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!

Why Not Both? Bridging Reconstructionism and Gnosis

Reconstructionism vs Gnosis: A (Lame) War Between Two Ideological Camps

Once upon a time (well, back in the mid-2000s) a complete and utter weirdo got involved in a reconstructionist community online. Things were kind of wild back then. I was teaching English in South Korea and had just met the love of my life. Like me, he was a Heathen, and through him, I was increasingly introduced to the US Heathen community.

Nowadays, I know that’s a silly thing to say. The “US Heathen community” sounds like a monolith when there are very clear regional differences. But as an outsider looking in, you tend to notice the broad strokes before the nuances.

One of those broad strokes was the fault line stretching between two seemingly separate ideological camps: the reconstructionists and the gnosis-focused (or “woo”) people.

Straddling Camps

As a neurodivergent person, reconstructionist spaces were much easier for me to inhabit with their clearly defined “rules of engagement.” I couldn’t talk about the stuff that made my soul sing—namely my experiments and experiences in magic. But that was a small price to pay for knowing where I stood. Conversely, the gnosis-centered groups were confusing and the rules far less clear. Sometimes people wanted to hear about my research and read my sources, but other times…well, I may as well have been offering them the option of sitting in a diarrhea-filled spacesuit.

This was a time during which one camp extolled the virtue of keeping gnosis to oneself (like genitals) and the other seemed to consider bookishness a barrier to gnosis.

(Fun fact: I was once told I was too bookish to have gnosis.)

If you were lucky enough to miss the whole thing, it was like Romeo vs Juliet, only with less death and mostly online.

0/10 would not recommend.

And the absolutely wild part of it all? It was completely unnecessary.

Reconstructionism and Gnosis, Sitting In A Tree…

Before continuing, I want to get something straight: there is nothing wrong with either reconstructionism or gnosis.

(Well, reconstructionism the methodology is fine. I’m not so keen on the weird sect-like version of reconstructionism found in online groups.)

They’re also not really at opposing ends of a spectrum either. I would even argue that reconstructionism is one of the most useful methodologies for reviving/creating workable magical practices rooted in accounts of historical Heathen magic.

However, if I have learned anything from my twenty-or-so years of experimenting in this way, it’s that scholarship (regardless of methodology) can only take you so far. At some point, you want gnosis to take over and guide you the rest of the way.

But what do I mean by this?

Seams of Gold and Old-Ass Mineshafts

I would like you to imagine for a moment a seam of gold under the earth. It’s a special seam of gold—let’s say it represents all the ritual and magical knowledge we’re currently missing. Now, you could just try digging for that seam without any instructions. But who in their right mind would do that? Mining comes with hazards, and if you’re not careful, you might miss the seam entirely and happen upon something you don’t want. Moreover, the soil in different places is…well, different. The composition is different, the kinds of rocks are different—these are all factors that affect how you dig.

This is where the sources and reconstructionism come in. Imagine that the sources contain the equivalent of geological data, analysis of the material you’re looking for, and possibly even instructions for how best to dig down.

Sometimes they may even purport to reveal the location of an older mine. A mine that the historical Heathens originally dug (but almost always never works out).

So, what to do?

Enter Gnosis

This is where reconstructionism ideally hands the baton over to gnosis.

Like many, I used to fall into the trap of thinking that historical record was the same as authenticity and/or efficacy. But years of research, experimentation, evaluation, and experience have taught me that gnosis/inspiration/guidance from the Holy Powers can be just as important. More often than not, it’s the latter that makes the difference between practices that work and practices that fall flat.

And regardless of era, the proof is always in the pudding with magic.

You see (and I’m probably going to blog about this in the future), magic has never solely been the product of human hands. As a technology, magic is inherently Other —- something that is passed from Themselves to us. There’s a good example of this exchange in the witch-familiar relationship as recorded in English and Scottish sources from the Early Modern Period. I wrote about it in more depth here, if you’re interested. But the quick version is that the source of the witch’s power and learning was the familiar (who was Otherworldly vs demonic in earlier accounts). It was the familiar who was in charge.

Pro-Tip: This is not your familiar (and neither is your dog/cat/hamster/opossum/fish).

I would argue that this makes interacting with that Other (as well as associated deities and ancestors) an important part of the process for creating workable practices rooted in accounts of Heathen period magic. It’s their tools we work with. And if anyone knows how to work with those tools (or how best to work with them over a thousand years after other humans used them), it’s Themselves.

You just have to get their attention first, and this is where reconstruction and other methodologies can help. Because in my experience, if you reconstruct enough for somebeing to recognize what you’re trying to do, then you might find somebeing who’s inclined to help you out.

(I’m sure that’s like a form of ergi for some folks out there, but whatever.)

Thwarted Words, Insufficient Mechanisms

Unfortunately, all of the above requires something called discernment. And if we’re being honest, the ridiculous war between Reconstructio and Gnosiet stymied a lot of necessary discussion about how to assess and process gnosis in a healthy way. I believe this has been to our detriment.

You see, there will always be people in any religious group who have a drive to go deeper and to experience more. There will always be those of us who need to be in those liminal spaces and working with weird practices.

One of the most curious things about modern US Heathenry is how protestant it can be at times. A number of Heathens are simply uncomfortable with other people having gnosis and even go so far as to refer to it as MUS (or “made up shit”). I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the assertion that “magic isn’t a part of Heathenry” (despite accounts of magic in every genre of ON literature and probable physical evidence). And there’s a segment of Heathens who would probably be far happier if all of us subscribed to the “gods of limited access” model.

As humans, we all have varying levels of religious/mystical/spiritual needs. True communities (vs the protestant church model many seem to emulate) focus on inclusion instead of shunning. In an actual community, there are always people you don’t like and who believe differently than you. That’s normal; that’s just organic communities for you.

Moreover, when a religious community doesn’t address discernment in a useful way;when a community doesn’t provide tools and space for “woo-inclined” members to mutually support each other; or worse, when a community ostracizes the “weirdos,” then the ground is ripe for bad actors to come in. And when it comes to the magical and mystical, humans are especially vulnerable to exploitation.

This is something I’ve seen play out over and over again.

So, we need to have those conversations, I think. In the meantime though, Jason Miller created this excellent checklist for assessing gnosis. I encourage you to check it out.

Final Word

Thankfully, many Heathens (at least in the communities I’m in) have moved on from such hard divisions between scholarship and gnosis. Discussing gnosis has become less of a fraught proposition, and previously hostile communities have become less so.

If you are curious about the line where reconstruction (or any scholarship) can end and gnosis begin on a practical level, hopefully this post has given you some ideas. This is not the only way in which scholarship and gnosis can enrich, enable, and support each other either. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve given up on a line of research only to be told what to look for next in a dream. Or been told in a dream to look into something seemingly unrelated to my research interests only to find that lead panning out. On occasion, I’ve even had people randomly message me sources they felt they needed to send to me that filled in some research gaps.

In the next post, I’m planning to dig deeper into the gnosis element of my magical experimentation with some examples of things I’ve experienced (story time!). After that, I’m planning a post on the Otherworldly origins of magic and partnership between witches and the Other.

Finally, I’ll be holding a free online class on the 28th of January 2023 at 2pm EST on spinning. Nothing magical (you’d need to develop muscle memory first for that). Just a bunch of people learning to make yarn out of fluff with spindles. If that interests you, save the date. I’ll post an event sign-up later this week and guidance on beginner-friendly fluff and spindles. If you do not have any spinning tools or fluff, you will need to order them. Spots will likely be limited, so please only order after you’ve signed up.

Women as Supports

A Demon Turned Heathen

I met a new ‘demon’ yesterday. She was twisted and bent, doubled over with stress and covered in cysts. She walked with a cane, and was orangey-pink and red in color.

When I say ‘demon’ here, I clearly don’t mean the kind of demon that normally springs to mind in popular culture. There were no pitchforks or flames, no oppression or seeking the ruination of human souls. There wasn’t even anything even vaguely chthonic about this ‘demon’ either, and the only bowels involved were the bowels that live inside my body.

This ‘demon’ was instead more of a body-mind manifestation, and meeting her and hearing her out took my IBS pain from about a four to a zero.

I’m a fan of shadow work and find the process of examining one’s ‘shadow’ to be a useful activity. But as Pagans and Heathens, we’re not so good on the release/resolve stage of this process. Sure journaling, journey, and/or ritual can also help. However, I am yet to find anything within the Pagan/Witch/Heathen sphere that is nearly as effective as Tsultrim Allione’s Feeding Your Demons. Out of all the possible ways for working with one’s shadow (or ‘demons’), this is the method that has brought me the most tangible returns.

So there I was with my ‘demon’, feeding her of myself until she became a beautiful woman in her 30s. I called her ”Mōdsefa” and promised to listen to her. Then we made friends, and my stomach hasn’t hurt since (long may it continue!).

Sitting with Mōdsefa

Since my experience of meeting “Mōdsefa” (a name that felt appropriate for an intelligence that resides in the torso), I have found myself mulling over the role of women and female-presenting people in religious and magical communities.

As all too often happens, synchronicity saw a party going on and also decided to jump into the mix. First I came across an article written by a Zen nun about

“My titties hurt and I haven’t slept in what feels like years because I happened to get with some ass who had to be talked out of stoning me when I got knocked up by a god.”

how enlightenment is a male fantasy reserved for monks (and the cooking and cleaning reserved for nuns). Then my friend shared a poem/meditation on Mary’s ignored-role in birthing and nursing Jesus. As this poem so ably demonstrates, again men are able to concentrate on the transcendental whereas the woman is left with the bloody and painful practicalities of essentially making that happen. If we are to believe Christian mythology, Mary may have brought Jesus into the world (and is ‘venerated’ – not worshipped – for the fruit of her womb), but women were supposed to be silent in church, unable to give teachings or administer the symbolic representations of the body and blood of that woman-born child. Mary herself would be ineligible to serve the representations of the child that she herself birth and fed. Take some time to think about that.

In the context of both religions, we are nothing but supports for male aspirations and experiences, and like my poor Mōdsefa, our capabilities and contributions all too often ignored.

Heathen Women Then

But this is not just a Buddhist or Christian thing; we see a similar mindset in the gendered roles of Heathen women too. As LMC Weston argued in Women’s Medicine, Women’s Magic: The Old English Metrical Childbirth Charms., the cultural center that was the hall in this period was the domain of men, and the women largely relegated to support roles:

“Where the men’s hall occupies the cultural center and defines that “semblance of order,” women and women’s lives outside the hall in the places where they cooked the food, wove the cloth, and bore the children-all processes, as Sherry Ortner argues, transforming nature into culture-represent a potentially dangerous ambiguity. Given the logical oppositions male/female and human/nonhuman, if the norm for human is male, where does woman stand if not on the boundary between the human hall and the nonhuman wilderness?”

Jenny Jochens makes similar observations in Women in Old Norse Society. Not only were women excluded from all political life (beyond what influence they could garner through incitement and other forms of manipulation(, but they too were relegated to the role of server during feasts (which arguably held religious as well as cultural and religious dimensions). (Jochens 107-108, 113-114)

We modern folks may pretend that the Heathen period woman’s lot was a liberated one, but often the reality is that it might only be described so when compared with the most misogynist societies in Europe.

Heathen Women and Female-Presenting People Today

Unsurprisingly, it’s not uncommon for modern Heathen males (as well as some females) to argue for the same bifurcation of spheres and labor today. This pattern is not unfamiliar in some communities from what I understand, and even among more progressive groups, you may still find the men peeling off to have the more philosophical discussions over beers while the female-presenting humans are left to basically facilitate everything else (or in some

“I may be giving a thumb’s up, but let’s not kid ourselves, I’m dead inside.”

cases face social censure).

For some modern Heathen women (especially on the right of the political spectrum), this is an acceptable state of affairs and considered to be ‘right’, and over the years I have observed attempts to sacralize housework and child rearing in some way in order to somehow make it seem less onerous and more “honored”. As with all “honored” things of this nature though, that “honor” only ever seems to take a form in which the woman/female-presenting person is divorced from physical and personal cost in the minds of men as readily as they are the political and religious spheres. This is “honor” that is convenient for men, and built almost entirely on platitudes and approval-seeking behaviors.

There is nothing wrong with finding fulfillment in housework or child rearing. But let’s not pretend that a polished turd is anything but what it is. True honor is recognizing the personal and physical costs as well as making efforts to include and listen to those you wish to honor in the political and religious processes of your community.

The Reconstructionist’s Dilemma

As with many aspects of modern Heathenism, many of the arguments surrounding the role of female-presenting humans center around history. This is to be expected in a group of religions with heavy reconstructionist influence. However, we do not reconstruct everything, and if anything, our reconstruction is often quite selective. Sometimes this is because we don’t like what the sources have to say, but other times it’s because we recognize that our society and the laws that we live by are very different.

The History of the Spindle Side

Like my poor, ignored Mōdsefa ‘demon’, the history of women and other female-presenting humans is all too often ignored. Though credited with preserving older tales while at work at spinning and in the weaving rooms by scholars such as Rumpf, women as a whole are left out of the conversation. No one talks about the labor of birthing the next generation, the countless hours spent clothing families and producing textiles to sell, or how it was the work of women that created the sails that drove the ships and enabled mankind to first go into space.

Whereas men have told their stories loudly and publicly, women have told them together and behind closed doors. Men have produced text and books of pages whereas women have produced textile and books of embroidery (Karen Bek-Pedersen 2007, pp 154 – 156).

And through it all, women (whether they understood themselves to be so or not) have worked to find their own ways to the holy (be it through cooking rice or renouncing the world in order to join religious communities for women).

In the Völuspá, ‘primal law’ (ørlög) is depicted as being something that is decided, scored, and spoken by women, and it is the völur that chooses and speaks the fates of men when asked at seance (Karen Bek-Pedersen, pp 200 – 201). There is a lot of power in choice, and I would like to see those of us who are either women or female-presenting people become choosers too.

I would like to see us choose solidarity and throw off the centuries of negative PR surrounding friendships between women (read Silvia Federici for more on that). I would like to see us choose to support each other and our own aspirations (be they spiritual or mundane). Finally, I’d like to see us choose a better path for our children. Because if there is one thing we can never forget, it’s that the patterns we create now, are what they will have to live with in the future.

So choose deliberately, friends, and learn to listen to the women/female-presenting people in your lives because we can do amazing things as a species when we actually work together.