I noticed that the lovely voice behind The Modern Southern Polytheist here on WordPress, tonight, reblogged a post which called for practitioners of Gaelic Polytheism. His reblog included a response that I had made a while back when I initially reblogged it myself, wherein I had referred to myself as a “Historically Oriented Irish Polytheist”. And in Johnathan’s own response to that post, he said that [he’s] “totally gonna have to steal that leading btw”- which I can only assume references the Historically Oriented aspect of that identifier of mine.
If you’re familiar with my blog you’ll have seen me use that term here and there since I converted to Irish Polytheism back in January of last year; when talking about my religion, it has become my go to religious identifier since I (as far as I know) coined it in reference to my own practice. Yet with the term piquing people’s interest lately, it’s important that I finally get around to defining what I actually mean by it when I use it as a pre-identifier- mostly in order to ensure that other people aren’t misunderstanding (or misusing it should they choose to use it, too).
Before I define what I mean, though, you first have to understand some of the other identifiers that Pagans use- particularly two main ones: Reconstructionist and Revivalist.
The term “Reconstructionist” (or “Recon” for short) refers to Polytheistic Reconstructionism– a movement which began to emerge in the 60’s but really gained steam in the 1990’s. As a movement, its focus is often on historical, archaeological, and cultural correctness of practice; its goal, essentially, is to reconstruct these non-Abrahamic cultural faith systems as accurately as possible… An action which was in direct opposition to the more common trend practiced by the emerging Wiccan and related NeoPagan faiths of the same time frame (this being a-historical Eclecticism).
Revivalism, on the other hand, refers to something very similar, and yet quite different: A Historical, archaeological, and culturally correct reconstruction of those same faiths… But where Reconstructionists often seek to practice that historical correctness, Revivalists instead use it as a foundation on which to update the religion and bring it forward into modern sociological and cultural contexts; instead of doing their best to practice a historically accurate faith the way its practitioners would have done so “back in the day”, they use their research to modify and update those practices in order to create a faith relevant in the Modern era. Usually (though not always) that modification is based on how they believe it would have changed had the religion actually survived into the modern era as an intact faith system.
Now if we’re getting into semantics, yes. Either term could technically apply to my practice; I am incredibly concerned with historical accuracy for a number of reasons and it’s the primary foundation on which I’ve built my faith over the last year. At the same time, however, I don’t think that these faiths can survive without being updated and modernized.
I hold these ideas and take this approach for several reasons. Firstly, I fully believe that religious stagnation simply isn’t realistic. Even cultural ones change and adapt over time, and revitalized religions such as ours are no different. However, there is an incredible amount of information missing in regards to certain faiths- Irish Polytheism being but one example. Unfortunately, that missing information leaves gaps which need to be filled- and yet they can’t be without either extrapolating on our own, or borrowing from elsewhere. But I also fully believe that, in order for us to truly respect the Divine, we have to also respect (and place importance on) the words of the parent cultures who created them- even if those words are centuries old. And lastly, I don’t believe that you can genuinely and accurately reconstruct a faith without having an understanding of its historical practice.
So if I am technically either according to anyone’s definition, then why don’t I just choose to use either of those terms which already exist? Why do I instead opt to use “Historically Oriented”? That is because once you get past the base similarities, there are numerous differences which mean they don’t just fit for me. Really, I occupy a strange sort of grey area between the two ideologies. Furthermore, my motivations for certain actions are much different than the motivations of Revivalism and Reconstructionism. As a result, using their identifiers is akin to having a large square hole and a small triangle peg… Because the square hole is bigger, the small peg will certainly fit into it. But just because it fits, it doesn’t mean it’s the right shape.
I don’t feel like Reconstructionism wholly fits what I am doing because of the fact that a lot of information is missing; the Oral Traditions that the Irish held to before their conversion means that much of the religious information that we need in order to viably reconstruct the faith simply didn’t survive. And while you can certainly glean a lot of useful information from surviving Folklore, Modern Irish Customs, and even the materials provided by the Christian Monks who attempted to preserve the Irish stories? There are simply far too many gaps. As a result, complete and accurate reconstructionism is absolutely impossible for Irish Polytheism. Calling myself a Reconstructionist, then, simply doesn’t make sense to me if true Reconstruction will always be genuinely unachievable.
But I don’t feel like Revivalism completely fits, either; I’m not simply using this information to update the faith and bring it forward into the modern era… I’m outright plugging holes in what is arguably a sinking ship- and I’m doing so, so that I can even get it back to the harbor to fix it in the first place. And that, to me, requires a slightly different methodology than simply updating a well documented faith does.
But I also don’t live in Ireland. Instead, I’m a partial descendant of the Irish-Scottish Diaspora in America. Arguably, the culture of the Diaspora is much different than the culture of the Irish and Scottish living in their homelands today. So even when I am focused on updating the faith, I’m not just updating things based on how I think they would practice today if the faith survived unbroken in Ireland… I’m also updating the faith based on how I think the differences between the culture of the Diaspora and the culture of the Homelands would have effected it- particularly in my own location here in Oklahoma, and in the Southern United States in general. And like with general Revivalism, I think this requires a slightly different approach.
Instead, the Irish Polytheism that I practice is a weird mish-mash of various things that are mostly historical but not entirely… And yet I’m not eclectic, either; it’s a grey area that puts history first- meaning that my practice and focus is oriented in Historically verifiable information left over from the culture back when they held those beliefs… But also recognizes that culture changes, culture in different areas may vary despite being shared among the same parent population, and that gaps exist and outside sources and extrapolation are necessary- and that, due to this, a large portion of my practice may not actually reflect what those practices should be if following either of the two acceptable methodologies; the end result may contain some Scottish or Manx Polytheism to fill gaps where beliefs were similar; draw on Hellenic methods for burning offerings because (despite it being a historically attested method of disposing of them in Ireland) they’re practically the only community that has modern information on that particular method of offering disposal; may incorporate Native American methods that I learned growing up, because the Irish and the Native Americans here had an intense relationship (particularly with the Cherokee); may focus on my relationship with the land in Oklahoma as opposed to Ireland itself, and so on and so forth.
For me, this terminology and method of describing my practice works. For others, though, it might not. More might probably call it redundant, pedantic, and unnecessary, and try to convince me that I’m really doing A or B “and need to stop being a special snowflake”. But ultimately how we choose to identify and describe our faiths is a personal thing which can only be left to the individual to decide upon in the end. So if you like it and want to use it with this in mind? Great! If not? That’s also great! But it works for me and I’ll continue to use it- and I hope this helps everyone understand why I chose to do so in the end.
For a list of IriPol resources, including those I used to inform the opinions mentioned in this article, please view this page here.