Reconstruction is a Lie

I’ve been going around and around again on whether or not I can call myself a “reconstructionist”. Whether my standards of truth allow for the sort of truthiness that is required to use that concept at all.

The illusion of reconstruction is that the process results in something that is “what the ancients/the ancestors practiced”. That’s the inner mythology. And that’s the lie. The big one. The imaginary comfortable place that lets people believe that they’re digging in to finding something secretly More True than what they had before.

It’s comforting. It’s comfortable. It’s complacent.

And it’s wrong.

I started out early on sort of acknowledging this, the fact that all I’ve got is my own research, my own interpretation, and what I pick up from other people.

And I write about the problems. I’ve written about knowing the mortar that is used to line the broken blocks that are used to build new traditions (and I am not going to say rebuild traditions because we are not doing that and we need to stop lying to ourselves and each other); one of my side projects with a friend is compiling something that we refer to as The List, which is a giant heap of things we’ve noticed people carrying over unconsciously into pagan religions which owe more to a largely-Christianised enculturation than where they may want to be going. I’ve written about the question of the unrecoverability of ancient Mystery religion. I wrote, a bit whimsically, on the difference between ‘reconstructed’ worldviews and the actual organic evolutions of those worldviews. I’ve written about applying information from scattered times and places without really addressing the fact that the most widely scattered time and place in play is here, now. I’ve written about the intrinsic social context of religious practice. I’ve written about making a fucking decision about ambiguous material and acknowledging the odds that it is probably just plain “wrong”, but who cares if it works. I’ve written about the unrecoverability of the past. I’ve written about other things too.

I’ve written about all these things, and I’m wondering, not for the first time, if the collection of all these things means that the thing called “reconstruction” is a will o’wisp, something that leads people into bogs and has them sink and die.

It’s construction. It has to be. There is no option otherwise, and perhaps the idea there might be is poisonous. It creates the idea that there is a true cultus, a true way of worship, that one group’s interpretation of the facts that have been recovered is the true way, that others are failures; at its worst, it unthinkingly copies the Christian notion of the fall from Eden: our ancestors had paradise (a “true” relationship with the gods) and fucked it up by changing traditions, whether by choice or force, and we must live with the terrible consequences of their sinful choice.

I am not any form of Christian; I have no interest in reconciling with a Fallen creation. I believe that a Fallen creation is actively antithetical to core principles of Kemetic theology, in fact, with its ethos centreing rebirth, renewal, and restoration.

But the healed Eye is not the uninjured one. If it were the same thing, it would not have the value it gains by the process. The myth would be null and meaningless.

I cannot reconstruct. I do not have the pieces of ancient religion like a Lego set, complete with instructions of which bit to click in where. If what I have is a Lego set, it is maybe an almost entirety of a set that isn’t large enough to do anything useful with with the instructions lost, supplemented with a third of that set, a fifth of that set, a fraction of the other set, six blocks I know came from that set there but I don’t know where any of the rest are, a double handful of other blocks which may or may not be from related sets, a bucket of Duplos from my childhood, and a plush snake toy that the kids insist on keeping with it all.

I have to decide what to build with that. I have to figure out what makes sense to build with that.

And even if I decide to set aside the plush snake, and declare that the Duplo blocks, while compatible with the Legos, aren’t the same thing, and separate the Lego Star Wars from the Lego Elves and the Lego Minecraft and the Lego Whatever Else Is In There and just do one thing, and even if I have enough blocks after I do that to do the one thing, and even if I somehow were to manage to do the One True Thing that the blocks were intended for (and thereby buy into the villain motif from The Lego Movie, which I just re-watched with the kids recently and is probably to blame for some of my metaphor here)…

… well, the metaphor falls apart there, because the inescapable fact is that I don’t live in the same world that the people who originally had those blocks did.

And this isn’t a statement about Oh We Know More Science or Oh I Live In A Different Country or Oh Cultural Exchange Looks Different Now or Oh Politics Looks Different Now. Or not just a statement about these things.

It’s a statement that if it were rebuilt exactly the way it was, it would fail. If “reconstruction” were a perfect success, the results would die, leaving the relationships it claimed to be resurrecting unhonored, because they do not have meaningful connection with the real world in which people live.

I have a theology that has many things to say about power. And that theology grew up in a world that had no banks, let alone corporations. I have a theology that has many things to say about abundance. And that theology grew up in a world in which much of the infrastructure was fundamentally focused on food access and preventing starvation in hard times, while I live in a world where people devote infrastructure to making sure that people suffering hard times are having a time hard enough to be fed from the plenty that exists. I have a theology that has many things to say about the moral rightness of the state, and a state that fails on most of those points, and where many people attempt to paint those failures as virtues.

The ways of the people who originally had those building blocks are not our ways, and never can be. The thing we build has to be responsive to the world as it is, not an age in which kings could be believed to be devoted to upholding ma’at and the storehouses of the temples were stocked in case the Flood failed to come. The traditions that assume those to be the case will fail us, betray us, and betray the gods; the world in which they were functional is long gone.

How can I call myself a reconstructionist? I don’t know. Today, I don’t think I can.

I don’t have any better words, though. I do the research. I find the things, I try to put them together into coherent wholes, this is a thing that is called reconstruction.

But the whole “reconstruction” thing, the illusion that I am returning to the old ways in some fashion, is too big a lie for me these days. The old ways are gone for reasons, and many of those reasons have nothing to do with compulsion.

Maybe I’m reconstructing Ipuwer. Whether or not it’s true, the thought makes me chuckle, which is… probably for the best, right now. I’m very tired.

Maybe I don’t want to say reconstruction.

Maybe I want to say recommitment.

Recommit, and construct from there.

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16 thoughts on “Reconstruction is a Lie

  1. Neteruhemta says:

    Good Post, BTW!

    This is a topic popping up more often recently it seems.

    Veggie and I has a conversation about this topic at ‘Con. I’ve started to think about what my practice means of how I present myself. I’m leaning towards the route of how “based on a true story” is referenced in film. There are liberties taken to tell the story in a cohesive fashion, but capturing the “spirit” of the material is important to me, but may not work for others. It doesn’t make either of us wrong. I just make the decision to measure if I’m doing what works for me.

    It’s more troublesome when the label overtakes the path. I construct from a foundation of source material, but I’m building me, not pyramids and temples. I take my temple with me in my rapid lifestyle that doesn’t allow for hours of purification and ritual. I feed Them when I’m feeding myself, whether it’s a granola bar or fast food. I hug Them when I can and salute Them when I cross paths. Is the method correct? Who knows, I’m working with what I got in front of me.

    The above methods aren’t “recon” as the label goes. It’s a woven tapestry. It’s my story, so the label should be my own. Even when I use “Reconstructionist” I still have to explain myself, so why don’t I take the time to explain what is my “path” rather than an outdated label based on fictional measurements of “I’m working the hardest”.

    Just some thoughts I had.

    • kiya_nicoll says:

      “Based on a true story” is brill.

      And the thing about capturing the spirit of things is that different parts of it matter to different people. Everyone doing the construction work is going to build something a bit different, until there are enough things built that people can point and say, “That thing, that’s what has the right pieces for me.”

      And even then there’ll be building. There always is. People are like that; it’s one of the things we have in common with the Powers, neh?

      And heh, yeah. “Working the hardest”. I have some stock rants somewhere about the smugness of the “Religion with homework” thing. I’ve got more damn actual practical serious work to do as part of learning the Craft than any Kemetic group could be arsed giving me.

  2. veggiewolf says:

    Reblogged this on Fluid Morality and commented:
    All truth, all ma’at.

  3. nicstoirm says:

    “Recommitment”… I love it!

  4. Redfaery says:

    Reblogged this on Flight of the Hamsa and commented:
    Truth

  5. harpinghawke says:

    Reblogged this on The Road Witch Talks Shop and commented:
    Forever this.

  6. helmsinepu says:

    This is why I’ve suggested HIP as Historically-Informed Polytheist (or pagan, or another p-word).

  7. jewelofaset says:

    Reblogged this on Fiercely Bright One and commented:
    Wonderful post by Kiya!

  8. Frankie says:

    Ohhhh my gawwwwd this is so effing good. Yes. So much yes. Thank you for writing this!!

  9. Reblogged this on Ethical Chaos and commented:
    I would argue that Christan concepts aren’t necessarily antithetical to kemeticism, but of course I’m biased. :P This is a fantastic post that says everything I wish I had the words, knowledge, and experience to say about ‘reconstructionism’, ‘traditionalism’, and other idealogies followed by those that I affectionately dub “pagan fundies”.

  10. G. B. Marian says:

    I don’t identify as a reconstructionist, but I’ve always thought of reconstructionism less as a religion unto itself and more as a way of thinking about and interacting with the Netjeru. You’re right; we can never do this in exactly the same way that the ancient Egyptians did. But I think the point for a reconstructionist is that he or she tries to stick as close to the spirit of some pre-Coptic theology and orthopraxy (whatever period it may be from) as much as possible, even while understanding that this is impossible to do completely, and that what they are doing is technically a new thing. So for what it’s worth, I do not see your usage of this term as being disingenuous. I think you should keep using it if you want to.

    • kiya_nicoll says:

      Oh, people who treat reconstructionism itself as a religion are a completely different annoying fucking problem! Treating academia as something that produces sacred texts which must be followed is… actually quite likely related to this, now I think about it, but not the same thing.

      I’m just kind of burned out on all the people I’ve seen talking about how important it is to “recover the ways of the ancestors” or “do things the way the ancients did” and similar rhetoric. The idea that that’s an important goal is perhaps more damaging than the idea that it’s possible. And I feel that that’s what a lot of people are aiming for – this re-construction, this idea that the thing can be rebuilt. It cannot be built; it cannot be re-constructed.

      I think Net, above, put it brilliantly, with the “Based on a true story” line. There are huge parts of – to pick a current bit of art – Hamilton – which are not factually accurate. And that’s me pointing at a different realm than the deliberate artistic choices, vision, and layered meaning that is introduced by the casting choices thereof, but that is also not factually accurate. The story, however, has amazing amounts of truth to it – about history, about those people’s character, and so on. I wish I could recall the actual quote, because it was well said, but someone somewhere said something to the effect of, “Yeah, Hamilton isn’t factual representation, but if Alexander Hamilton were here to see it, Lin-Manuel Miranda would get a letter the day after saying how much he’d enjoyed it and including a number of suggestions about more rude things he could put in about Jefferson.”

  11. a wandering polytheist says:

    I think this is exactly the kind of problem I’ve been having with Hellenic polytheism and you have worded it beautifully where I couldn’t put it into words. Thank you

  12. Volt says:

    I know this post is almost a year old, but I’ve found this to be the case with Hellenic Polytheism (as I am a Hellenic Polytheist). When I started learning and researching, the first group I fell on were reconstructionists, and I found it to be the very cold, almost unwelcoming quick pace of the ‘look how many documents I’ve read” and the gatekeeping feel of it all.

    It was borderline obsessive sometimes, and having felt somewhat condescended to on multiple occasions, it just felt like, it wasn’t really for me.

    That isn’t to say none of them were helpful. Quite the contrary. It was just that I felt like I couldn’t say certain things around a few without feeling looked down on or judged or ‘scolded at’ for thinking or feeling.

    • kiya_nicoll says:

      I mean, I keep come back at reconstructionist methodologies for a lot of things. But reconstruction-the-religion has tenets that I don’t find appropriate for religions which have been reconstructed. ;P

      Cheers!

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