Reconstructionism and Gnosis: Some “Rules”

Reconstructionism and Gnosis: The Story (Of These Blogs) So Far

In my last post, I talked about the interplay between reconstructionism and gnosis as I experience it. If it wasn’t already abundantly clear: it is my very sincere belief that both are necessary if we are to create workable and effective magical practices.

When I first got the idea for the post that spawned this series, I had three main points I wanted to communicate/dig into:

  • The necessity of combining reconstructionism and gnosis when attempting to create modern versions of historically attested forms of magic.
  • How that process can look from the inside/up-close.
  • The historical argument for gnosis and why gnosis cannot be ignored in matters of ritual and magic.

My original plan was for this to be a three-part series, with this second post focusing on specific examples from my own practice. Essentially it would have been a storytime blog. But the more I thought about it, the less satisfied I was with the idea of just telling stories. Storytelling is one of the oldest teaching methods known to man, but stories have to be chosen and presented carefully if they are to be effective teachers. A collection of stories would only provide the same bird’s eye view of the subject as the gold mine analogy from the first post.

I make a plan for a simple, three-part series of blog posts and the whole f**king universe laughs

A New Plan Emerges

Instead, I would prefer to provide a more in-depth perspective to accommodate as many learning styles as possible. Because if there is one thing I’ve found from talking to people about this, it’s that many find it hard to imagine this process in practice. Part of this, at least in my opinion, is likely down to how the reconstructionist movement played out in Heathen spaces in the mid-to-late 2000s. From my perspective, the research phases of the method eclipsed the experimentation and evaluation phases. So, we don’t really have that space in our communities for the experimentation and evaluation discussions (yet). Moreover, when you wade into those warm, tempting waters of experimentation and evaluation, you’re inevitably getting into experience and gnosis. To return to a point I made last week: another mistake we Heathens made as a movement/group of movements back then was to largely neglect the subject of discernment. Instead, there was a tendency to either write gnosis off as “made-up-shit” or cling to it uncritically depending on where you sat on the fake “recon” vs “woo” spectrum.

So, rather than a round of storytelling, I’m going to take one story and use it as a framework to demonstrate my process of researching/creating experiments/conducting experiments/recording/evaluating/tweaking. Along the way, I will also highlight where gnosis makes an appearance, what I consider the “tipping point,” and touch upon discernment and assessing gnosis. I will also discuss the responsibility I feel to keep my family safe from any effects of my clarting around with old magical tech as well as what I consider to be necessary safety and wellness measures while engaging in this work.

Fair warning, but I have no idea how long this section of the series will be. This thing that started out as a single post seems to be spawning “babies” faster than rabbits in spring.

I guess we’ll get to the third section when we get there.

Some “Rules” For Blending Reconstruction And Gnosis

Before beginning the story though, I would like to discuss some of the unofficial “rules” I observe when engaging in this work. Though I refer to them as “rules,” I have found them to be far more helpful than restrictive. Please do not feel obligated to adopt them for yourself, but if you do, I hope you find them as helpful as I have.

Honesty

The first rule is honesty, and this applies in several ways.

In my experience, one of the biggest sources of contention between those who lean more to reconstruction vs those who lean more to gnosis boils down to labeling sources. Or in other words: not being entirely honest about where you got your information from. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen people trying to pass off gnosis as something textually attested. This is something that irritates me too even as a weird-experimenter and haver-of-gnosis.

PSA: This is what comes up if you use the search term “rules” on Pixabay. You’re welcome.

If anything, I think it’s even more important for those of us who are experimenting with magic to be honest about our work and sources than your average Heathen. And there are two main reasons for this:

The first is that it’s both dishonest and rude to the humans you’re interacting with. Moreover, when you’re found out, it ruins the credibility of your work for those who are interested.

The second and most important reason is that you essentially deny the experiences, Powers, and relationships from which that gnosis flowed when you deny their role. It’s incredibly disrespectful to pass that other-gotten-gnosis off as coming from a book. Sure, the humans you’re interacting with might take the gnosis you’re sharing more seriously. But what of your relationships with those who helped you? If you find yourself prioritizing the approval of human strangers on the internet over your working relationships with allies, then you may want to ask yourself why.

Another area in which honesty is important pertains to interactions with other-than-human people. It’s never a good idea to lie to the kind of beings you can come across in magic. So, be careful with your words. Don’t promise anything you won’t do or give. Don’t be afraid to use direct but polite speech instead of flowery words if you suspect those flowery words might get you in trouble. And remember that silence is an option and always better than a lie. Never underestimate the abilities of the beings you may meet, as the consequences can be dire.

Finally, be as honest as you can with yourself about what you experience. Make a point of recording your experiences as soon as you are able. Because once an experiment ends, you begin the journey into the same kind of territory as crime scene witnesses. So, try to get everything down as quickly as possible and be brutally honest with yourself. Don’t be afraid to add notes like “I also got the impression of _____ but I’m not sure that actually came from interacting with (being) or was an intrusive thought/my brain elaborating as I could feel the trance weakening and it sounds similar to something I saw/heard the other day.” The mind loves to make connections and elaborate on experiences, and often we don’t even notice it. With practice though, it can get easier to spot.

So, that’s honesty.

No One Is Under Any Obligation To Accept Your Gnosis

My second “rule” is that no one is under any obligation to accept my gnosis (but they’re welcome to it if it resonates).

In my experience, this is another bone of contention when it comes to gnosis. Gnosis is a funny old thing, and especially in a group of religious movements mostly made up of ex-Christians burdened with largely unexamined Christian baggage.

I’ve written about how Christian baggage is a proverbial elephant in the room for a lot of Pagans and Heathens. Too many of us pretend that we shook off all vestiges of Christianity or the influence of growing up in a Christian-dominant society as soon as we put on a hammer and picked up a drinking horn. But unfortunately, life (and religious conversion) isn’t nearly that simple. And is it really surprising? Changing a worldview isn’t some quick, dump-water-on-head-and-call-Odin-a-bitch thing—no matter how it’s portrayed in Christian narratives. In my opinion, one of the areas in which Christian baggage has influenced modern Heathens can be found in some of the reactions to gnosis.

Now, this isn’t just something that happens to the more “recon-minded.” I think we find the same underlying concepts playing out (albeit differently) among some of the more “woo” aligned folks as well.

I AM A VERY REALISTIC PICTURE

Ask yourself, “What does it mean to Christians when a Christian claims to have spoken to their god and received divine wisdom from him?”

It’s prophecy, right? Divine revelation that others must heed because it’s the Word of God.

This is the kind of thing wars have been fought over. Because that kind of a claim can be deeply problematic from a Christian perspective, especially if that message challenges dogma. There’s also the matter of who receives that communication and how they are viewed in the eyes of religion and society. What is their sex? Their social status? Their perceived closeness to god? The pope making divinely revealed pronouncements ex cathedra is fine, but it’s another matter if the person doing it is considered deficient or less holy in some way, or even simply too ordinary. That is when things have a tendency to get a little…spicy, shall we say?

And this is the framing that many are coming with to Heathenry and Paganism. Is it any wonder we see the reactions we do? The people with the gnosis who try to act like it’s imperative everyone goes along with it? The people who rule out the possibility of anyone interacting with a deity who doesn’t fit a certain, restrictive set of criteria? The defensiveness on all sides?

So, what do we do about it?

As someone who has a lot of gnosis, I think it’s imperative that we change the way we think about gnosis. We need to cultivate space for gnosis to simply exist without being a prophecy or divine revelation that everyone must follow. Not all communication with deities is revelation or prophecy that must be shared, or something that can only happen to certain, special people. And we do that by only considering our gnosis relevant to ourselves, listening respectfully to the gnosis of others, and retaining the right to accept or reject what you hear (preferably politely).

You Are Responsible For Keeping Others Safe!

Shockingly, conducting magical experiments based on historical sources isn’t always the safest way to pass the time. Things can happen that you had no way of foreseeing. You can find yourself experiencing unforeseen physical effects. And there’s always the chance of attracting the attention of unhelpful, opportunistic, or even hostile beings with your antics.

Unfortunately, if you’re not careful, the unforeseen consequences of your experiments can all-too-easily spread to the people around you.

Think about your roles in life and who you live with. I’m a mom; I have a little person entrusted to my care, and they tend to be attractive to a lot of beings. I’m also married, and my little family also counts a dog and a cat among us. These are all lives that I could inadvertently bring stress and harm to if I’m not careful. In addition to this, I live in a row house and my neighbors on both sides have family members who have been made vulnerable by sickness—yet more lives to take into account. And on top of that, the town where we live is bizarrely busy with the Otherworldly and generally strange activity.

(I say “bizarrely” as no one can figure out why the town where I live is so active. As an aside, it was like that before I moved in).

These are all factors that need to be taken into account when planning magical experiments. Because they don’t deserve to deal with any unwanted interlopers or other consequences from my activities, and it’s entirely down to me if they do.

“Cleanliness” is next to “Clean room” in The American Heritage College Dictionary.

So, I factor them into my planning. I build extra layers of containment and protection into my experiments. And when I really have no idea what could happen, I find the time to go and do my experiments somewhere away from other humans. I always keep a good supply of apotropaics handy. And I am careful with shutdown and clean-up.

Also important is what I do outside my experiments in my day-to-day life. I have and maintain close relationships with the deities I worship and my allies.  Those relationships are often a magical practitioner’s first form of defense. I also regularly meditate, practice basic skills, and check in with my souls. And as someone whose practice is also informed by the Old English magico-medical manuscripts, I am very careful with purification practices too. All of these are intended to ensure that I am as hæl as I can be going into my experiments, that I’m not out of practice, and that I remain me.

Final Word

The “rules” I have just given are not the only ones I observe, but they are the main ones. I will introduce others as they become relevant throughout the rest of the series. It should go without saying, but whether you choose to adopt them for yourself is entirely up to you. Either way, I hope the accompanying discussion has given you plenty of food for thought.

In the next post, I’m going to take you through the first stage of the reconstructionist process: research. This is where I’ll introduce you to a fascinating Swedish site archaeologists refer to as the Götavi grid. I’ll talk about where I first found out about it; the various features of the grid, their symbolism, and other examples of those features; potential references from textual sources; and possible meanings and interpretations. If the post doesn’t run too long, I’ll also talk about my first attempt to recreate the grid and what happened.

So, until next time!

Heathen Magical Perspectives: Creation

To a Creation, Clothes

In my last post, we began with a story of creation on a windswept beach. But today, we’ll begin by following in the footsteps of a wandering god to a field.

The god in question is the same as the giver of önd in our first story. He is Óðinn, a god of many names, the one who I call  “Old Man”. This time though, it’s not trees he encounters, but two “tree-men”. And there is no giving of önd, óðr, or lá and litr here. This time, the Old Man simply gives them clothes (Hávamál 49).

This always reminds me of a story written by the twelfth century poet, Marie de France. In one of her lais, Bisclavret, a man-turned-werewolf is prevented from returning to his shape of birth by an unfaithful lover hiding his clothes. You see, when it comes to masking and its sibling, shapeshifting, there always seems to be an element of dressing for the “job” you want. The person who wishes to become a wolf must do as Sigmund and Sinfjotli did in the Saga of the Volsungs and don the skin of a wolf. And perhaps the tree that is to become a person, must wear a person’s clothes.

So, we have two sets of trees being made people when encountering a certain One-Eyed God. One might call that an M.O.

But what does that have to do with us and the magic we might create?

Mythological Fix Points and Magic

Some of you may have already heard of Mircea Eliade, the Romanian historian of religion who openly supported the Romanian fascist organization, The Iron Guard. He is a problematic figure, for sure.  But when it comes to working with historical forms of magic, I have found some of his work to be quite useful. You see, for Eliade, every significant human activity (as well as acts of creation and foundation) had a mythological “fix point”. They are rooted in myth and we are acting in pale imitation of what the gods are depicted as doing in mythological time.

Eliade can’t really take the credit for this concept though. The idea that humans imitate the gods is quite ancient. There are texts in the Yajurveda (a veda which concerns ritual practice), that specifically mention this concept. In the Satapatha Brahmana, the reader (presumably a budding ritualist) is instructed to ”do what the Gods did in the beginning” (VII, 2, 1, 4). And the Taittiriya Brahmana further underlines the importance of this idea with the following statement: “Thus the Gods did; thus men do” (I, 5, 9, 4).

Woden Worhte Weos: Animation as Woden’s Magic

So we have a god with an MO of making people out of trees. Some would even say that this is a kind of magic specific to that god (Richard North, I’m looking at you).

There’s a curious passage in the Old English Maxims that is worth a look here.

”Woden worhte weos, wuldor alwalda,
rume roderas: þæt is rice god
sylf soðcyning, sawla nergend”

(Maxims I, II, 132 – 34)

(Woden made idols, the almighty [made] glory,
the roomy heavens; this is a powerful god
himself the true king, healer of souls.)

As scholars have pointed out, this passage is clearly modeled on a line from Jerome’s Psalter iuxta Hebraeos. Maxims I isn’t the only place we find echoes of this line either. And curiously, in some of those other texts that contain reflections of this line, the “idols” are described as “demons”, suggesting that the idols themselves are more than carved wood. This idea of ‘living’ idols is made clearer in Saxo’s Gesta Danorum. In the Gesta, Óðinn (here, Othinus) is shown restoring a desecrated statue of himself, and ”by amazing craftsmanship made it respond with a voice to human touch” (Richard North, Heathen Gods in Old English Literature, pp 88 – 90).

There’s a lot to unpack here – the idea of ‘living’ idols is probably quite a bombshell for a lot of modern Heathens. But that’s not the focus of this post – creation is. And once again, we see the Old Man associated with the act of creation.

But if the sentiment found in the the Yajurveda and advanced as a theory by Eliade is true, then we should expect to find some human imitation of this form of magic, right?

Tree-Men

In the Hávamál passage mentioned earlier, Óðinn encounters two tree-men (‘trémönnom’ in ON). But this is not the only example of trémaðr (the singular form of ‘trémönnom’) in the ON corpus.

There are a number of mentions of tree-men, but two in particular stand out for the details they provide. In the Flateyjarbok, a group of men put ashore on the island of Sámsey. There they encounter a ‘tree-man’ who speaks to them of his purpose and origin. He was the product of sacrifice, and had been made to bring about the deaths of men in the southern part of Sámsey. But over the years, he’d become overgrown and his clothes and flesh rotted away.

(Those of you who are well read in the ON corpus will probably recognize Sámsey as the island where Loki claimed that Óðinn worked seiðr.)

The second example is in Þorleifs þáttr Jarlsskálds.  In this story,  Hákon Jarl creates a trémaðr to kill Þorleif Jarlsskáld after Þorleif cursed him with ‘itching sickness’.

Despite the connection between Óðinn and tree-men though, it was to the sisters, Þorgerðr Hörgi’s bride and her sister Irpa – a somewhat mysterious duo of goddesses that feature in a few sagas – that Hákon Jarl made his sacrifices. The process is outlined quite well for us here. First, Hákon Jarl makes the sacrifices until he receives a favorable oracle when he has a piece of driftwood brought in and fashioned into the shape of a wooden man. Then with “the monstrous witchcraft and python’s breath” of those two sisters, as well as the heart of a man sacrificed for the purpose and the proper attire for a man, they sent their tree-man, now named Þorgarðr, into the world to kill Þorleif (North 93 – 95).

But Óðinn’s hands are perhaps not entirely absent from this story. Because after Þorgarðr kills Þorleif (disappearing into the ground once his mission is complete), Þorleif’s dying words mention one of Óðinn’s kennings, Gautr in relation to the tree-man (North 95-96).

Creation: The Bare Ingredients

The parallels between Askr and Embla, and Þorgarðr are quite clear. And more importantly, provide us with a bridge between the mythological and the sagaic. Or in other words: the realm of gods and realm of men.

In both stories of creation, the creator begins with driftwood and imbues the creation with breath, color and vital blood/warmth, and mind/purpose. In the mythological story these are attributes that are magically given. But in the sagaic, the önd remains the domain of deities (at least for Hákon); the blood and heart from the sacrificed man provide the lá and litr; and the incantations/empowerment, the óðr.

Adaptation

So now we have the bare ingredients for creation. Now I’m not suggesting that people begin creating tree-men (assuming that’s even magically possible at this time given the current dominant paradigm). But in my experience, this process of creation is useful for everything from the creation of magical tools, to poppets and magical cures.

This process does require some adaptation though. I most certainly do not advise that any of us engage in human sacrifice as it’s illegal and wrong. Moreover, we’re not trying to animate whole men, so in terms of scale, it’s

From Mal Corvus Witchcraft & Folklore artefact private collection owned by Malcolm Lidbury (aka Pink Pasty) Witchcraft Tools

probably not even necessary either.

When I create magically, I follow the order of creation in the myth of Askr and Embla, and begin with my breath. For those of you who engage in possessory work, sessions in which you are carrying the Old Man would be the perfect time to engage in magical creation (with his agreement, of course). For those of you who don’t, you can take a leaf out of the migration period warlord’s playbook and simply ritually assume the role of Óðinn while you work. Remember that dressing for the job you want is a thing – yes, even with this.

Then comes the lá and litr. For me, this heat/blood can be either my own blood, or water and passing over a candle flame. Color can come from sigils, markings, or simply a coat of paint. Depending on what you’re doing, you may or may not wish to use your own blood (and if you do, be safe and sterile about it).

The final step is incantation, which I take to be the giving of óðr to your creation. This is often tied in with the giving of breath/önd in more practical terms. And in my opinion, this was probably the case historically too – at least when it came to herbal infusions and salves. The Old English magico-medical manuscripts give the instruction to “let the breath go wholly in” while chanting galdor. I do not think this to be coincidental.

Depending on what you are creating, you may wish to also give your creation a name. There is a long tradition of named objects in the North, as well as objects with a sense of agency and ‘fate’.

But whatever you create, you must always create carefully. Because this kind of magical creation isn’t just some arts and crafts project to use in a LARP. You are creating, and you will always have some degree of responsibility for (and to) what you create. You may wish to also bear this in mind when you’re writing your wills.

In the next post, I’m going to be talking about how I approach the elements in my magical practice. But until then, be well.