Can Reconstructionism and Traditionalism work?


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I've only just started reading about Reconstructionaism and Traditionalism.

Effectively they are very specific areas of Neopaganism that seem to especially seek to recreate and emulate the actual living religions of ancient peoples.

For example, Celtic Traditionalism seeks to specilaise in specific areas of Celtic belief - often based on a certain Geographic area, such as the Isle of Man, Scotland, Ireland, Brittany, or Wales.

However, although there is a definitely something to be lauded in the attitude of attempting to discern and live by ancient beliefs to any degree in the modern world, I wonder how successful Traditionalism/Reconstructionism can actually be?

For examples, particular objections can include:

1/ the limited written sources
2/ the complete difference in lifestyle

Although I appreciate that some degree of oral tradition - frmo the Celts through the Anglo-Saxons to Vikings - has been recorded for posterity, what these written sources often fail to allow for is the deeply individual and tribalisitc nature of belief.

By that I mean that - as with Hinduism - there is often wide local variation. All too often even history and mythology books make sweeping statements and effectively communicate an erroneous notion of ancient peoples have a very set and widely determined pantheon - when this is absolutely not supported by deeper research.

So reading the Ulturion Cycles of Irish folklore doesn't give a direct sense of actual everyday Irish living and folk belief - which would actually be the main thrust of daily concerns.

It's for that same reason that Ancient Egyptians (especially of the Middle to New Kingdoms) would more likely be dealing with figures such as Bes, rather than the major deities which in themselves often had no immediate role in everyday living - the temples to major deities such as Hours, Osiris, and Isis, were actually closed to the common populace.

As for the second problem - essentially, ancient peoples were shaped by their belief by the harsh realities of their existence: high infant mortality, serous diseases, the threat of famine and war. These are all issues we rarely have to face in the Western world. In fact, it is precisely because we are so distant from these threats that it can be argued that Western Culture creates its own spiritual vacuum in the first place.

And its on that point in particularly that I wonder how successful Reconstructionism and Traditionalism can be.

A starter for discussion.
I must confess that I am not entirely comfortable with reconstructionism in religion. The problem of the sources is certainly an important one, but I tend to think that the problem of the evoluyion of society is even greater.

The French scholar Jean Markale, a specialist of Celtic cultures in Ireland and France, although sharing a number of beliefs with Neo-Pagans (maybe even without knowing it), if opposed to reconstructionists movements. His argument is the following: Celtic society was based on a strict caste system of warriors/kings, priests/druids and craftsmen (the other members of society being considered at a somewhat lower level). The mythology of the Celts reflect this division. Moreover, the relation between the druid and the king was key to the role of the druid in society, and as there are no kings or warriors to advise in this era, the role of the druid cannot have very much to do with what it had before. Druids were also jurists, but this rols is now overtaken by lawyers, who are not priests (except in very few cases ;) ), and the law is very different, not based on the same principles.

The historian of Indo-European history Georges Dumézil would certainly agree with Markale if he had been confronted with reconstructionism (whiwh I think he hadn't).

I tend to agree with him in the sense that trying to recreate exactly the original religion is in my opinion not very wise. Also, as Brian wrote, the concerns of the people, and therefore the deities they worshipped, were quite different at that time just because of the facts of life (high mortality, famine and war). However, this should not forbid us from adapting some pantheons or deities to the current trends of society.

I think that it is possible for a workable spiritual path to be built on a specific historical period of a specific culture, so long as a few admissions are made:

1. Like already brought up, this modern recreation can not be an exact replica of the original religion, as the setting and circumstances of modern worshippers is different enough to make a real impact. The only way to truly live as the chosen religion would be to jump in a time machine and go back to the target period... which at least currently is not possible.

2. Because it is impossible and unworkable to produce an exact replica of an ancient religion, there will be at least some degree of eclecticism involved.

3. The "ideal" of the original time period and culture is really an incomplete snapshot, as there were undoubtedly regional variations (as has been mentioned already.) Even if we assume there weren't regional variations, there were undoubtedly variations over time as different practitioners focussed on different elements of their religion, dropping some parts while bringing other parts to the fore, and even introducing new elements.

4. To reiterate one of the Principles of Wiccan Belief (I'm a Wiccan), "Our only animosity towards Christianity, or toward any other religion or philosophy of life, is to the extent that its institutions have claimed to be "the only way," and have sought to deny freedom to others and to suppress other ways of religious practice and belief." I'd suggest that those who have chosen reconstructionist or "traditional" paths should especially beware the all-too-common arrogance towards other spiritual paths which seems to derive from the rather questionable idea that the validity of a spiritual path should be determined based on its "purity" (whatever THAT is.) [When the idea of cultural purity is brought up, I recognize it as a codeword for racist. What culture is truly pure? Wouldn't it have to be completely isolated, and completely homogenous in itself, to be pure? Which culture can truly claim to be pure? And why should isolationist regimented-conformity xenophobia be considered a good thing?]

I wonder whether the concerns these days with being traditional and being historically/culturally correct is the current incarnation of the "witch blood" concerns of not so long ago in the Wiccan community. It used to be the case that there was an assumption that REAL witches were witches by family heritage. It seemed every time you turned a corner, some witch was trying to get others to accept them as an authority by claiming they had a granny/great-aunt/some-relative-who-was-conveniently-dead to justify their claim to the title Witch. As these claims were scrutinized, though, a shocking number of them fell apart.

Thankfully, people came to realize that Wicca as a spiritual path, and various traditions that have been established within the Wiccan community, are perfectly valid even though some of the historical claims have been disproven. If the system works for those who practice it, if they find it fulfilling, then that makes it as valid a spiritual path as any other.

Reconstructionists and traditionalists are free to build their spiritual paths on whatever source material they find inspiring, just as non-traditionalists and non-reconstructionists do. And hopefully, we can all be mature enough at this point to leave the "witchier-than-thou" or "holier-than-thou" or "more-authentic-than-thou" ego games out of it.
Certainly some good and intelligent points raised in this thread. :)
Another point I forgot to mention is the availability of information. The regional differences and evolutions of religions over time have been mentioned, but for most ancient religions the available information ios somehow limited.

Prehistoric religions are only known by archeological findings and suppositions. Celtic religions are known by archeological findings, and either through the writings of contemporary Romans or Greek scholars (who didn't necessariliy understand them), or through the writings of much later monks. Something similary applies to Nordic religions. Even if Roman, Greek or Egyptian religions are better known, the available evidence is probably insufficient to reconstruct exactly the way the gods were reverred - and even less so the way the people were actually seeing/perceiving deity at that time.

And, by the way, the term "reconstruction" means "constructing again" and by definition necessitates interpretation and some form of creation.

I said:
And its on that point in particularly that I wonder how successful Reconstructionism and Traditionalism can be.

A starter for discussion.

I've no doubt that they make working, very solid spiritualities. My only issue is with them claiming to be *the same* spirituality or religion as the one held by the people in the time/place they're reconstructing from.
Or even "closer to the ancient religions than Wicca."

Tribal religions don't exist apart from culture & lifestyle, and we can't re-create those cultures today. (For one thing, many aspects would be illegal; for another, nobody wants to give up surgery-with-anaesthetics & refrigerated food storage.)

So there are these huge gaps in the information base because nobody recorded aspects of daily life; written and even oral lore was only for storing *important* and *special* info... nobody wrote down the equivalent of "the itsy bitsy spider" song, or "Now I lay me down to sleep"--and in addition to gaps, there are changes. There aren't enough followers of any one "Reconstructed" religion to have the feasts & gatherings that the original religions had (not to mention that "lack of temples" problem), and they certainly don't stick to the ancient marriage practices... so the modern versions are often near-solitary, with a great deal of variation between people claiming the same "religion."

They have to make up or extrapolate parts, and adapt other parts for modern lifestyles; every change moves them farther from the original religions.

I think they may grow into a powerful & meaningful set of religions. I just don't think those will be the same religions as the ancestors'--or even the same religions as the ancestral ones would have been, if they'd survived through Christianity's movements in Europe.
I said:
However, although there is a definitely something to be lauded in the attitude of attempting to discern and live by ancient beliefs to any degree in the modern world, I wonder how successful Traditionalism/Reconstructionism can actually be?

For examples, particular objections can include:

1/ the limited written sources
2/ the complete difference in lifestyle

It's for that same reason that Ancient Egyptians (especially of the Middle to New Kingdoms) would more likely be dealing with figures such as Bes, rather than the major deities which in themselves often had no immediate role in everyday living - the temples to major deities such as Hours, Osiris, and Isis, were actually closed to the common populace.

Hi Brian,

As a reconstructionist myself, I thought I should say something. I'm Kemetic (ancient Egyptian recon), although I'm not a very strict recon. The groups I'm familiar with attempt to bring the faith into the modern world, adapting as necissary. There must be changes - we don't have our own country, we don't live in the Nile valley, ect.
It certainly is an interesting path, and I'm still new to it. Here's a few links to give you an idea of modern Kemetic religion:

Feel free to ask questions. I'll do my best to answer.
A good succinct point - and welcome to CR, Darkwolf. :)
To be honest, I don't know any Recons who are attempting to recreate the One True and Only Cultural Manifestation of their chosen spirituality. When I was writing down my ideals for CR back in the early 90s, I was very clear that there were aspects of the religions and cultures that we did not want to recreate -- human sacrfice, racist aspects of tribalism, repressive caste societies, etc. My approach to CR has always been that we needed a mix of "aisling and archaeology" -- of the visionary and the historical -- in order to create a working path based on the best of what we can recover from ancient texts, folk tradition, archaeological evidence, and other sources.

Yes, there are some Reconstruction types who are racists. Unfortunately, that seems unavoidable, though I can certainly say that a lot of Recons are completely against this aspect -- notions of racial and cultural "purity" are absurd. We generally try to call people on these attitudes when we see them, and to let them know that we don't welcome these attitudes within our community. My goal, realistically, is to consider what early Celtic religions and spiritualities might look like if they had survived Christianity and were practiced in their home cultures today. Hinduism, for instance, has changed greatly over millenia. Rituals have changed, the ways that Gods are honored and represented has changed, and Hindu society as changed as well. I have no desire or intent to live in some Iron Age mud hut with no medicine, running water or sanitary facilities. I like electricity and computers and antibiotics. I have no desire to count my social status by the number of cows and slaves I have. I'm interested in working with the deities, the spirits, and the ancestors (physical and spiritual) in ways that approach the traditional ones but are suitable for today. I'm interested in the magical, poetic, visionary, and crafting traditions such as music, poetic form, charms and honoring rites of those cultures and societies.

But what I am interested in are ways in which visions were inspired, in embracing many of the early ethical concepts expressed in the Brehon laws, in finding reasonably authentic ways of interacting with spirits that include offerings, of finding and using ritual ways that are compatible with a modern society. I've found notes from scholarly and folkloric sources that have helped with that in many ways.

Not all Recons are unfriendly to Wiccans and other Pagans. Quite a number of us actually started out that way. None of us that I know of are claiming that we have discovered THE way that our ancestors did everything. This is why we call it Reconstruction, not an unbroken tradition. I have to tell you that I most sincerely doubt anyone has any kind of unbroken family tradition and I am deeply suspicious of those who claim such things. When I write ritual or articles or books, I always take pains to separate out what are my inventions or interpretations, and what comes from historical sources. That way, people can read what I write, or observe what I do, and make their own decisions about what they want to consider or integrate into their own practices.

What I object to in Wicca and other NeoPagan paths is the claim that "Celtic" Wicca is actually Celtic, or that most modern Druids are doing anything like what the ancient Druids were doing if they can't demonstrate it. There's no evidence that the early Celts cast Wiccan circles, for instance, or that ancient Druids believed in "The God and The Goddess." If people are honest about their sources, I have no trouble with them. I have a great deal of respect for eclectics who say "yes, I created this ritual about five years ago, based on some stuff I found in the story of Diarmuid and Grainne" for instance, rather than trying to bullshit somebody by claiming it's from their family tradition, preserved without change from the Paeleolithic caves of Scotland. I have absolutely no problem with people who are practicing Wicca and NeoPagan Druidism who aren't making false claims about their traditions or practices. I actually attend Wiccan circles with some of my friends from time to time and am perfectly comfortable doing so.

I'm very aware of the differences that exist from tribe to tribe in the ancient world, and how time and place and language dialect effect the manifestations of spirituality. We can look at the accounts of the Imbas Forosnai ritual and make some educated guesses about how to create such a ritual today, but we can't ever know the exact "truth chants" that were sung over the fili in trance. We can, however, write our own and experiment with how they work. And we can tell people that Jane wrote this chant and Sean wrote the tune for it, and we followed what we could of the instructions from the medieval text to come up with the ritual we're performing. This is where honesty and respect for sources and tradition comes in.

Here's an example:

Traditionally, the Manx honored Manannan mac Lir by making offerings to him on or near the Summer Solstice. These offerings were made either at the shore of the island, or on his sacred peak. The offerings consisted of wild yellow flag irises, apparently symbolic of the gold they were paying in "rent" for the island from Manannan as first King of the island, and its protector. Knowing this, I do a ritual to Manannan each year at about midsummer for my passage into the Otherworlds and back because I see him as the Gatekeeper. I offer yellow iris if they are still in season, or other yellow flowers if they are not. I've added actions based on the folk tradition about offering beer to Shoney (a Scottish sea deity who blessed the boats and the fishing harvest), and wade out into the water to pour out a beer or ale or some mead for him. Sometimes I use milk or hazel milk for their associations with the sacred, or with inspiration and the Otherworlds. Since no traditional prayers are recorded, I offer these with my own words, songs and prayers. Before I make the offerings or approach the waters, I purify myself with burning juniper, which is given in a book on folklore as the plant burned in fireplaces at the new year to purify the house in the Scottish Highlands; I feel the adaptation of using this plant for personal purification makes sense.

So here I've taken three separate traditions, from three different places, but combined them into a harmonious act of worship for one of my primary deities. Manannan himself seems pleased with these efforts, and if or when he brings me a vision or dream with further instructions for this ritual, I'll add or change what I'm doing to suit. Ideally, this is how Reconstruction works when texts are lacking. Take the ideas, work with them to make something harmonious with the original cultures' intents and ideals, and then perform ritual with techniques and materials you have to hand. See what kind of divnatory response you get when you're done with the ritual. If the results and omens are good, continue and perhaps add some small modifications. If the results and omens are unfavorable, go back to the drawing board and see if you might have done something that violates known geasa surrounding the deity or spirit, or that viloates the spirit of the culture(s) in question and correct it. If it's working, pass the technique on to others and see if it's applicable for more than just personal purposes. In this way, newly created rituals and meditations spread within Recon communities.

I hope this clears up some of the possible questions or confusions. The Recons I know and talk to a lot are very frustrated by people presenting themselves as a part of this spiritual continuum who act in racist ways, and those who speak primarily in anger and self-righteousness, considering themselves "better" than others.

At the moment, some of us are involved in setting up a "hate-free" Recon board, where newbies and non-Recons will be welcome to come, to ask questions, and to participate in learning about Recon spiritualities and cultures. We're very tired of the antagonistic tone that many Recon/Traditionalist resources on the web tend to take, and hope to show the rest of the Pagan community a friendlier, more welcoming face. Recons are very capable of working in harmony with each other and with other religions. I know that I have been involved for years now in interfaith and multifaith work online and in my local communities. I'm not the only one.
Great post, Erynn - and nice to see the emphasis on Reconstructionism as about moving the spirituality forward in cultural terms. The cows and slaves comment was classic. :)

And you're in the Isle of Man? My partner is from Onchan. :)
I said:
Great post, Erynn - and nice to see the emphasis on Reconstructionism as about moving the spirituality forward in cultural terms. The cows and slaves comment was classic. :)

And you're in the Isle of Man? My partner is from Onchan. :)

Thanks, but no, I'm not in Inis Man. I'm in the Pacific Northwest of the US, actually.

Since I'm interested in Manannan, it does make sense that I've done a little study on Manx folklore and mythology. I was quite delighted to find that there was a specific traditional ritual to Manannan, and I researched it using the Manx Traditionary Ballad and several books on Manx history, archaeology and folklore. The resultant ritual works very well for me, and I've modified it a number of times over the years to be more suitable. These days the ritual is quite simple, with a minimal number of tools required, and primarily consists of an offering and prayers.

John Machate has a very old version (the original) up on his Thunderpaw website. The ritual I do these days doesn't really look like that at all anymore. My approach to ritual is very different now than what's on his website. Because I started out Wiccan/GeneroPagan, I didn't really have ideas about how to move away from that format, so I was sort of substituting a 3 Realms format for the 4 directions, and not producing anything that felt quite right. Since then I've gone to a far more animist model for ritual (while not discarding the 3 Realms cosmology) and have had a lot better success. I think my rituals now tend to feel better than they did.

You can find some samples of more recent rituals that I've written on my webpage. From my webpage, you can link to my LiveJournal and read an account of my most recent Manannan ritual, from an entry in May of this year.
Hi Erynn, and apologies for the confusion. :)

Have you looked into the associated lore concerning Manannan? But that I mean my other half was reminding myself today that the figure appears in Welsh legend as Manawyden - not too sure on any Scots appearance without searching. Either way, the linguistic connection seems diverse beyond the Isle of Man itself, and to be principally centered in the title - mac Lir - which if I recall means "son of Lir". What is interesting to note is how this son of Lir seems to have got about in the folklore. :)

I presume you have been to the Isle of Man? Some great ancient sites - there's a nice ciricular burial area on top of a hill Cregnesh way that I especially like - not to mention some earthworks on Cronk Ny Arrey Laa (had to check the spelling!) - both with great views across the south of the Island. :)
Re: Scots?

I said:
...Welsh legend..

Yes, I'm a Scot. Surname: Carlson.
(Georges & Soderburgs...heh.)

Used to own Dorset & draw pictures for the King.
Grandma Fern told me out a ball it.

(Sewzen her drapieries fur der Mrs. Totino of Totino's, Piaza Clan.
Plain Piano widder Katarakts. When I was gist 13.)

America's a real kick in the orse, AINit then!

Taking on the name Glasford Spring though, to mark it with a B.

Greetings, Errwynn Earp (scuse me...I mean 14!) Erynn!

I grew up in San Francisco.

Haight-Ashbury District. Cobain Era.

{{{{Miss Jerry so bad I swear to God they buried his fat arse un me lardge.}}}}


Pois Verte!

(And Cheers. Drinking Sangria today.
Buy der Juggenhausen.)


Of the Black ***** P Stones, why Dunj ya!
Re: Scots?

for me the problem with reconstructionist paths is that they tend to rely on historical/archaeological validation rather than belief. that is if you ask me rather tantamount to accepting academia as a religious authority.


academia and validation

bananabrain said:
for me the problem with reconstructionist paths is that they tend to rely on historical/archaeological validation rather than belief. that is if you ask me rather tantamount to accepting academia as a religious authority.

We rely on historical and archaeological research to show us patterns and to suggest directions. Belief and inspiration are also a part of the package. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn't have to be exclusively one or the other. One example I like to give is this:

Joe the Welsh Reconstructionist has a vision of Llew's pet penguin, Mort. He takes this vision and constructs a ritual around it. Certainly in this case Joe is working on his *belief* that Llew had a pet penguin named Mort. But is there any actual evidence that Mort existed? Not in the texts and archaeology. He might be Pagan, but he's not acting as a Welsh Reconstructionist when he worships Mort.

Reconstructionists feel a need to balance vision and history. In this case, Mort's just not a winner because the only place he seems to exist is in Joe's mind. And yes, it's an absurd example. On the other hand, if Joe does divination and discovers that Llew likes offerings of milk poured out near the doorstep, he can look in the folklore and find similar practices for other deities and spirits in Wales, and therefore he can take his personal inspiration and work with it, happy with the knowledge that he's doing something that has a modicum of historical backing. This isn't to say that we never improvise, but just that most Reconstructionists want to try to recreate early practices as much as possible within modern ethical constraints, adding inspiration where appropriate for personal or group purposes.

Does this turn academia into a spiritual authority? Not in its entirety -- though it does have some weight. It does give academia a place within our spiritual traditions because we're very concerned with cultural context. Considering that early Celtic religions placed a great emphasis on learning and scholarship, we're only following in the footsteps of our ancestors. Druids and filidh studied for up to 20 years to earn their ranks and titles. They were expected to know history, astronomy, language, mathematics, poetics, genealogy, law, and many other subjects along with what we would consider more strictly "religious" or "spiritual" matters. Any Reconstructionist who attempted to claim some priestly title without having a background of at least some reading in the history, culture, language, music and laws of the culture in question would be laughed at in our community. Pure inspiration is no more an authority to us than pure academia. Just as no Native tribe would accept someone as a shaman who has no idea what tribe they're from or who their grandfathers are, or who doesn't know an inipi from a calumet, we can't accept someone as a spiritual authority who has no clue about the cultures we try to emulate.

Reconstructionists generally believe that the Gods, the Ancestors and the Spirits have wants, needs, and desires. They have preferences in how they wish to be addressed and the offerings they receive. They have preferences for ritual forms. While we *can* greet them in languages other than their native ones, like most folks, to greet them in the appropriate language and with the appropriate gestures from their culture is polite and a well-received courtesy. As a native speaker of English, I prefer speaking my own language, though I do have some knowledge of a few others and would understand at least some of what they said. If someone tried to greet me in Swahili, though, I wouldn't understand what they were saying, no matter how well-intentioned. I don't believe the Gods only understand a few languages, but if I know the langauge of their native culture and greet them in that tongue, it does seem to have a positive effect. And very early on in my path toward being a Reconstructionist, one of the main deities I work with came to me in a vision and told me she wanted to "hear the old tongue spoken" -- so I went off to study Old Irish. And for me, though my skill with it is limited, it works as a ritual language.

Some deities, like Brighid, have been worshipped in so many ways and so many languages over the centuries, that she doesn't seem to have strong preferences. She's been worshipped as both Goddess and Christian saint for a very long time. But she's a very open and accepting deity to begin with. Others seem less flexible.

One thing that I frequently see in modern Paganism is a very anti-intellectual streak. It puzzles me, as most Pagans read a lot, but from what I can tell most of what they read isn't history, and if they do read history, it tends to be from occult books, which are frequently terribly inaccurate and tend to perpetuate myths like the "9 million" who died in the medieval witch craze (the first time this number came up, it was in Gerald Gardner's first book on Witchcraft and people have parroted it without validation ever since), or the idea that Wicca is an ancient Celtic religion. (In fact, Wicca isn't even a word in any Celtic language. Its linguistic origins are Anglo-Saxon, which is from an entirely different branch of the Indo-European language family.)

At any rate, I'm rambling. Folks who are interested in Reconstructionist paths generally find themselves there because they have a respect for history and academic study. It's not a path for everyone, and that's really just fine with us.
Re: Scots?

bananabrain said:
for me the problem with reconstructionist paths is that they tend to rely on historical/archaeological validation rather than belief. that is if you ask me rather tantamount to accepting academia as a religious authority.
I think the real problem here is that reconstructionists and those in less-researched paths have kind of a personality difference. I do rely on belief... it just so happens that my beliefs are validated by historical and archaeological evidence. I see no problem with this, but I do see a problem with people relying solely on belief while ignoring things their gods have wanted, historically. I know I'm probably repeating what Erynn says, but gods and other beings have historically had preferences. I see a lot of Wiccans and similar pagans who completely ignore those preferences, simply because they like something else better. For me, this is intentionally going against what those gods and beings say, which is bordering on offensive. And to make matters worse, some people use this reliance on belief over any evidence as an excuse to say that people of the past were wrong, as if a god would tell one modern person with no cultural connection to him his preferences, but never give any clue to the thousands of people who worshiped him in the past.

For example, I'll admit that any type of Wicca that begins with the name of a different culture looks incredibly silly to me. Hellenic Wicca? Tameran Wicca? It makes me wonder why people under those headings don't just become Hellenic or Kemetic. Rather, they try and fit a square peg in a round hole by adding certain aspects of Greek and Egyptian culture into a Wiccan ritual format, trying to stick dozens of feast days into eight sabbats, and oftentimes ignoring things such as cultural taboos.

To me, although I'd like to think otherwise, it looks like people who do this are A. Lazy, B. Trying to fit into a Wiccan-dominated pagan community, or C. They would embrace a more Reconstructionist way of practicing, but they don't know where to look. I really can't understand why anybody would choose a path like that... of course, I also realize that people who follow them probably can't understand why I wouldn't choose a path like that.
Re: Scots?

Sisetekh said:
For example, I'll admit that any type of Wicca that begins with the name of a different culture looks incredibly silly to me. Hellenic Wicca? Tameran Wicca? It makes me wonder why people under those headings don't just become Hellenic or Kemetic. Rather, they try and fit a square peg in a round hole by adding certain aspects of Greek and Egyptian culture into a Wiccan ritual format, trying to stick dozens of feast days into eight sabbats, and oftentimes ignoring things such as cultural taboos.

I had to choose just one paragraph as representative although I'm actually responding to the whole post. (And just as a disclaimer: I'm an eclectic Wiccan.)

Spirituality for many people is about a personal relationship with the Divine. We approach the Divine through all manner of ways, philosophies, ideologies, and theories because we fallible mortals like things to be identified, labelled, and at least possible for us to grasp. The problem is the Divine as a whole is such a vast thing that it's, at least in my opinion, too much for our mortal minds. And so when we approach the Divine, we really just try to relate to some aspect of the Divine that is intelligible to us and our weak minds. We can't get the whole picture, so we focus in on a small part.

Many Wiccans (and I'm sure lots of others too) describe this sort of approach to the Divine as "all gods and goddesses are really one G!D" or some variation of that. This doesn't necessarily mean, though, that those individual aspects or faces of the Divine, the ones we can approach in some fashion, can't be treated as individual entities if we are comfortable with that. But it also means it's possible to relate to the aspects as what we think they Really Are: mere partial reflections or manifestations of something much greater and essentially unknowable.

If we see our spiritual path as a personal relationship with the Divine (however the Divine manifests for us) then I'm not sure I understand why we should think it is our place as mere humans to impose on the Divine some sort of system or classification or dogma for how the Divine is supposed to behave and how the Divine is to manifest in our individual and very personal encounters with Them. When They talk, we should listen. If They present Themselves to us with specific names and symbols, is it right for us to say, "I hear You, but my historical research tells me that You are really about XXX and not YYY, even though You just told me otherwise."

I guess the essence of my question is whether the deities are living entities or are they stereotypes? We humans change all the time -- can the deities change?

My own historical research has lead me to believe that what we modern humans look at as "the way things were back in ancient times" is often romanticized and not likely to have been as straightforward as we moderns would like. Most cultures developed by bringing together (through marriage, conquest, whatever) smaller groups which became larger groups as they blended. When different groups meet, whether they blend together or not, ideas are exchanged. In ancient Egypt, for instance, it was common for deities to be merged with the "dominant" deity adopting the titles and properties of the "submissive" deity. Sometimes the deity names were merged, as in the example of Amon-Ra. In other cases the lesser names might be lost to time, although the properties and titles were not. The merging is illustrated in the combined symbols of the crowns worn by the Pharaohs -- vultures, snakes, feathers, Upper and Lower Egypt.

During the Hellenization of Egypt, the deities Thoth and Hermes were considered equivalent and were sometimes worshipped as a single deity. Isis (Aset) had her cult spread well beyond the realm of the Nile even as far as the UK where She had temples in what is now London as well as other places. Her worship grew and changed over the years and across the cultures where She was adopted. Her worship, particularly as described in "The Golden Ass" by Lucius Apuleius, is the likely origin of the Wiccan Goddess of Many Names in the "Charge of the Goddess." Blending, merging, seeing the many deities as aspects or manifestations of a larger single deity are not new ideas. They've been around for a long long time.

Getting back to the idea of spirituality and religion being a personal and individual relationship with the Divine, it makes sense to look at larger religious movements as being about collective efforts by individuals who came together because they felt they had things in common with their spiritual outlook. That's perfectly understandable. It's a common human reaction. But I'm personally not convinced that spirituality is a matter of selecting from a menu of set choices: either this system, or this one, or that one over there. That implies that one's relationship with the Divine is a cookie-cutter thing where my relationship with the Divine is exactly like that of someone else, and we could switch places without any real difference.

We can't just swap places with other humans in our relationships with each other and have identical matches. My relationship with my dad is different from what each of my brothers experiences. I don't think that my relationship with the Divine should be less complex than my human relationships. If anything, it is much more likely to be more complex.

As a Wiccan, I try to encourage people to be aware of the choices they have available to them and to make decisions based on what is right for them. My way is not necessarily going to be right for anyone but me. I might find that following a particular religious dogma as practiced in a particular place at a particular point in history by a particular type of person really helps me to find meaning in my own spiritual relationship with the Divine. Or I might find that the way the Divine manifests to me personally draws eclectically from a wide range of sources, not necessarily historically correct or even close to what others might find is right for them. Any explanation of the Divine is inherently flawed because we are finite beings trying to pin down the infinite. We can describe our understanding from our own perspective, study the descriptions that others have made, but in the end we must decide for ourselves what makes sense for us. A million people could say "but it's like THIS" but if it doesn't agree with how the Divine has manifested to me personally then I must decide if I listen to the other humans or if I listen to what I believe is the Divine speaking to me.

One last thought: I really wonder if a lot of the idea that the Divine is captured in a specific system or philosophy is inherently a monotheistic one. After all, it is essentially a "One True Way" of looking at things. In a polytheistic worldview, does a "One True Way" philosophy make sense?
Re: Scots?

Interesting posts - and thanks for making the considered reply, Ben. :)

It seems that an interesting tradition vs mordenity argument is already arising from this discussion, and I can quite see validity to both presentations - on the one hand, the personal search for the Divine is simply personal, but also referencing the Divine from an historical context usually expects some deference to that historical context in the first place.

Whereas it can seem rather arrogant of anyone to impinge their own perception of the Divine on another, having a strong sense of history I can certainly share some of how certain people deal with historical themes. :)