Now for something completely different… Amateur Religious Ethnography Botched, Or the Pagan Interviews, Part 5

Chris Travers is a Master in the Rune Gild and have been a Heathen most of his life.

Skepoet:  What is your religious background and how did you come to it?

Chris Travers : I was raised in a Quaker family.  As I approached my teenage years, I became frustrated with the lack of structure of Quakerism.  It seemed to me at the time that history was not important to Quakers in the sense of a tradition of ideas and practice (a misunderstanding on my part because this is in fact a very well-kept secret in the Quaker community).  In retrospect I realize that it was a lack of formality that bothered me.

I began to meet people in the Quaker community who also identified as pagans and began to study various new-age approaches, from Neodruidry to Wicca.  I never really found what I was looking for until I picked up a cheap book called “A Practical Guide to the Runes” by Lisa
Peschel.  Immediately things worked for me and I became drawn into the Runic tradition further through Thorsson’s books and the like.

In 1995 I joined the Rune Gild and was accepted as a Learner.  My fellowship paper was a 10 page paper on Fehu, accepted in 1997.  My master project was accepted in 2000 and was slightly revised and substantially edited to produce my book (“The Serpent and the Eagle”).
Skepoet: What is your academic background?

Chris Travers: BA in general studies with an emphasis in history.  However, even out of college I read quite a bit and have averaged about a hundred books a year (usually academic books) for the last four years or so.  Topics of study have included ancient and medieval Europe, anthropology,cross-historical studies of ritual (for example “Readings in Ritual Studies” or “Deeply into the Bone: Re-Inventing Rites of Passage” by Ronald Grimes), as well as some contemporary thought regarding paganism, magic, etc.

Skepoet: How do you see these interacting with each other?

Chris Travers : My academic training has prepared me for the self-study my path requires of me.

Skepoet: Many Reconstructions have backgrounds in history and in a way this seems obvious, but sometimes seems to put Heathens and other Reconstructions at odds with Neo-Pagans.   What do you think about the discipline of history would cause this?

Chris Travers : I think these feed on each other.  People looking for history are more likely to be recons and more likely to study history.  The study of history tends to make one less tolerant of blatant historical errors.

I don’t consider myself a real recon though.  Reconstructionism (as I have pointed out on Facebook) is a methodology which must eventually collide with itself, and the very approach of reconstructionism is non-traditional and is incompatible with traditional ways of thinking.
I think it is very helpful to know how to be a reconstructionist sometimes though.

This isn’t to say anything goes either.  Like all things balance is important.
Skepoet: I have often wondered if any a total reconstruction of a pagan tradition is both possible and positive since so much of that mind-set is foreign to us for cultural and technological reasons.  Strangely, it seems like Neo-paganism has really sort of benefited from internet  technology.  Do you find this to be true and if so, why do think that is?

Chris Travers: As I say, reconstructionism eventually collides with itself.  It is an extremely useful toolkit but should be a toolkit, not a whole approach, IMO.  No, a total reconstruction is impossible and not just because of cultural and technological issues.  Additionally, a perfect
reconstruction is *fundamentally* impossible for the simple reason that we cannot reconstruct something without interpreting it through the eyes of an outsider.  Even in physics, Werner Heisenberg said that data does not imply theory, and that theory is as much a projection of
the theoretician as it is the data.  The same thing is true here as well.

As for the internet, like all tools, it is useful in many ways, and less helpful in others.  The fact that it can be helpful (and we have benefited from it) does not absolve us of the responsibility to use it wisely.

Skepoet: More than a few people I have interviewed have mentioned a increasing rigidity within the pagan movement mention a turn towards more rigidity in ritual over time.  Do you see this or you think this might be a misreading?

Chris Travers: I can’t speak about “the pagan movement” as that seems very broad.  I
will say I have seen more formalization but no more rigidity in groups I am directly involved with.

Skepoet:  The term is awfully broad.  Actually, I have a question about that:  why do you think paganism is often treated as one “movement” or a bunch of related religions but both insiders and outsiders given the differences between groups can be far more dramatic than between other linked religious belief systems.

Chris Travers: Pagan religions are similarly situated to society and so it makes sense for us to be lumped together.  There is also something of a common heritage and this also strengthens the case for us to be “a movement” in relation to general society.

We can also talk about a Free/Open Source Movement even though factions there disagree and constant holy wars between the Church of EMACS folks and the rest of us who accept VIM as the one true editor. Joking aside, though, even within free/open source software different
projects may strongly disagree with each other even to the point of being at each others’ throats.  It’s healthy and productive though. And like the pagan movement, the Free/Open Source movement is a movement aimed to some extent on rebelling from the systems of central
control in either industry or religion.

Skepoet:  Can you go into more detail about your work with the Rune Gild?
Chris Travers: First some background: The Rune Gild is an initiatory organization which bases our work on the Elder Futhark.  The members are divided into really three grades (with an outer court of associates who are not really members) along traditional lines:  learner, fellow, and master.  Some masters are recognized as having attained greater levels of self-initiation but
that’s pretty rare.

Learners spend their time trying to learn our tradition, studying the lore, and mastering as it exists in a somewhat rigid framework.  As learners become fellows, this opens up a lot and a lot more exploration is encouraged.  This exploration ranges from being somewhat structured to being rather free-form.  Eventually the fellow is supposed to demonstrate that they have made the tradition their own through a masterwork, and that they have achieved a certain level of
self-initiation in this process, and when this is accepted, they are recognized as a master.    Masters write, research, and teach. Learners, as well as mentor Fellows.  A certain amount of individualism is required of the mastery.  Consequently Masters range from fairly traditionalist to ones who attempt to combine our tradition with others.  Yet we share a common methodology and tradition.

I currently teach four learners, two of whom are in the process of researching fellowship projects.  I am also in the process of revising my book based on how my understanding has evolved.  Ritually I get together with some of the Rune-Gild folks from my state from time to
time and we engage in our own rituals.   Entry into the group is fairly carefully controlled both on a local and non-local level.    We do not see ourselves as trying to bring our group to the masses, but many of us are involved in trying to grow the larger Germanic Neopagan movement around us.

Does this answer your question?  Is there something more specific you’d like to know about us?

Skepoet: That is useful.  How has the Gild grown since your involvement and
have you seen any more changes.

Chris Travers: Yes, the Gild has grown dramatically since I have been involved.  New
Masters have been recognized.  And the fact that we now allow virtually anyone to associate with us means that there is now a stable pool of people to choose apprentices from.

The Gild has also changed in ways favoring decentralization.  While all training used to be centralized when we were much smaller, it is now the case that the Masters instruct Learners directly and offer apprenticeships.  The diversity of thought in the Mastery also allows
us to be more selective about our own apprentices.  If I think someone needs instruction that is less traditionalist, I can send them to one of the folks who, for example, integrates Chaos Magic ideas with their work.  I might do this if someone seems too traditionalist and needs a
counterbalance.  Similarly someone who needs a more strict traditionalist approach might get bounced to me.

Additionally, the growth has lead to more local activity.  In Washington State I now have three people I am actively working with, and two are fairly new to the Gild.

Skepoet: Oh you the Gild is definitely working across traditions?  Do you find that any Reconstructionists that take an exclusivist view about the legitimacy of Chaos magic or anything?

Chris Travers: No, you misunderstand. The Gild is specifically focused on Germanic and Scandinavian traditions, and the Elder Futhark is our focus.  We have a single common tradition.

This being said there are Masters who find other traditions more informative and tend to utilize cross-over references in their teaching and work more than others.    So within this, individuality
is expected.  Of someone wants to be inspired by something another tradition is doing and recreate it in our own one, that’s not only accepted but, if it is done well, encouraged.  For example, if you read my book, it’s very limited to Germanic and Indo-European cross-references.  Waldo Thompson’s book however approaches the questions from a very mathematical approach.

So we have a common tradition of practice and lore.  However what we*do* with that tradition is up to each Master.  In general, though I insist my Learners stick to the lore and practice for a while in a narrow focus and most Masters do the same.  However, after that point, how each of us approaches it depends on our own individual understanding of the tradition.  So a strict reconstructionist might get sent to someone who is definitely not one so as to help crack open the perspective.  On the other hand, I am inclined to take less grounded students in the hope that a more narrow focus will provide that grounding.

There have been a few people who have terminated apprenticeships because they felt that the Gild wasn’t reconstructionist enough. However, this has been rare.  Most of the time people end up seeing that reconstructionism has a place within the Gild and that the Gild can support reconstructionist work to a point.  The larger thing is that we aren’t limited by it, and so while Master such as myself explore the past relatively rigorously, some others apply our findings
in more contemporary ways.

Skepoet: That is an helpful and thanks for clearing that up.   Are there any trends in the Heathenry right now that you find particularly positive?

Chris Travers: I am following the greater acceptance of animal sacrifice with a lot of hope for the future.  I think that such rites done well help emphasize the relationship between life and death, and between what we eat and where it comes from.  I think it also fills a number of social
roles perhaps too numerous to list here.   Finally, eating together is the ultimate act of community so inviting the gods to a sacred meal of this sort is a reaffirmation of their place with us in a way that nothing else can take the place of it.

I have watched animal sacrifice go from something very controversial to something where there is little controversy and the obstacles are ones of competence, confidence, and logistics.  The fact that the controversy has largely fallen away and yet people are choosing to be cautious and responsible is a very positive thing, in my opinion.

Skepoet: Have you noticed any more or any less involvement with families? It seems like Heathenry in the US would be long standing enough to have multiple generations involved and people born into the tradition.

Chris Travers: I haven’t noticed a difference.  There have always been a minority group of heathens with kids in all groups I have been involved in.

Skepoet: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

Chris Travers; I’d like to address what I see as the great challenge ahead of the pagan traditions: economics.

Right now, we are seeing local groups become more widespread and stronger, but recapturing the solidarity of our tribal ancestors requires more than getting together for rituals.  It requires economic interdependence. One of the social functions the gatherings probably held in the past was as a venue for people to get together on a commercial as well as a religious basis, and enter into contracts, sell goods and services, etc.  For example the use of merchant booths
at the Allthing is well attested, and the Disthing may also have provided opportunities to trade materials etc, regarding the upcoming agricultural season.

We need to *do business with* other members of our local groups.  This need not be actual purchases.  It could be barter (I help you out with your house project and you help me out with something else), etc. Building these sorts of cooperative and economic interdependencies are
going to be important in ensuring stable, tightly knit pagan groups. Places and times to arrange these I think should be built into any get-together.  If we want to offer an alternative to going to
Christian Church, we should offer a real alternative, deeply tied to how we choose to live, not just a ritual club where members get together to worship.

By extension I think this also means cultivating a small business culture within our heathen and pagan groups.  These might not officially be small businesses because individuals may have employment contracts which forbid moonlighting.  But heathens should be encouraged to own their own means of production and to produce things for others in the community whether by barter or for fee.

There prior interviews in this series can be found here, here, here and here.  

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