Towards a Theory of Reconstructionist Religion (Part One)

It is often said that the Religio Romana is a “reconstructionist” faith, meaning that it attempts to reconstruct the ancient faith of the pre-Christian Roman peoples. While this vague description is sufficient to distinguish it from more modern eclectic and inventive religions such as Wicca in casual conversation, it is not satisfactory when one considers the details.

I’d like to begin exploring a more systematic approach to reconstructionism in general, which would apply to many faiths which fall under that banner, including Asatru (Norse paganism), Celtic Reconstructionism, the Religio Romana (Roman), Hellenismos (Greek), Romuva (Baltic), etc. While I’m mostly going to be using Roman/Religio Romana, and to a lesser extent, Norse/Asatru examples, the general principles involved should apply across the board.

At the outset, two fundamental issues must be recognized. The first is that, thanks mostly to the efforts of Christian supremacists to eradicate pagan and heathen religions, and the general ravages of time, we are often confronted with the fact that we have an incomplete record. Even the Religio Romana (Roman paganism), while blessed with a number of excellent contemporary primary sources, is lacking in many details. The situation is far worse with Asatru, where the literary corpus is almost entirely Christian in its provenance, and is almost entirely lacking in details (such as what rituals looked like, what words were spoken, etc.).

The second is that, by the nature of history and social evolution, it is fallacious to refer to “the Religio Romana” or “Germanic paganism” as if they were monolithic and never-changing edifices spanning centuries and hundreds or thousands of miles. We find, for instance, new gods introduced over the course of years, sometimes by instructions from the Sibylline Books, sometimes because of popular pressure. New religious ceremonies are introduced over the centuries, and old ones are maintained but their significance is completely lost. The religion in Rome itself is used as a template for the religions of allied and conquered peoples, so we see “Romanized” versions of Celtic, Germanic, and Semitic deities across the Mediterranean and Europe. The changes in Roman religion are legion and well documented.

In the Germanic corpus, we see much the same thing, including two distinct versions of the myth of the death of the Norse god Baldur, and the compete lack of the god Loki in the Anglo-Saxon corpus, among many, many other examples.

Given those two basic premises, we find ourselves faced with fundamental choices to make based thereon:

  • How do we identify gaps in the record?
  • How do we properly vet the material that we do have?
  • How do we go about filling in those gaps?
  • How do we identify Christian (or other) influences?
  • What do we do once we’ve identified it? Do we ignore it, or “de-Christianize” it, or something else?
  • Do we focus on a particular point in time and space, or do we use a more syncretic approach?
  • How do we set the boundaries of eclecticism and invention in a reconstructionist context?

I don’t pretend that my answers to these questions will be universally accepted, but I hope to demonstrate that attention to them will result in a much more robust and viable reconstructionist experience. Those questions will be explored in subsequent articles in this series.

A brief introduction

Salve!

I am Flavius Vedius Germanicus. 21 years ago or so, I co-founded the micronation known as Nova Roma. The intention was to provide a home for Roman pagans, practitioners of the Religio Romana. Why a micronation? At the time, it was felt that in order to properly practice the Religio, the ancient Roman Republican system of magistrates and priesthoods was necessary, in order to act as the traditional intercessors with the Gods. The inclusion of non-pagans was, frankly, an afterthought.

My own history with Nova Roma has been tumultuous to be sure. I’ve come and gone from the Republic, been elected to magistracies and served in the Senate and various priesthoods, but for most of my life I myself have practiced Asatru (Germanic paganism).

A few weeks ago, that changed.

I began to feel a pull back to the Religio and the Res Publica that I created. But I was cautious. I had felt this before, and as a rule the bickering and invective in Nova Roma invariably turned me off and I left it to its own devices. But always the Religio was in the background, and a Lararium was always in my home. But this was different. Juno spoke to me.

At this point a vast swath of people are going to roll their eyes; mostly those who never took Nova Roma’s commitment to the Religio and the Gods seriously, who are themselves atheists, or Christians, or Jews, more interested in Roman culture, or wanting to play “king of the mountain” or whatever. But this was real. I had experienced it many times before as part of my Asatru experience. But hearing from the Gods of Rome was new, and needed to be heard.

Our Republic is in crisis, as most reading this will know. I have decided to come out of my retirement, and return to public life in Nova Roma, including a complete embrace of the Religio. This is not a temporary thing, either; the Borealis diis have told me my obligations to them are done. I am now given back to the Roma diis, to help our fair Res Publica, and the Religio it was designed to support, through these dark times and beyond.

Most of you reading this will not take it seriously, and I know it. But I do. And that’s what matters.