3. From its beginnings, ADF has defined itself in relation to Indo-European pagan traditions. What relevance do you think historical and reconstructed IE traditions from the past have in constructing or reconstructing a Pagan spirituality for the present and future? (minimum 400 words)
Neo-Paganism is a modern religious movement. Early Wicca strove to make historical connections to its practices – often, unfortunately, inaccurate ones. This attempt seems, to me, a way of legitimizing the religion. However, Neo-Paganism has grown and deepened its roots over almost a century. Various Neo-Pagan practitioners don’t seem to need history as a way to legitimize their faith anymore.
What then does the past provide us as Pagans? I think it provides three primary things: knowledge of certain prominent beings and how humans have interacted with them; context for a polytheistic worldview; and the foundation for creating new traditions.
We don’t have to recreate the wheel when it comes to learning about the deities – or spirits – we are building relationships with. From what we know of the past, we know the common traits and associations of many deities. We also know how house spirits were worshipped. We have some understanding of how the dead were revered. And so on. We have blueprints for how to interact with the Kindreds. Our polytheistic ancestors* established relationships with these beings and those relationships – and practices – evolved over time.
*(Note: By polytheistic ancestors, I mean the historic peoples who were polytheists of the traditions we are trying to revive, and who are therefore our predecessors and ancestors.)
It’s also important to note that many practices and beliefs have been lost, and a valuable tool in reconstruction is to use comparative methods to add layers of context. That is exactly what ADF tries to do by looking broadly at historical Indo-European practices, archeology, linguistics, mythology, and so on. It’s important to remember that while we can’t know everything about these historic practices, we are also not starting from square one. Simply knowing the myths and iconography of Athena – which we only know by looking to the past – informs our current practice.
This leads me to the development of a polytheistic worldview. One of the biggest differences between living religions and Neo-Paganism is that other religious people often live their lives with that religion in the air. I recently heard a Sufi discuss how her religion was in the milieu of everyday life while she grew up. Most Neo-Pagans don’t have that. While there are many Pagans nowadays who are raised with Paganism, we are still a minority religion in a majority Christian culture. For most of us, Paganism is not in the air we breathe, we have to learn how to be Pagan. This includes Pagan practices and it includes a Pagan worldview. From historical practices, writings, etc we can learn how our polytheistic ancestors thought of the world. We can then apply that to our practices and our worldview.
In Heathenry, there is the historical concept of innangard and utangard, or the space within and the space without. This is the difference between the safe, the known, the home, and the unsafe, the wild, the unknown. (In ADF I also often consider this the separation between cosmos and chaos.) Realizing how dangerous the wild was, historically, to our polytheistic ancestors gives context to the importance of deities of the boundary, travel, the home, or the hunt. It’s not just about the literal borders of your house, but protection from the unknown. It’s not just about catching game, but about coming back safely. The concept of innangard and utangard would have affected how these peoples saw these deities and their roles. Knowing historical concepts helps give us context for significant pieces of polytheistic worldviews.
And knowledge of historical practice and context for historical worldview will ultimately help us in the modern world create living traditions. I don’t really see this as a goal of looking to the past, simply a result of what happens when we build our practices from the past. Over time, I think we will need to look to the past less and less, because what we know from history will already be integrated into our modern religions. (Neo-Pagans will always look to the past to some extent, but how we interact with it will change over time, just as early Wiccans and then Recons interacted with the past in different ways, because they had different needs.)
I think we are at this shift between reconstructionism and living tradition. But I also think Neo-Pagans will be in this space for a while – major changes take place in pieces and over time. And, as new theories are developed and new discoveries made, we’ll continuously shuffle some of our own understandings of the past to reflect our present.
But the future of Neo-Paganism lies in creating living traditions. As many Recons will say, we do not have enough information to completely rely on history and reconstructionism. Indeed, even if we had a time machine, it would take a lifetime just to travel through all the tribes of Gaul and fully understand each of their local practices. (Let alone every major group of every Indo-European culture!) So we must invent and create anew. But reconstructionism is the foundation for our practices, and it will keep Paganism on sure-footed ground as new traditions develop.
Accessed April 2022
McCoy, Daniel. Innangard and Utangard. Norse Mythology for Smart People. https://norse-mythology.org/concepts/innangard-and-utangard/