A question that sometimes gets asked to me by atheists, one that in my experience even monotheists already know the answer to, is: “So, do you sacrifice…people?”
We’re not completely certain whether there was or was not widespread acceptance and use of human sacrifice in pre-Christian Gaelic society – recently, it’s even become more mainstream to question the idea that mainland Celts practised it – but even knowing that, atheists often have the expanded question of “So, since we know that they did, do you sacrifice…
This additional question is one that boggles the minds of modern polytheists like myself, as it’s something that we feel atheists should inherently know the answer to. We follow these ancient religions for a reason, we reconstruct them for a reason, and we practice what we practice within them for a reason.
The more veteran polytheists reading this may, by now, have entered their ‘Yellow-Alert’ mode. After all, I’ve avoided stating, in plain English, whether or not I do or do not (or would, if evidence was found) practice animal or human sacrifices. We say things like “We practice these religions for a reason”, as if we all share the same base justifications – but those with enough experience might wonder, given my avoiding it, if maybe I’m one of those, someone who’s reasoning is completely alien, and would be willing to engage in animal sacrifice.
I wouldn’t, for the record – but all of this illustrates an important point.
Not all of us practising the same religion are doing the same thing, for the same reasons, or with the same mindsets. Even within our methods of formulating our theology, the justification each person has for using even the same exact methodology can be extremely different. So different, in fact, that it can dramatically change the outcome of their practice and their mindset. For that reason, I’d like to write today about the concept of reconstruction, and what it’s for.
When I first became a polytheist, I knew I wanted to be a reconstructionist. None of this making-it-up-as-I-go-along nonsense that I saw a bit of, I wasn’t trying to create a new religion, start a cult, or role-play. I wanted to practice the religion of the pre-Christian Gaels in the modern day. Except, pretty rapidly I realize that I didn’t actually want to do that. I didn’t want to practice the religion of the pre-Christian Gaels – there were aspects of it that I simply wasn’t interested in. Hypothetical ones like human sacrifice, confirmed ones like animal sacrifice – I didn’t want to be involved in those things. So was I really reconstructing the religion of the ancient Gaels…?
The answer is “No”, shockingly to other reconstructionists, and I argue that most likely neither are you. We’re not reconstructing the religion of the ancient Gaels. We’re constructing a modern religion of worship of the Gods of the ancient Gaels (Or Germanics, or Egyptians etc) as we believe would logically exist in the modern day. We believe that the Gods had lessons for the ancient peoples, and that they have lessons for us modern peoples – those lessons aren’t always the same, however. The result is that our modern religion is functionally not the same as the ancient one.
To clarify – We worship the same Gods as the ancient Gaels, and we believe in the same cosmology, but we don’t practice the same religion. If we define religion as “A specific fundamental set of beliefs and practices generally agreed upon by a number of persons or sects”, then we’re lacking the second half of that definition to practice the same religion as the ancient Gaels. Even if we perfectly reconstruct what they did, we very likely will change it enough to fit the modern day and us as modern peoples that it would be absurd to consider them the same religion.
Except…I’ve been speaking too definitively here: “We” do this, “We” believe that. There are people reading this that will say, quite confidently, “No, I am in fact reconstructing the religion of the ancient [blank]s”. They disagree fundamentally with my claims here about what we are doing, as reconstructionists.
That’s fine, I genuinely believe, however I argue that there’s a misuse of some terminology here. I’m not interested in gatekeeping, however I believe there is a very real difference in the religion of one devoted to Gods, and one devoted to history.
I practice (and reconstruct) Gaelic Polytheism because I want to worship, as genuinely as I can, the very real Gods that the ancient Gaels also worshipped. Someone else might reconstruct Gaelic Polytheism because they want to reconstruct the religion of the ancient Gaels, and then practice it. These sound very similar, but they are completely different.
One is the practice of a religion devoted to the gods of the pre-Christian Gaels. The other, sadly, is a historical re-enactment project. I’m not often one to use “LARPing” as an insult towards polytheists, but it’s about as close as one can come while still holding onto an air of authenticity. This isn’t to say that people like this don’t genuinely worship the Gods – however, their priorities are so misplaced as to put their own desires of “Historical authenticity” before whatever lessons or desires the Gods have for them.
It may not seem like this distinction is problematic – let the re-enactors re-enact as is their right. This is a problem, however, because of how inherently social religion is. The result of these thought processes gaining prominence in the faiths can easily result in newer polytheists being misled in their own practice. Heathen writer VaporIcecream describes what can happen when newer polytheists are misled by charismatic perversions of theological understanding – these new polytheists go on to “[Cause] drama and strife to fellow pagans, for no other purpose than they never thought about it critically for themselves[…]“
To speak plainly and avoid lecturing, the purpose of these religions should be the devotional worship and love of our Gods. The strategies we use, such as reconstruction, are simply means towards that end. They are not, and never should be, the end themselves. We see this issue in the opposite direction as well with individuals who view the Gods more as tools to be used or demons to be feared, these individuals often shunning any genuine worship of the Gods in lieu of impious and misotheistic concepts of “working with” the deities. It wasn’t very long ago I encountered a self-described polytheist, in a polytheist space, suggesting they “Reward” the Gods “When they’re good”, and shun them “When they’re bad”.
It’s not hard to find those who reject the lessons of the past so vehemently that they deconstruct the religion entirely and end up with something…”different”. This issue is for another day, however – I simply think it’s important to keep in mind that issues lie in both direction.
Let us not forget that we as humans are inherently imperfect, and it’s the perfection of the Gods that we seek to learn from and emulate. Not the other way around.