To Reconstruct or not to Reconstruct|
I've spent a lot of time pondering both the ins and outs of reconstruction as well as the pros and cons, and I must admit my own views have changed over time. I would characterize my early opinion as that of a hard-core Reconstructionist. I felt that what was good enough for my ancestors was good enough for me. It was that simple. I didn't really put a lot of thought into it; it just seemed self-evident. How could anyone not understand? There was no real need to change anything except perhaps for leaving out human sacrifice and doing the Blood Eagle  upon your enemies. Well, that and going a-Viking. But nothing is quite as simple as it first seems. After all, we are talking about adopting a worldview that has been gone from this Earth for almost a millennium. A lot has changed.
2. A Crack Appears
"Implicit…is the anthropological premise that the world-view of a society comprises that society's most fundamental assumptions about reality and as such directly influences that society's religious attitudes, customs, and beliefs" (James C. Russell, The Germanization of Early Medieval Christianity, 132).
A worldview is time and place specific, in other words, it has both a temporal and a spatial dimension. A worldview can no more exist in a vacuum than those who adhere to it. A worldview is the expression of a culture and the lens through which the people of that culture understand the world around them and also their place within it. It is not static and unchanging. It cannot be, because the world and conditions which originally shaped it are not static. Our environment changes, not only due to natural conditions (climate change, droughts, famines, etc) but because of humankind's impact on the planet (deforestation, soil erosion due to overgrazing, etc). Other changes are brought about through an infusion of outside influences (as in the case of first Rome, then Christianity) and also warfare. This is not to mention the natural evolutionary process taking place within any culture.
This being the case, there are literally millions of worldviews for me to choose from. Right away I realize this creates grave problems for the Reconstructionist. Which worldview do I pick? I have before me what can literally be described as a smorgasbord, a collection both large and heterogeneous. I can go far back into the mist shrouded, near-mythical past and choose an arbitrary date such as, say, 500 BCE, before Roman influence was felt on the Rhine or beyond. I can pick the period of the Roman Empire, the age of Arminius, or even a later date, such as during the Migration Era when the German peoples deluged the faltering Roman state. Then again, I might pick 700, 800, or even 1000 CE, the centuries encompassing what has come to be known as the Viking Age. This period of great diversity and social disruption has problems of its own, though it is the one upon which many modern-day Heathens tend to fixate. But even then my problems are not over. I have addressed temporal issues, but not spatial. Where is my worldview located geographically? Do I pick Saxony, the Upper Rhine, or do I choose Denmark, or even Norway or Sweden? There are literally myriads of possible combinations, too many for the human mind to fathom. What do I do?
3. Finding a Worldview
It should be obvious at this point that to say "I have a Heathen worldview" is basically a meaningless statement in and of itself. What exactly do you mean by that? And how do you know, depending on the choices you made above, how accurate your interpretation of that worldview is? Our sources of information are rather sketchy when compared to what we know of Paganism in the Classical World. Our ancestors did not leave us any writings before the Viking Age, and even those sources are problematic, given the fact that they were not written down until the Christian Era. The problematic nature of the sources is compounded for non-Icelandic speakers. We must depend upon oft-times inferior translations, particular the more widely available (and consequently out-dated) ones available for free at many locations on the Internet.
It is no easy task determining what the worldview of a person living in fifth century BCE Denmark might have been compared to say, a German living on the Rhine at the same time, or a century or two apart. We depend to a great extent on Tacitus for our knowledge of early Germanic religion. Archaeology as a source of information on beliefs is quite limited and unsatisfactory, as many scholars have noted. And we cannot escape the conclusion drawn by H.R. Ellis Davidson, that
A working religion develops out of men's needs and ways of life, and the natural world in which they find themselves determines the images which they use for supernatural powers and their pictures of the Other World. A Celtic chief in a Scottish hill-fort would have a different world-view from one settled in Galatia in Asia Minor, and a Viking captain in the cold northern seas might not share the outlook of a Germanic leader confronting Roman legions in the mountains and forests of central Europe (H.R. Ellis Davidson, Myths and Symbols in Pagan Europe, 3).
Do you rely solely on the evidence of Snorri and the eddas? Do you, as with so many American Heathens attempt also to incorporate the evidence of the Icelandic sagas? Or do we rely on the work of modern scholars and dismiss anything that cannot be corroborated through the extant literature supplemented epigraphical and archaeological evidence? And if we choose the path of modern scholarship, how do we know which scholars to trust? They are no more unanimous in their judgments regarding Germanic religions than they are anything else you care to name. A scholar who might be trusted implicitly by one Heathen may be thought to be a crackpot to another. A well known and long-lasting Viking-style feud on Internet Heathen forums and discussion groups centers around the validity of Rydberg's works, and the Rydberg proponent in the equation finds Turville-Petre unhelpful. Bil Linzie places great reliance upon Bauschatz (as does James C. Russell) but I find Bauschatz' theses on the Germanic conception of time to be far less convincing. We cannot even agree on how our ancestors understood the Nine Worlds or the afterlife! Given these difficulties, how do we avoid falling into a generalized worldview, one that is both necessarily diluted and easily and almost certainly misrepresentative of the facts of any given century? Or is this even something that should be avoided? Indeed, some might instead see it as this outcome as a solution and not a problem at all.
At any rate, assume now that we have arrived at some satisfactory place in our search for a Heathen worldview. We have chosen one from any number of possible dates and arrived at the dawn of the Viking Age. Let us first remember that the Viking Age is long past. All the conditions which created and governed life and human outlook c. 700 CE are gone. As dead and gone as the people who lived their life according to them. Most of us in the west do not live at a subsistence level. We have leisure time, something our ancestors did not have. We do not have to grow our own crops or hunt our own game. We do not have to worry about surviving the winter, about laying in enough supplies of food or wood, or the death of our flocks through disease leaving us starving. Nor do we have to build our own houses or (generally) defend our property and family against raiders. We do not live in isolated communities which are self-governed but as part of a wider world with a complex hierarchy of powers. Our modes of behavior are determined by laws set down from above and by people who most likely have quite a different outlook than that we are attempting to capture for ourselves.
4. Problems of Validity
How valid then is that 8th century worldview we were a few moments ago so excited about? Given the differences between their time(s) and our own, we are extremely unlikely to find it possible to share an identical worldview! After all, our ancestors practiced human sacrifice. They performed the Blood Eagle on their enemies. Women, though better off than their counterparts on the Continent, were badly off by modern standards. Punishments for illegal activities could be quite brutal. Unwanted children were exposed and left to die horrible deaths. Contrary to the opinion held by many modern day Pagans and Heathens, the pre-Christian past was not perfect. Our Heathen ancestors might have had a different concept of nature and the natural world but they were hardly conservationists. The early settlers in Iceland deforested the island in just a few years. There was never a Golden Age except subjectively and relative to other less happy periods. These things we have named were all encompassed and found acceptable by ancient worldviews, but we would hardly condone them today. If we agree that this is true, then where do we decide to draw the line? What is relevant in the outlook of our ancestors and what is not? How do we determine such things and where do we find the answers? Can a reconstructed worldview be gutted and still retain the status originally aimed for?
Obviously Heathenism like Classical Paganism evolved. Beliefs and ideas change and they are not even the same from place to place in the same era. We have to understand that the beliefs of our ancestors, even had they been unpolluted by Christianity, would have changed over time. Ten centuries is a long time. It is difficult to believe that some of the assumptions of our Heathen ancestors of 1000 CE would be identical to that of their still Heathen descendants of 2000 CE. Certainly few would make this assertion. Yet simply embracing some nebulous something called a "Heathen worldview" would seem to entail just this assumption. But this is both impossible and absurd. And what do we do when a number of us gather together and we find we have different worldviews? And there will be differences. Even among those who have tried to be good reconstructionists there will be enormous variation. Other than the temporal and spatial questions noted above, environmental issues will create a great diversity of opinion as to what the proper Heathen worldview is. What is your social and economic class? When were you born? Are you German, French, Icelandic, North American? What was your religion before conversion to Heathenism?
In the end, a reconstructed Heathen worldview seems to create more problems than it solves. I am not at all certain that such a thing should even be entertained and far less confident that it can be accomplished. We live in the 21st century, not the 10th. That is our reality. Cultic practices do not have to change. We can still hold our sumbels and festivals and we can still honor spirits of household and land and our ancestors. We can make sacrifice and honor the Gods of our ancestors. Certainly some things must change. We will no longer, or should no longer, look towards an afterlife to the exclusion of this life on Midgard. Heathenism by its very nature, I would assert, cannot be world-rejecting. Our ancestors had very sketchy ideas about the afterlife, after all. They were not preoccupied by thoughts about what awaited them beyond death's door. They did not look for salvation or the expiation of sins. There is no devil, no duality, no fiery furnace of hell, and there are many other differences as well. Is it enough to note these differences and then to firmly root them in the 21st century? Must we attempt to view the world through the lens of a bygone era that can only imperfectly be reconstructed? Or must we like Edred Thorsson insist that there is no real problem with our sources at all?
The mainstays of the tradition of the Troth are contained in the Poetic Edda, the Prose Edda, the Icelandic sagas, and other epics of the Germanic peoples (such as the Beowulf of the Anglo-Saxons), as well as in the folklore of those people. For example, the folktales collected by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, the so-called "Grimm's Fairy Tales," can be great repositories of ancient lore. This is a vast body of well-documented evidence. From it the revivification of the elder ways was quite easy – once all the sources were collected and properly interpreted (Edred Thorsson, Northern Magic (St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1992), 41-42).
Bil Linzie approaches the problem from the perspective of a committed reconstructionist. He believes there are problems but they relate mainly to interpretation and not insurmountable defects in the sources themselves:
A…complaint has been that the Germanic worldview as represented in the sagas and eddas is incomplete. This may or may not be true, but until good complete investigation of the worldview has been done the contention is rather premature and inconclusive. Much new information has been developed in the area of better interpretation over the past two decades, and the overall indication is that the worldview is not incomplete but has been poorly interpreted by comparing to other worldviews which are significantly different such as Native American religions, the Judeo-Christian religion, the Hindu religion, and neo-pagan religions. Much new information has surfaced through experimental anthropology. By trying to recreate through the actual experiences of recreation based on available sources such as the various groups who have rebuilt and sailed Viking Age vessels or through the living history museums, the need for interpretation is often bypassed. This is an approach which should continue to be encouraged (Bil Linzie, Germanic Spirituality, 52).
Here again we find ourselves anchored to the past. And with all due respect to Bil, I am not sure this is necessary, or as I noted above, even desirable - even if it is possible, which is an issue I certainly find doubtful. No matter how hard we try to recreate certain conditions of the past, be it arming ourselves like Vikings and skirmishing with the local SCA, or building long halls or sailing long ships, we cannot recreate the past entire. We will never, barring cataclysmic changes, have to watch the changing leaves and wonder if we will be alive to see the spring. We will (generally given the vagaries of at least the American health care system) have access to advanced medical care and not have to fear even the slightest of accidents or illnesses or childbirth might mean our deaths, and since any adjustment we make will be only temporary and limited to nights and weekends, there will never be a true impetus towards the worldview of the distant past. The world has changed, my friends, and we must accept those changes and change with it. It is not, I would submit, necessary to live in the 10th century in order to be a Heathen in the 21st.
 We are told that the well-known "blóðörn rista" was a form of sarifice to Óðinn in which the ribs of the victim were cut from the back and the lungs drawn out. An example of this form of sacrifice comes from the episode in which Hálfdan Highleg, son of Harald Fine-hair was defeated and captured by Torf-Einar, Jarl of Orkney. Torf-Einar cut the blood-eagle on his back and gave him to Óðinn (gaf hann Óðni). In the sagas, the blood-eagle seems to have been utilized as a form of revenge by sons avenging the death of their fathers.
"the world-view of a society comprises that society's most fundamental assumptions about reality and as such directly influences that society's religious attitudes, customs, and beliefs"
We live in the 21st century, not the 10th. That is our reality.