Reconstructionism is a hard and grueling taskmaster. It requires us to study our lore, our body of evidence, and try to understand who our gods are, what our ancestor's believed, and how they chose to communicate with the spiritual world around them. Since none of the individual branches of Heathenry survived the Christian purge intact, we must search through many traditions in order to try to piece together a whole.
This is where we must discuss our sources and how reliable they are. It is important to note that none of our sources will be completely reliable. There are no writings that we point to and definitively state 'This is a completely unbiased, reliable document.' Mostly because our sources are not first hand. Our ancestors did not write anything down. Their religion and history were completely oral in nature. Most of our sources were written down long after Christianity had been made the primary religion. They were saved by Christians for multiple reasons, and even though what they wrote might be confused or changed by Christian influence we still owe these people a great debt for preserving what we have.
There are many ways of classifying sources and I will discuss two in this article:
- Strength of the sources
- Beliefs, traditions, and opinions.
Strength of Sources
Primary sources are contemporary accounts of an event, written by someone who experienced or witnessed the event in question. These original documents (i.e., they are not about another document or account) are often diaries, letters, memoirs, journals, speeches, manuscripts, interviews and other such unpublished works. They may also include published pieces such as newspaper or magazine articles (as long as they are written soon after the fact and not as historical accounts), photographs, audio or video recordings, research reports in the natural or social sciences, or original literary or theatrical works.
Primary sources are the strongest sources because they were written during the time period in question.
Adam of Bremmen, History of the Archbishops of Hamburg 1075-1080 AD, Chpt. 26-27
Julius Ceasar, The Gallic War
Ibn Fadlan, On the Varangians, or Rus Vikings
The sources below are considered either primary or secondary sources. This is because the stories were written down long after they were being told. It is difficult to say whether the transcribers of the ancient oral traditions of our ancestors may have been biased or whether the changing times may have corrupted the stories before they were written down. Or they may have been copied own exactly correctly. So while these sources are not quite secondary, they cannot be considered quite primary either.
Icelandic Rune Poem
Norwegian Rune Poem
Anglo-Saxon Rune Poem
Tertiary sources are an attempt to summarize and consolidate the source materials, both primary and secondary, into an overview, but may also present subjective commentary and analysis (which are characteristics of secondary sources). encyclopedias, textbooks, and compendia are examples of tertiary sources
Tertiary sources are the weakest sources that are recognized in the field of research. There are weaker sources, but they are never referenced in true research.
Rudolf Simek and Angela Hall, A Dictionary of Northern Mythology
Andy Orchard, Dictionary of Norse Myth and Legend
Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Norse Myths (The Pantheon Fairy Tale and Folklore Library)
Patricia M. Lafayllve, A Practical Heathen's Guide to Asatru
Diana L. Paxson, Essential Asatru: Walking the Path of Norse Paganism
Thorbeorht Linleah, Of Ghosts and Godpoles
The function of these is to interpret primary sources, and so can be described as at least one step removed from the event or phenomenon under review. Secondary source materials, then, interpret, assign value to, conjecture upon, and draw conclusions about the events reported in primary sources. These are usually in the form of published works such as journal articles or books, but may include radio or television documentaries, or conference proceedings.
Secondary sources are the second strongest sources because they directly reference the primary sources. They are less strong than primary sources because they are interpreting the primary sources from a distance.
Snorri Sturluson, Prose Edda
Vilhelm Peter Grønbech, Culture of the Teutons translated by William John Alexander Worster
Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology
Hilda Roderick Ellis Davidson, The Road to Hel: A Study of the Conception of the Dead in Old Norse Literature
Eric Wodening, We Are Our Deeds
Modern Heathen Sources
There are many books out there about modern heathenry. Not all of these books are bad, but it is important to understand that unless they reference primary or secondary sources, which many do not, then they cannot be considered credible for reconstruction. If they conveniently forget to have footnotes, end notes, or a bibliography or they reference bad sources of information then they are not tertiary sources. This doesn't mean they can't have good things in them, but remember that they are at best tertiary sources and are therefore at least half opinion.
Assorted Historical Sources
There are sources written about similar cultures as our ancestors that can shed insight into how ancient religions operated. Many ancient religions have similar beliefs for similar reasons, especially if they are within the same geographic region as our ancestors. These sources can be a valuable for comparing and contrasting to try to understand our ancestors better.
Sir James George Frazer, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion
Native American beliefs and customs
Ancient Celtic beliefs and customs
Any tribal warrior culture's beliefs and customs
Assorted Academic Sources
There are many academic sources that can help us understand the mindset of our ancestors as well as the reason for their rituals. Most of these sources will be about the study of religions and mythology.
Joseph Campbell, Hero with a Thousand faces
Carl Jung writings on archetypes, religion, and the human psyche
Many internet sources can be useful. Most of the references that are in the public domain can be found on the internet, and there are many blogs, pages, and information from many people which can shed light on many interesting and controversial parts of the lore.
However, please consider that most of what you find on the internet will be other people's interpretations and opinions. Some will be very educated, researched, and thought out. Some will be from comic books or are completely unsubstantiated. Look at many points of view, including your own, before you choose to validate someone else's interpretation. If you feel there is something off about an interpretation or opinion, then do not be afraid to ask for sources.
Beliefs, traditions, and Opinions
- Personal Gnosis
- Supported Arguments
Unverified personal gnosis (often abbreviated UPG) is the concept that an individual's spiritual insights (or gnosis) may be valid for them without being valid to the experience of others. It is primarily a term used in polytheistic reconstructionism to differentiate this source of knowledge from ancient sources of spiritual practices. The same phenomenon has also been referred to as "personal revelation".
Ideally the term is used to label one's own experience as a new and untested hypothesis, although further verification from the spiritual interactions of others, study of the lore, or archeological discoveries may lead to a certain degree of verifiability. At other times, the term is used in either a value-neutral or disparaging sense, about someone else's experience.
UPG is sometimes also said to stand for Unsubstantiated Personal Gnosis.
SPG (Shared Personal Gnosis) - indicating a mystical vision or knowledge shared by a number of unrelated people, preferably, one arrived at independently of one another.
CG (Confirmed Gnosis) - indicating that substantiating evidence for an incidence of UPG or SPG has later been found in the lore or archeology. This is also sometimes referred to as CPG (Confirmed Personal Gnosis)
A tradition is a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past. As with many other generic terms, there are many definitions of tradition. The concept includes a number of interrelated ideas; the unifying one is that tradition refers to beliefs, objects or customs performed or believed in the past, originating in it, transmitted through time by being taught by one generation to the next, and are performed or believed in the present. While it is commonly assumed that traditions have ancient history, many traditions have been invented on purpose, whether that be political or cultural, over short periods of time.
Thews are traditions that each kindred practices. Some kindreds have similar thews, while others are very different. The thews that are found in each kindred will define the culture of the kindred as well as its beliefs and practices.
In general, an opinion is a judgment, viewpoint, or statement that is not conclusive. It may deal with subjective matters in which there is no conclusive finding. What distinguishes fact from opinion is that facts are more likely to be verifiable.
An opinion may be supported by facts and principles, in which case it becomes an argument. Different people may draw opposing conclusions (opinions) even if they agree on the same set of facts. Opinions rarely change without new arguments being presented. It can be reasoned that one opinion is better supported by the facts than another by analyzing the supporting arguments.
Because opinions are not as conclusive as arguments or facts it is important to state when you are giving your opinion rather than a fact. In online heathenry people often make the mistake of stating their opinions as fact which causes no end of confusion for new people trying to understand the basics. This tendency to state opinions as fact has also led to many of the arguments that have read online in social media.
Since most of us have opinions about topics in heathenry which cannot yet be substantiated, it is important to be respectful of others opinions as well. After all, if you can't find enough evidence to support your opinion to an argument, then their opinion could be just as valid as yours, no matter how strongly you feel about it.
What is Argument?
Arguments are claims backed by reasons that are supported by evidence. There are five highly relevant characteristics of argument:
Arguments can be divided into four general components: claim, reason, support, and warrant.
Arguments such as these are a good thing for heathenry. There are many disputed or controversial topics that are found in our religion that need to be discussed. It is important to find and consider the supported arguments for both sides of these controversial issues then make your own decision, or none, on the topic at hand.
A note on translations and translators
In other words, you will find that the meaning of the translations can change, sometimes drastically, depending on which translation you choose to read. So always check to make sure you don't have a terrible translations with many mistakes, and understand that there may be many ways of looking at the same words which can change the meaning of what you are reading.