, and many of the dynamics at play are assumptions about what we are doing and why.
Namely, the religions are not always ours even if the Gods are. Sometimes, this is because we are intentionally doing something syncretic; at other times, we just don’t know who we are and why we’re doing what we do enough to know.
What do I mean by that, though? In late 2018 and early 2019, while writing the initial drafts of what would become “Is My Libation To-Go Cup Authentic?” for Eidolon, I had to confront the juxtaposition of the terms recon and revivalist and figure out what they actually meant in a non-superficial way. During the process of asking myself questions and refining what I wanted to say, I realized that the distinction between the two was harmful — in fact, often connected to unchecked assumptions about authenticity and purity that rose to prominence during the 19th century. Racist ideologies were informing the way people viewed Classics and the Greeks, and those are the underpinnings of much of the content we still experience culturally in school history books, myth retellings, and narratives of intellectual progress, at least in the United States.
Eventually, after some things that happened last summer on Twitter, I decided to drop the Hellenism label and go for Hellenistic Syncretic Polytheism, to which one can add some kind of prefix that describes what it’s in syncretic union with. The reason? I have a connection to the pantheon of the Hellenic Gods, along with Platonism and a few other things, but as far as reconstructing the religion is concerned, maybe “ours” is not the right way to describe welcoming the Hellenic Gods into my life. I’m not trying to be culturally Greek even though our rituals for a God may look nearly identical. Adopting the HeSP label felt like coming into steady peace after a long time of turmoil.
Previously on this blog, I said that I grew up in Wicca-like Neopaganism, and the turmoil I am referring to in the paragraph above is my 20s. At 20, I came into (what I called at the time) Hellenism or Hellenismos. At the time, there was a strong anti-Wicca sentiment that occasionally led to accusations of secret Neopaganism and impiety. An awkward girl worried of being singled out to be ostracized, I felt a lot of shame about my upbringing in the “wrong” kind of Neopaganism. (“If I do everything correctly enough, it will make me safe.” Ha.) There were a few non-Hellenic Gods whom I had worshipped as a child and teen, and I feared worshipping them just in case people found out. Some of the fear was valid and based on what I observed; some wasn’t.
What is mine is that desire to worship Gods properly, with the symbols and tokens appropriate to them, the roots established thousands of years before me. Maybe “post-Recon,” at least for people in similar situations, looks like letting go of pretenses and being freer to worship a pantheon while still engaging in some practices that we grew up with, like solstices and full moon rituals. It looks like syncretism, with the household Gods and ancestral practices of a person not necessarily matching the exact pantheon(s) le worships more deeply on a daily basis — a continuum of pantheons with an undercurrent of commonalities, with values like piety at the core. 🤔 Like the large, multicultural cities in Late Antiquity, but with better waste disposal, vaccines, and more access to education. 🤔 It looks like me in the kitchen making lussekatt to offer to Helios for the winter solstice, popping by the liquor store to buy mead for my ancestors when I’m out of the bottle that’s always in my fridge, singing medieval French songs (voici le mai, le joli mois de mai / qui nous demain), and discovering that the holy basil tisane that I offer to the Hellenic Gods instead of wine might be a very deeply French thing because basil was once sacred there, too, but also deeply Dionysian because tulsi is also a liberator. It is very quotidian and very unique.
Yet — maybe this is the backlash, or at least a portion of it? The breakdown of rigidity and the embrace of ambiguity?
Honestly, at this point, how I view recon practice is as a methodology for grounding one’s religious rituals in the concrete human-divine experiences lain down over thousands of years, much like geologic strata. It is important to know what to offer to a God, why one offers that, and the way ritual is done and why. For those of us who do not have cultural ties to a place and/or a people, there can be an added dimension of exploring how a God’s worship was transmitted to ancient “outsiders” and what that might mean for our cultus. (Gods do not usually belong to place, but places have unique ways they relate to Gods.) If the Gods have their symbols and tokens sown throughout the universe, how else would we know than by study and experimentation — in a new location, in a new time — what the most appropriate offerings and practices are for them? People are the ones who need to learn and disseminate these findings.
For those not raised in Neopaganism, “post-recon” will look different. Ideally, our theologians, philosophers, and their transmission intermediaries (often religious officiants) will have helped people with foundational polytheistic concepts enough that an individual can navigate how to build a sustainable daily ritual practice and sound worldview without being a scholar — something we have all been saying for decades at this point, but that is difficult to actually achieve.
To be frank, there are a lot of dangers that we have not explicitly stared in the face that worry me more. At the end of Chlup’s Proclus: An Introduction, the author traces how Proclus (a philosopher who led the Platonic Academy in the 400s CE) has been influential to subsequent generations. This got me thinking about impermanence and the merciless march of history. Polytheism is present in these echoes like a persistent faint heartbeat. Polytheist and pagan revivals have never stuck, broadly speaking. Historically, the world seems immune to large-scale revivals. We cannot overturn the cultural revolution of Late Antiquity and the conversion-conquests that swept the world thereafter.
A backlash against reconstructionism, if driven by anti-intellectualism and a desire for no boundaries, citations, or standards, will rip us all apart. There is also divisiveness about how to account for appropriation in reconstructionism and what to do instead, which stands a good chance of tearing apart communities; many people can’t handle the conversations because they fear the outcomes. As our social-media-driven world fragments, and as we become more fractured, radicalized into our own Whatevers, and incapable of coming together in community, I often doubt that any of our modern polytheisms will survive more than a generation or three outside of small geographic pockets that just happen to have a lot of Neopagans. The rest of us are bright fires flaring only to be quenched in darkness.
Or maybe not. Maybe this time, we have enough momentum to persist. 💪 And the most we can do is to pray to the Gods for good things and back that up with behavior. ♨️
Edit at 6:45 PM: An addendum about intellectualism and the mountain of books —
In this post, I decided not to focus on intellectualism and intellectual activity even though those are two major things that have been coming up in the “post-recon” conversation. Doing research on the Gods I worship is not my primary religious activity. While I enjoy what I do read, I am usually interested in applying it to ritual or using something interesting as a seed for writing poems than in taking a never-ending dive into the intricacies and uncertainties surrounding cultus in scholarship — there is always a concrete outcome that I am aiming for. I’d classify my recent reading in Platonism outside of my typical goal-oriented reading because, while I do try to apply what I read, it’s just different in a way I don’t know how to explain.
When I redid my bookshelf configuration recently, I chose to store the primary sources — translations of hymns and philosophers, modern polytheists writing on theology, and so on — beneath one of my shrines. The secondary literature is (mostly) separate.
However, I have maintained shrines since my preteens. My first shrine was a small bench that I made in my middle school shop class. I had a shrine on the bookshelf in college even though I didn’t pray at it as often as I could have. I read widely, and voraciously, and I often tweak small elements of ritual with other things — breath of fire before or after using prayer beads, for example, or broadening or narrowing out what I say to a God when I give lim an offering. I would do these small experimental things even without referencing books just based on intuition and lived experience. The “lived experience” thing is the key, especially when grounded in values, a foundation of religious education, and piety; but is that alone enough to make something post-recon? Who knows.