Column: ’Tiz the Season to Syncretize

Sam Webster —  December 27, 2014 — 8 Comments

As we gather this season to celebrate the birth of a God in the Levant, on the day the Sun visibly returns north, under Germanic trees, with presents delivered by an Orthodox Greek Bishop+Norse God+Celtic God, carrying a bag used to be a cauldron, driving a sleigh that once was an 8-legged horse, wearing dress popularized by a soft drink company, all of which is but one interpretation of the customs and iconography, it is right, meet, and proper that we give some thought to the world-wide practice of syncretism.

SyncretismAs we build Paganism into the future, we will inevitably syncretize, in the sense of blending elements of religious practices from a variety of sources into our lived religious life. For instance, embracing or rejecting it, Paganism can not help but be affected by Christianity; it affects how we practice and how we think about our practice. More importantly, what we have inherited from the past is fragmentary and must be supplemented with resources from cultures that are not the same as the one from which we are building. That is, of course, presuming there is such a ‘one.’ Some traditions of Pagan practice are simply an amalgam of diverse elements not necessarily hung upon one single root culture. This works just fine…

This use of the term ‘syncretism’ is, however, only one of the three major applications of the term. The first use had political meaning and can be found in Plutarch’s Moralia, in an essay entitled “On Brotherly Love.” The Cretans, who known for fighting among themselves, engaged in what they called ‘syncretism’ when threatened from the outside (Ch. 19), putting aside their differences to repel the invaders. It was later used by Erasmus in a religious setting, to find commonality even amid theological dissension.

However, the term was later used by classicists and other scholars to describe a number of religious phenomena which we should be careful to distinguish between. One is the identification of Deities from differing cultures as being, in some sense, the ‘same’ Deity. We barely notice the union of Venus with Aphrodite, or Mars with Ares, but we know these are different Deities. Zeus being seen the same as Baal or Marduk, or Hermes with Thoth enabled the entering culture (Greek, then Roman) to be able to identify and worship the Deities of the entered culture (Egypt, Mesopotamia, etc.). We can call this ‘identity’ syncretism.

Egyptologists use the term syncretism quite differently. In Ancient Egypt, more properly Khem, the distinctive character of the individual Deities was so important that, in invocation, a priest-person might declare, “I have not confused you with any other God/ess.” Yet, Deities of very differing character would be found in a combined form. In the Am Duat, at the darkest and deepest hour, Ra is united with Osiris. Elsewhere, He also had unions with Sobek, Khnum, and Amun. Sometimes the union would be between Deities from outside Egypt, such at Anat-Hathor, and Serapis during the Roman period, which was the union of Osiris, Apis, Zeus and Helios. Evidently, since cults were developed for some of these united forms, at some point someone experienced a theophany of the united form and duly set up a cult. This kind of syncretism is sometimes called Egyptian syncretism, but if we are trying to characterize it we might call it ‘fusion.’

Reliefs of Ptolemy VIII in Edfu Temple [Photo Credit:  JMCC1 via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

Reliefs of Ptolemy VIII in Edfu Temple [Photo Credit: JMCC1 via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

Then there is the wholesale blending of religious cultures. The Wikipedia reference for syncretism has a long list of vibrant traditions built upon syncretic foundations. The experience of Africans in the Caribbean and South America produced Candomblé, Vodou, and Lucumi (Santeria.) Unitarian Universalism combines so many different traditions that it no longer considers itself Christian. Buddhists and Hindus have learned from and integrated a large array of sources during their long histories.

Those are naturally only a few examples. In the modern Pagan traditions, the ways of the Witches and the Magicians both draw from a rich collection of sources originating in a variety of continents, as do many of our traditions. This can be termed ‘synthetic’ syncretism as these communities of practice are synthesized out of constituent elements. No pejorative meaning should be attributed to this term.

Two major countervailing streams oppose syncretism: modernism and orthodoxy. Modernism, with its fetish for ‘purity,’ created absolutist categories, which get instantiated in notions of nation and race, inevitably leading to nationalism and racism, reading its apogee in the politics of the Second World War. Orthodoxies of various stripe emerge all over the world, wherever there is sufficient power concentrated to dictate the thoughts of others. The best known example of this in the West, of course, is Christianity, which has imposed a thought system upon Europe, the Americas, and beyond. However, it’s drive for ‘right-opinion’ (ortho-doxy) has lead to the 40,000+ different sects of sometimes quite differing opinions.

Diversity in thought and ecosystems is normal. Nature always and only destroys monocultures. The exchange of ideas between cultures is likewise normal, and biologically modeled in the robust genetics of recombinant DNA. Or, in other words, sex demonstrates the value of idea exchange in embodied terms. Likewise, often in human thought, purity is considered the sin qua non of strength. Yet steel is ‘just’ dirty iron, and alloys like bronze and chrome-nickel-steel display strengths far greater than the sum of the strengths of their constituent materials. Highly diverse biomes are massively resilient. Syncretism in religion is an analogous process.

Amazon Rainforest [Photo Credit: lubasi via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

The biodiverse Amazon Rainforest [Photo Credit: lubasi via Wikimedia, cc. lic.]

Being a young religion, we have much to do to stabilize and establish ‘a’ Pagan way, with all of its attendant and necessary diversity. We will do that in part by learning from the older religions (living and dead) around us, both from their good and worthy ideas and spiritual technologies, as well as from their errors and problems. Given our healthy aversion to orthodoxy, we will learn those lessons and apply them in innumerable ways. The greatest dangers in this are cultural and moral. As we to take in or retain ideas from non-Pagan ethnomes or religions, at what point does that group stop being Pagan?

Ours is a vibrant and growing religion, one developing and maturing. On the way we are learning from and absorbing the lessons (and the Deities) of many other religions. In this era of extraordinary communication and with a long history, we have to opportunity to learn with greater self-awareness than most religions get to have. Let us use this power wisely.

Happy Syncretizing!

Sam Webster

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Sam Webster, M. Div., PhD(c) is an initiate of Golden Dawn, Wiccan, Druidic, Buddhist, Hindu and Masonic traditions, publisher at Concrescent Press and author of “Tantric Thelema.” He founded the Open Source Order of the Golden Dawn in 2001, and is the Executive Director of the Pantheon Foundation.

  • Bravo! *stands and applauds*

  • JasonMankey

    ” . . wearing dress popularized by a soft drink company.” Nope. Santa was wearing red and white long before the Sundblom Coke ads. By the 1850’s Santa’s costume was generally red and white. When Thomas Nast’s famous drawings of St. Nick were colorized for books the costume was read and white.

    • W. Keith Baldwin

      Popularized. Not created.

      • JasonMankey

        Santa wears red and white in the Coke ads because that was his expected dress. Coke did popularize a taller Santa, but not his outfit, that was already popular.

  • Rose Jayada Bekker

    Love this. Would also add that maybe the difference between syncretism and cultural appropriation is not paying attention and giving respect to the differences and nuances inherent in different but very similar spiritual technologies. The mix-n-match pagan practices that many of us grew up with in the 80s in neo- and eclectic Wicca trads are fun and feel good, but often they don’t actually make anything happen. The magick is in the details of entwining trads that have a natural affinity but are discrete entities on their own.

  • Danielle Amourtrance Verum

    The modern term Pagan has already lost any meaning it had due to the mass influx of ideas from various Christian traditions/beliefs being mixed together with those branded as “pagan” in ancient times. At the very least Pagan used to mean non-Christian. (Ya know because it was the Christians who labeled the ancients as “pagan”) And too, the practice of lumping all gods as one god or switching up names for them is absolutely skin crawling to this polytheist. More and more I’m discovering no place for someone like me in the Pagan community, and yet every so often (though rare these days because most of the books and material produced is crap) that community produces some material that I have learned from and continue to learn from. Heh. Kinda odd but there it is.

    To some extent I’m wondering if labels are becoming obsolete altogether. Because of syncretism it’s seems inevitable that a label will lose it’s original meaning, as exampled with Pagan. Or simply because people abuse language and try to make words mean whatever they want it to mean. Like milk and egg eating “vegans”. And the vehemence with which people will defend their abuse of defined words is staggering. They could just use another word but no, they insist. It’s very odd to me.

  • Deborah Bender

    I’m pretty much in agreement with what you wrote. As to the question at the end of your next to last paragraph, I see “pagan religion” and “non-pagan religion” as regions on a continuous range of religious culture, something like the electromagnetic spectrum. Differences from one range to another are real, but where one draws the boundaries will depend on which characteristics one thinks are important for making distinctions. What a particular religion regards as its distinguishing marks are not necessarily going to be seen as typical, distinctive, or important from the viewpoint of some other religion. Ideas about what aspects of religion are important and which are trivial are themselves culturally determined.

    That leads into another issue, which is prescriptive versus descriptive definitions. Just as we recently witnessed an argument over whether they-them as a singular pronoun is correct English, people observing the veneration of the Virgin Mary and Catholic saints may disagree over whether Roman Catholicism is a monotheistic religion. In the same way, some reconstructionist pagans don’t regard Wicca as pagan.

    No religion is understood or practiced in a uniform way by all its adherents. Religions encompass not only sectarian differences but regional, class, and ethnic variations, which may or may not be accepted by the elites or authority figures of that religion as being legitimate, correct expressions of it. But you can’t ignore these non-standard or unapproved beliefs and practices if you want to describe a religion accurately enough to understand it.

    I just celebrated a holiday commemorating an actual war between cosmopolitan upper class Hellenes and culturally onservative, rural monotheist Jews over whether the Temple in Jerusalem was going to contain a cult statue of Zeus. The rednecks won that war, but within a few centuries, Judaism had been deeply transformed by its long conversation with Hellenism. The very idea of the rabbi as teacher of the Law is a Jewish take on the moral philosopher. The same conversation resulted in the separation of Christianity from Judaism. Christianity has been the dominant religion in the West for so long that many people who do not think of themselves as Christians use Christian categories to think about ethics and theology. This does not mean that Hellenism, Judaism and Christianity are the same, only that they have profoundly influenced each other.

    • Fritz Muntean

      Well said, Sam. And what Deborah said too!