Lore versus UPG as unreconcilable opposites is a narrative that I have come across quite often during my years so far as a religious practitioner. It has become clear to me that this narrative governs how we refer to ourselves and to other practitioners like little else does.
I’m choosing wide-sense definitions on both counts. UPG as an abbreviation stands for Unverified Personal Gnosis (sometimes I see Unsubstantiated, Unsubstantiatable, or Unverifiable as alternatives for “U”). I’m not going into the discussion whether Deities actually show Themselves in that sense; If you’re only halfway familiar with my blog, you know my stance on that matter. I am not going into the discussion whether a Deity expressing a preference about your clothes counts as UPG or not — in all honesty, that question is irrelevant to me, and I couldn’t care less. I will also only briefly mention that quite a bit of confusion surrounds the question whether UPG is actually a misnomer in that the word gnosis literally means knowledge in Greek; some people prefer the term doxa over UPG on those grounds (meaning “belief”, “opinion”, rather than “knowledge”). Personally, I read gnosis as “insight” rather than “knowledge”, so that I have no issue with the term UPG. In this post, I use the term UPG as meaning the entirety of personal religious insight that has no direct reflection in bodies of lore.
Now as for the word “lore”, I’m using that equally widely: something that is taught, something that is learned through either study and experience, or a body of traditional knowledge and belief. That means, “the Lore” does not only contain the mythical texts, but also methodology towards their critical assessment, theories (old and new), as well as conclusions to be drawn from them. It contains, furthermore, knowledge about the religion in question, religion in general, cultus, and culture, that are not bound to texts — to be found, e.g., in publications in related fields like general religious studies, history, archaeology, runology, etc.
The formation of opposing camps
By that narrative of UPG versus The Lore ™, we see people being divided into opposite, and oftentimes warring camps. In the UPG camp, we have people deriding those who study as bookish, over-intellectual, and unable to feel a real religious connection, which, by the UPG camp’s consensus, cannot be found in books.
In the Lore camp, we see the exact opposite: people being ridiculed, or at the very least harshly criticised for not adhering to what is known — or, in the case of even the basic principle of Lokean worship, straying completely from it; UPG is viewed as the ultimate argumentative sledgehammer — an anything goes because the Gods told me so — and as something never to be used in a serious discussion.
Small wonder, considering the tone of the discourse, that people are trying to distance and separate themselves from what they must surely feel is an attack against their principles and practice, if not their person. This trend of distancing oneself is why we get disclaimers like “I’m not a Lore person, don’t expect me to know obscure kennings”, or accordingly “I’m a reconstructionist, I don’t deal in flights of fancy such as UPG”. I think most of us have seen it, and probably many of us (especially Lokeans who study) have been caught between the front lines time and again. This, however familiar it may seem, is not an organic development or even a natural state.
What’s with the Binaries?
It is what I would call a false dichotomy. It’s created by people who think in extremes, and who are unable to move beyond the most fundamental of principles. It’s created by a culture of feeling offended at every turn, and kicking back tit for tat.
I am not saying this to imply that there are no opposites, and I’m certainly not advocating a willy-nilly mix of just about everything that you come across: that would be dangerous whether it concerns UPG or study. What I’m saying is that in truth, both worlds are needed, and I have not yet seen any practice that is made up solely from one of the two.
I have made the acquaintance of Celtic reconstructionists who freely admit that their practice isn’t authentic, and that of course, there are elements in it that cannot be substantiated by the current state of the art in according fields of study. I’m friends with Kemetic reconstructionists who, time and again, discuss with me the merits of this or that off-beat interpretation of “The Lore” (theirs or mine). And even the odd heathen recon, who’d state openly that they do indeed have UPG as part of their practice.
And on the other hand, there are those whose practice is totally non-conforming to anything known about any historical tradition, but who nonetheless do their research, or at least ask someone they feel can give them an informed answer. I don’t have to agree with all the conclusions they reach; from time to time, there will be dispute over whether or not a particular presentation of research is or isn’t disingenuous, outdated, refuted — because contrary to UPG, research can and should be disputed, and there is a common measure to do this by.
Speaking of which: on the other, other hand there are those who, while claiming to be reconstructionists, have in fact studied all the wrong materials (look for instance at how historians from the 19th century mucked things up for heathenry to this day).
But the point is: there’s no 100%, and not even 95%. There are such things as Too Recon To Function, and its polar opposite which I have regrettably not found a good name for yet. Maybe Too Esoteric To Walk.
It’s never a good idea to be stuck in the extreme, and neither should extremes be used as a strawman argument against every little thing on the respective other side of the spectrum.
Being Stuck in the Middle
Welcome to my world, then. I’ve studied, and I continue to study. I cannot call myself a reconstructionist — there were times when I did, but I no longer think the label applies. There’s the “problem” of Who I worship — and yes, I will argue that polytheistic practice consisted of more than public cultus, and that especially private cultus would be pragmatically informed by whose influence would be considered beneficial, which again changes with the cultural and historical context (and Loki’s influence, today, on me, is certainly that). Still, with reconstructionism being strictly about reconstruction from verified sources, I feel I will only ever be tolerated in those circles, but never respected — no matter how much knowledge I have.
Secondly, I do not amass knowledge for the sake of knowledge. I do, because in my view it is absolutely important to know the background. Especially with Someone like Loki, whose place within the pantheon (and the world) will be contested over, and over, and over again, by whoever thinks ideologies based on outdated theories and Christian mindsets are worth their time. Not that that bothers Him much, but it does me. And most importantly, I study because I believe there are synergies to be found between what I get directly from Loki — yes, let’s call it UPG — and what I read.
I have a couple of favourite theories that are contested in the view of scholars, but that I nonetheless subscribe to, because my direct experience and the insight gained from that, tells me that these theories have meaning for my practice. I cannot defend them in a rigorosum, but they ring true with me. Mostly they concern little things: like the identity of Loðurr, or Loki’s connection to the hearth, which is only attested in late sources. These are theories that I would not have known if I hadn’t made the effort to study; but the fact that they exist tell me that there is evidence that what I’m experiencing is not just in my head. Such as the feeling of Ancientness I sometimes get from Loki, that goes beyond what I usually perceive. Or His overwhelming, at first sight totally out-of-character, fondness for Gemütlichkeit.
But all that studying is only as important, if even that, as the fact that at the heart of my practice is one God before many others, and the intimate, personal relationship that is between me and Him. That alone makes it impossible for me to find a place in recon-space: not because that never happened in the past — in fact I firmly believe that people have a history of falling in love with their Gods, and that Gods likewise have a history of falling in love with people and becoming involved with their lives — but this is not a view that is going to be accepted.
It is one, however, that makes for a living, breathing religion, and that I wouldn’t trade for anything. And all the studying has been a tremendous help in being able to critically assess my own UPG and experience, and I truly believe that everybody could benefit from a mix of both worlds.