Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 9
Skepoet: What is your religious background and how did you come to it?
Jennifer Lawrence: I was brought up Roman Catholic by a very strict Irish Catholic father and stepmother. I knew I wasn’t comfortable from that faith from a fairly early age, and had neopagan leanings as early as second or third grade, including a deep love of mythology and a lot of time spent wandering in the woods. I left home at the age of 18 in 1985 to attend college for the first time and left Catholicism behind at the same time, starting a slow and not always deliberate search for a religion that was a better match for me. Without knowing much of anything about modern paganism at the time, I drifted to a sort of Greek mythology-influenced pantheism that laid heavy emphasis on certain gods — Hermes, Demeter, Artemis, Apollo, Athena, Dionysos, and Hestia — and the nymphs and nature spirits. In 1994 or so, a former friend introduced me to Wicca; I hadn’t realized there was anyone out there that thought in similar lines. I was living way out in the country on a farm in Wisconsin at the time, 30 miles from the nearest town, which made it hard to look for like-minded people. From there, with the help of the internet and the local Borders (and eventually, Amazon.com), I educated myself toward a more historically-accurate mostly-recon set of beliefs that honor the three pantheons that my ancestors (most of my family background comes from Ireland, Scotland, and England) would have honored: Irish Celtic (the Tuatha de Danann), Greek, and Norse (plenty of Greek and Roman pagans among the legions that conquered England, and then the Anglo-Saxon beliefs of the people from Germany and the northlands that came after them).
Skepoet: What is your academic background?
Jennifer Lawrence: I have a Bachelor of Arts in English (concentration in Literature, with a specialization on Classical and Medieval European Literature), a Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice, and some post-graduate coursework in Medieval Latin. (All these come from a small Catholic liberal arts college in Indiana, Calumet College of St. Joseph, plus a few English classes from when I was 18, at Truman State University in Missouri, before I dropped out – no self-discipline at that age.)
Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?
Jennifer Lawrence: The English degree introduced me to stories, plays, and poetry from a time period spanning the works of the early Greeks all the way through the time of Shakespeare. Plenty of books that form the core of several Recon faiths are encompassed by this time period: the Homeric Hymns, the Iliad and the Odyssey of ancient Greece; Beowulf and the sagas for the Norse; and the Tain, the Dindshenchas, and the Cath Maige Tuired of Ireland.
The Criminal Justice degree gave me a good footing in law (the combination of the two degrees was meant to be a Pre-Law basis, but I never went on to law school) and a better understanding of how society functions within the laws and what happens when they are ignored.
Ironically, it’s generally said that the druids in early England spent up to twenty years in training, and that the training included both ‘verses and oral literature’ and the laws of the tribes they belonged to, so without consciously realizing it, I chose an overall course of study that somewhat mimicked that.
I’d also add that college in general gave me a better understanding of research methods and critical thinking, both of which I use a lot in my day-to-day reading on pagan topics.
Skepoet: The relationship between Wicca and the reconstructionist pagan groups can be complicated. How did your introduction to Wicca affect your practice?
Jennifer Lawrence: Well, to be specific, what I was introduced to is the eclectic American Wicca that’s very popular these days, rather than any form of traditional Wicca (i.e. Gardnerian, Alexandrian, etc.) It was reassuring to realize that there *were* people out there believing in similar lines to what I believed, but at the same time, even then it was becoming apparent that Gerald Gardner had created, rather than preserved, most of the teachings he spread. I wanted something with a more historically accurate practice (I’ve always had a love for archaeology and ancient cultures, although I have no formal teaching in it, just a LOT of books). Metaphorically, learning about Wicca, and that forms of modern paganism existed, was the warm-up before a race; learning about Recon paganism — and choosing to practice it — was the marathon itself.
I don’t disdain Wicca for what it is; it obviously works for a lot of people. But it’s not for me. Nonetheless, if I hadn’t found out about it, I might never have discovered the Recon paths, so in a sense, I’m grateful for it.
Skepoet: How do you see the various Recon faiths interacting? What principles do you see guiding that interaction?
Jennifer Lawrence: Well, I can’t speak to anything officially, of course; but I do see the occasional bit of interfaith work between recon faiths. The Celts and the Norse have a lot of similarities in certain customs and practices; likewise there are points where the Celts and the Romans interacted, historically, that provides a basis for interaction. Most of my interaction with other recons comes solely online, unfortunately; I would love to see, and be able to attend, a large, Recon-oriented pagan festival some day. I think Pantheacon is the closest to something of that sort currently, although it’s not specifically recon-oriented.
Some of the principles you see guiding this sort of interaction are a recognition of common custom similarities (hospitality, historical accuracy, honor, etc.); there is not just temporal overlap between faiths, but also areas in the world where the original historical faiths were practiced at the same time, or almost the same time. That provides a sort of common stomping ground to consider during such interactions.
Skepoet: What problem do you think recon faiths deal with with trying to balance traditional practices with the modern world?
Jennifer Lawrence: here are a number of problems that recons must deal with in balancing traditional practices in the modern world.
First and foremost is the situation that colors and affects all the rest: the amount of information on traditional practices is definitely limited in varying degrees, depending on which pagan culture is being practiced, because so much information on those practices — writings, statues, temples, etc. — was destroyed by the adherents of the conquering monotheistic culture (the Christian Church) — as they came to a pagan culture and became the dominant faith there. It happened first in Rome, thanks to Paul of Tarsus; Christians were persecuted for their failure to take part in government-supported activities (which is what the sacrifices to the ancient Roman gods were, a means for all citizen to support the Roman empire and do their bare minimum to bring about its continued success by pleasing the gods) until the Edict of Milan in C.E. 313 granted religious tolerance toward the Christians. Christianity slowly moved from a tolerated minority faith in the Roman Empire to the official state religion, and after Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire, it spread outward to all the reaches of the Empire — Britain, the northern lands (what is today Norway and Denmark and Sweden), the lands of the Germanic tribes, and so on. Evan after Rome fell, Christianity continued to spread. In some cultures, almost all traces of the previous pagan faiths were utterly eradicated; in others, traces were preserved but Christianized by the invaders. In places where the previous culture had been a literate one, like Greece and Rome itself, a relatively large amount of information was preserved, enough to give a reasonably complete look at the beliefs and practices of the pagan culture; in other places, where everything was passed on orally (such as the Druidic practices of the British Isles), very little was preserved, and what is available is mostly reconstructed from fragments, and thus, subject to uncertainty about the interpretations provided.
Because the information on these older cultures that we have is incomplete and possibly (in some cases, definitely) tainted by the influence of monotheistic religious cultures, there will always be the question of whether the practices we are following are correct. The eternal question of whether we are reconstructing a practice, restoring it, or making it up in part or entirely is something that each pagan traditionalist has to consider and solve for him- or herself. Most of the recons I know are avid archaeology buffs because of this; every new find we locate from the past helps to clarify the cultures we are interested in, and may add significant new pieces formerly missing from that puzzle.
Most of the other problems regarding traditional practices in the modern world deal with moral issues. For example, it cannot be denied that pagans from older cultures kept slaves, treated women and children in a way that is generally considered wrong today, and practiced (in some, but not all cases) human sacrifices.
The evolution of our beliefs on these things today reflects a general evolution of human consciousness on moral matters in general, although there are still a number of very conservative non-pagan faiths that tend to treat women and children (and GLBT persons) as second-class citizens at best. However, regarding human — and animal — sacrifice, which were practiced by many different pagan faiths (more of which sacrificed animals than people), all modern recons agree that human sacrifice is taboo, and most modern recons believe that the gods are just as satisfied with non-living sacrifices (incense, candles, grain, fruit, libations of wine, honey, etc.) as they were with animal sacrifices. There is a very small minority of recon faiths that still practice animal sacrifice, although not often; there is also a small number of recon practitioners who will offer up sacrifices of commercially-acquired meat (steak, etc.) without sacrificing the animal themselves. (This is most common, at least to my knowledge, with Hellenic Recons, although I know of a couple of Heathens who do it, also.)
In all the cases I can think of, recon pagans have adapted traditional practices that conflict with modern moral values to blend with the standards of our current time and culture, taking into account facts and principles that earlier pagan cultures would not have known or did not see in that light, given the practices of their times.
Skepoet: Do you think one must separate between spiritual practices of paleo-cultures with say superstitious ones? For example, deciding if a practice was part of necessary cultus or was sort of pragmatically inclined but entirely pre-scientific. Many ancient medical practices around say Asclepius come to mind.
Jennifer Lawrence: I suppose that depends on whether you’re giving the term “pre-scientific” negative or neutral connotations.
Skepoet: I wouldn’t say negative; however, I also wouldn’t say that going that, for example, we should adopt Galen’s medical practices because priests used them either. The line seems hard to parse in some areas. You, however, may disagree.
Jennifer Lawrence: My impression is that there is a certain amount of separation going on, especially in dealing with things of a scientific or medical background. In some cases, recon pagans such as myself with augment scientific practices with spiritual ones, as folk of most religions do; for example, making an offering to Apollo or Asclepius when dealing with medical troubles, but this would be done in *addition* to visiting a doctor, taking medicine, or having surgery, rather than *instead* of those things. I think, in the end, there are very few “fundamentalist” pagans of any stripe who believe the myths of their faiths as literal truth. I am a “hard” polytheist, in that I believe in the gods on a literal basis, not as metaphor meant to explain scientific truths that earlier cultures didn’t understand; however, I believe that the gods work within the boundaries of the universe.
I hope that answered the question; I’m not sure if I accurately understood your difference between spiritual practices and superstitious ones. As I understand it, all spiritual practices are considered superstitious by some people; the rituals of pagans are considered superstitious by Jews and Christians, but the prayers of Jews and Christians are considered superstitious by atheists, so it’s all a matter of perspective.
Skepoet: Yes, I wanted to get your logic on the dividing line. What do you think of soft polytheism within the Reconstructionist community?
Jennifer Lawrence: Well, I think it may happen, but not very often. The whole point of being Reconstructionist is historical accuracy, and conflating deities with other deities isn’t much on historical accuracy. Now, I see *syncretism* happening all the time, and that IS historically accurate — the Romans in particular “adopted” the gods of the lands they conquered, seeing them as their own gods under different names. Greek, Celtic, Egyptian deities all were subsumed or brought into the Roman imperial religion, one way or another. There are a lot of statuary fragments and inscriptions all over Britain with inscriptions to “Lugus-Mercury” or “Lugus-Mars”, “Sulis-Minerva”, etc.
I know a lot of recons (mostly online, not IRL, but…), and AFAIK, all of them are hard polytheist, not soft. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, I just tend to think that folks who are drawn to the recon form of polytheism aren’t likely to be soft polytheists in the first place.
Skepoet : Interestingly, actually, most Kemetic and a good deal of Hellenic are semi-soft polytheists pulling from Neo-Platonic and Hermetic thinking historically legitimately, but I also use the term semi-soft for reasons that are obvious as I don’t know anyone who would say Dionysus is also Tyr or something akin to it. But I may understand “soft” polytheist differently than you. How do you understand the terms?
Jennifer Lawrence: y understanding of “soft” polytheism is that there are folks who are polytheist, but believe there are only one set of gods, and each culture had different names for them. For example, Zeus, Thor, Taranis are all storm gods; a soft polytheist would see them all as the *same* god, just under different names. The same for Aphrodite, Aife, and Freya (beauty/love), or Poseidon, Manannan, and Njörðr (ocean gods), to give a couple of examples. I have generally seen this mostly among pagans who follow gods from European cultures, but I’ve heard of at least one person who extended it to cover all the gods in the world — Egyptian, Hindu, Aztec, Shinto, the orisha/loa, etc.
As a hard (really hard) polytheist, technically I even believe in the existences of Yahweh, Satan, and Jesus Christ. They’re just not MY gods.
Skepoet : We are close to the same page. I think that would be varying in commonality from culture to culture. Semi-Soft Polytheism would definitely be a descriptor. Are there any pantheons that you think are un-reconstruct-able?
Jennifer Lawrence: Honestly? The ones that have left no (or next to no) historical traces behind whatsoever. That doesn’t happen very often, and by definition, if cultures have vanished from history, we’re not going to know about them to reconstruct them.
I think that cultures with very little historical traces are definitely *harder* to reconstruct, and the people who wish to do so should probably take a hard look at how much effort will be involved and whether it’s worth the work…but it’s hard to tell the gods NO, and we have no real control over the ones who call us, do we?
I think there are aspects to certain religious rites that shouldn’t be reconstructed no matter how much historical evidence of; we were talking about human sacrifice awhile back, and that’s the primary example I can think of. But that’s more or less a whole different ball of wax, I suppose.
Skepoet : What organizations do you think are doing a good job helping getting things established for Reconstructionists that you have worked either directly or indirectly?
Jennifer Lawrence: Well, I’m affiliated with the Troth (Asatru); my husband, in fact, is their steward for Northern Illinois. I’m also affiliated with Hellenion, and sit on the Boule for that org as of last September (the Boule is the advisory group to their Council). There is also Neos Alexandria, a group devoted to Hellenic/Egyptian syncretism, whose aim is to be as historically accurate as possible; they’ve started publishing a line of devotional anthologies to the gods with their publishing line, Bibliotheca Alexandrina. (Disclosure: I have poetry and/or stories published in a number of those works.)
Other orgs I’m part of are Ord Brigideach, a flametending group for Brigid, and Ár nDraíocht Féin, the Druid organization, but neither are specifically recon, although ADF does encourage rigorous academic pursuit by its members.
I also highly recommend the Celtic Recon group Imbas; they do excellent work and have a number of very stringent scholars amongst their ranks. Unfortunately, last I checked, I think they were going through a period of reorganization, and may be closed to new members until such time as they finish. I am hoping to join them when they re-open, but I haven’t checked if they’d re-opened in some time (at least a couple of months).
I hear good things about Ord na Darach Gile, the Druid Order of White Oak, but I haven’t had a chance to look into it much. However, I know a couple recons I respect very highly are a part of it.
I’m less aware of other recon organizations, especially for those faiths that have smaller numbers: Babylonian/Sumerian/Assyrian faiths, Egyptian, Aztec/Mayan/Incan, etc. There may be groups for those religions, but if there are, I’ve never heard of them.
Skepoet : Do you think the is need for larger local chapters to do festivals and rituals, or do you think that much of the communities involved are too geographically spread out?
Jennifer Lawrence: Well, I’m largely unaware that this is an issue; then again, I live 15 minutes from downtown Chicago and about 3 hours from Indianapolis; there are plenty of festivals and the like in this area (Pagan Spirit Gathering and Pan-Pagan Gathering both recently, and then local Pagan Pride Days every year by plenty of local communities, even the small one for our Indiana county). I can imagine that it’s a problem in very rural areas; then again, I don’t know if there is a large number of pagans in very rural areas. When I was living in VERY rural southwestern Wisconsin, during my vaguely-Greek-themed animist/pantheist phase, before I discovered organized Wicca and then the Recon faiths, I didn’t know of any other pagans at all (granted, this was in the early 90s, before Hollywood started using Wiccans and pagans as characters or concepts).
Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?
Jennifer Lawrence: .I really can’t think of anything. I’m not much of one for grand, sweeping statements; I just hope what I said made sense and may turn out to be helpful, even for one person. Thank you for letting me take part in this!