In Ásatrú, reconstruction is an attempt to re-establish historical polytheistic religion in the modern world, in contrast with syncretic movements like Wicca, and “channeled” movements like Theosophy. Wikipedia has a very good article on polytheistic reconstructionism that I recommend taking a look at to see just how reconstructionist efforts differ from other movements. Reconstruction efforts in Ásatrú have gone a long way towards advancing our understanding of who we were, what we did, and why we did it. Reconstruction methodology has changed Ásatrú, and the wider Heathen world, for the better. From my earliest days in Ásatrú, when Wicca-like ritual elements were very common, to current efforts and developments, I have watched with interest as reconstruction methodology has become a dominant approach to religious development, bringing with it greatly needed advances in theological and social constructs. I have also seen it become a goal unto itself and I believe that this will be to our detriment.
There was a time when “doing it 100% right” was a strong motivator for me. It was part of how I saw myself as doing things better than the Wiccans. It was, simply put, an ego thing. After all, we had “real history” to work with and didn’t have to “make it up as we go.” I can’t help but look at those phrases now and scoff at myself and the arrogance represented. The truth is, we are making it up as we go. We are doing it in a different way, a way that aims for as high a degree of authenticity and accuracy as we can get, but we are making something new. We are making something that must evolve and adapt to our needs today while keeping us connected to our roots. Reconstruction gives us the framework to do this in but it doesn’t provide for the changes that must be made in order to be relevant to our world and not become reenactment. We need a living religion.
This is where living traditions come into the fold. A living tradition is a custom that has survived the changes of history and culture to remain meaningful and relevant. Even after the conversion period was over, our beliefs didn’t completely die out. They changed, sometimes greatly, but the roots remained. The folklore and folk traditions of the nations that would form out of our tribes and kingdoms still reflect our deep heathen roots, we just have to be willing to do the work to figure it all out. Midsommar is the next Holy Tide that is coming up. In Sweden, Midsommar is, quite frankly, a bigger deal than Christmas. It always has been, even when the Lutheran Church maintained a stranglehold on Swedish society. If you look at Midsommar customs you won’t find much influence of the White Christ. It is now, and always has been, a deeply heathen holiday. The heathen roots of so many holidays are still there and these holidays still contain heathen customs and beliefs. They have changed to fit the world they live in and may need some tweaking to make them relevant to us again, but the traditions are still alive and that’s what matters.
If reconstruction built the framework for our revival, then it is the traditions of our homelands that give it life. At the risk of abusing a metaphor, I look at it like a house. Our cultural heritage is the foundation. Reconstruction built the house. Living traditions, however, make it a home. Without living traditions, the walls are bare and there is no furniture. There is nothing to give it meaning. Sure, you can reside in an empty building. We can seek shelter from the outside world but we aren’t making it a home. It will always remain bare; an empty shell that is merely a shadow of what it could, and should, be.
Living tradition also tells us who we are. I am Swedish-American not by virtue of the fact that my grandparents emigrated from Sweden in 1926. I am Swedish-American because of cultural elements. Those elements include both Swedish and American traditions, folklore, and history. My practices reflect both American and Swedish culture. When I think of house wights, I think of tomten. When I think of a wight of the forest, I think of the skogsrå. Yule always means glögg, wreaths, and the julbock to me. I collect troll figurines. I find Ole & Lena jokes to be incredibly funny. I also celebrate Vårblot differently than the Swedes do because of climate and cultural differences. Paul Bunyan is my idea of the strong, fearless lumberjack who can do anything. Iron John Henry exemplifies perseverance and tenacity to me. Bigfoot is as much a forest wight as the skogsrå to me. My practices are a blend of two cultures and the traditions and folklore of both. Sure, I have to look at every bit of folk custom and weed out irrelevant elements. I have to evaluate what remains through my understanding of our lore and through the context of being Swedish-American. It’s a lot of additional work but I have found that it makes Ásatrú a spiritual home, not just a shelter from other beliefs. It has required a great deal of honesty on my part, and no small sacrifice of ego, to come to the understanding that I am not Svéar. I am not a Norseman. I am not a Swede. What I am is Swedish-American. Through understanding this, and through the inclusion of folklore and folk traditions along with reconstruction efforts of ancient ways, I have a home. Through the inclusion of living traditions I have found a living religion.