I’ve wanted to introduce this topic for a while, but wasn’t exactly sure how…but, given a recent incident in which I was interacting with someone privately on e-mail in relation to this question, this seems as good an opportunity as any to attempt to introduce some distinctions in the terminology of syncretism which have not generally been observed before now.
Several years ago (2006, to be exact…though it seems like only a year or two!), I wrote an article that posted on Witchvox called “In Defense of Syncretism”. While I still think the article is somewhat worthwhile, I have done a great deal of work on syncretism and syncretistic theology since then, and so I can only look at that particular article as an early stage in an ongoing process rather than a fully-formed theological position. I may never get to a fully-formed theological position on this, but I’m much more comfortable with some of my understandings at this point in time, however provisional they may be, and even those provisional statements will continue to evolve and adapt and shift, I’m sure.
However, one thing I did try to do in that article which is useful is to distinguish between “eclecticism” and “syncretism,” even though the wider culture and usage seems to consider these things the same. I don’t mean to suggest that eclecticism is “bad” or “not useful” or “inappropriate,” because it will (and does!) work very well for some people, and is probably their best modality for useful practice, thus I cannot say it is bad or not productive categorically. Nor do I want to suggest that “syncretism” is what I and my people do (and is therefore good) whereas “eclecticism” is what others do (and is therefore bad). I’ve heard both “syncretism” and “eclecticism” used as pejorative terms in certain reconstructionist circles that have beliefs about cultural purity, or at least about separation of different religious activities into their cultural contexts (thus with different altars for different pantheons, not mixing deities of different cultures in the same ritual, not doing practices of one culture to honor deities of another, etc.). I think such ideas do ignore the fact that most cultures aren’t hermetically-sealed and are not immune to outside influences, and in fact are often enthusiastic about various aspect of them and integrating them into their modality however they might wish to do so. I also think that syncretistic modalities are rather natural to most humans: most of us take a smattering of our ideas about life and our ways of working from a variety of sources–parents, colleagues, education, the media, entertainment, mythology, religion, and so forth–and even within each of these distinct areas, people freely mix-and-match, adopt some ideas and reject others, and “use what works and disregard what doesn’t” on a regular basis without even thinking about it. Over-specialization is not always the best way to tackle any matter in life…
This idea of cultural impurity and anti-syncretism, of course, ignores the many historical and provable cases in which there was eclecticism or syncretism in operation. Anyone who worships Gaulish or ancient British deities is doing so from syncretistic sources. Shinto is a syncretistic religion, having combined certain concepts from various forms of Buddhism into itself, as well as both Japanese and Ainu animism, Taoist energetic philosophies and esoteric techniques, amongst other things (including, in some cases, Christian saints becoming kami!). For that matter, what we think of as “Greek religion” or “Roman religion” is also, at its core, syncretistic. Most polytheistic systems are profoundly local, and thus the “religion of Rome” is combined from Latin, Sabine, Umbrian, Etruscan, and any number of other Italic religious elements…and that’s in its strictly Roman form. As time went on, increasing influence from Greece, and encounters with the cultures of Carthage, the Near East, and a variety of other peoples from diverse geographic areas influenced the Roman practices and the content of the Roman pantheon. “Greek religion” is–what, exactly? The religion of ancient Athens, about which we have the most information? The religion of ancient Sparta? Boeitia (including Thebes)? Crete? While some ancient Greeks might make an argument for any of those possibilities, they would most likely exclude Crete from the picture…and yet, as far as we’re concerned, Crete is under the heading of “Greek religion.” Take a god like Dionysos, for example, and he seems to be the combination of many possible different deities from originally separate, local cultus; the same is true of Artemis (compare Artemis of Ephesus to Artemis of Brauron to Artemis Orthia of Sparta, for starters!), and Zeus, and Demeter, and any number of other deities that we consider “Greek.”
And that brings us to something interesting: the word “syncretism” comes from terms meaning, in essence, “the Cretans together,” and originates from Plutarch, who remarked on the Cretans’ alliance and overcoming of their internal differences when faced with an external enemy. While I don’t think we need to continue (nor revive) a usage of it that highlights external threats or militaristic motives, nonetheless, I think we can suggest that any situation of a “coming together of divine beings and religious practices from different cultures” toward one end–which, though it is a mistake to assume this is a sine qua non of religion, let us assume that a religious system or a religious practice tends to be for the furtherance of some goal of a group or individual, a working toward a particular end for a particular reason–is a reasonable suggestion of how syncretism works and what it is for most people who do it now.
And, any number of modern forms of paganism, magic, and witchcraft are syncretistic in nature. Wicca is; and even certain lineages and distinct traditions within Wicca (from Gardnerian on down and up!) have a syncretistic origin. The Feri tradition is most happily and self-admittedly syncretistic. So, it would be nice if that were given acknowledgment, rather than “culturally pure” reconstructionists (and only some of them do this, not by any means all of them) decrying these traditions for being debased or corrupt because of their syncretistic origins.
Rather than decrying those who would have a “cafeteria religion” and take a little of this and a little of that for picking and choosing what they do and do not like in a given system, I think it is better to simply suggest that this is the expectable and natural result of any polytheistic system, which recognizes there are more than one or a limited number of deities (and thus, sources of power, truth, guidance, and assistance, and [all-too-often forgotten] beings worthy of reverence and with whom relationships are desirable), is in contact with diverse groups of people and diverse cultures, and respects the usefulness and worthiness of each. The “one should be enough” mentality is one of exclusivist monotheisms, I think, not polytheism.
But, it is clear that there are a variety of modalities in which modern polytheists do their syncretism. Thus, I think a modification of our usages and a clarification and nuancing of them might be useful. My suggestions here are idiosyncratic, perhaps, and need not be adopted by everyone if they are not appealing; however, I find them personally useful and attractive, and thus will be using them in this manner in the remainder of discussions here on this blog.
I want to take advantage of the fact that, in English, both the terms “syncretic” and “syncretistic” are usable and considered correct, and are often thought to be interchangeable and have the same dictionary definitions, to in fact distinguish shades of meaning between them in the future. In brief, I’d say that “syncretic” situations–whether of general cultic activity or of a particular deity–tend to smash the two together, so that Antinous-Dionysos, for example, is actually a fusion between them, rather than (in the sense of the “Polycentric Polytheism” of Edward Butler) that it is Antinous acting as Dionysos in an Antinoan matter. The argument and assertion used frequently that syncretism is soft polytheism, I think, is actually the syncretic mode. I’d then argue that the “syncretistic” mode is, instead, considering the two deities separate, but with overlapping interests or functions or roles that work together at certain points, while still maintaining the separateness and the distinctiveness of each (which is Edward Butler’s idea, or at least one understanding of it). I think that certain deities work in this way very definitely. Zeus-Ammon is clearly different than both Zeus and Ammon/Amun; Re-Harakhte is very different than Re or Horus; Antinous, Serapis, and Sabazius (the latter at least in his Graeco-Roman period iterations) also seem to work in this way, where they are most certainly separate and individual, but they have many other deities to whom they are linked, syncretized, or with whom they share attributes.
I alluded to the development of this idea recently in the suggestions for events at next year’s PantheaCon that I made at the end of this entry, specifically in the session that I’m provisionally going to propose with the title “Super Syncretism!” I mentioned Isis in the latter, but I don’t think that the “pantheistic Isis” necessarily equates to “monism” or “monotheism” or even leads to the duotheism of certain systems of necessity, it can simply be the syncretic trend of the Egyptian Isis being taken to international and intercultural extremes (and I don’t mean that in any pejorative manner!).
Far too often, academia on these matters suggests that this type of syncretism just demonstrates how ready antiquity was for Christianity and monotheism, and it shows how debased the religions in question were and how “in decline” they were. Rather, perhaps these situations of universalizing of particular deities instead reflect pressures that make full polytheism difficult–if one’s resources are limited, who would prefer to give smaller amounts to twelve different goddesses and spend all of the time and effort to do so when a “one-stop shopping” goddess that combines many of them is available as an option instead? I personally find it almost impossible to do a ritual for Antinous without acknowledging several other deities along the way…but, even in a situation of limited resources like mine, I find it enjoyable to acknowledge each of them in whatever way I can, even if I cannot write praise poems and devotional hymns to all of them, or even if I don’t have the time to recite prayers and hymns of thanks to all of them.
[Sometimes, like it or not, our devotional lives, for a variety of reasons, are like an acceptance speech at the Oscars--there are many to thank, but doing so by name and with great personal elaboration is often frowned upon by others, and they start playing more and more insistent piano music to get one to say "Thanks everyone!" and leave it at that. The latest PantheaCon was an exercise in realizing that--one of the most essential and important practices I have in my rituals to Antinous, it turns out, bothers and puts off a lot of people. I won't stop doing it, of course, but in public rituals, I may not do it any longer. It saddens and annoys me, but considering we've recently developed a simpler technology that accomplishes the same ends more quickly and more transparently, I'm not ultimately bothered in terms of ritual mechanics or effectiveness that such is now the case as far as my own future practices in public are concerned.]
As to how one might distinguish multi-trad individuals who don’t mix their practices, keep separate altars, and so forth? That’s another question…and I’m not exactly sure how, because I’m not one of those people exactly (not that there’s anything wrong with them! I have many good friends who are, and who are likely reading this!), and so it’s not as important to my own concerns as distinguishing these varieties of syncretism happens to be. In my own practices, I have never had any “bad results” from any of the rituals for Antinous I’ve held that are “god-parties,” I’ve never been given any indication by Antinous that I need to keep my practices separate or keep certain gods or spirits or divine beings out of them, and I’ve likewise received no indication (outside of strict sectarian sources and contexts) that I need to only honor particular deities from particular cultures in particular ways that are exclusive to their cultural contexts. I am happy to visit the Shinto shrine and follow the procedures there for honoring the kami, but at my home shrines, things are slightly different. The same is true of Hindu temples and practices, and anything else I might come across in which I wish to participate, including rituals at the homes of other people in various traditions–the “rules of the house” always take precedence, no matter what my own feelings or thoughts are, as an aspect of hospitality and being a good guest.
I am certainly interested in seeing some things attempted on certain occasions–what, for example, would it look like for Antinous to be honored as a kami? (And considering that Thomas Edison is an enshrined kami, and to my knowledge there is no enshrined or acknowledged kami dealing with any particular queer issues, I don’t think it’s impossible or undesirable that Antinous perhaps might fulfill that role at some point in the future…who knows? Why wouldn’t he? Why couldn’t he?)
So, those are my thoughts on this matter for the moment. I’d be interested in hearing your own thoughts on any of the above, and suggestions for how terminology can be used better and more efficiently for these phenomena, as well as related ones (particularly if you’re a multi-trad syncretist who separates your practices, altars, rituals, etc.–you know who you are!).