View Full Version : What is Norse Reconstructionism?

Tuesday, November 8th, 2005, 01:34 PM
There are many misconceptions about what is and is not meant by reconstructionism in the context of Norse Heathen religion. Simply put, reconstructionism is an effort to re-create, as fully and accurately as possible, the religion of the ancient Norse as it was practiced during the Viking Age. It is differentiated from neo-Heathenry, which uses the Lore as inspiration, but does not have qualms against altering things to fit modern needs and preferences in many

The first thing usually mentioned in response to the above definition is that the Lore is incomplete. How can we re-create our ancestors’ faith when so many of its details are missing? This is indeed a valid concern, and one for which there is no ideal solution. What we, as reconstructionists, are forced to do is to fill in the holes where they exist. This is most often the case for the particular details of rites and rituals; in almost every case we know what was done, but not what words were used. Thus, we are forced to invent the particular, but only in the context of the general. Whenever we are forced to do so, moreover, we do so in a fashion consistent with the Lore that we do have, and making sure that our interpolations do not contradict what does remain.

Thus, contrary to popular belief, reconstructionism does not by any stretch stifle individual creative expression. Where we draw the line at imagination, however, is that we limit it to the specific, rather than inventing the general. For example, we know what holidays the Norse celebrated, and how they did so (in a broad sense). It falls within the purview of reconstructionism to invent the text of a particular rite, but not to declare the existence of a new holiday. The former is specific and fills in a known missing piece of our knowledge; the latter is general and runs counter to what we know about the Norse calendar.

In this vein, we strive to point out what elements of our beliefs and practices are modern inventions, and which are based in the Lore. By doing so we not only indicate to others where they should feel free to invent and compose new material for themselves, but we also flag those areas that may need updating as new scholarly information comes to light. One of the hallmarks of reconstructionism is that, in order to be true to our ancestors’ faith, we must be ready to discard or alter even cherished notions, when those notions are challenged by new information.

Is this to say that reconstructionism is hidebound? Is it mere atavism for the sake of atavism? No; indeed it can be said that the ultimate goal of reconstructionism as such is to become obsolete. This stems from the interrupted continuity of Heathenry and all pre-Christian religious traditions.

When Christianity conquered the North, the continuity of Heathen belief and practice was lost. In the intervening thousand years or so, what vestiges of "organic" Heathen beliefs as may have survived the conversion process were systematically repressed. Fortunately, much (but even so only a fraction) Heathen lore survived in literary sources such as the Eddas, and still more can be gleaned from archaeology, linguistics, and even comparative religious study. However, what remains to us is frozen in time; a view of what Heathenry was like a thousand years ago or more.

It is absolutely certain that, had Christianity not triumphed, Heathen religion would have altered and adapted to fit new ideas, new technologies, and new circumstances. It is endlessly stimulating to speculate on what forms such changes might have taken. Would Thor have been depicted riding a motorcycle, his ever-returning hammer transformed over the years into an ever-loaded rocket launcher? Would the need-fire have been replaced long ago by the electric light? Would people in packed Manhattan streets be praying to Njord to help them find a good parking space? Fascinating and amusing though such fancies might be, they must perforce remain speculation. No one knows what form Heathenry would have taken, had it been allowed to evolve undisturbed.

All of which leaves us with the thousand-year-old snapshot, incomplete as it may be. And what the reconstructionist seeks to do is to get back to where Heathenry left off. To gain as complete an understanding of what Heathenry itself and Heathens themselves were like prior to being put into a Christian-induced stasis. But here is where the "planned obsolescence" aspect of reconstructionism comes in. Once we have indeed achieved that mastery of what things were like, and how they were done, and our understanding of the Gods and wights as our Heathen ancestors knew them is as complete and internalized as it possibly can be, then can we move forward. Only then, when we are as close to our Heathen ancestors as possible in mindset, can we confidently move forward and adopt new traditions. Only then will Heathenry be able to once again grow in an organic manner, changing and evolving in response to the modern world in a manner that would parallel the fanciful "what-if?" speculations. Without that firmest of foundations we believe it is folly to start taking off in new directions and making new customs, adding to or excluding inconvenient pieces of the Lore, and so forth. And I have no illusions that such a process is the work of one or two generations; perhaps my grandchildren, or their children, will achieve that level of Heathen-ness.

This does raise the question of why we place such stock in what our Heathen ancestors believed and practiced. Why are their notions about the nature of the Gods and the world any more insightful than us moderns? Simply put, we do believe that the ancients had a better understanding of the Gods, and a more meaningful and complete relationship with Them. Their ways were the product of thousands of years of experimentation and refinement, discarding what didn’t work and moving forward with what did. The reconstructionist asks: who are we to place a few paltry years’ research against thousands of years of cultural evolution? How can we feel comfortable adding to or discarding what the ancients did, without bothering to figure out what those things are and why they are there, through direct experience? It may well be time (for example) to change the Heathen calendar of celebrations; but we refuse to do so on the spur of the moment, placing our own convenience against the weight of millennia of experience. How can we possibly know what the impact of such a change will have on other aspects of our faith? We are none of us so wise as to be able to extrapolate such answers without having grown up immersed in a Heathen environment, learning the Lore, and living as Heathens.

Note that this does not mean we endorse living every aspect of our lives as if we were in the 10th century! Even the strictest reconstructionist will get immunizations, use electricity, and so forth. But it is possible to enjoy the material benefits of our modern technology without allowing it to completely dominate our lives. When reconstructionists speak of a "return to the land", it is more a call to place oneself in a position where the cycles of nature are apparent, and have a definitive impact on our lives. When reconstructionists speak of "simplifying our lives", it is a call to move away from the materialistic commercialism that inundates modern society, and allowing the patterns of life enjoyed by our Heathen ancestors to shine through.

Reconstructionism is not a call to return to the past. Rather, it is a call to build the future, but only on the firmest of foundations. Building that foundation is the work of generations, but we hope our descendants will thank us, and be all the better, for our work today.

© Marktlander