The problem of reconstruction

The project of reconstructing an ancient religion has unique challenges. If the practice of a particular religion requires reconstruction, the culture in which it originally existed is dead. Perhaps the religion can be reconstructed, but the culture in which it existed cannot be revived. How then to know what to take and what to leave behind? This is a structural problem, complicated by personal sensibilities and religious feeling.

Here, in this entry, I’m not thinking about my opinions on the issues that face reconstructionists as much as I’m thinking about the nature of reconstruction.

In Wicca and the neo-pagan community that stems from it the issue does not arise. Although Wicca claims an ancient heritage, in fact it dates to about 1952 and incorporates elements of various occult lodges of the 19th century. Wiccans approach the problems of reconstruction by ignoring them. 21st century Wicca largely takes an unstructured syncretic approach to historic religion — it takes the trappings it likes, but ignores any historic contradictions that result.

Other groups, calling themselves pagan (not neo-pagan!), polytheist or heathen, take on the projects of reconstruction directly, although often with highly devisive opinions about how strictly to approach their project. I’m thinking of the Norse, Germanic and Baltic heathens and Celtic pagans, as well as Roman and Hellenist polytheists.

Among the the heathens, the problem of reconstruction seems to center around a debate about whether it is a “folkish” religion. If, as for many, rejecting Christianity is followed by a desire to explore the non-Christian faith of their ancestors, then it makes sense that the old Norse and Germanic gods are part of the heritage of the Scandanavian and German people. How can such gods ever belong to those from another culture? At the most conservative extreme, the heathen reconstruction project is hijacked by white supremacists. A more moderate position leads to the questionable search for a way to believe that a person of a different background might have Germanic ancestors. The favorite way of making this connection is to link any culture connected in some way with the Roman Empire to the fact that the Romans used Germanic auxillaries; therefore, anyone who is even remotely European could have a line of Germanic ancestry. A more liberal approach is to simply acknowledge that anyone called by the gods should be welcome in the heathen community. All of these approaches to reconstruction can be found in Asatru, the largest of the heathen projects in North America. However, Forn Sed has a different solution to the problem — instead of reconstructing the antique religion, they approach it as a revival of ancestral customs. This formulation allows them to avoid the conflicts inherent in reconstruction.

The same structural problems, and the same types of solutions, exist in Roman polytheism. I’ve spent a great deal of time in this journal looking at two related problems — how can a religion as inherently formal as the Roman religio be restored with few surviving texts, and how can it be restored outside the traditional lands of the Romans (lands that were much smaller than those ruled by the Romans as part of their empire). But, there are actually two much more difficult issues involved in Roman reconstruction — animal sacrifice and the status of women. (The same issues potentially exist in heathen reconstruction, but they don’t draw the same vitriol there; heathens are restoring a religion that was far less structured.) Nova Roma, the leading organization for Roman polytheists, currently refuses to allow women to become Pontiffs, while it takes a neutral stand on animal sacrifice, neither requiring it nor condemning it. In practice, these are highly devisive issues.

Now, what sets off a reconstruction project from simple neo-paganism is the idea that the ancient faith, whichever faith it is, should be restored as fully as possible. Highlighting this approach, Asatru proclaims that it is “the religion with homework.”

The catch is the formula “as fully as possible.” The original cultures of reconstructionist religions are dead. They cannot be revived. But, certain elements of the religion were rooted in the culture. Unfortunately, there’s often no bright line between religious practice and its culture. And, if you approach reconstruction with the idea that you’ll leave out all the parts you don’t like, how is that an authentic reconstruction? And too, if you start leaving out quite a bit, at what point do you no longer have a defensible reconstruction? At what point does the project become just a modern religion flavored with an antique culture?

I would like to believe in the projects of reconstructionists. I would like to think that it is possible today to practice an authentic version of an antique religion. The problem for me is that, in the absence of general agreement about the essentials, I don’t see a way to rationally choose between competing theories about what is essential and what is not.

Some aspects of reconstruction can be decisively decided by reference to personal moral principles. For example, I first encountered the problems of reconstruction in the context of heathenism back in the 1980s (having come to it from a variety of initiatory Wicca). Although I was strongly drawn to the Norse gods, I did not like the direction heathenry was going. I was hearing rants about a war for the soul of America between the White race and the Hispanic race. Pure racism, in my opinion, and not an authentic restoration of antique Norse belief. So, I left. That particular group, now reincarnated with a similar name, is still preaching its version of a race war, but I’m not interested.

Other aspects of reconstruction are just as clearly contrary to modern sensibilities, but perhaps harmless enough. Nova Roma will not allow women pontifices at the moment. That could change. Nova Roma has already allowed full equality for women in other respects, even where doing so has been entirely contrary to historic practice. Pontifices were historically male, so I see the conservative argument for holding to the ancient practice. But, I’m also reminded that the Roman Catholic church still prohibits women priests, while the Episcopal church has accepted them. Now, I was an Episcopalian when we made the transition to having women as priests. After much soul-searching, the church decided that the historic practice of limiting the priesthood to men was a matter of cultural tradition, not a matter of theology. A lot of people were very upset. Some people doubted the efficacy of sacraments administered by a woman. I sailed through the tumult without much interest in the subject. It will be no suprise, then, that I approach it the same way in Nova Roma — I don’t think it would hurt anything to have women as Pontifices, and I don’t think it will be end of the world if it takes a while to get there.

The real challenges are those problems that lie between these two; that cannot be clearly decided by reference to personal moral principles and that are perhaps not quite so harmless. A good example here is animal sacrifice. Many of us moderns are surprised at first by the idea that anyone would want to do such a thing. Yet, anyone who eats meat is already participating in a much larger and much more cruel system of killing animals. (Don’t get me started on the abuses of the food industry.) If an animal already destined for the dinner table loses its life humanely and in the context of a religious ritual (and still ends up on the dinner table), where’s the harm? I don’t know what to make of this argument. At first, it struck me as simply odd. On closer reflection, it seems sound enough but still odd. Yet, I can’t get away from the idea that animal sacrifice was an historic practice of many ancient people, including the Jews and the Romans. Indeed, if the Jewish Temple could be rebuilt, many Jews believe that the Temple sacrifices would necessarily be resumed. Not only was animal sacrifice an historic practice, but it seems to me that it was not simply a cultural artifact in the way that the subjugation of women was. Indeed, the idea of sacrifice seems to underlie the whole structure of the religio (even though certain rites required only sacrifices of grain, wine, incense, flowers, whatever).

It seems to me that, absent a clear argument against reviving a particular practice, the reconstructionist is bound by his or her project to restore all that can be restored. If not in one’s personal practice, at least by assenting to restoration by one’s particular reconstructionist community. I’m not firmly convinced that this is the correct principle, although it will go a long way to explaining to my friends why I belong to the Boni, or conservative, faction of Nova Roma. Having associated myself with a reconstructionist project, I feel compelled to accept the restoration of every aspect of the ancient religio that is both authentic and not personally repugnant to me.

Yet, I still have a sense that I am overlooking some essential point, and that perhaps the point I am missing is that I am personally more syncretic than reconstructionist at heart.

It’s not my project here to arrive at any conclusion. And, I don’t expect anyone reading this to classify the moral urgency of different issues in the same way I do. What I hope to have done is, purely for my own thought-processes, put in writing some of the issues floating around in my mind.

The Romans Didn’t Leave Rome

Can the sacra publica be established in a virtual state? Celetrus and I continue our debate. He argues that the religio is tied to the traditional Roman lands, and that the sacra patria cannot be revived by a virtual state established outside the traditional Roman lands. Unexpectedly, I find support for his position in Livy’s History.

In Book 5 of the History, Livy tells the story of a proposal to abandon the city of Rome. Some background is necessary. First, there was a war between Rome and the far wealthier city of Veii. The war ended in 386 BCE with the capture of Veii and the removal of the goddess Iuno to Rome. The Romans began arguing about whether they should abandon Rome and move to Veii. Then, in 396 BCE, Rome itself was captured by the Gauls. The Romans fled their city, some of them taking refuge in Veii. There were too many sacred items, so the priests took some and buried the rest. The Romans left a garrison in the city under siege. As the garrison became increasingly weak from hunger, the Romans prepared to ransom their city. The transaction was stopped by Camillus, the hero of the recent war with Veii. He defeated the Gauls and re-took Rome. The Romans, surveying their ruined city, began again to consider moving to Veii.

At this point in the story, Livy puts a speech in the mouth of the hero Camillus. This speech suggests how Livy might answer the proposal that a Roman republic can be established at a distance from Rome. The entire speech is too length to reproduce here, but I can assume that most of my readers own a copy of Livy and can read it in full if they are interested enough to do so:

“The question was no longer whether or not I personally should live in my native city, but whether the city should herself remain on the spot of earth which is own. . . . Why did we save Rome from the hands of our enemies, if we are to desert her now? When the victorious Gauls had the city in their power, the gods of Rome and the men of Rome still clung to the Capitol and the Citadel — and shall we now, in the hour of victory, voluntarily abandon even those strongholds which we held through the days of peril? Shall victory make Rome more desolate than defeat? Even were there no sacred cults coeval with Rome and handed down from generation to generation, so manifest at this time has been the power of God working for our deliverance that I, for one, cannot believe that any man could slack his duties of worship and thanksgiving. . . .

“We have a city founded with all due rites of auspice and augury; not a stone of her streets but is permeated by our sense of the divine; for our annual sacrifices not the days only are fixed, but the places too, where they may be performed: men of Rome, would you desert your gods – the tutelary spirits which guard your families, and those the nation prays to as its saviors? . . .

“It may be said perhaps that we shall perform these duties in Veii – or sent our priests to perform them here. But in neither case could the proper sanctities be preserved. I cannot now make mention of all our gods, or of all our rites – but think, for instance, of Jupiter’s Feast: how could his couch be decked anywhere but on the Capitol? What of Vesta’s eternal fires, or of the imagine preserved in her shrine as a pledge of Rome’s dominion? What of the sacred shields of Mars and of Quirinus, our Father? All these things you would leave behind on unconsecrated ground – sanctities as old as Rome, older. How different we are from the men of long ago! Our fathers entrusted to us the celebration of certain sacrifices on the Alban Mount and in Lavinium: to transfer them – from enemy towns, as they were then – to Rome was felt to be impious – yet now you would take others of our own into an enemy town. How is that possible without sin? . . .

“I speak of holy rites and holy places, but what of the priests? Surely it has occurred to you what sacrilege you are proposing to commit. The Vestal Virgins have their place – their own place, from which nothing but the capture of the City has ever moved them; the Flamen of Jupiter is forbidden by our religion to spend even one night outside the City walls – yet you would make them, one and all, go and live forever in Veii. Ah, Vesta! Shall thy Virgins desert thee? Shall the Flamen of Jupiter live abroad night after night and stain himself and our country with so deep a sin?

“Remember, too, our public functions, nearly all of which we transact, after due ceremony, within the pomermium, and to what oblivion and neglect we are condemning them. . . . Where with the proper rites can these be held but in the places tradition has made them sacred? Either, I suppose, we shall transfer them to Veii, or else the people will come here, to a city deserted by gods and men, just to vote at elections – a convenient alternative indeed! . . .

“I cannot believe that you would commit so shameful a crime simply because you shrink from the labor of restoring these ruins; even if it were impossible to build here anything better or bigger than Romulus’ hut, surely it would be nobler to live like country shepherds amongst everything we hold sacred than to go into universal exile, deserting the gods of our hearths and homes. . . .

“Suppose some fool, or some knave, should set Veii on fire – suppose the wind spread the flames and half the town were destroyed – what should we do then? Move on to Fidenae, or Gabii, or anywhere else we could find? So it seems – if indeed the soil of our native city and the earth we call our mother have so weak a hold upon us that our love of country is co-extensive with timber and stone. . . .

“Not without reason did gods and men choose this spot for the site of our City . . . . all these advantages make it of all places in the world the best for a city destined to grow great. The proof is the actual greatness – now – of a city which is still comparatively young . . . . Should you go, I grant you may take your brave hearts with you, but never the Luck of Rome. Here is the Capitol, where, in the days of old, the human head was found and men were told that on that spot would be the world’s head and the seat of empire; here, when the Capitol was to be clear of other shrines for the sake of Jupiter’s temple, the two deities Juventas and Terminus refused, to the great joy of the men of those days, to be moved; here are the fires of Vesta, the sacred shields which fell from heaven, and all our gods who, if you stay, will assuredly bless your staying.”

I am mindful that this is a patriotic speech, invented by Livy to add drama to his story. It is not a scholarly analysis of the foundations of the religio, yet I was reminded of it by Celetrus’ remark that Rome is the center of the Religio Romana just as Jerusalem is the center of Judaism. It’s not clear that Livy thought that the religio was inseparably tied to Rome, although he does speak of moving the Roman people as abandoning the hearth and household gods. And, I think it is significant that he makes much of the Vestals, who tend the fire at the sacred hearth of Rome.

Gibbon makes the same point:

“The spot on which Rome was founded has been consecrated by ancient ceremonies and imaginary miracles. The presence of some god, or the memory of some hero, seemed to animate every part of the city, and the empire of the world had been promised to the Capitol. The native Romans felt and confessed the power of this agreeable illusion. It was derived from their ancestors, had grown up with their earliest habit of life, and was protected, in some measure, by the opinion of political utility. The form and the seat of government were intimately blended together, nor was it esteemed possible to transport one without destroying the other. (Decline and fall, 1.327)

At the very least, Camillus’ speech shows that Livy did not think that the religio would have remained the same if the Romans had removed to Veii. At best, it and Gibbon’s comment show that the city, the government, and the religio were intimately bound together in a way that could not be easily separated. After the religio was replaced by Christianity — although the process started with Diocletian — the capital of the empire was removed first to Milan and Ravenna, and later to Byzantium. What would have happened to the religio if it had still existed?

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