Imagine

medievalImagine a world where Catholicism was suppressed and vanished in c. 1000. And now imagine that a group of people decide to revive it in c. 2000. So they start wearing medieval clothing, gather at religious feasts where they eat mostly or entirely medieval dishes, refuse to worship saints that were not recognized as such by the medieval Church, structure their beliefs based on the writings of pre-1000 theologians and perform both private and public religious ceremonies that reproduce those of c. 900 – including clothing, replicas of ritual tools and the use of Latin. Compared with modern Catholics, these would-be medieval folks look pretty out of touch, outdated even, if not outright fossilized. And yet their actions are akin to those of some modern-day polytheists.

It’s true that there is a difference. Modern Catholicism is a world apart from its medieval version because it has evolved as a living religion, often by pressure of wider society, whereas Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Norse, Celtic or Canaanite polytheisms were suppressed centuries ago and can only be revived if people connect with the historical expressions of those religions. To that end, you need to immerse yourself in ancient cultures in order to see and experience things the way they did, which in turn allows for a greater understanding of their practices and beliefs. Yet this is not an end in itself; or at least it shouldn’t be. The point of immersion in ancient cultures is to understand what is essential and what is non-essential in the ancient religion you’re striving to revive. What is appearance and what is principle. What is social and what is religious. In other words, the point is to re-emerge carrying basic notions into a modern context. If you stay immersed, you’re not reviving an ancient religion: you’re re-enacting it or, to use Dver‘s words, fetishising an ancient culture.

Of course, this is not to say that you should do away with every trace of the past as if it was outdated trash. That would be as radical as trying to go back in time. Respect and reverence for the ancient world is a good thing, especially when your religion is rooted in it, but, again, one thing is respect and quite another is fetishising or fossilising. Traditional Shinto priests, for instance, wear clothes that are modelled after those of court officials of the Heian period (c.800 – c.1200 CE), which is to say that during ceremonial events, they put on ceremonial robes. Yet most of those simply attending don’t wear medieval clothing and instead use what today is deemed as well-dressed or modern formal wear. In the same manner, Catholics don’t put on medieval clothing while attending mass, though a Catholic priest wears robes whose origins go back several centuries. There’s a difference between conducting the ritual-religious and living in the mundane, the former being more conservative than the latter (especially in orthopraxic religions). And even ritual forms change as social context mutates: ancient Jewish communal worship involved sacrificial offerings, but after the destruction of the second Temple of Jerusalem in 70 CE, it fully morphed into a form that we recognize today. This is an extreme example, granted, but the basic idea stands: context changes living things, including religious ritual, which may remain rooted in the past, but will evolve together with trends, ideas, conditions and social practices. And this is equally true for beliefs.

shinto 01

So Romans conducted their religious ceremony in Latin? Why wouldn’t they? It was their native language! Which means that if you’re interested in reviving their religion, as opposed to simply re-enacting it, you can use your own native tongue in religious ceremonies. Add a few Latin words for a sense of connection with the past, if you will, especially if you don’t speak a romance language, but replicate the principle and not the appearance. Romans used togas during religious events? Of course they did: it was formal clothing at the time! So follow the basic idea by dressing nicely to attend a ceremony instead of imitating the appearance by wearing a toga. Romans never syncretised a Mayan or Japanese god with a Latin one and therefore modern cultores shouldn’t do it either? Ridiculous! The only reason why Romans never did it is because they never came in contact with Mayan or Japanese culture. Unless you want to live in the past instead of reviving an ancient religion in the modern world, you can follow the old practice by syncretising whichever deities you know just as ancient Romans syncretised gods they knew. Singers, poets and political leaders who lived after the 5th century should not be worshiped because doing so would be unhistorical? Again, ridiculous! That’s practising a fossilized religion, not a living one! If Romans honoured heroes and venerable dead known in the ancient world, you can imitate the principle by honouring heroes that lived after the fall of the Roman Empire.

To argue that to use a modern language in a religious ceremony, to worship Jim Morrison as a Bacchic hero and prophet or to syncretise Mercury with Inari is any less genuine or worthy because it is not something the ancient Romans did, is as ridiculous as claiming that modern Catholicism is not genuine because it is different from its c. 900 form. You don’t have to live in a medieval fantasy in order to be an honest, modern Catholic, just as you don’t have to agree with Cicero, take Marcus Aurelius as gospel, speak fluent Latin, wear Roman clothing or stick to what the Romans did in order to be a true, modern Roman polytheist. Unless you want to have a fossilized practice or be the polytheistic equivalent of the Society St. Pius X, you’re free to grow past the historical forms and give new, rooted shapes to an old religion and still be a good cultor or cultrix.

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4 thoughts on “Imagine

  1. Reconstructionism isn’t re-enactment, albeit it my experience is from a Celtic Reconstructionist perspective, so I am not as familiar with the proclivities of the Religio community.

    The goal of CR has always been to examine the past (via myth, folklore, cultural and political history and archeology) for those beliefs, practices and cultural values which were inherent in the worldview of the pre-Christian Celts (or in my case, the pre-Christian Gaels). With this knowledge, the next step was (as is) to adapt it into a modern context, but to remain as faithful to the traditional cultural values and perspectives as much as possible (which make for some interesting conversations, seeing as there are living cultures which are predominantly Christian). This is where language preservation comes into relevance, and in the case of the Celtic languages, several centuries of repression tend to have very bad effects on their survival. Albeit, the point of learning the language isn’t so that we may more effectively or authentically worship the gods (because that would be tawdry), but since language is an intrinsic component of culture, it behooves us to aid in its restoration and propagation so that we do not become the terminal points of that aspect of cultural continuum.

    There is of course, always the danger of romanticizing the past, but that is what the hard scholarly perspective is supposed to establish a bulwark against. In my experience the tendencies tend not so much towards over emphasizing the past, but rather with trepidation or abandonment of specific, attested to practices, because they may resemble some modern practices of decidedly non-Celtic traditions (i.e. neoWicca). I suppose when it comes to something like UPG and its inclusion into practice, and its vetting via what is known is this: interpretations of facts and meaning can change, but the facts themselves, do not. I.e. Offering up specific food stuff for offerings is attested to via folklore, and they are X, Y and Z. Some folks have attempted to offer up B (which would not have been available in the given historic context), however, and have had no issues or have received omens indicating the offerings were acceptable. It is a very basic example, but it illustrates the incorporation of traditional modes of worship (i.e. providing offerings of food stuff) with modern sensibilities (something valuable but not Iron age).

    Where issues and challenges arise are in other cases where modern concepts are adopted, which then supersede established or traditional practices, values or understandings (particularly of mythic figures). In the context of the Religio, from my very basic understanding of the historic Roman religion, it at least appears to have been highly syncretic insomuch as the interpretatio romana allowed for the perception of “foreign” deities as reflexes of their “native/traditional” ones. Given that syncretism at least superficially appears to have been a central component, in a modern context it could certainly be something reasonably argued for (i.e. the inclusion of kami as reflexes of established deities).

    In the end, in my opinion, the core of Reconstructionism as a component of a living religious tradition is the discovery of and internalizing of a given world view (and its inherent cosmology, theology, values, etc.) which is accomplished through rigorous study and daily spiritual practice.

    • So we agree. Reconstructionism is not an end in itself, but a tool to discover and internalize a given world view. My problem is when pweople remain in that immersive experience as if it was an end in itself, when it should be about understanding a past culture in order to make its religion(s) a significant part of modern life. As opposed to merely re-enacting the past in today’s world.

      So while having at least a good knowledge of an ancient language is important to grasp its corresponding world view (wrote about that here: https://goldentrail.wordpress.com/2013/06/07/divine-names-or-how-latin-is-no-longer-a-living-language/), it doesn’t mean that you have to perform modern ceremonies in that ancient tongue. Especially if it’s a dead language and most especially if there are modern or descending versions of it. Again, it’s an issue of a study tool with a modern goal and not a tool as an end in itself.

  2. Pingback: Imagine « WiccanWeb

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