Syncretism Happens!

P Sufenas Virius Lupus

Many modern people are used to certain hyphenated terms which refer to cultural or religious realities. The term “Graeco-Roman,” for example, is certainly something which is taken to be a monolithic and definite fusion of cultural constructs; and in a religious context, the term tends to mean that the Romans simply gave Latin names to Greek deities. This is, of course, far from the truth, and a view which is lacking in nuance, yet nonetheless it remains a cultural stereotype which has been exploited to various degrees–quite hilarious by Eddie Izzard, for example, when he said that the Romans had to steal the Greek deities because the Roman deities were rather boring, like Geoff the god of biscuits. (If the grain goddess Ceres had a son called Geoff, he very likely also had a warrior aspect, if nothing else, if the ancient Roman agricultural god known as Mars is anything to go by!) People who are trying to be inclusive and to some degree politically correct also often use the term “Judeo-Christian,” when what is really meant is “Christian.” Christianity was a religion which freely syncretized (or, perhaps, re-interpreted or even [mis-] appropriated) a number of religious influences and elements into its subsequent dogmatic and liturgical structure, among them Judaism; it becomes quite apparent when one studies the Judaism of the post-Second Temple period that it is quite different in almost every respect from mainstream Christianity, and that pre-rabbinic Judaism and tribal Hebraic religion were further independent theological entities altogether. Despite what its adherents might assert, Christianity has very little in common with Judaism in most respects, and the insistent monotheism of Christianity does not bear much resemblance to the henotheism which is enshrined in much of the Hebrew scriptures, and which persists in the practices of many Jewish people.

In general, modern people are comfortable with certain concepts of cultural or religious hybridization, while others seem strange or antithetical to them.

Thus, there is a difficulty which modern pagans who identify as “Graeco-Egyptian” often encounter, which is often a greater obstacle for other pagans to surmount than it is for non-pagans to accept. While Wicca. as founded by Gerald Gardner, is a syncretistic and consciously constructed religion on its own, some practitioners are more insistent on strict adherence to its practical and theological guidelines than others. As time goes on, and as the neopagan population and movement has become more visible and has had greater numbers of practitioners within it, a debate and a dichotomy of methodology has emerged: some people prefer more stringent and assiduous following of established parameters of tradition, while others take a more piecemeal approach. The latter methodology has often been derided as “shopping cart” religion (in Roman Catholic circles, such spiritual eclecticism has been called “cafeteria Catholicism”), and has been characterized as “fluffy” and naive, while those who are proponents of this attitude towards practice call it “eclectic.” Indeed, the postmodern influences of chaos magic have also had their influence on religious and devotional practice in neopaganism, and “anything which works” deity-wise and culturally is considered permissible. If such a practice is fulfilling and productive for those who choose to utilize it, then there is nothing wrong with it, as ultimately some benefit to the lives of practitioners of any magical tradition and all religions should accrue. However, those of a more traditional bent are often upset because of the unthinking credulity which often accompanies the more eclectic methodologies, as well as the fears of cultural appropriation and possible conflict and offense among one’s spiritual and deific associates which seem to be ignored by some more well-informed eclectics. Those more conservative (in the best sense) elements in neopagan traditions advocate keeping as close to their acquired or inherited traditions as possible, and to keeping actions in the cultus of diverse deities or pantheons carefully separate so as not to transgress culturally specific boundaries. Some of the enforcements of these more conservative traditionalist practices, however, can veer too far in the direction of “cultural purity,” to the exclusion, and even denigration, of the practices of other pantheons, and to those who would seek to have multiple cultural affiliations. Neither side of this rather dualistic debate is wholly free from excess.

And yet, the world in which we currently live is the most diverse and rapidly changing that has perhaps ever been in existence on Earth previously. A fifth grader who can spell and type in 2008 now has, with a high-speed internet connection, unprecedented access to the religious wisdom of the ages and of many more cultures and sub-traditions than did the most learned scholar of Alexandria, with all of its great library’s books, at its height, when even the furthest reaches of Europe (Scandinavia and Ireland, for example) were largely unknown. (Though, in fairness, so much has been lost from the ancient world that our knowledge, no matter how extensive, will never be complete; and the fifth grader will see just as much dross and nonsense in a search for information on any particular religion over the internet than they are likely to see of genuine and verifiable fact and useful information.) In the United States, Canada, Australia, and Britain (to name only the predominantly English-speaking countries), any given citizen is likely to be of a number of possible ethnic and cultural stocks, whether all European or otherwise. Immigrants to the U.S. were often fleeing religious persecution in some form, so having an unknown or unrealized Jewish ancestor is not uncommon; and for non-Europeans, having relatives who still do or until recently practiced some form of non-exclusive non-monotheistic religion is all the more likely. And even if one were, strictly speaking, “English,” then any number of cultural influences have constituted that identity, from native Brythonic (i.e. Insular Celtic) to Anglo-Saxon-Jutish, to Norse and Danish or Norman and Flemish (all mostly Germanic) cultural strata, and yet all are now considered “English” to some extent. In such a world as this, it seems almost ludicrous for people to have narrow and exclusive ideas about what ancestral pre-Christian traditions one might have a right to, or to which one must submit to the elimination of all others.

Within the more traditionally minded lineages of neopaganism, there is a movement known as reconstructionism, which has sought to take ancient sources as the primary constituents of its religious practice and theology. In the 1970s, groups of reconstructionists began to emerge devoted to Germanic traditions (e.g. Asatru) as well as Greek, Roman, and Egyptian ancient religions; in the 1980s, Celtic reconstructionist groups and individuals also began to work. In these groups, there was often no need to resort to the myth of a grandparent having been heir to a secret transmitted body of lore for legitimacy of one’s tradition, nor to the various arguments of different “druidic” organizations to having an ancient and venerable tradition (since most of these go back no further than the creative and romantic ideals of the late eighteenth century). Instead, going to the library, learning an ancient language, and fully integrating the materials through ritual practice, meditation, and other active forms of spiritual pursuit is seen as merit-worthy in itself. The above named cultural reconstructionist traditions, as well as further ones, have had many groups, factions, and (as the Irish used to call them) “faction fights” amongst themselves, with charismatic as well as crazed individuals and unique characters among their ranks, and yet they have all also produced living, valid and honorable forms of spiritual conduct which have had nearly a generation to come into their own. What these traditions might lack in terms of length of existence or strength in numbers of adherents, they more than compensate for in the quality of work which has been produced.

However, for a number of reasons, those who are interested in specific cultural reconstructionist traditions often find themselves being intrigued by and drawn into several such traditions rather quickly. Many Kemetic practitioners find themselves suddenly drawn to the Norse deities; a Celtic reconstructionist might also be involved in an Afro-Carribean religion; a Hellenic practitioner may be thwapped (as is the technical term) unexpectedly by a Hindu deity. The possibilities are endless, and the number of dual-trad or “multi-culti” reconstructionists increases constantly. How does one explain this? How can the flight from and aversion to unthinking eclecticism lead to a mixing of pantheons and cultural traditions more diverse and possibly discordant than one might have imagined possible when first exposed to generalized Wicca and neopaganism? There are (at least) two possibilities which readily occur: one is a supernatural explanation, and one is a scholastic one.

From the viewpoint that the gods are real and do exist and act independently, and that humans can and do have relationships with them, one possible answer presents itself. If a person shows great dedication to a particular deity and the spiritual path which such dedication necessitates, then that individual devotee might get a “reputation,” as it were, for being a fervent adherent to a deity amongst the various spiritual powers. (This situation assumes that the deities, with fewer restraints of physical geography and linguistic boundaries, communicate as freely and easily as a modern person is able to over the internet–if someone today can be in Wyoming and have an instant message conversation with someone in New Zealand and Zimbabwe, for example, it seems reasonable to assume that Odin’s raven Munin could carry a message to Hermes, Amaterasu, and Coyote with a few flaps of his feathers.) Thus, other deities seeking devotees to do their work for them on Earth might begin soliciting their services, like divine headhunters (not in the literal, cannibalistic sense, but in the modern business sense!) searching for the perfect practitioner for the pious purposes they might wish to see completed. This is something that is commonly attested amongst practitioners of these forms of paganism: the spirits and deities are likely to contact those who have a reputation for listening to and following through on such communications–time, space, and culture notwithstanding.

The more agnostic and academic viewpoint, however, has an answer that might lack in color, conviction and intrigue, but which just as easily explains why this phenomenon might occur. It is readily apparent to anyone who has properly and thoroughly studied any ancient religion (or any religion, for that matter) that none of them existed in a vacuum, and that they were influenced by and in turn influenced the cultures around them to a great degree. No religion has existed throughout its history without changing and adapting to the realities of new cultural contacts through trade, expansion of territory and colonization, wars, uprisings and changes in the dominant political regimes, disasters (natural and biological) like plagues, droughts, tidal waves, volcanoes and earthquakes, and improvements in transportational and informational technology–to only name a few such possibilities. Ancient Minoan religion was highly influenced by the religion of Egypt; the ancient tribal Hebrews were in contact with their neighbors in Sumeria and Babylonia, Egypt, and Canaan; Neolithic Ireland had regular trade access to both the continent and Britain, and in the Bronze Age, even North Africa; the Germanic and Continental Celtic peoples were in constant proximity; and the list goes on. The influence of the Near East on Greek religion at various stages is quite apparent, and the contribution of almost every culture which the Romans encountered (in war or peace) is marked on the temples and deity epithets of the old Latin gods as they survived in the Eternal City itself. Were it not for Greek and Roman influence, no Gaulish or British deity-names would now be known and recoverable to us–so no matter how much so-called “Celtic traditionalists” of various kinds might resent “Rome” and its imperializing conquerors, were it not for the colonists of Massilia, Julius Caesar and Claudius and Hadrian, and many other such figures, the names of hundreds of deities would have been unknowable (other than through the uncertain practice of linguistic reconstruction). Any notion of “authentic cultural purity” is necessarily a notion that is entirely false, a pedantic fantasy no doubt built upon the fact that certain monotheistic proselytizing religions, despite being excellent at syncretism themselves, made syncretism a sin (in the case of Islam, one of the highest and most grave sins). Thus, a notion not native to the polytheistic viewpoint has been read into it because the prevalent religions of the modern world have defined religion in ways which exclude the possibility of other “truths” being existent, much less desirable or with which one might decide to have a fruitful affiliation.

When taking all of these possible influences into account, the emergence of the Hellenistic culture under Alexander the Great and his Ptolemaic successors in Egypt and the wider Hellenistic Empire, as well as its continuation after the battle of Actium under the Romans through to the end of the fourth century (and, in some cases, beyond), which resulted in what could be termed “Graeco-Egyptian” and “Graeco-Roman-Egyptian” syncretism is not only a reality which must be acknowledged, but a situation that is predictable and even expectable, but no less extraordinary, varied, and impressive for that. Rather than viewing this attempt to create a unified and respectful culture that integrated all possible religious systems into a workable (though not by necessity coherent or internally consistent) totality was an attempt to create peace and harmony and to combine the advantages and blessings of a plethora of spiritual influences and deities toward the common good of society. When this continued, through the phenomena first of interpretatio Graeca and subsequently interpretatio Romana, instead of viewing these methodologies of cultural-religious contact as a hegemonic and imperialistic strategy of appropriation and subjugation (as some scholars as well as reconstructionist practitioners seem to), instead these approaches could be viewed as genuine human and institutional responses attempting to understand and create a vector of encounter with unfamiliar and foreign ideas–even if the results are (to use an anthropological commonplace) an etic rather than an emic presentation of what the other religion and culture is like. The willingness to assume that there is a reality and a truth in the other’s viewpoint, no matter how perfunctory or even shallow that assumption might have been in certain cases, is an assumption that would in fact benefit many modern people seeking to understand the religions of others, and in fact doing so would most likely benefit the relationships between the major world religions today, as well as the interactions between some of the different sects of those religions, and even the varying viewpoints which individual members of religious communities might hold in relation to their group’s prevailing notions. While some ancient philosophers might have disagreed and even debated one another about the nature of the gods and of reality, or to have shunned particular unappealing practices, it is difficult to imagine that a Pythagorean would ever say that one can kill any gymnosophist in cold blood because of their lack of genuine faith, or that a Platonist might opine that all Orphics are damned in the afterlife. Even a Roman flamen, a priest dedicated in their service to one particular ancient collegium of functionaries of an old Latin deity, would not have disdained making offerings to other deities when the occasion demanded it or their own interest suggested doing so. The idea of cultic exclusivity is very much a symptom which accompanies theological viewpoints which suggest that truth, deity, and devotion are unitary with one’s submission to dogma and to an external and generally institutional interpretive authority.

When the Greeks and Romans arrived in other lands, they took their notions of land-spirits (in Latin, genius loci, “spirits of place”) with them. While the people of Britain’s gods were perhaps unknown and not well disposed towards these incursions, the spirits of the land and the invader’s own ancestors could still be usefully propitiated and given cultus. However one approaches this, whether one sees it as religious imperialism and a foreign overlay on native traditions, or whether this is simply one culture’s way of interacting with the very real forces of nature in lands perhaps foreign but nonetheless teeming with spiritual presence, this is a reality for which all modern neopagans should seek to account. While a person of primarily European stock might not feel comfortable, nor be welcome to, honor the spirits of their Australian or American birthplace in ways traditional to the indigenous peoples of that area, they certainly can acknowledge them in ways which are attested in previous European cultures. Polytheism and animism tend to go hand-in-hand, and thus there is a natural affinity with individuals and cultures with similar theological viewpoints, even when their original cultures are at wide variance. A Hellene who does cultus to the nymphai would find great solace in and similarity to a Shinto practitioner and their honoring of the kami, for example.

With the persistent contacts between and colonization by Greece and Rome in Egypt, a mutual understanding and gradual adoption of hybrid practices eventually developed, and endured for generations. If asked what this practice entailed or from whence it came and how such an ancient practitioner would have identified it, it is very likely that a totally quizzical and even absurdist reaction would result–“What do you mean? This is just what we do!” While nearly two millennia of distance and separation–temporally, culturally, linguistically, and religiously–causes modern people the necessity of identifying this type of practice as “Graeco-Egyptian,” it would be obvious that in the future, if this particular form of neopagan reconstructionist syncretism were examined, it might have to be further modified in its identification to “American (or Australian, etc.) Graeco-Egyptian religion.” One can speculate on the future of this movement and its perceptions in a variety of ways, but it would be far more useful to simply engage in the practices and see how one’s own physical situation and previous spiritual experience best adapts to, assimilates and interprets this particular religious stream.

But, there is a further fascinating dimension to all of this, to which theologians in more mainstream religions have had great interest in the last century.  It is difficult to imagine, if the original Hermes might have been abstracted from the cairns and herms which the Greeks set up as boundary-markers, that eventually Hermes would assume all of the forms he did simply within the Greek cultural spheres.  It is even more fascinating that he underwent the further changes he did as a result of continuing close contact between Egypt and the Hellenistic world.  The chthonic and psychopompic aspects of Hermes eventually fused with the Egyptian Anubis to form Hermanubis.  Hermes as the inventor of writing became merged with the Egyptian divine scribe Thoth to become Hermes Trismegistus, and to become a renowned wisdom figure at the fountainhead of Hermetic philosophy and theology, influential well into the Christian period and beyond.  And, in at least one case, Hermes even became fused with one of the other Greek deities in an Egyptian context, in the form of Hermekate–perhaps a non-dualistically gendered guardian of the crossroads, if nothing else.  While these syncretisms are certainly predictable and even expectable given the realities of cultural contacts in the past, and the rather archetypalizing tendencies of much post-Platonic Greek thought, nonetheless this puts forward the theological proposition that the gods are as changeable as the humans and the cultures who revere them.  If divine reality is as prone to evolution and transformation as much as the wider universe seems to be in a state of flux, then these two realities are in fact much more unified and influential on one another than many may have realized.  In Christian circles, this is known as “process theology,” and is reflected in ideas like the panentheistic presence of the divine, and yet the divine not being omnipotent.  While it took until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries for the beginnings of this theological stream to be known in these mainline religious circles, one can look back to the days of late antiquity in Egypt and see that this, too, was not a new thing.  If the piles of stones that were once synonymous with Hermes have since given way, via Hermes Trismegistus and his heirs, to the very fine technologies of electronic information storage in silicon-based machines (and what is silicon if not very small stones of that element?), then Hermes of the Internet is a reality now which the ancients never would have imagined.  Humans have come a long way since late antiquity; and so too have the gods, and it will be so as long as humans are aware of the gods.


1 Response to Syncretism Happens!

  1. Pingback: Pagan Blog Project: “I is for Interchange – The Fluid Nature of Gods” | Making Bright

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s