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.
As 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.’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.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.