Reconstruction? Revival? Reform? Really? Are you HIP?

Ramesses II Statue

Ramesses II, Abu Simbel, (Photo: Than217)

Kemetic Reconstruction, Revival, Reform. We “know” what the words mean in this context, but nobody else seems to. When we mention our path, others have the impression that it’s a soulless attempt to re-create a past that can never come again. Hidebound. Un-creative copying. If it’s not in some dusty, beetle-chewed papyrus, we just don’t care.

So what is Reconstruction, exactly? Here’s a good definition from Tess Dawson’s Introduction to Canaanite Polytheism, and most of it applies to Kemeticism as well:

What is Reconstructionism, Revivalism?

Reconstructionism seeks to revive a religion based upon an ancient culture, and bring that religion into the modern day. Reconstructionism is meant as a lens through which a person can examine religious practice. This method is not intended to stagnate spirituality, but it can if taken to extremes. Many people often confuse reenactment with Reconstructionism. Reconstructionists are often not trying to reenact the past exactly as it was, because this is an impossible goal and an unrealistic standard. Instead, many Reconstructionists try to take what they know of an ancient religion and apply it to modern times. A Reconstructionist is often also known as a “recon”.

Reenacting the Canaanite faith exactly as the ancients would have practiced it is neither feasible nor desirable. It is not feasible because information has been lost and destroyed throughout time (even though we have at least 1500 Canaanite primary documents available), and it is not desirable because the cultures in which we live are profoundly different from the ancients’ cultures. Ancient times were not idyllic places to live: lives were short and often difficult. Slavery and fewer women’s rights made life even harder for some groups. A realistic Reconstructionists avoids the trap of idealizing or romanticizing the past.

Reconstructionism has drawn criticism over the years. Critics believe that Reconstructionists become too strict in their ways, worry so much about doing rituals exactly as they were done long ago that they do nothing at all, or are escapists. Many Reconstructionists leave room in their practices for modern necesities, while still respecting and honoring themes, processes, and structures important to ancient peoples. Most Reconstructionists are rational, down-to-earth and honest about their approach to religion, and fully grounded in modern reality. I’ve not yet met one who says, “Let’s never use a flush toilet again–we should switch to latrines and privies like our venerated ancients used!”

I prefer the term “revivalism” because the term “reconstructionism” is largely misunderstood; because I believe that reconstructing the past exactly as it was is undesirable and unfeasible; and because I respect thoughtful modern necesities.

Some modern Canaanite polytheists would call themselves Reconstructionists, but others do not.

I think that’s a great start on articulating the ideal. But when we use the word “reconstruction”, our listeners don’t make those assumptions. “Revival” has the same problem, with the addition of Christian camp meeting overtones.

“Reform?” Same thing, with the addition of delinquency. As if we used to egg the Temple of Amun, or steal Hathor’s barque for a joyride down the Nile.

 A religious war?

Somehow, this recon term seems to awake hostility between the “fluffies” who don’t care about history, and the stale “recons” who care about nothing else.

Devo has compared this situation in her post “Kemeticism is like a Fandom.”

Ironically, I’m familiar with this same debate, but in a musical context instead of a religious or faanish one. Most of my college work was in the performance of early music (European music of the Renaissance and Baroque periods, mainly.) The same thing happened.

Old style grand piano

Grand piano (Photo: Davide Cassenti)

Ruckers-Taskin (1646/1780) harpsichord, (Paris...

Harpsichord (Photo: Wikipedia)

The piano/harpsichord battle:

One of the battles was over who gets to play the music of J.S. Bach. He wrote a lot of music for harpsichord, and the piano was pretty-much not invented yet. After he died, his music fell out of fashion, and people forgot how to play it. They stopped playing harpsichord too. Pianists started playing his music again in the 19th century, but the original playing style had been forgotten. They played his music just like they played everything else. A lot of people thought it was fussy and dull, but it was old music. What would you expect?

Then around the year 1900, people started building harpsichords again, and digging out old books to figure out how to play the older style of music. The results gradually got better as people filled in more missing pieces to the puzzle. The harpsichordists started using terms like “authentic performance” to describe their performances and recordings.

This angered the pianists. “What do you mean I’m not authentic? I’m pouring heaps of real emotion into this!”

“But you’re playing all styles of music the same way,” the harpsichordists would reply. “and different styles of music need different approaches. If you played jazz that way, people would throw rocks at you. You’re playing a dance piece at a tempo that would require the dancer to levitate for thirty seconds, and you’re using a tuning system that makes the harmony non-functional, stupid, and quaint.”

Then the pianists would call the harpsichordists fumbling amateurs, who spend too much time pouring over dry books. Besides, they tried a harpsichord once and it wasn’t a proper piano, so was an obviously inferior instrument. Why bother with something old-fashioned and flawed?

Sound familiar? One group of people, doing something that seems to deal with history, working mainly with emotional intuition and adapting methods they’re familiar with, and another group using historical data as a source of inspiration, and trying to see how it can be used today.

Today, most of that musical hostility has died down. One of the things that may have helped has been the gradual replacement of the term “authentic” with  “Historically-Informed Performance“, or HIP. To quote the Wikipedia article:

Historically informed performance (also referred to as period performance, authentic performance, or HIP) is an approach to the performance of Western music and theater. Within this approach, the performance adheres to state-of-the-art knowledge of the aesthetic criteria of the period in which the music or theatre work was conceived. Whenever this knowledge conflicts with current aesthetic criteria, the option of re-training the listener/viewer, as opposed to adapting the work, is normally followed.


Historically-Informed Pagan

I’m beginning to think a term like “Historically-Informed Polytheism” or “Historically-Informed Pagan” would be more useful than “Reconstructionist.” It’s a more accurate description, and moves away from the idea that you’re trying to build huge stone temples or have a king with earthly political power.  Instead, you’re using what you learn about ancient Egyptian religion to inform and inspire your practice.

The equivalent of “retraining the listener” has a place too. “Re-training your head.” If there’s an ’embarrassing’ or unappealing element, like polytheism, execration, or zoolatry, perhaps the best option is to learn more about it before rejecting it. There’s still the option of saying “No, don’t like it, it’s too messed up for me” later.

What do you think? Could this be a more useful and accurate term? If we believe in the Heka power of words, perhaps using the right one will make a difference.

Besides, it’s cool to be “HIP” 😉

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  • Jess

    I think "historically inforned" is very apropriate. I might just use it to describe my own practice. I've been saying the same thing conversationally in a long form

  • fannyfae

    I will gladly apply the term Historically Informed to myself, but will replace the term "Pagan" with Person. I resist the term 'pagan' because it is not how I describe myself. I am Kemetic (Period). Whether that is polytheistic, hard or soft or monolatrous, is of no consequence or the business of anyone other than myself.

  • tranquilgeekgal

    I like that term too, makes more sense. 🙂

  • SatSekhem

    Honestly, I really want to change my religious affiliation on FB to "historically informed polytheist." Even though I may not use history 100% of the time, I am aware of historical norms. And you know, love to educate others on those things, too.

  • picklewalsh

    I think you have go have, atleast, a basic historical understanding of the path you are following. UPG has its place and so does a book.

  • Ekunyi

    Ooh, nicely played in considering the recon/eclectic debate from the "historically informed" perspective. Granted, now I'm reviewing what I remember of the Tomlison and Taruskin arguments on the matter, though perhaps Shelemay's lovely article offering an ethnographer's perspective on the creation of a culture of historically-informed performers would best suit my own thoughts. Once I've a bit more time, maybe I can offer a more fleshed out response. Thanks for the inspiration! ^_^

    • I didn't want to write a musical dissertation, since very few people be interested.
      How many things are there where people dive into historical records to build something functional and satisfying in the present day? I think it's different from doing something like Civil War re-enactment, for example, even though re-enactors are researching and putting things into practice, and can be quite serious about it.

      • Ekunyi

        Did I… tell you I'm writing my MA Thesis on the use of music in the portrayal of Irish-American units in Civil War reenactment communities or was this just a coincidental remark? If I did, I apologize for being so forgetful.

        I can't tell from your comment if I inadvertently made it sound as though I was criticizing you for level of detail, but I did want to be clear that when I said "more fleshed out response" I was referring to fleshing out my own comment above, as opposed to suggesting that you needed to write any more than you did. I really liked this article as is, and thought you presented extremely relevant information in a way that anyone could enjoy and understand, which is as it should be. I'm just a giant music nerd, and you have me pondering other ways I could use my own academic background to write about my spiritual inclinations, that's all.

        I'm curious though: where do you see the significant distinction from Civil War re-enactment?

      • No, that’s hilarious! I had no idea. 😀 And yes, we’re both giant music nerds. And the thesis topic sounds fascinating.

        My distinction would be somewhat muddied with the groups you’re studying because I’d suspect that at least some of them are ‘early music types.’ To oversimplify:

        The reenactor probably does serious research on his character, unit, and era, and makes a commitment of money, time, and effort, but he’s really a 21st-century dentist who is playing a role, partially to educate others, partially as a shared activity with fellow nerds, partially for fun. But he’s not doing it to protect his home and country like the original soldiers were. He probably doesn’t have to worry about being killed. He’s an actor, not an actual soldier.

        My hypothetical harpsichordist or gambist isn’t a piano or cello player ‘slumming’ on an obsolete instrument to show how things were in the old days. If it’s their primary instrument, their motivations ( to be heard? to move others? to get paid? ) are probably quite similar to their 17th-century counterparts. I’m not primarily thinking of a professional/amateur distinction either. The musician is still a musician.

        A reenactor fiddle player muddies or blends those distinctions, though, if they’re a real fiddle player. 🙂 They’re a real fiddle player portraying a historical one.

        I hope that makes some sense- I’ll be interested in seeing what you come up with, and feel free to pm or email me about it too.

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