Posted by: aediculaantinoi | March 31, 2012

PantheaCon 2012: Super-Syncretism! Creating Connection & Preserving Diversity

At long last, on this final day of March, before PantheaCon 2012 become a distant memory of the hoary past for most people, I’m finally getting around to the final post of my six-part series debriefing the whole matter. So, to recap for those who have missed the other ones, I’ve already covered, on the side of things that were entirely my own to put on or take care of, the matter of the Inundation ritual each day (plus some other general things), and “The Ekklesía Antínoou and Queer Youth Spirituality” presentation that we put on the first day; and, on the side of things that I participated in or simply attended as well as wider and more general issues from this year’s con’, the “Modern Dionysian Initiation” by the Circle of Dionysos that I had a small role in, three intriguing presentations I attended, and the issue of transgender inclusion/exclusion at this year’s con’. I’ve also already done a post looking ahead to next year and some ideas I’m kicking around or some things I’m likely to take part in; to those I must add a potential Lupercalia, since the first day of the con’ is February 15th. So, we shall see how that goes…

But, now it is on to the last official event of the con’ for me, which was the presentation “Super-Syncretism!: Creating Connection & Preserving Diversity,” which was fairly well attended for being in the final session of the con’. There were probably close to 30 people there, and the audience was very participatory, in very positive manners. In fact, one attendee–with whom I had spoken a bit last year and this year–entirely changed my mind on a particular issue–very interestingly, because I had no official notes or remarks on it that I wanted to mention, merely the topic itself. So, not only did the attendees get something useful out of the whole business, but I got something that I feel is extremely useful out of it as well! It was a very good presentation, and it would have been nice if it had been one that the con’ had audio or video recorded…perhaps in the future, people who have access to those technologies who are able to attend can take care of that so these things might be shared more widely in the future. But, a write-up will have to suffice for now, eh? Therefore, without further ado…


This presentation was divided into four sections: Definitions and Nuances, A Brief History of Syncretism, Syncretistic Deities, and Syncretism in the Modern World. The program guide’s information on the session read as follows:

Syncretism (note, not eclecticism–they’re not the same!) often occurs when religions come into contact with one another, particularly during periods of increased intercultural communication. This session will examine the historical cultus of several “super-syncretistic” deities (including Serapis, Isis, Hekate, Mithras, Sabazios, and Antinous), as well as the general theology of polytheistic syncretism, drawing on Edward Butler’s model of “polycentric polytheism,” as well as other concepts.

And, it all went that way…for the most part…!?!

Definitions and Nuances

I begin my coverage of this issue with the etymology of syncretism. It first emerges in Plutarch’s Moralia in the essay on “Fraternal Love,” from the late first century-early second century CE. Synkretismos essentially means “as the Cretans do” (syn + Kretes) or “Cretan federation,” in reference to the Cretans banding together for a common purpose. Erasmus of Rotterdam in the early sixteenth century CE cited Plutarch in his Adagia in a discussion on the coherence of theological dissenters despite their differences in opinion, stating that “Concord is a mighty rampart.”

With all of this in mind, that essentially means that modern paganism–which is often said to be an “umbrella term”–is, by definition, syncretism! Whether or not this is true from a theological viewpoint, it is certainly true from a political viewpoint, which is how the term was first used.

The dictionary definition of “syncretism” which one often finds is “the combining of different (often contradictory) beliefs, often while melding practices of various schools of thought. Syncretism may involve the merger and analogizing of several originally diverse traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, thus asserting an underlying unity and allowing for an inclusive approach to other faiths.”

But, is that a biased definition? Is there an obvious monotheistic evaluation going on in interpreting syncretism in this fashion? I certainly think there is. I can hear the voices of so many detractors of syncretism (both polytheistic and monotheistic) in this definition loud and clear. So, much of what will be done at present is to attempt giving further nuance to the definition, especially for how it is used in polytheistic contexts.

I’d like to identify two types of syncretism that can occur on a theological level–which is to say, with deities either combining or being listed next to one another, which is the context of syncretism that most people are familiar with (e.g. the Dioskouroi being said to be the same as Sobek in Egyptian contexts; or the Romano-British deity Sulis-Minerva, etc.). First, there is inter-pantheonic or inter-religious syncretism, which is by far the more familiar and more easily recognized type of the two. This occurs in such religious phenomena as the Afro-Diasporic religions, where, for example, the orisha are entreated via the guise of various Catholic saints. This also occurs in the Graeco-Egyptian syncretistic phenomenon of the Hellenistic and later Roman periods, which gave rise to the “pantheistic Isis,” the cultus of Serapis, Harpocrates, Hermanubis, and many other deities. It also occurs in the entire realm of ancient Celtic religiosity, which is mostly visible due to Romano-Celtic syncretisms of various sorts, like the Romano-Gaulish syncretism that allowed us to know the names of goddesses like Belisama, Sequana, Sirona, Epona, and Rosmerta, and gods like Belenus, Grannos, Esus, Taranis, and Teutates; and in Roman Britain, where dual syncretistic names in Interpretatio Romana fashion are found, like Sulis-Minerva, Mars-Cocidius or Silvanus-Cocidius, and Apollo-Maponus. There are many other possible variations of this type of inter-pantheonic syncretism.

There is also, however, intra-pantheonic syncretism, which occurs when what we think of as “national pantheons” coalesce after a larger number of local traditions combine under a single, larger territorial rulership. This occurred in Egypt, Greece, and Rome, and with religions like Hinduism in India and Shinto in Japan. So, all of the local forms of Demeter, for example, in Greece then become subsumed under the name “Demeter” with various epithets to indicate more localized traditions–Demeter Melaina, Demeter Erinyes, etc.–which were probably independent goddesses in origin. Zeus, Dionysos, Apollon, Artemis, Hermes, Aphrodite, and other deities that we think of as singular and thoroughly Greek all went through such a process, with epithets being added to their overall status as territorial controls expanded and intercultural contacts strengthened. (Some of these deities may have even been of external origin to begin with!) It also occurs when different deities combine within their own pantheons, as happened frequently in Egypt: so, one can get Sobek-Re (a combination of Re and Sobek), or Re-Harakhte (a combination of Horus and Re), and so forth. This has further implications for all of the things which are referred to in ancient religious studies as “local variations,” or in mythology as “alternate versions” of particular narratives. These local variations and versions are probably reflective of originally independent cultus and even deities and their accompanying mythologies, rather than necessarily being versions that were changed and adapted on a local level. This latter process can certainly occur, but it is equally likely–especially with Greek and Roman matters–that the variations can be accounted for on a local and independent-in-origin basis rather than a variation on a wider tradition being introduced to make a myth unique to a particular area.

I have already mentioned the phenomenon of Interpretatio Romana, but there is also the related phenomenon of Interpretatio Graeca, and really a limitless list of possibilities that might be entertained otherwise, in which one culture interprets the mythology and deities of another culture along their own lines. Sometimes, as in Julius Caesar’s De Bello Gallico, the names of the native deities are erased altogether, and he only speaks of the “Gaulish Mercury” rather than (as seems the most likely) “Lugus,” “Lugus-Mercury,” or “Mercury-Lugus.” We also get “localized” Roman gods, like Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus (whose altar in the Romano-British site of Vindolanda is shown above), which is the syncretistic and more widespread version of the Ba’al cult at Doliche. However, we also get many altar inscriptions that give the deity-names side-by-side, as mentioned previously: Sulis-Minerva, Apollo-Maponus, Mars-Cocidius, etc.

Until now, Interpretatio-style syncretisms have been taken as matters of equation: that Sulis is the same as Minerva, or that Apollon is the same as Maponos, or Dionysos is the same as Shiva, or Dionysos is the same as Osiris, and so forth. This accounts for the (somewhat dismissive) part of the definition of syncretism above that indicates syncretism suggest “an underlying unity.” However, I don’t think this is necessarily the case–it only seems that way from a modern perspective, and particularly from a modern monotheistic perspective, which cannot bear the notion that polytheism really exists and that such plurality and diversity can be encompassed in a singular term without some notion of equation, union, or synonymity.

I would suggest, instead, that Interpretatio-style syncretisms are more like translational realities rather than equational realities. Some might wonder what the difference is, and if it is simply a matter of semantics. But, let me give you an example from the modern world instead to show the difference. If I were to say that “Luke Skywalker is the Wesley Crusher of the Star Wars universe,” first of all, you’d probably be terrified and horrified at such a comparison, depending on whether you liked Star Wars or Star Trek better! But, if one steps back for a moment, one can see that some analogizing is going on here, but not necessarily equating. Yes, use of “is” makes it a metaphor rather than an analogy, but recall that metaphor is simply the Greek exact equivalent of the Latin term translatio, which is to say, “carrying across.” It is a manner of creating common meaning between things, but not necessarily making something completely into something else. No matter how much I say “I’m a bulldozer” in a certain situation, that does not turn me into a bulldozer. Likewise, saying that “Luke Skywalker is the Wesley Crusher of the Star Wars universe” does not make Luke into Wesley, does not suddenly mean that Dr. Crusher is his mother (and therefore is Padme Amidala), or that therefore Darth Vader or Obi-Wan Kenobi is Captain Jean-Luc Picard. It simply states that there is an analogy, and one can understand the role of the other if one is not familiar with it by this other typologically similar image. This makes of such syncretisms through Interpretatio not “soft polytheism,” as many accuse syncretism in general of being, but instead a kind of typology, early structuralism, or even archetypalism–but with the important difference of stating that these things are different, but they have certain similarities. This more metaphorical, more nuanced understanding of Interpretatio syncretisms, and of syncretism in general, is one that can be potentially very productive for modern polytheists, and can also be useful in understanding how the various ancient European peoples analogized their deities and yet still could have seen them in ways that preserved the integrity and distinctiveness of each figure. (Some didn’t, of course–Julius Caesar’s example cited above, for example; but, the on-the-ground altar inscriptions often did do this in a more thorough and attentive manner.)

I have written previously on a potential nuance which we can use when it comes to the English terms syncretic vs. syncretistic, which are both equally correct as far as dictionaries and spell-checkers are concerned these days. I would like to emphasize at the outset that these are potential “working definitions,” and are by no means to be taken as set-in-stone or as utterly settled matters–certainly, the Oxford English Dictionary knows nothing about these particular nuances, to my knowledge! I’d like to suggest that “syncretic” can be used for a fusion of two beings, or a seamless combination of two religious streams in practice. This is what occurs with the Afro-Diasporic religions, for example; there is never a moment of religious code-switching that happens in those religions, everything is a seamless whole in practice (even if some analysts can see where the seams happen to be in certain instances). I’d like to suggest, therefore, that “syncretistic” can be used for instances where there is a fusion in forms of deities or practices, but where the distinctiveness and difference between two things is maintained. This is what happens in a lot of the cases of inter-pantheonic syncretism that I’ve discussed above: Zeus-Ammon is himself, and is different than Zeus and Ammon separately, and does not replace Zeus nor Ammon. Hermanubis is another such example: he’s an obvious fusion of Anubis and Hermes, and yet he gets honored right alongside Anubis in certain inscriptions, as an acknowledgement of the separateness of the two beings. Serapis, no matter how popular he became, never replaced Osiris or any of the other figures from whom his syncretistic figure drew upon.

As some of you may know, I’m a fan of the show Futurama, and I found the image above to be ideally suited for this particular topic. I’ve occasionally written before about the difference between syncretism and eclecticism, and I’ve often made the case that these two phenomena are different in important ways. “Eclectic” often gets hurled as an insult against people one doesn’t agree with, especially within reconstructionist communities. When syncretistic practices occur in oneself, one often says “Well, I’m a syncretist,” whereas when someone else does them, one often says “Well, you’re an eclectic.” I would have liked to have suggested, both in the past and when I gave this presentation, that perhaps the dictionary definition of “syncretism” given earlier might be more appropriate to eclecticism. I would have also liked to have suggested that there is a rhyme and a reason and a deliberate intent behind syncretism, whereas there is often not such deliberation or internal consistency where eclecticism is concerned. However, I’m now of the opinion that really, the two are not that different at all. Both syncretism and eclecticism can be done well, and both can be done poorly…which really means that this phenomenon is like anything else, and there really isn’t much of a difference between them other than a semantic one and a preference in one term over the other. (“Syncretistic” is a much less known term than “eclectic,” for good or ill.) We often don’t know the realities behind why someone we label as “eclectic” is doing what they’re doing; oftentimes, they might be inspired or directed by a deity to do something in such a way, and to those of a more “traditional” viewpoint, it may appear less-than-appealing for some reason or other…but that does not mean it is in any way “lesser,” especially if the person concerned is sincere in their devotions. So, I’m less inclined to be very concerned with policing the “rightful” boundaries of what is “syncretism” and “syncretic/syncretistic” and what is “eclecticism” and what is “eclectic” at this point.

A great deal of what gets the “Yea” or “Nay” vote as far as polytheistic practice goes, particularly in communities that use a reconstructionist methodology, is notions of “cultural purity.” In reality, almost every culture that has ever existed, which has not been completely isolationist in its tendencies (and very few have been able to do true isolationism for more than a century or two at a time), has been interested in and cooperative with other cultures that border, surround, or are adjacent to it. Trade happens, and when trade happens, new objects and technologies get shared, and the vocabulary to go along with them, as well as infinitely other small and subtle things. And, particularly in premodern and polytheistic periods where religion and everyday life didn’t get separated from one another as easily, religious matters also got traded back and forth. Take the Gundestrup Cauldron above, for example. Most people consider it one of the greatest treasures of “Celtic” visual culture, at least from the Continental Celtic area and period. And yet, no matter what can be said about it in terms of its visual depictions and the possible mythic or narrative content of it, it is of definitely Thracian workmanship, or, at very worst, Gallo-Thracian workmanship. And, it was found disassembled in a Danish bog, which is well out of the usual “Continental Celtic” geographic range. Something as definitively Celtic as the Gundestrup Cauldron, therefore, brings up all sorts of questions when it comes to syncretism and to external cultural influence. All of the Celtic cultures that are identifiable today were highly mobile, and in constant contact with their neighbors in trade, and often in war. Even in the “pre-Celtic” period, there is blatant evidence in Ireland at Newgrange of close cultural contact with places as far afield as Brittany, and this was in the Neolithic period almost five thousand years ago. If the people of Ireland were that mobile and interested in “outsiders” that long ago, how much more so has this been the case in more recent centuries or millennia? So, many notions of cultural purity often evaporate rather quickly when any culture is examined more closely. This is certainly true of Rome, but also of Egypt and of Greece, all of which show ample exterior cultural contacts, and cultural interests–and particularly so in terms of their religious practices and the deities involved with them.

Notions of cultural purity–even when these do not result in overt racism, nationalism, and other negative and divisive impulses amongst modern polytheists–generally assume that there are barriers in space or time that seal off a particular culture, and nothing beyond or before or outside of those boundaries qualifies as anything of significance for one’s religious considerations. This is particularly difficult where reconstructionists are concerned, many of whom get the branding of the wider pagan community as “fundamentalists” because they have an approach to matters that seems not that different from fundamentalists of more widespread monotheistic religions. They assume that the “lore” or “the sources” for their religion are in some sense infallible or non-negotiable, that it forms a “closed canon,” and that anything outside of it is a dilution or a pollution of their self-defined and self-policed “tradition’s” “purity.” There is often just as much picking-and-choosing, willful exclusion of alternative interpretations or problematizing details in “acceptable” sources, and other such phenomena going on when such advocacy occurs, even independent of being utterly blinkered to the realities of intercultural contact that often make our awareness of these sources as “lore” possible at all. No culture has ever existed in a vacuum of this nature, least of all the pre-literate traditions of Europe in the Celtic and Germanic cultures.

This variety of insistence on only “one right way” of doing things, and that one practice or one tradition or one pantheon should be sufficient and whole unto itself to minister to any individual’s every spiritual need, to the exclusion of (and even demeaning of) all else outside of that tradition, is something that has an entirely creedal monotheistic origin, and has no real place within a polytheist framework, where pluralism is the rule and the repeatedly demonstrable preference at every point. The notion that polytheist religions are religions of “orthopraxy” rather than “orthodoxy” is often as ill-conceived as the notion that “orthodoxy” and questions of belief really matter within polytheism at all. The on-the-ground realities in most places in the premodern polytheistic worlds were polypraxy; no matter what deities or practices may have been shared outside of local contexts, everyone had their own way of doing things, and each community developed their own calendar, their own demeanor, and any number of other diversifying and differentiating characteristics. And, this was all good and no one seemed to get too upset about it! So, the notion that one orthopraxy must be enforced, or is a viable ideal, within polytheism–even of a reconstructionist variety–is one that I don’t personally think is very useful.

As a side-note, I would like to mention that without exception, every reconstructionist that I’ve ever met who is also in any fashion mystically inclined, or who has a strong and deep devotional practice, ends up being syncretistic in some fashion or other. They may not invoke two different culture’s deities side-by-side in a given ritual, or include them in the same prayer, but they deeply and enthusiastically devote themselves to the practice of devotion to different cultures’ deities and different religious practices when and where appropriate. And, they do so within the tradition of each deity and each culture as fully as it is possible to do for the culture concerned, based on the available information and material. I am reminded of something I heard on television once, which may have been stated by Robin Williams on Bill Maher’s Real Time, which is “Mystics always recognize each other; fundamentalists only see themselves and sin.” While this may be true of monotheistic religions more than anything else, it seems to be true where these matters are concerned within reconstructionist polytheisms as well, at least in my experience.

I come now to another idea that I’ve written on briefly before, which is the idea that syncretism is comparable to process theology, and which I’ve returned to briefly more recently as well when discussing the emergence of new deities. To just re-cap this issue briefly, process theology is the notion outlined by Alfred North Whitehead that the monotheistic deity isn’t perfect and all-knowing, and finds out more about itself as humanity likewise proceeds in history and finds out more about itself. My suggestion has been that syncretism in various religious cultures is a reflection of process theology in a polytheistic context. Deities develop over time and evolve as people get to know them more, and as they adapt to wider and wider cultural contacts and influences. It is a dual process, in other words: humans get to know more about the deities and thus their perceptions of the deities expand, while likewise deities see what is going on in history (and, occasionally, are involved in its developments directly!) and adapt themselves to the newer circumstances and cultural realities of humans in them as they do so. A few years ago at PantheaCon, Orion Foxwood said on a panel words to the effect of, “If you think that we’re the only ones having conventions to discuss these matters, you’re wrong–the deities are doing it as well!” This co-evolution of humans and deities together is a highly appealing notion, and one that I think a lot of modern polytheists, particularly those who are heavily involved in direct contact with and devotion to any number of deities, can understand on an instinctual level. Syncretism is a part of process theology, I think.

A further intriguing notion that was suggested on this blog’s comments a while back was that unless a religious experience is entirely novel and unique to a particular individual, all religious experience is syncretistic. Think about this for a moment. Many of us in modern polytheism may have a sense of our polytheism, or may actively be pursuing it in practice. Then, suddenly, we’ll have an experience of a deity that we do not know and are not familiar with at all, and cannot initially identify. Unfortunately, as if often the case, deities don’t usually say “Oh, by the way, I’m Apollon, and here’s my calling card,” and instead we’re left to puzzle out who this newly encountered being happened to be. We are usually able to do it with a bit of research, consulting our co-religionists, or even divination (which can often be the most useful method of all!). And, ninety-nine-thousand-nine-hundred-and-ninety-nine times out of a hundred thousand, we find “Oh, that’s Zeus!” or “Oh, that’s Artemis!” or “Oh, that’s an unusual aspect of Aphrodite,” or what-have you. Even if it is an unprecedented aspect of a particular deity, usually the particular deity’s signature is on the whole experience in some fashion or other. And, thus, what we had perhaps initially thought was an experience that was uniquely our own and had no connection to anything anyone else had ever done suddenly becomes a connection a history and a community and a cultus that has existed for a very long time indeed. Whatever our own personal perceptions of or spin on the matter might be, we have just engaged in syncretism: we have linked our own practice and experience to something wider and more established and well-known. And, there’s nothing wrong with this. Even in the case of having entirely new deities, as I’ve been dealing with for more than a year now, these deities emerge within a particular context–even if, as in the case of the Tetrad, it is a promiscuously syncretistic context. However, it is also possible that an entirely new practice, pantheon, divine being or set of beings, or interpretation of something already existing can emerge in one’s experience, where the syncretistic dimensions of personal spirituality and wider communal and established cultus may not be as influential or as important as in other cases. However, for the majority of history, there have been at least some connections where these things are concerned.

All of us, therefore, are probably doing syncretism and we may not even have realized it!

[On this matter, I note that at the very beginning of this presentation at PantheaCon, I had my usual prayer to Antinous that I do at the beginning of presentations, and then I invited prayers to a number of the deities that we would be discussing in some further depth during the presentation from the audience: Isis, Hekate, Mithras, Serapis, Sabazios, Antinous, and Brigid. Isis, Hekate, Antinous, and Brigid got a lot of participation; Mithras less so, and Sabazios less so again, while Serapis got no one but myself adding to his praises. Nonetheless, at the end of the prayers at the beginning, I said “Congratulations–we’ve all just done syncretism!”]

So, a few points on understanding syncretism in a polytheistic context, and from a polytheistic perspective, before we proceed on to the next section of this discussion:

1) Syncretistic deities, religions, or religious phenomena are not “impure” or “debased”! Scholars often say this about various religious phenomena, particularly syncretism (and the later in antiquity a source or piece of evidence concerned is, the “worse” it is in their eyes), but this is not at all the case in most circumstances. We should always be willing to give the benefit of the doubt that an altar inscription, a poem or hymn, a temple, or a statue or depiction of a deity from the ancient world springs from genuine devotion and connection to a deity. Indeed, this assumption underlies almost all reliance of modern people on premodern sources of any sort at all, and generally, it is not that problematic to assume that there is a base of pure devotion at the root of most religious expressions. Looking at religious matters in this phenomenological fashion, as the discipline of religious studies is supposed to do, is a good practice to adopt when studying anything from the polytheistic premodern periods.

2) Syncretism is a natural human tendency. Almost everything in one’s life, history, and worldview is a combination and a systematization–no matter how loose or deliberate it may be–that is a hodgepodge of our experiences, ideas we’ve encountered, things we like, things we aspire to, things we outright reject and resist, and any number of other matters, all cobbled together into what makes us uniquely ourselves and what defines our own viewpoint, interests, and practices. And, this applies to religion and spirituality as equally as to anything and everything else in our lives. “Take what works and disregard the rest” is the default modus operandi of humans, and it’s not a bad one to have. So, there is no need to resist syncretism or think that “submitting” to it is a bad thing–you’re already doing it in innumerable areas of your life in relation to innumerable matters, so stop worrying! 😉

3) Only orthodoxy-enforcing monotheistic religions are against syncretism. Christianity has frowned upon syncretism for most of its history, and yet it is one of the most syncretistic religions there has ever been, in certain respects. Many saints–including Christopher, Sebastian, George, and Brigid, to name only a small number–are obviously derived from pagan deity predecessors, or at least derive some of their narratives and their iconography from them. In Islam, the greatest possible sin is sherk, “joining,” which indicates participating in the activities of any other religion (i.e. syncretism!), because it therefore indicates that Islam and the Qu’ran are not sufficient for one when they should be. (Never mind that the Qu’ran shows demonstrable literary influence from a variety of pre-existent sources, including Christian apocrypha…!) Innumerable commandments and laws in the Hebrew Bible exhort the Jews to not do things as the Canaanites and other gentiles do, so as not to offend their deity (who, ironically, is a super-syncretistic deity himself in origin!). Insistently creedal monotheistic religions are very good at persecuting syncretism and syncretists, and making syncretism look like it is a bad thing; so, let’s leave that to them, and not repeat their mistakes (often done in ignorance of their own historical and theological realities) within polytheistic frameworks.

4) Don’t fall into the trap of saying “I do syncretism; everyone else does eclecticism.” I say this as someone who, seven years ago, might have said those very words, and who has only come to realize within the last month and a half that there is very little real difference between these things. We often make such a judgement based on too little information, and too small an estimation of the intelligence or devotion of other people or communities. So, let’s not do that, shall we? 😉

Now we are ready to move on…

A Brief History of Syncretism

I’d like to begin this section of the excursus by drawing your attention to the work of Jonathan Z. Smith–a renowned professor at the Divinity School of the University of Chicago, about whom I’ve written briefly previously–in particular an essay that he wrote called “Here, There, and Anywhere,” which was the opening essay of the excellent anthology Prayer, Magic, and the Stars in the Ancient and Late Antique World. (I’d recommend the whole anthology, but anyway…!?!) Smith’s essay suggests that in the ancient world and late antiquity, one can clearly see that different religious phenomena fall into the categories of “here,” “there,” or “anywhere.” (I’ve also written about that previously.)

In brief, religions that are “here” religions tend to be domestic in focus. The officiants at “here” religions are the heads of families (in the ancient world, usually the eldest male/pater familias), the focus is various parts of the home, including the home shrine (but also encompassing the hearth, the threshold, bedrooms on certain occasions, and other locations), and the concerns of “here” religions are expectably domestic issues like birth and death, the health and well-being of the family, and of material abundance and prosperity. “There” religions are temple-based, and often communal in nature; as a result, they have recognized and trained (or at least communally acknowledged and nominated) sacred specialists–i.e. “priests” and other religious functionaries–as well as particular rules of engagement, including ideas about purity, persons to include or exclude for various reasons, acceptable ways to interact with the deities in temple-space, and so forth. The focus of “there” religions can overlap with that of “here” religious activities, but the overall tendency is to be less individual and familial and more communal, whether this is “communal” on a local or civic level, a more national or regional level, or in a more international fashion. The Eleusinian Mysteries and cultus of Greece would fit this model perfectly. “Anywhere” religions, however, are another matter altogether, because they can involve practitioners doing their practices wherever they happen to be. As a result, the theological notions that accompany these religions tend to be ones of omniscience or omnipresence of deities, or at least the ability to be able to contact deities wherever one happens to be regardless of the availability of a temple, shrine, or community. These types of religion tend to arise during periods in which there is a great deal of cultural contact and movement–often in the context of transnational empires–and they are popular amongst groups of people who tend to be widely traveled, like soldiers, merchants, or imperial bureaucrats and officials. Both Christianity and the Mithraic cultus fall into this category.

While it would still be useful to evaluate whether one’s own particular form of paganism or polytheist practice is of the predominately “here,” “there,” or “anywhere” variety–and to also note that these are not exclusive and there can be a great deal of overlap between them–at the moment, most modern paganism and polytheism is of a hybrid “here/anywhere” characterization. With the lack of temples, “there” matters are often not as important in our modern practices. However, certain events–like PantheaCon–and certain groups of practitioners certainly observe a number of “there” rules in their practices. (This is perhaps one way to envision the difficulties with gender and transgender exclusion at PantheaCon ’11 and ’12: where do the “there” practices of particular groups, and the “there” guidelines of particular events or venues, override the “here/anywhere” practices of individuals? But, I suspect that’s a discussion for another time!)

The transition of various local polytheistic traditions to the “national” polytheisms of ancient Europe (which not every culture did–the Germanic and Celtic areas of Europe, for example, didn’t seem to have very many trans-local deities or traditions for the most part) as well as elsewhere ended up making syncretism a reality in many places. The thin line between “there” cults becoming “anywhere” religions occurred as a result of a lot of these processes, and a great deal of intra-pantheonic syncretism took place as well in a number of these places. India, Egypt, the Near East (including amongst the Hebraic peoples!), Greece, Rome, Japan, and a variety of other places underwent this process, often in the periods immediately preceding their “historic” periods, and yet the individual and local derivations of many of their religious phenomena can still be discerned in the earliest records, and in those of many centuries afterwards. This is a ready example of how syncretism did not lead to a complete blurring of boundaries or a total loss of a recognition of diversity, but instead served to both create connection and preserve plurality and distinction.

Particular localities and occasions where syncretism was prominent in the ancient world included the city of Naukratis, founded by Pharaoh Amasis in 570 BCE to facilitate trade with the Greek world. The Histories of Herodotus, written in the fifth century BCE, also engages in a great deal of Interpretatio Graeca syncretism in his treatment of the religions of non-Greek cultures, including the Scythians, Egyptians, and Thracians. The life and rule of Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE, of course, also kicked off a period of fruitfully unprecedented syncretism in the ancient world, with his wide travels and conquests from Greece to India, and particularly his influences in Egypt. It was those Egyptian conquests and activities, carried on after his death by the Ptolemaic dynasty, that has given us some of our most prominent examples of syncretism.

The entire period of Roman history is also one of a great deal of syncretistic influence. From the earliest foundations of Rome out of several different Italian cultures and traditions, Rome continued in its imperialist expansion, encountering and often absorbing the deities and practices of other cultures. They practiced the ritual of evocatio to lure the deities of foreign peoples into their own favor before conquering them, offering the deities temples and honor in the city of Rome that they would not get in their own cities or amongst their own peoples–and, apparently, a lot of deities responded positively to this offer! Phrygian practices were imported during the wars with Carthage in order to ensure victory, and as a result the cult of Magna Mater/Cybele was made a Roman tradition; however, once Carthage was defeated, certain Carthaginian deities like Tanit were incorporated into the Roman pantheon as Juno Caelestis, for example. Greek myths and practices were syncretized with Latin deity-names to the point that the Greek versions of the deities nearly eclipsed the Latin ones entirely. Etruscan deities were also imported into Roman practice, as well as those of Gaul, Thrace, many Near Eastern cultures, and other regions and religions. It would be fair to say that if one is doing Roman practice–which included specific rituals for doing what many in the modern world might call “cultural appropriation”–then one is doing syncretism.

As mentioned previously, many of the major international and proselytizing religions were incredibly syncretistic. Some of them–like Christianity and Islam–were ill-disposed toward syncretism, despite being highly syncretistic themselves in their initial periods, and what they would like everyone to believe to the contrary. However, other religions or strains of these religions remained more friendly and open to syncretism. Gnosticism within Christianity was particularly friendly to syncretism, and incorporated any number of elements from various polytheistic traditions into its worldviews, texts, and practices; and, there is a strong possibility that it may have had a great deal of influence from Buddhism in doing this. Buddhism itself has been a very syncretistic religion, with a basis in a reformed view of Hinduism, but a manner of either absorbing other religion’s influences and deities, or incorporating them into new schools within itself, or of simply existing alongside them. Vajrayana Buddhism in Tibet, Mongolia, and elsewhere incorporates many elements of shamanism and the Bon-Po indigenous religion of Tibet to give it its distinctive character. Ch’an Buddhism developed in China in response to certain elements in Taoism, and was thereby transmitted to Japan as Zen. Many different forms of Buddhism exist in Japan, either alongside Shinto, or forming combined traditions with it like the Yamabushi tradition.

The many Afro-Diasporic religions came about when indigenous West African religions combined with Christianity, Islam, and various Caribbean, Central and South American, and Native American traditions, as well as various types of esotericism in some cases, to yield entirely new religious systems. These include Vodou in Haiti, Santeria and Palo Mayombe in Cuba, Candomble in Brazil, and any number of other traditions. Above, you can see an icon of Damballah, who very interestingly was syncretized to St. Patrick merely because of the presence of snakes in the iconography of Patrick (on which there is more here), and with whom he shares a feast day. (Very interestingly, Damballah was involved in the myth of the Tetrad, particularly in having given Paneros the notion that Pancrates needed to be born; and, Fete Damballah is on March 17th, which is also Pancrates’ birth-feast! When all of this was written, I assure you I had no notion that this was the case!)

I would also like to suggest that two relatively “new” phenomena in psychology and religious studies (as well as spiritual practice) are also inherently syncretistic. One is Jungian psychology and the entire phenomenon of studying archetypes in mythology and religion. Archetypalism is an attempt, I think, to bridge the gap between as many cultures as possible, and to strengthen the notion that there is a basic and fundamental unity between humans and a continuity of experience and perception across human individuality. I think it arises out of very noble and worthy intentions, and it seemed to be particularly popular in various periods where strengthening the connections between diverse cultures was desirable in terms of the possibility, therefore, of eliminating differences that could lead to conflict. I am not certain that it is entirely useful or feasible to have made some of these suggestions, or that this overall project is as useful as its proponents still seem to think it is, but one thing is for certain: it depends upon ideas that fall under the broad category of “syncretism” for its success. (I have written about archetypes as deities previously here, which is probably not what Jung and his followers intended at all!)

Another such phenomenon, which I’ve seen more on the practical spirituality side of things rather than the academic or psychological and theoretical side, is what could be called totemicism. While “totemism” tends to be understood as the phenomenon within different cultures where particular individuals, families, or peoples are associated with an animal or plant and/or its spiritual counterpart, I’d like to suggest therefore that totemicism is the idea that, therefore, one can engage with totem animals, totem plants, and other totemic spirits on a level that is trans-cultural. Indeed, if one studies wolves, for example, there are a variety of things that come up in relation to them that are indifferent to particular cultural contexts and shared cultural matrices. Wolves are commonly associated with wind, with being able to travel very swiftly, and with being warriors, for example. Totemicism, therefore, often exists in a lot of neo-shamanism. The desire to interact with totemic spirits transculturally is, I think, a syncretistic process, and the practitioners of these paths that I know personally realize that such is its nature.

Though “Uncle” Gerald Gardner may not approve of me doing so (as you can see in this photo!), I would also like to point out that modern Wicca is a syncretistic religion in origin as well. Simply looking at the Wiccan “Wheel of the Year,” one can see that various cultural traditions are drawn upon for elements of it: Yule and Ostara are Germanic (and the latter in particular is Anglo-Saxon); Samain, Imbolc, Beltaine, and Lugnasad are Irish; and Mabon takes its name from a Welsh figure, but there is not any particular reason why he nor anything associated with him is particularly connected to the Autumnal Equinox. Many practices within Wicca have discernible sources, including in ceremonial magical techniques. BUT, this does not mean that the overall religion and practice of Wicca, in whatever form it takes place or via whatever tradition or lineage it occurs, is in any way “lesser” for having been formed out of various parts, streams, influences, and elements. The work of Ronald Hutton is useful in this regard, and should not be understood as an “attack” on the integrity of Wicca as a tradition, despite the fact that it does (rightly) problematize some of the origin-myths used within the tradition itself.

The religion of Thelema, founded by Aleister Crowley (likewise out of several different previous spiritual streams and influences), is also syncretistic, and I am reminded of a particular incident that I think is worth mentioning at some length here. During the “Paris Working” of late December and early January of 1913-1914, Aleister Crowley and Victor Neuburg (both Sancti of the Ekklesía Antínoou) were doing some work with channeling Mercury on January 1st. Crowley was asking the questions, and Neuburg was channeling the deity. At one point in the conversation, Crowley asked “What god shall we invoke tomorrow.” Neuburg (as Mercury) replied) “Thoth.” Crowley further responded, “Thoth is Mercury,” to which Neuburg/Mercury further responded “You will get another aspect.” While much could be said about this particular incident, I am amused by it, because Crowley was asserting an equative syncretistic view to the deity himself, whereupon the deity seemed to suggest a more nuanced viewpoint, in my interpretation. In any case…one can add Thelema to the long and venerable list of syncretistic religious traditions as well, in any case.

This overview of some (but not all) syncretistic cultures and religions has been necessarily brief and without a great deal of elaboration, but I think it usefully established the broad boundaries of the influence, and indeed essential nature, of syncretism when it has come to religious matters–particularly in Europe and the New World(s)–for the past 2500 years or so.

Syncretistic Deities

Michael York (shown here), in his book Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion (which I would not whole-heartedly recommend in every manner), mentions the idea of “super-gods” at various points. (Note, this is not to be confused with Grant Morrison’s book of the same name, or to be understood as comic book super-heroes as deities–though those are worthy topics for further thought, discussion, and practice!) The gods Shiva and Vishnu, for example, from the Hindu pantheons, are discussed as “super-gods,” because their cultus and their imagery and mythology ended up subsuming (or, perhaps more appropriately, superseding?) the individual cults and identities of innumerable more local deities, as mentioned above. This did not only occur in Hinduism, but with many other religions as well: Zeus in Greek religion, Jupiter Optimus Maximus in Roman religion, and the Hebrew god all did likewise, combining into themselves a variety of other deities–including major or “kingly” deities of different regions–into a singular divinity that was worshipped thereafter, and that often further came into contact with, absorbed, or superseded other deities along the way.

Modifying this terminology slightly, I’d like to focus on seven super-syncretistic deities in the discussion to follow. These seven are not the only ones from this small selection of cultures, and many more exist, including Chnoubis, Tithoes/Tutu, Iao Sabaoth, and even deities we don’t readily associate with this sort of process like Herakles. So, without further ado…

Perhaps the most familiar super-syncretistic deity to many people is Isis, particularly in her forms during later antiquity in which she is described or understood as “pantheistic,” as in the initiation scene from Apuleius’ Metamorphoses, the hymns from the temple at Medinet Madi by Isidorus, and the Isis Aretalogy, for example. However, this process began with intra-pantheonic syncretism long before she started branching out to other European/Mediterranean deities in the Hellenistic period, both in conjunction with and separate from the cultus of Serapis (on which, more in a moment). Hathor–herself something of a super-syncretistic goddess in intra-pantheonic syncretism in Egypt–who had been the consort and mother of Horus, as well as linked to Sekhmet and Mertseger (and other goddesses), soon became absorbed into Isis, receiving her horns as an attribute, as well as the wings of Ma’at, and various other deities. Therefore, Isis is a good example of a super-syncretistic goddess in both intra- and inter-pantheonic syncretistic processes.

Hekate as well is another example of a super-syncretistic goddess. She first appears in Hesiod’s Theogony, but becomes particularly important during the Graeco-Egyptian period in magical texts. In the periods before this, she was connected to or shared attributes with such deities as the Thracian Bendis, and was also put into association with Cybele; but, in later periods, she combined with Artemis, Selene, and even Persephone, and was also connected to non-Greek deities like the Near Eastern Ereshkigal. She also had a variety of epithets, including Enodia, which were potentially independent goddesses to begin with, and under which she was still solely invoked in later periods.

Mithras is another super-syncretistic deity of the Hellenistic and Late Antique periods. He clearly began as an Indo-Persian deity, but what the connection (if any) between this deity, whose origins stretch back several millennia, and the later Graeco-Roman cultus to the deity involved, is a matter for hot debate. Once he entered the Graeco-Roman sphere, however, he rapidly became very syncretistic indeed, drawing in elements of various deities and heroes, including (but not limited to) Hermes, Perseus, Orion, Helios, and a variety of others. Further, other super-syncretistic deities are often found in his sanctuaries, including Sabazios and Serapis (who will be dealt with shortly!), with the possibility that he is linked to them or syncretized to them as well. I’ve written an essay on Mithras at the Neos Alexandria website, which has more information on a number of theories involving his “true identity.” His sanctuaries were found in the Graeco-Roman world in almost every province, from the Near East to Egypt to Britannia and Gaul, throughout the Danubian provinces, and even several Mithraic spelea in Rome itself.

Serapis is another deity that is super-syncretistic, and his cultus often traveled with that of Isis (and Harpocrates and/or Anubis/Hermanubis) to other places outside of Egypt in the ancient and late antique Mediterranean world. While his first “official” appearance was in the early Ptolemaic period, when a statue of Pluto was transferred from Sinope to Alexandria to begin his Graeco-Egyptian cultus, Osorapis pre-existed the syncretic cultus of the Ptolemies by centuries. His form took in the deities Apis (who was himself connected with Ptah), Osiris, Dionysos, Zeus, Hades, and eventually many others, including Herakles, Poseidon, and Helios. He also had temples all over the Roman Empire by late antiquity, from as far north as Cologne in Germania and Eboracum (York) in Brittania to as far south as his home temple in Memphis, Egypt.

Sabazios, to whom I’ve been paying much more attention for the last year as well as more recently, is a Thracian deity who has been described by one of his modern devotees as “the God occupying the space between roles in the mythic cycle,” who is most often understood under Greek and Roman interpretations of him, which link him consistently to both Zeus and Dionysos, and perhaps account for some of the peculiarities of various myths of Dionysos in particular in the Greek context. He also gets syncretized to any number of other deities within Thracian religion, including (very likely) the “rider god” or “Thracian hero,” Gebeleizis, and others, and to other deities outside of Thrace, like Hermes, Herakles, Apollon, Attis, Ares, Silvanus, and others.

I’ve often said that Serapis seems to be Antinous’ grandfather; and more recently, I’ve said that Sabazios is his uncle. But, on further thought, I suspect that both of them are equally his grandfathers, since each of them share so many syncretisms with him…

Which brings us to Antinous himself. I’ve been able to identify at least thirty-four deities and heroes (about which I’ve written a book!) to whom Antinous has been syncretized over his cultic lifetime. But, newer syncretisms, aspects, and forms of Antinous are coming about even now, both of the inter-pantheonic, intra-pantheonic, and entirely interior varieties (e.g. his Three Aspects of Liberator, Lover, and Navigator). The modus operandi of Antinous’ cultus has been syncretism, and in many respects he is a god of syncretism and a “god of peaceful connections” in creating those syncretisms.

Finally, for the moment, we come to the last of the super-syncretistic deities I’d like to discuss: Brigid–or, perhaps more appropriately, “the Brigids.” While most people know her in her Irish and Irish-derived forms, she is in fact far more complex than that in the modern period, and very likely in the ancient and medieval periods as well. She seems to have been a tribal goddess of the Brigantes people, a Celtic group that existed on the continent, as well as in northern Britain and in eastern Ireland. However, her earliest cultic manifestations as Brigantia in the areas around and north of Hadrian’s Wall and the Antonine Wall do not seem to emerge from Brigantian initiative, but instead from Romans, perhaps in an evocatio-like effort to mollify the Maeatae–a Brigantes tribe–during the late second and early third centuries CE. She is given attributes which make her seem similar to Minerva, and she is also given a consort, Bregans. Later Welsh words for “king” like brenhin seem to mean “consort of Brigan-” in some fashion. In her Irish manifestations in medieval literature, the name Brigid is said to be borne by three daughters of the Dagda in Sanas Cormaic–who are said to be expert in poetry, smithcraft, and healing respectively–and she also appears in the narrative of Cath Maige Tuired as the wife of Bres and the mother of Rúadán; one of these Brigids is also the mother of the Three Gods of Skill. There are also other figures called Brigid or Bríg in Irish lore, including Bríg Ambue, a jurist who is credited with introducing lapdogs and whose epithet means “of the cowless warrior,” and also Bríg Brigu, a hospitaller. Then, there is the Christian St. Brigid, whose various hagiographies are assumed to be only distantly based on an actual individual, and which seem to draw the majority of their imagery and narrative from polytheistic sources that are no longer extant. This is taken as a “given” in most academic study of Brigid, and has been for the past 150 years, at least. There is also an assumption that Brigantia and Brigid are “the same” entirely within academia. So, we have in this situation–and, note, most pagans and polytheists in the modern period who honor Brigid have taken the suggestions of academics entirely at face value–not only intra-pantheonic syncretism within Irish culture, and inter-pantheonic syncretism with the British Brigantia and the Irish Brigid, but also inter-religious syncretism with the practices of and narratives and associations about St. Brigid being incorporated into the honoring of the pagan Brigid.

I am personally an advocate of keeping the plurality in the Brigids to the fore, as polytheists, or else we are giving tacit approval to monotheism and monism; however, if the cultic and devotional reality of the goddess now is that she has in fact absorbed and subsumed all of these originally separate and distinct figures into herself, that is for her to reveal and for her devotees to claim (or not claim) in relation to her.

I am a great fan of the work of Edward Butler, who has written a great deal of interesting and useful articles, has contributed to several Neos Alexandria devotional volumes, and who has written an indispensable resource, Goddesses and Gods of the Ancient Egyptians: A Theological Encyclopedia. One of the articles he has written is called “Polycentric Polytheism and the Philosophy of Religion,” which was published in The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies 10.2 (2008). In this article, he suggests that the model of “polycentric polytheism” can bridge both “hard polytheism” and “soft polytheism” or syncretism by understanding that when two deities get paired together in syncretism, one can understand them as “deity X being played by deity Y,” as if they are actors playing roles. So, Zeus-Sabazios would be Sabazios as portrayed by Zeus, or Zeus acting in a Sabazian manner, etc. I think this is a very useful way to think of syncretism in a translational rather than an equational manner, and I highly recommend looking into this particular article as a result if one wishes to understand syncretism in a polytheistic manner.

Syncretism in the Modern World

Modern syncretism takes many overt and covert forms, and encompasses–in my view–a wide variety of phenomena. Theories of difference and cultural diffusion (like those involved in Indo-European studies and which are its ultimate basis), migratory peoples, and tracing influences along trade routes, all have their roles to play in understanding how these various deities have developed historically. These are all matters which are known to and which are drawn upon by modern pagans and polytheists through the academic studies of these subjects. However, these studies do not account for the process theological mechanisms mentioned above, which would suggest that various deities like Zeus and Jupiter are not “ultimately one” and derive from a common source, so much as “separate developments” (whether from a common source or not) and separate individuals who may nonetheless have many family characteristics in common the way that siblings or even cousins can. The intersections and divergences in practical theology and devotion and the theories of scholars are matters that have been discussed in various places recently (including this very blog!), and the differences between these two areas should be kept in mind and respected. Just because a prevailing scholarly theory suggests that a particular deity “is” this or that or “comes from” here or there or “means” one thing or another does not necessarily mean this will have cultic relevance for a practitioner today; and likewise, just because a modern person’s understanding and perception of a deity indicates particular factors does not mean that such factors can–or even should be–proven academically, or should be the basis for confirmatory research. (The idea that “older = better = more authentic and therefore MORE RIGHT!” is a meme as common to paganism as to traditional academia; and whether this amounts to “my tradition has been handed down in secret for millennia” or “my devotion to this deity goes all the way back to when I was three years old,” the usual justification for these assertions is a degree of “rightness” over and above the questioning of others.) If we understand that syncretism and process theology have been operating on a level concurrent with whatever historical realities are observed and which can be reliably theorized upon, we will generally not be disappointed in our results.

At present, we have an unfathomable diversity of and an unprecedented ease of intercultural communication available to us, which those who are reading this right now are using at this very second: the internet. Because of this situation, and because of tools like the internet, syncretism is going to be a greater and greater reality to be taken seriously in the future. Again, this is not a bad thing, and offers a great deal to be excited about in the development of modern polytheistic theology and practice.

The interfaith movement is something which I’ve touched upon at various times in this blog, both in its good points and in its bad ones. However, it is to be understood that–whatever the positive or negative aspects of the interfaith movement happen to be–interfaith activities are not exactly the playground of syncretism. In fact, a great deal of interfaith activity occurs in a situation in which syncretism is frowned upon entirely. Some interfaith rituals involve practices, prayers, or actions that are drawn from several separate religious streams, but these do not then get carried on in other contexts, they are one-off matters, and they are often only monotheistic or monistic in their basis and favor religions that operate from those dominant theologies. There are some interfaith churches and groups now that do try and practice hybrid–and, therefore, syncretistic–spiritualities, but they are far fewer than the ones that gather together, have discussions, perhaps have workshops which allow people of different religions to hear about or experience aspects of other religions, but then safely return to their own corners and their own religious views without being influenced by (or, in some negative interpretations, “contaminated by”) these other viewpoints. While engaging in interfaith work should strengthen the respect and understanding between different religions and their practitioners, and therefore is not necessarily meant at all to create new and novel syncretic traditions, it is important to note this distinction. Entering into interfaith work with a strong basis in one’s own religion, and leaving it with a greater commitment to one’s own religion, is not at all a bad thing. Unfortunately, some people see interfaith work as a means of proselytizing to other religions and convincing them of the errors of their ways, and thus it can be a difficult position to enter into, especially for those of minority faiths (as all modern pagans and polytheists are).

However, as mentioned very early in the present excursus, modern paganism IS a syncretistic phenomenon, in its use as an umbrella term, in the original Plutarch-derived sense of the word. We are a highly diverse and unique group of people and of communities and traditions that have banded together under a common banner and for a common cause. This is a good thing, I think, and a useful thing, and it is why I have no trouble describing myself as “pagan” as long as that term is not understood to be synonymous with Wiccan–there is nothing wrong with being Wiccan, it’s just not what I am nor what I do. Just as there are many different ways to understand, nuance, and define syncretism (some useful, in my opinion, and some not), it is also very important to understand that there are different ways to use the idea of syncretism that are not entirely religious or spiritual in nature, even though they are connected with it. This political, Plutarch-derived usage in relation to the umbrella term “pagan” and “modern paganism” (or even “modern polytheism”) is one such not-religious-but-connected-to-religion instance.

There are a number of modern groups that are explicitly and specifically syncretistic in their practices, and have no trouble admitting they are such. There are any number of eclectic and syncretic covens of various independent lineages, including Come As You Are Coven and the Circle of Cerridwen. There are groups like Neos Alexandria, which has a Graeco-Egyptian focus, although its members include people of many diverse practices and traditions within polytheism, as well as several people who aren’t necessarily polytheists, or aren’t exclusively polytheists. There are a number of reconstructionists who are dual tradition (more than one may at first realize!), and some developing traditions of “historical syncretism,” like those who practice Norse-Celtic syncretism due to the heavy influence of Norse culture on areas like Scotland, the Isle of Man, and even many parts of Ireland. And, there is–of course!–the Ekklesía Antínoou, which is “syncretist” in its main identifying sentence/mission statement.

In the latter case, a number of things have been developing recently and over the course of our history. There are a variety of ways that we honor syncretism within our practices, by incorporating other deities from diverse cultures into our practices, including, for example, our invocation of Wepwawet, Hekate, and Ianus at the beginning of major rituals, and of having influences from and models in Shinto’s misogi practice in the creation of our Inundation ritual. Syncretisms of various sorts are in development with Antinous, and with others in the Antinoan Pantheon (like Polydeukion, etc.), that are intra-pantheonic, inter-pantheonic, and entirely internal. The Serpent Path has been a practice and a theoretical model that is being used to understand and delve more deeply into syncretism in an Antinoan context. And, polyamorotheism has also been something that has emerged as a theological model in a great deal of my own interaction with Antinous, and indeed it has lead to entirely new theologies and theogonies, including that of the Tetrad.

It will also be possible, I am quite certain, to develop further syncretistic links in the practices of many other groups in modern polytheism and paganism, and for new syncretisms of deities to emerge–not merely as equivalences of one another, but as entirely new theologies, which may in turn lead to some new theophanies and theogonies as well.

It is a very exciting time to be a polytheist, I think, and a syncretist. Where things will go from here, it is almost impossible to say–and, being that we are in a process theological model, not even the gods know where things will go. However, I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all, and in fact I suspect they’re just as excited about all of this as I am, and as many of us are! 🙂


So, this concludes my PantheaCon 2012 coverage–and, this also concludes the longest blog entry I’ve yet made, at over 10,500 words. Wow–not bad (for having taken about seven hours, with a few breaks!) This will probably be the basis for a short book I’ll be putting out later this year in advance of the Esoteric Book Conference, so stay tuned for more on that in the future!


  1. Amazing entry! I’m really impressed with everything you’ve covered here and am appreciative of your inclusion of Gnosticism. As a thought experiment, I imagine that if Gnosticism went evangelical (that is to say, actively went out to proslytize) it would bear a lot of similarities with how Buddhism went about the process, in particular in Tibet and Mongolia, in that Gnostics would likely assimilate the deities and cultural practices they would encounter. To a degree we see this already at work in classical Manichaeism, but it wouldn’t be out of place even for modern schools of Gnosticism.

    • Thank you! I’m glad you liked it! 😉

      Yes, I suspect you’re right. Gnosticism, it almost seems to me, is more of a framework than a religion-as-such; it isn’t that it doesn’t have theologies or practices, it’s just that it is a lot more “open-source,” as it were. Not a bad thing at all, at all!

      I’m glad you responded to this thus far as well for another reason: I’m already starting to plan some stuff for the EBC, and for my PowerPoint, I’d like to get a few things done by people who actually know what they’re doing visually in PhotoShop, etc. So, if you might have a few moments to discuss some of that, let me know (via e-mail) when would be a good time to do so, and perhaps we can talk on the phone. It probably won’t be anything too difficult for someone as skilled as yourself artistically!

  2. […] I have written recently on the virtues of syncretism, sometimes syncretism can lead into difficulties of interpretation that are hard to make sense out […]

  3. I need to read all of this, but I was struck by your comments on reconstructionists and mystics. That rang a HUGE bell with me! I may in fact quote that at some point. Okay, must go back now and read. 🙂

  4. […] I’ve mentioned before, Sabazios is a super-syncretistic deity, along with Antinous and several others. Both Antinous and Sabazios get connected to Attis in […]

  5. […] in my essay for the Bibliotheca Alexandrina anthology Waters of Life.) Serapis’ status as a super-syncretistic deity, and understanding what exactly this means, has been very useful, illustrative, and illuminating […]

  6. […] last thirty years as far as practical polytheistic (and syncretistic) theology is concerned. (My “Super-Syncretism!” presentation would have been impossible without it!) You can get the book […]

  7. […] Z. Smith has discussed this, and I’ve mentioned it several times (including in my “Super-Syncretism!” post), of the phenomenon of “here,” “there,” and “anywhere” […]

  8. […] syncretism isn’t really mentioned again, but “archetypalism” is. Of course, I’ve written a great deal about this, and how I think the easy collapsing of “soft polytheism” and “syncretism” […]

  9. […] me recently that makes perfect sense as far as syncretism goes, and which I came close to saying in my super-syncretism post but didn’t: if we think of various animal totems as “deities” in their own right, […]

  10. […] Diversity” (which started out as a PantheaCon session last February, became one of my lengthiest blog posts, inspired an Academia Antinoi course, and is now in a revised, expanded, and […]

  11. […] by the Circle of Dionysos, a presentation on Queer Youth Spirituality, and my final presentation on Super-Syncretism (which had a role to play in both A Serpent Path Primer and in one of my Academia Antinoi courses). […]

  12. […] The Gundestrup Caudron however is most definitely of Thracian workmanship and it was found disassembled in a Danish bog, not an Irish one. And Denmark is well out of the Celtic geographic sphere. As P. Sufenas Virius Lupus says: […]

  13. […] Preserving Diversity,” Aedicula Antinoi: A Small Shrine of Antinous 31 Mar 2012, available at…. Expanded versions of these ideas are available in A Serpent Path Primer (Red Lotus Library, […]

  14. […] the last day of March, and thus, like a few years ago, I really need to tie up all the loose ends of PantheaCon 2014 so I can move forward with the rest […]

  15. […] Syncretism, “Super-Syncretism”- good one that breaks it down into different types by PSVL (Celtic/Roman/Hellenic syncretic […]

  16. […] written at great length before about syncretism, both on here and in a certain book, as well as elsewhere…you can’t really avoid it when you have […]

  17. […] in the Sacred Nights of Antinous this year than to return to a deity that I’ve mentioned before a few times, who I hope to be doing more research on soon, and whose image is even now winging its […]

  18. […] potential usages. I then attempted to use these attempted distinctions in other pieces, including a presentation at PantheaCon in 2012, a course I have taught, and even in one of my books, but in practice afterwards, I have not […]

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