Articles by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a metagender person, the founder, Sacerdos, Mystagogos, and Doctor of the Ekklesía Antínoou (a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous--the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian--and related divine figures), a contributing member of Neos Alexandria, a practitioner of Gentlidecht and Filidecht, with additional devotions to deities from Roman Britain, Wales, Gaul, and much further afield, as well as dedications to various land spirits (especially Mt. Erie) of North Puget Sound and its islands. E is widely published in the Neos Alexandria devotional volumes, as well as other periodicals and anthologies, particularly in poetry but also with essays and fiction. Eir published books include The Phillupic Hymns (2008), The Syncretisms of Antinous (2010), Devotio Antinoo: The Doctor's Notes, Volume One (2011), All-Soul, All-Body, All-Love, All-Power: A TransMythology (2012), A Garland for Polydeukion (2012), A Serpent Path Primer (2012), and Ephesia Grammata: Ancient History and Modern Practice (2014). Follow em and eir work further at eir blog, Aedicula Antinoi.

Pantheons as the Battleground of Syncretism

In modern polytheist discussions, a great deal of ink has been spilled—both to define and to avoid defining—what is the most basic and essential unit of polytheist theology and devotion: namely, “Deities” (and, on other occasions, other divine beings have also been defined, e.g. Ancestors, Land Spirits, Hero/ines, etc.). While that is an important and noble pursuit, and one often fraught with pressures both from within and without—due to the immensity of the task and the boundless nature of divine beings from the viewpoint of those within polytheistic religious frameworks, and because of the doubt and utter ridicule even thinking about such things can elicit from non-polytheists—something which can be equally fraught but which is of equal importance is the constitution, definition, and limits of groupings of Deities and other divine beings: namely, “pantheons.” The “poly-“ in polytheism presupposes a plurality, and thus it is rarely if ever “only one” Deity or other divine being with which one must interact as a polytheistic religious practitioner. Even if one is primarily devoted to a single Deity, that Deity has all sorts of relationships with other Deities and divine beings: as a child of divine parents, as a parent of divine children, as siblings to other divine siblings, as lovers or friends or allies of other divine persons, and even as adversaries of other divine contenders. No individual divine being of any category exists in isolation in a polytheistic framework, and it is impossible (and, I would argue, undesirable!) to wish otherwise; to veer to the opposite extreme would be monotheism.

But, what constitutes a “pantheon”? While we tend to think of pantheons in cultural terms (and, though the notion existed independent of these contexts, I suspect a great deal of the reason many of us of a particular generation do so is because of notions we learned via Dungeons & Dragons and other such role-playing games), clearly this is not the only possibility involved with understanding pantheons. A variety of approaches can be used to the question of pantheon constitution.

In Heathen traditions, is there simply a “Norse pantheon,” or is it (at least) three different pantheons—Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar—or, as may be the case for some, are only one or more of those options “valid” as pantheons while the other(s) may be a further class or family of divine beings, but are not valid as a pantheon because they cannot (or, more likely, should not, in the opinion of a particular group or individual) be worshipped and receive veneration from humans? The same can apply for the Greek Olympian pantheon (which is to say, “the current Olympian” pantheon, which overthrew the one which overthrew another, etc.), in addition to the Titans, the Protogenoi, and perhaps even other classifications (e.g. Hero/ines, nymphs, etc.); the same can apply for the Irish pantheons of the Tuatha Dé, the Fomoiri, and the Fir Bolg (amongst other possibilities, e.g. the Dé and An-Dé, etc.); and the list of further examples can be extended.

There is also the possibility of sub-pantheons which may operate within a given pantheon which are often based around familial or other relationships. Leto and her two children, Apollon and Artemis, as well as some nymphs associated with them, might constitute a pantheon that has been recognized both historically and which might be considered important for some devotees today. Particular Deities might have whole retinues of lesser-known Deities attached to them, or They may organize Themselves by function or affinity, e.g. groups of healing Deities, etc.

There are also tradition-specific pantheons, which exist as a result of the relationships that human worshippers develop between groups of Deities and other divine beings. The Starry Bull pantheon focuses upon Dionysos and a group of Deities and divine beings (including Hero/ines and the dead) Who are attached to or affiliated with Him. The Antinoan pantheon can consist of Antinous and several Divae/i and Heroes immediately connected with Him, or it can extend to the vast network of Deities and Heroes to Whom He was syncretized or with Whom He came into contact in other ways.

The question of the constitution of a pantheon, therefore, goes far beyond simply “who is included” in the “Twelve Olympians,” for example. (How often do we default to Greece when discussing trends in polytheism? Given how much of our theological language derives from Greek roots—including the term “polytheism” itself—I suppose it’s no wonder!) It is a complex and varied matter, and one which has a huge number of questions and dimensions to consider, and the above examples do not exhaust the possibilities by any stretch of the imagination.

What I hope to have demonstrated with these examples, though, is to show how permeable the concept of “pantheon” is, even within singular traditions or particular cultures. The purpose of this demonstration is to draw attention to what I see as one of the greatest difficulties which modern polytheists experience with syncretism: namely, are customized pantheons “allowed” or not? Do pantheons have an intrinsic integrity and a hermetically-sealed nature which cannot be negotiated or complicated (as in “made more complex,” not in the sense of “messed up”!)? It is arguments along these lines which have often lead individuals and groups to suggest that people may not be practitioners or devotees of more-than-one particular culture (i.e. one culture’s pantheon), or that a single ritual or shrine should not honor divine beings from more-than-one culture (i.e. one culture’s pantheon, again!). It is justifications such as these which lead to notions of cultural exclusivity and anti-syncretism, built around the notion that Deities and other divine beings “keep to Their own” exclusively, and do not (and could not!) get along with other groups of divine beings from other cultures.

The Gods, in this view, are like humans in that they form in-groups and out-groups, and are utterly resistant to the possibility of working across such lines. I do think that some analogies between everyday human relationships and those of humans to Deities and Deities amongst Themselves are useful to entertain; but what amounts to theologically-sanctioned racism and ethnic exclusivism is, I would assert, not one of them. While there are not as many historically cross-cultural examples of inter-pantheonic syncretism outside of potentially problematic imperialistic cultural frameworks (e.g. the Greek conquest of Egypt, the Roman conquest of practically-everywhere, etc.), there are abundant examples of Deities working with one another across the distinctions within their own pantheons. The God Lug was born of a Fomoiri mother and a Tuatha Dé father, and had a Fir Bolg fostermother. Without Prometheus, Thetis, Hekate, and a number of other Titans, Zeus’ rebellion against Kronos would not have been successful. The Aesir and the Vanir traded hostages after their conflict ended, and do not seem to have any ongoing problems between one another. Because the primary antagonistic relationships between Deities are attested on an intra-pantheonic (and intra-sub-pantheonic!) level in most cultures, and these can be overcome—even Horus and Set can get along!—there is no reason to suggest that even cultures that have historically been opposed to one another cannot end up in situations where their Deities learn to cooperate, nor does it preclude the possibility that They may form further potential groupings together.

If most reservations and condemnations of “stupid/uninformed/irresponsible eclecticism” arise from concerns over the mixing of and potential permeable boundaries of pantheons, then the formation of pantheons—which are always arbitrary, even within single cultures or with localities within those cultures (which give rise to differing spouses and children attested in various locations for particular Deities, etc., which happens in every attested polytheistic culture of which I’m aware), and are based more on human perceptions within religious frameworks, most likely, than they are based on the “you’re in, you’re out” kickball team selections of Deities themselves—is the real battleground of syncretism. Of course, it should go without saying that the Deities Themselves have the ultimate and final say in whether or not They can and will work together with other Deities, on a temporary or a more ongoing basis, or with communities of humans in such novel groupings; but all the same, the boundaries of original cultures and groupings should not end up setting artificial limitations for modern polytheists.

Deities like Anat, Astarte, and Reshef from Canaan were adopted into the Egyptian pantheon during periods in which there was a lot of cultural contact in Egypt with Canaan; similar situations exist all over the ancient world, where the Deities of a neighboring culture become adopted into the pantheon of another culture, whether in a translated form or not. We currently live in the most multicultural cosmopolitan world that human history has ever witnessed. That the long tradition of pantheonic emigration and immigration will have ceased in order to continue an artificial “bugs-preserved-in-amber” configuration from the periods when polytheism was officially suppressed by hegemonic monotheism seems to be a notion more indebted to modern cultural prejudices than attested polytheist practices of the past. Even if a culture-wide, or even local-level, acceptance of one or more Deities from one culture into the framework of another culture’s pantheon is not a likely reality today, one should not discount the possibility of this occurring on the more limited level of either particular traditions or of individual devotional landscapes. Both the Starry Bull and the Antinoan pantheons mentioned previously are modern multi-cultural pantheons.

Individuals who have experience and involvements with several different traditions, and/or who have traveled to lots of different places and honored the divine beings found in them as appropriate and befits propriety, might likewise find themselves at the crossroads of several different pantheons. But to expect all of these divine beings to “stay in their corners” and to not even consider that They might like to know with Whom else They might be sharing devotional space, time, and persons, is nonsensical. By “devotional person” in the latter statement (“devotional time and space” should be obvious!), I mean to indicate individual human devotees—if our Gods live in our hearts and minds as a result of our devotion, then these interior devotional spaces of ours as humans are essentially divine apartment buildings, and in themselves, thus, are sort of like pantheons! To expect such boundless, energetic, creative, promiscuous (in every sense, and entirely positively!), and unpredictable beings like Deities to not interact with one another in contexts They share is as unrealistic as trying to make sure one’s own groups of friends never interact with one another via social media or any of the other more long-standing means of human interaction. If our own human perceptions place limits on what our Deities can do, then the fault lies with us, and may even blind us to the fact that our Deities might already be interacting in ways we wouldn’t have expected despite our insensibility to those mysterious and inscrutable ways.

What Deadpool Can Teach Us About Hero Cultus

The title of the present article, I suspect, might cause a lot of people to have reactions that may not be remotely measured in relation to what I am going to discuss subsequently. If you are such a person, I’d recommend reading the entire piece before you decide to get upset, and certainly before you decide to comment.

So, perhaps I should just get a few caveats and concerns out of the way before proceeding to my main argument. I am not by any means suggesting that Deadpool is a hero on the cultic level who is equivalent to Achilleus, Herakles, or any of the ancient recipients of hero cultus. I am also not suggesting—as others have in the past (erroneously and under poorly-understood premises)—that comic book superheroes are at all functionally equivalent for modern people to hero cultus, either in localized fashion or as reflected in the larger literary and poetic epics of the ancient world. Whether or not modern comic book superheroes exist as egregores, pop cultural entities, or other such beings, and whether such beings are deserving of honor, worship, reverence, or cultus under a devotional pretense are also not the focus of the present piece, though these may be worthy questions for consideration for those who are interested in such topics.

(Editors note: By way of final disclaimer before proceeding onward into this subject, it is important to remind the readers that this article is a religious and classically focused assessment, albeit of contemporary literary subject matter. In other words, this is not a discussion of comic books or of comics-inspired cinema, but rather of classical heroes as informed by the traditional modes and methods of engaging hero cultus. This is not therefore a discussion of the genre of literary characters called popularly today by the name “superheroes”, but instead an exploration of traditional definitions of heroes, which are often not at all what the common and colloquial usage of the term today would imply. This is important to clarify before proceeding on, because the article utilizes terms drawn from classical religion, rather than contemporary comic books or popular present-day usages, and though these words may be the same, it must be understood that they describe entirely different things. This is, after all, a religious website for religious discussions, rather than other contemporary concerns and interests, however wonderful those may be.)

Now that you know what this article isn’t, and what I won’t be suggesting, let us proceed on to the main discussion.

Of the various Marvel Universe films and other non-print media projects that have occurred recently, Deadpool is noteworthy for a number of reasons. It was one of the highest grossing films in the franchise, and had one of the largest openings of a film of its type in February. It was “proof of concept” that certain more “mature” themes could be treated in a comics-based film…or perhaps merely a sign that somewhat uncouth humor and more profanity is something that people would like to see in their comic book hero films. As someone who only had vague familiarity with the character, and never followed the comics related to him, I was pretty indifferent to matters of whether they were going to “get it right” or how closely they were basing the film on any iteration of the character’s exploits in the comics. I think this detachment and lack of expectations allowed me to enjoy the film on a level that many might not have been able to, and to be that much more surprised and enthralled and even charmed by the surprises that the film had in store. (Strangely enough, despite having rather extensive literary and bibliophilic tendencies, I also prefer to enjoy films as their own form of media rather than to constantly judge them based on their print precursors, and in many cases, Lord of the Rings included, I have not read the books or comics that precede the films. Deal with it, folks!)

As the credits and post-credits scenes were rolling on the film, though, as I watched it in the cinema with a few friends and we were discussing it amongst one another as the last few die-hards were leaving, I said to one of my friends “I think this is my new favorite comic book hero film!” A passer-by, in typical geek know-it-all fashion, came up without introducing himself, and said “Deadpool isn’t a hero, he’s an anti-hero.” The geek in question skittered off before I could respond properly to his…statement? Accusation? Assertion? Interjection? Polemic? Whatever it had been intended as, and no matter how much such a statement might reflect either geeky or conventional wisdom and a somewhat consensus view of the matter, the notion of “anti-hero” is one that needs further consideration in light of a number of things.

Firstly, an “anti-hero” only exists as a category in relation to something which is established as a standard positive valence—in this case, a “hero.” However, what is a “hero”? While the answers to this question will differ widely, one of the only characteristics that unites the heroes of ancient cultus with one another is not virtuous lives, divine parentage, exceptional deeds, or larger-than-life destinies, but in fact the reality of their unusual deaths. By this metric, any hero who isn’t dead isn’t a hero, and can’t be a hero, and thus could be considered an anti-hero. That means that all superheroes whose adventures we follow are, technically, anti-heroes. Does this make any sense as a concept to propagate? Probably not.


The second concern to consider when determining whether a character is a “hero” or an “anti-hero” is that of their tempus, locus, and causa scribendi, to use exegetical terminology. Historical context—the “when” and the “where” of these exegetical questions, as well as the “why” of a particular narrative media’s production is concerned—always shapes a piece of popular culture (or “high culture,” whatever the distinction between the two might be). The “heroes” of yesteryear may be long gone, and are very likely never to return, in their relevance or their appeal for modern and post-modern audiences (much less whatever comes after post-modern, which is probably upon us at present and simply doesn’t have a name yet). No one has to do mental gymnastics of any sort to understand why Deadpool acts as he does, what the basis for his character is, nor does anyone have to question why his behavior amuses and enthralls an audience. No matter how off-the-rails he goes in a given situation, people probably wish they could ignore all the rules that he does, and have that “bad boy” persona that doesn’t give two shits about anything—or, at least, it appears that way—and if a person essentially didn’t have to worry about death or any sort of permanent bodily injury following from their actions, it seems very likely that such an attitude would be not only logical but a preferred option for many people. If heroic fantasies are exercises in wish-fulfillment, then the way in which Deadpool functions in that wish-fulfilling role for modern audiences is a manifestation of what contemporary people are interested in and would prefer.

It may not seem as nice as the heroic ideals we give lip service to so often, but nonetheless, there we are.

However, the realities of behavior in Deadpool’s character and in those of other more well-known heroes from the ancient world are closer than one might think, and thus largely disqualify the “anti-hero” description as well. Herakles, though he was a variety of things and had many different exploits over his rather long (comparatively speaking) life and career, from Labors-completer to Argonaut, he was also not exactly what we would consider “virtuous” on some occasions, nor were some of his actions what we would consider to be worthy of the title “hero” or apt for the descriptors of “heroic.” He did kill one of his wives and children, after all, and no matter what the motivation and situation for this tragic occasion happened to be, it’s still not something that can be easily excused. Achilleus, likewise, is not a hero that one might want to have over for dinner for a variety of reasons. No matter how praiseworthy certain aspects of these figures happened to be, and no matter how memorable they became, it is important to realize—as much for heroes as for Deities—that their narrative actions are not necessarily meant to be models of exemplary behavior. Whether one likes it or not, mythic narratives about cultic heroes are not medieval morality plays nor Protestant ethical sermons and commentaries, nor are they simply metaphors of “the hero’s journey” that are meant to reflect one’s general experiences of life. (The nature and purpose of heroic myth is a question too large to examine in the present context, however!) This is reflected in the film of Deadpool itself, in terms of how Colossus, a “more traditional” superhero with the “Great Power = Great Responsibility” ethos and all of its baggage, both tends to act, to preach, and likewise to be less effective in both of these endeavors in relation to real situations on the ground. The “traditional” heroic ethos no longer seems to be useful when new realities are encountered, and thus those who subscribe to it are less fit to thrive in such situations. Golden-age structures have passed away, and to continue in such mindsets is to misread and misapprehend reality rather than to confront it directly.

In this sense, the “heroic ethos” reveals itself to be a simulacrum—by definition, a thing which only exists in imitated copies, when in fact there is no “original” to have imitated. The heroes of myth and ancient cultus like Herakles and Achilleus and all of the virtues and exemplary characteristics that they supposedly embodied don’t exist outside of the constructed and limited view of the past, heavily idealized and thus distorted, that has been shaped by Victorian bowdlerizations, academic justifications, and cowardice masquerading as piety.

Heroes like Herakles and Achilleus could just as easily be called “anti-heroes” as Deadpool is. These characters—whether from comics or from cultus—are “Great,” but they are not “good” in any moral sense a lot of the time (and remember where a phrase like that has been heard by most audiences: in Mr. Ollivander the magic wand-maker’s description of Voldemort in the first Harry Potter book and film!), nor do they need to be. Of course, we’d like to have figures to admire, look up to, and even imitate in the course of our lives. Politicians and moralists are always expecting any number of role models from religion, popular culture, sports, celebrities, and others to provide a “moral compass” via which others can be guided in their actions. Unless one has been dipped in the River Styx, has Zeus as a father, or had horrific torture performed on oneself such that one is now invulnerable to all physical damage and can re-grow limbs, it’s probably best not to look to Achilleus, Herakles, or Deadpool for a model for one’s actions. The uncommon nature of their own situations should be all the tip-off toward such conclusions which one should require.

Thus, the entire category of “anti-hero” is a dubious one, and really only makes sense if one has an idea of what is “heroic” that fits with a very narrow consensus moralist viewpoint that has more in common with a perfect Protestant boy scout image than with anything that has actually ever existed. As a dubious category, it should probably be dismantled, and whatever descriptive power such a category might have had in any previous periods, it has lost its valence entirely in the modern realities of the twenty-first century, and had no place in the realities of the ninth-century-BCE-through-fourth-century-CE periods, either.

As mentioned previously, the one uniting characteristic for heroes seems to be an unusual or spectacular death; there is no such thing as a “living hero” in the ancient world, as heroic status includes going beyond the mortal condition, still existing and being able to respond and act after death. (Remember, there are infant and child heroes in ancient Greece like Archemoros, Demophoön and Palaimon, amongst others, whose accomplishments in life cannot be said to be virtuous, nor really anything at all other than being a kid in the right place and time to get killed unusually!) In this sense, the living exploits of a given figure, no matter how morally ambiguous or questionable they might be, are not the actions of an “anti-hero,” but instead of an ante-hero: if one is still alive, one is not quite a hero yet, though one might end up being one at a later, post-death date.

Sorry, Deadpool: you may be hard to kill, but then that means you’ll be that much harder to make into a proper hero. But, keep trying, maybe you’ll get there!

There is one other characteristic of Deadpool that is very much like hero cultus in the ancient world, though (despite what I’ve just said about him not being a hero, while also not being an anti-hero, and doing a great deal to help dismantle that dubious distinction). Deadpool is one of the few characters who breaks the fourth wall and goes beyond the borders of the comic he is written in, as well as the film he inhabits. While there have been some interesting philosophical attempts to describe why Deadpool knows he’s a comic book character, there is a more fundamental impact of what this aspect of his character does for the reader. As Philostratus’ Heroikos demonstrates, the reality of devotion to a hero’s cult is that cultic heroes inserts themselves into the realities of their devotees, often in unexpected ways. No matter how much one might put such a hero up on a pedestal, the hero will constantly change positions, get up and down from that pedestal, and perhaps even pull a devotee up on it on occasion, if they don’t also beat them up or have sex with them (or who knows what else!) in the shadow of that pedestal as well. Deadpool’s self-consciousness and interaction with the audience means that there is no passive audience, and one’s gaze and even voyeurism are implicated in consuming that media. Heroes are nothing if not self-conscious—perhaps even to a hyper degree since a motivating aspect of “heroic virtue” is often the desire for eternal fame and glory—and as non-incarnate non-mortals, this aspect of them persists, which may be one reason why those who are hero cultists enjoy such casual and close relations with their ever-eager-for-fame heroes. Just as Deadpool cannot be contained by the panels and pages of his comic, or the frames of his film, so too do heroes—even if they are not on the level of Deities in power—always overflow the containers that human perceptions and religious edifices attempt to place them.

Syncretism and Bricolage

At the moment (and for the next several months), I’m taking a course with Sannion on the “Toys of Dionysos,” which are particular Spirits of initiation in the Bacchic Orphic tradition that in its modern form is practiced under the name of the Starry Bull tradition. The Toys Themselves have ancient origins, and in various sources, different lists of these Toys are mentioned. (If you’d like more information on all of this, see one of Sannion’s most recent books, Spirits of Initiation: A Study of the Toys of Dionysos.)

One of the ideas that comes up in modern scholarship on the Orphic traditions, however, is the idea of an “Orphic bricoleur.” Strictly speaking, a bricoleur is someone who practices “bricolage,” which is the use of various materials that are at-hand to create new things, usually in an artistic sense. In French, it has a “do-it-yourself” valence as well, and originates in architectural contexts in which buildings of different periods and architectural styles are all close to one another, and the resulting effect of having this diversity and eclecticism of styles all closely juxtaposed with one another.

As applied to the Orphic traditions, scholars such as Fritz Graf, Sarah Iles Johnston, Radcliffe Edmonds III, and others have used it to describe the ways in which various Orphic practitioners in antiquity incorporated various strands of myth and tradition—including superlatively local traditions—into their resulting texts. Some argue that it is this strong element of bricolage in Orphic texts which both makes them distinctive, but also allows for the wide diversity found within the tradition that can be accounted for by the localized elements in the activities of a given Orphic bricoleur. Others say that this element of localization in a given Orphic bricolage obscures the fact that there is a “core” set of teachings or ideas in the tradition that can be found no matter where Orphic ideas and practices can be traced. It thus comes down to regarding Orphic matters as “a tradition” or “a number of traditions,” and thus is a question of unity or diversity. As so many of these sorts of questions arise in inquiries into ancient and more modern polytheisms, so too does the most logical answer seem to be that the many is the reality over any theorized oneness.

In many respects, Orphic—or other forms of poetic—bricolage is something of a fancy and somewhat appealing manner in which scholars have tried to account for the individual element in religious experience and practice, especially since Orphic texts were seen almost as “revealed” texts, and all bear the name and thus certain connections to the figure of Orpheus, the Thracian poet and mystic himself, and thus a theorized “unity” must lie behind all of their diversity, divergence, and even outright contradictions of one another. In a sense, the idea of bricolage is an attempt to deal with what in other contexts, especially involving poetry of any sort, would be called “poetic license,” and as Orpheus is one of the arch-poets of all Western culture, his license was probably one of the oldest and most valid of all.

As Orpheus was widely traveled in his capacity as resident poet, seer, and musician in the crew of the Argo, perhaps Orpheus more than any of the other legendary poet-seer-mystics of ancient Greek tradition lent himself and his character to the notion that localization and thus a diversity of travels to different locations is what allows for the variations in the material all attributed to one person. Indeed, many poets known from history, both ancient and modern, vary their poems and the ideas presented in them based on who and where their likely audiences, patrons, and other consumers of their art are located.

Anyone who deals with poetry would take this as an obvious and assumed given. It is only because the idea of “religion”—whether it is a polytheist mystery tradition or an institutional creedal monotheism—seems to imply a systematization and a lack of contradiction or diversity within the tradition, at least as understood by many, including a majority of scholars of religion in the Western world. And yet, even looking at Christian tradition, it is readily obvious to anyone who is not a mindless zombie of a believer that the four canonical Gospels are quite different in their tone, their messages, their events, and even the implied meaning of their events, as suited to the communities for whom they were written and from which they were given rise. Perhaps it is because of the implied “unity” in a monotheistic viewpoint that such diversity is not accounted for easily nor readily acknowledged, and thus it is difficult to quantify it when scholars from such backgrounds attempt to examine religious realities in polytheistic contexts.

So, this brings us to the question of syncretism. Is the idea of Orphic (or other) bricolage yet another expression of the natural syncretistic tendencies which are found in all human endeavors, but which are especially prominent in polytheistic religious contexts? I would say yes, and yet the phenomenon of bricolage also points out something that can easily be missed even when accounting for such a formulation within syncretistic polytheist contexts. Bricolage not only takes a diversity of preexisting elements and combines them into something new, but in the process of doing so, it creates something entirely new that is not simply the sum of its previous parts. The Orphic traditions are not simply forms of Graeco-Thracian (or –Roman or –South Italian or –Egyptian or –Scythian, etc.) syncretism, but are profoundly localized religions that probably make far less sense when understood outside of the localities where they are practiced, the communities who practice them, and the particular Orpheotelestes and that individual’s style of bricolage and preferred sources, images, and ideas. It would have made the competitive spirit between different Orpheotelestai not merely a matter of prestige and economic conflict, but also often of mutual exclusivity, unless they combined forces and created something anew once again. In this, the tradition itself echoes not only the diversity of lists of Toys of Dionysos, but also Dionysos and His dismemberment itself: which Titans (or other individuals) tore Him apart in which ways and consumed which pieces of Him? What pieces of Dionysos were saved, and by whom? What became of those pieces? What became of the Titans who consumed those pieces? When Dionysos reformed (in so many respects, the Orphic traditions are a “reformed” variety of Dionysian religion in themselves!), what parts became reused and how? Is all that is needed for Dionysos to become Dionysos again His heart, or His phallus, or something else? Is all that is needed for a set of religious phenomena to be called Orphic the figurative (or even literal!) head of Orpheus to speak the poetic voices which are recorded and are given written and ritual forms? When can a part stand for the whole, and when does the whole become more than the sum of its parts—and if the latter is true, then does that mean that even one part can be the whole, but perhaps a different form of the whole rather than the original whole? Is one part more of the “essence” than another, and if so, what is the nature of the other parts? If consuming one part or another confers the essence, what does consumption (or excretion!) of the other parts confer, or still contain?

There are so many questions that are posed by all of this, and yet it is both a metaphor and an example of what this entire process—this form of syncretism that can be called bricolage—can encompass. If the inter- and intra-pantheonic forms of syncretism are what is going on at the level of the wider societies and communities of polytheists at various points, then the syncretistic bricolage that also occurs is what is happening at an individual level, with itinerant poet-mystics and the texts and communities that develop around them and as a result of their actions.

If It’s “Celtic,” It’s Syncretistic—and Especially If It’s Celtic Reconstructionist

If one is a Roman reconstructionist, a Gaulish reconstructionist, or a Gallo-Roman reconstructionist, then one is probably aware that December 18th is a festival known as the Eponalia, in honor of the Gaulish horse- and mother-goddess Epona. The irony of this festival, of course, is that we only know about it because the Romans held this festival when their Legionary cavalries adopted the Goddess in the post-Gallic Wars period—there are no Gaulish calendars or other records which note this festival, or that of any other particular Deity.

I begin with this little tidbit of information not simply because this is a festival that is relevant to our current temporal context in mid-December, but also because Epona’s example highlights something that is so endemic to the modern Celtic reconstructionist methodology (and, let’s remember, reconstructionism is a methodology, and not a religion) that it is entirely taken for granted and ignored, despite it being excoriated in other contexts: namely, syncretism is part of that methodology. One rarely hears discussions of the horse-related Goddesses one finds in Ireland or Wales, especially when these are connected to the concept of sovereignty, without mention of the Gaulish Epona. The Welsh had Rhiannon, and she does seem to function as a sovereignty Goddess in relation to Pwyll, and to a lesser extent Manawydan, in the First and Third Branches of the Mabinogi, respectively, with a connection to horses in the First Branch and to donkeys in the Third Branch; and in the Second Branch, the “Birds of Rhiannon” entertain Bran’s men when they are feasting with his severed head after the invasion of Ireland, which also matches some of Epona’s iconography. In Ireland, the story of Macha, who marries Cruinniuc, races faster than his horses, and then is forced to race against the King of Ulster’s horses, and then dies in childbirth while giving birth to twins and cursing the Ulaid to have birth-pangs like hers when they are most in need (with the exceptions to this curse being women, children, and Cú Chulainn—i.e. all “non-men”!), and giving the name Emain Macha (“Twins of Macha”) to the territorial capital of Ulster, also seems to have a horse- and mother-Goddess connection; but it is another Macha (amongst several others which exist in Irish myth) that seems to have a more direct sovereignty function. There is also the eponymous figure who is the mother of Fergus and Sualtaim, Roích, whose name seems to etymologize as Ro-ech, which some scholars render as “super-horse.” Fergus mac Roích is a king of Ulster before Conchobor mac Nessa, and is also “hung like a horse” in superlative fashion, as well as meeting his death in a manner very similar to the Vedic horse sacrifice ritual of regal inauguration known as the asvamedha. His brother Sualtaim is Cú Chulainn’s final “earthly/mortal” father, giving him his third conception, and he also seems to have a way with horses.

But, does this allow us to assume a sovereignty connection for Epona? Strictly speaking, it doesn’t; but because in the inter-Celtic comparative methodology that has been de rigeur in Celtic Studies since its beginnings in the 19th century, often with the underlying assumption that all of these Deities are “the same” and are mere “reflexes” of Common Celtic Deities, these sorts of comparisons are unquestioned. The existence of a Celtic “horse/sovereignty goddess” called *Rigantona (which means “Queen-Goddess,” and seems to be a likely protoform of Rhiannon’s name), thus, is not only posited but is accepted as factual. The details of one Goddess’ cultus or mythos is freely borrowed and adapted into another Celtic culture without any question of there being anything like cultural appropriation, or even what the reality is, which is use of syncretism as a “filling-in-the-blanks” method. Yet, many Celtic reconstructionists are the first to decry syncretism, and to accuse those who practice it in any form that mixes what is “legitimately Celtic” with what is “non-Celtic” is derided as eclecticism, and often gets accused (in some cases) with cultural appropriation.

But, even where common Celtic roots are not explored and exploited to make such points of fleshing out, Celtic cultures themselves are already helplessly syncretistic when they are examined, and they cannot be easily extricated from what “non-Celtic” elements they might contain. This is certainly the case with all Insular Celtic (mainly Irish and Welsh, but also Scottish, Manx, Cornish, and Breton) sources, as they are heavily influenced by both Christianity and classical sources, and often analogues are drawn between these in a very conscious fashion. With medieval Welsh sources, there is also a very deliberate attempt to connect known Roman history in Britain with native mythic figures—Caswallawn, the medieval Welsh rendering of the British historical figure Cassivellaunus, is made the son of Beli Mawr (the father of Aranrhod, as well as Lludd and Llewellys—the latter of whom are cognates of the other Welsh Deities Nudd and Lleu, the Romano-British Nodons and Lugus, as well as the Irish Nuada and Lug—and others), and a usurper who takes over Britain when Bran is in Ireland, and elsewhere in Welsh sources is said to have contended with Julius Caesar himself for the love of a woman named Fflur, and to have obtained his famous horse Meinlas from the Romans in order to allow them to invade Britain. Removing the Roman influence from Welsh sources would take a great deal away from them; and removing the Romans from Romano-British religion would leave almost nothing available to us now.

Ancient Continental Celtic cultures were also inherently syncretistic, as is evidence with Gaul, which is in a similar situation to the Romano-British context: without Roman influence, we’d know much less about the Gauls from properly Gaulish sources (like inscriptions) than we would without their knowledge of Latin. Celtiberian Deities like Endovellicus may not be strictly Celtiberian, but may actually have Phoenician influence, and this exists in other parts of Celtiberian culture. One of the most readily-identified “Celtic” religious artifacts is the Gundestrup Cauldron, which was found disassembled in a Danish bog, thus putting it at very least into Celto-Germanic syncretistic spheres; but, the actual art style on it is not Gaulish, and is not really “diagnostically Celtic” (meaning La Tène), but instead exhibits diagnostically Thracian design elements, and looks like one of their metalwork reliefs, but depicting (likely) Celtic Deities and narrative elements. Such a work could have been commissioned in a place like Tylis, the Gaulish city on the Black Sea in Thracian territory, where some of the Gaulish invasions into Thraco-Grecian areas set themselves up (others ended up founding the area in Asia Minor known as Galatia). None of the ancient or medieval Celtic cultures were opposed to syncretism—all of them were syncretistic already in a variety of ways, even in what a modern perspective would perceive as their “cultural purity.”

And, of course, there is the modern reconstructionist methodology of looking to other cultures to explore aspects of their ritual technologies, their cosmological thinking, and various other aspects of their religious outlooks to see if some of these might be adaptable into a Celtic (or any other) milieu. Even if this goes no further afield than to look at Proto-Indo-European theories (which are often built on Greek, Roman, Germanic, and Indian sources, but can also include Slavic and other elements as well), if these are used as the quarries from which to draw the stones that will be put into the foundations and walls of the new Irish or Welsh or Gaulish forts that people are attempting to build, then it is syncretism that is allowing that process to occur. This is even more the case when non-Indo-European sources are drawn upon for shamanic techniques (and pretty much all modern “Celtic shamans” are using those, not actual indigenously Celtic practices) and a variety of other ritual processes, ideas, and elements.

I would like to point out—and this will surprise precisely no one who knows of my work or of this present column—that there is nothing wrong with syncretism, and it is entirely natural and expectable where human religious activity is concerned. What does bother me, though, and which I invite any readers who are of a Celtic reconstructionist methodological orientation to carefully consider, is the use of the term “syncretism” as a pejorative, and likewise the use of its often-assumed synonym “eclectic” also as a term of derision when any multi-trad practices are concerned (outside of some that are deemed “acceptable,” e.g.: Celto-Heathen practices since the Vikings invaded Ireland and Scotland; Gallo-Roman practices since the former is not exactly possible without the latter though it is a grudging acceptance that such is the case; Gallo-Hellenic if one is attempting to base one’s practices on the colony of Massilia; etc.). No matter how much one might try to remove Christianity from one’s perceptions of medieval Irish conceptions of the world, or how bitterly one might lament that the Irish wrote about something using classical terminology or Deity-names rather than native Irish ones, the fact is one can accept that this is what actual Irish people produced on a particular matter, or one can reject it and possibly lose something very valuable in the process.

I have come to the position recently that even when we’re talking about Christianity in medieval Ireland, we’re talking less about “Christianity” and more about “being Irish,” for even on this material, the Irish made it their own in various ways. They made one of their saints, who is historically said to be from about the fifth or early sixth century, the midwife and wet-nurse of Jesus. They preserved apocryphal traditions in their homiletic texts that derive not only from potentially heretical Gnostic sources, but contain cosmological notions demonstrably deriving from ancient Egyptian texts on the afterlife. They made Jesus’ mother Mary conceive him not at the Annunciation with the angel Gabriel, but instead when Mary spoke the Magnificat in the presence of her sister Elizabeth. They even made one of their greatest druids, Mog Ruith, the student of Simon Magus and the slayer of John the Baptist. In classical terms, they made the Gorgons, the Fates, and the Furies one set of three Goddesses who were the daughers of Orcus, with different names in the heavens, on the earth, and in the underworld respectively. They made the maenadic raging of Dido into the madness of a geilt. They turned Herakles’ labor of bringing Cerberus to the surface of the earth his vanquishing of a dog-eared Fomoiri giant. They said that Ailill and Medb’s druids sacrificed the blood of various animals for divinatory purposes to the Gods Apaill, Mairt, Iobh, and Os—Apollo, Mars, Jove, and Osiris! They turned whatever narrative materials they could lay their hands on, from whatever sources, into something thoroughly and distinctively Irish. It is not that Irish sources are “infected” with Christianity or classical influences, it’s that classical and Christian sources in Ireland have been mutated—and positively!—into something else which can only be described as Irish. And it is a thoroughly syncretistic mindset which has allowed this to happen.

Is the Polytheist Movement Inter- or Intra-Faith?

One of the difficulties–perhaps not obvious to many, but nonetheless present–that remains to be negotiated within the larger Pagan movement is whether or not different people in that movement, from different groups, getting together constitute an “interfaith” gathering or an “intrafaith” gathering. What do Gardnerian Wiccans, Anderson Feri practitioners, a Dianic, and members of the Unnamed Path have in common with each other, really, that makes them more parts of a “similar-enough” religious movement such that they can be considered intrafaith rather than interfaith? While some might automatically assume that yes, indeed, these are all similar enough and would constitute a situation where intrafaith is the appropriate label, one could just as easily ask whether or not a Hindu, a Buddhist, a Sikh, and a Jain could all get together and suggest that because all of these religious traditions are “dharmic” in origin, that therefore their gathering is likewise an intrafaith gathering. This then brings forward the question of whether or not the label “Pagan,” whether capitalized or not, is actually a religious descriptor at all in any useful way, much less being something which can describe an entire range of religious traditions, many of which are asserting their Pagan identities while simultaneously denying any and all forms of theism.

In the Plutarchian definition of syncretism, which I’ve written about in this column in practical manners on previous occasions, the banding together of people for a common purpose is the definition of syncretism. The general Pagan community does seem to fit that description and definition, even over and above the syncretistic nature of a number of the traditions encompassed by it, including Wicca, Feri, and other groups which draw from a variety of sources, cultures, and elements in creating their individual paths. If we examine these issues along the lines of recognizing their distinctness and differences as being of greater import and significance than their similarities, then we must conclude that each one is its own individual religion, and thus the “Pagan” descriptor is an umbrella term that denotes that all underneath it is a situation of interfaith cooperation rather than intrafaith cooperation.

But, the state and boundaries of Paganism, and the definitions pertaining to it, is not the focus of the present piece, nor of this website in general. Leading into the present discussion, however, by looking at this parallel is important, because it asks some fundamental questions that are often elided or actively sidelined in discussions of modern polytheism. One of the issues that many–including some polytheists–very quickly critique a number of vocal polytheists about is that polytheism itself is not a religion, it is a theological descriptor and a characteristic of a religion. This is certainly true; and yet, with the existence of the modern Polytheist movement and many of the individuals, groups, and practices within it, there has been an active recognition and cultivation of the sense that polytheists and animists of various stripes can all understand and recognize one another’s viewpoints easily, can support and participate in one another’s efforts easily and without any underlying conflicts or any need to compromise one’s own convictions, and that we do have much to gain by maintaining close relationships and alliances with one another in this work. Indeed, it is even relatively common, it would seem by empirical observation, that different Deities, polytheist groups, and individual practitioners find themselves being “loaned out” to do particular work or services, or to learn certain skills, from other Deities, groups, pantheons, and individuals.

Given that such is the case, one must therefore ask: is the modern Polytheist movement a situation of interfaith cooperation, or is it a situation of intrafaith cooperation?

I suspect that depending on the individuals involved, the context in which it is asked, and very likely the time of day (and what day it is!), the answers will vary quite widely. I can easily see that the main four answers–yes it is interfaith (and thus no it isn’t intrafaith); yes it is intrafaith (and thus no it isn’t interfaith); it is both intrafaith and interfaith; and it is neither intrafaith or interfaith–may all have merit in their own ways, and could be potentially viable; I’m quite certain there may be others as well, but these four seem to be the most likely. Let us examine each possibility in turn.

The first potential answer suggested is that the Polytheist movement is an interfaith movement, but not an intrafaith movement. The reasons for stating this would be somewhat obvious: people are different, groups are different, Deities and cultures and pantheons are different, and therefore even some people worshipping the same Deities under the guiding principles and frameworks and practices of different groups will be working within different religions to do so. As someone who is a member of the Ekklesía Antínoou, I worship Antinous differently than a Hellenic reconstructionist would, a member of Nova Roma would, or a Kemetic Orthodox person would, and each of those are appropriate to our own given religious perspectives. Thus, even though we might all get together and worship Antinous on certain occasions, the person running the ritual will have a different manner of approaching him. Thus, even some events in which one particular Deity or group of Deities or pantheon (and the two can be different!) is being worshipped, there might be an interfaith effort in operation, which would only increase when wider forms of polytheistic practice are considered, and thus the wider Polytheist movement is most logically considered an interfaith movement.

The second potential answer would posit that the Polytheist movement is an intrafaith movement, but not an interfaith movement. This premise would base itself in the empirical reality that despite the diversity of practice and belief, cosmology and pantheon, culture and theology which might occur in any given group of polytheists, certain things can be assumed and generalized: reciprocity and offerings are important; individuality of Deities is recognized and valued; devotional acts are worthwhile and are a mainstay of practice; and respect for individuals–human and Divine, and for different varieties within the broad distinction of “Divine Beings”–is the bedrock of these positions. Given that there are these shared experiences and thus there are many shared assumptions which follow from them, it is very easy for a polytheist of one tradition to interact with polytheists of other traditions, and to even enter into ritual with them with little to no preparation or need for basic instructions to occur. Certainly, there may be particularities of practice in each case, certain customs which are kept, certain activities which are avoided, and so forth, but making these mistakes in ignorance, or in the failure on another’s part to indicate they are the stated preferences of the given Divine Beings in the specific contexts, tends not to be disastrous so long as basic ideas of respect and hospitality are maintained. This is the day-to-day experience of many polytheists amongst one another, and was the experience of most people who attended the Opening and Closing Rituals of Many Gods West, for example. That such an event and such rituals could take place at all would indicate that there is a more intrafaith understanding in play than an interfaith one.

Our third possibility emerges when we look at the previous two and realize that both, in their own ways, are valid, and yet neither can be favored entirely because it is such a multi-faceted question. Yes, a polytheist of one tradition can respectfully and effectively participate in another polytheist’s practices and rituals and traditions, and they can even share information and bounce ideas off one another in ways that can be potentially relevant in a more immediate fashion than those who might have vastly different theological positions. Thus, the intrafaith option seems to be quite relevant in daily practices and interactions. And yet, it would be a mistake to assume that just because we’re all polytheists and are affiliated with the Polytheist movement, that therefore Morpheus Ravenna, Rhyd Wildermuth, and Tess Dawson are all therefore members of the Ekklesía Antínoou as well–they’d certainly all be welcome, but that is not the same thing as being a member. I’m sure the same is true of the Coru Cathubodua and Natib Qadesh as well in relation to myself and each of the above-named individuals, even though we’ve all had different affiliations and associations with each of the groups, practices, activities, Deities, and individuals in question. Thus, to not recognize that there are a lot of important distinctions which necessitate recognition and celebration of difference, diversity, and individuality would be against the very grain of what it means to be a modern polytheist, and thus the Polytheist movement must be considered an interfaith movement as an equally important and essential part of the situation as whatever degree of common intrafaith similarities we might share.

The final option, that the Polytheist movement is neither interfaith nor intrafaith, is also entirely possible and valid in the sense that these terms were invented to more accurately nuance the more widely applied notions of “ecumenism” that were often spoken of in Christian circles several decades back. Ecumenism, in its strictest sense, means “worldwide,” but originates from notions conveying “household” and the management thereof. When Christians used it in late antiquity, they meant that councils of various churches (which were considered orthodox/non-heretical) in far-flung locations had come together and convened to determine particular issues. In later periods, the recognition that there were different and separate Christian churches then necessitated the use of the word “ecumenical” to mean inter-Christian denominational efforts and discussions. When other religions began to be involved in some of these, “ecumenism” had its meaning broadened, but eventually it gave way to “interfaith,” which in turn then had to be distinguished from intrafaith (a word that spellcheckers still don’t like or recognize!) as the discussions of issues which take place amongst differing factions within a given religious body. As a result, looking at it in this historical etymological fashion shows that these are terms that were invented for other religions to relate to other religions, as well as themselves, and even if we find that some of them can be applicable to our own situations as modern polytheists, they are not entirely appropriate either, any more than referring to different polytheist groups or organizations as “churches” is appropriate. As a result, these may be semantically null terms as far as a properly polytheistic context is concerned, and thus re-emphasis of terms like alliance, hospitality, intertribal or intercultural, fellowship, and other terms may be more appropriate to emphasize in the future where the Polytheist movement and its interrelatedness, interconnections, and so forth may occur.

In writing each of the above paragraphs, I was thoroughly convinced that each viewpoint was valid, useful, and true as I wrote and reasoned through the explanations. Thus, a fifth possibility might emerge out of that situation: if one and two are true, which likewise means that three is also true since it affirms both, then likewise four would also have to be true because one and two likewise have an element of negation in them. Taking that into account indicates that all of these terms may have some descriptive viability in a variety of cases, but ultimately they might be as inappropriate to application and usage in a polytheist context as the terms “Democrat” and “Republican” would be to describing the full range of political nuance and party affiliations in the U.K.

As the Polytheist movement becomes more and more prominent and admission of its independent existence becomes more current amongst those within it, discussions of these issues will need to take place on a more deliberate and widespread scale. Until then, the terms may have a limited amount of value in terms of their descriptive ability and easy recognition in wider religious contexts. But, likewise, the Plutarchian definition of “syncretism” can also equally apply to the current situation of the Polytheist movement: in certain respects, our common goals are more important to emphasize in this early period of identifying our constituency and organizing ourselves than the necessary departures from shared goals in certain matters will have to be where our very real differences are concerned. (That this has occurred under conditions of an external struggle, while non-ideal, also necessitates some of this banding together.) So long as this can continue to be done in ways that do not compromise individual and group practices–and so far, so good (for the most part)–then the Polytheist movement will not have the situation currently in operation in modern Paganism of the “leaking umbrella.” Those in the Polytheist movement, I don’t think, are suggesting that the leaking Pagan umbrella be thrown away entirely, they’re simply seeking to find a new umbrella that covers them and keeps the rain off more effectively; those who are still dry under the old umbrella, and who are the ones holding it as well as determining when and whether to open or close it, are free to do so.

It’s Syncretistic Already!

A great deal of interesting experiential reflection and theological speculation has occurred (in documented internet forms!) since Many Gods West. One such set of reflections is that of Viducus Brigantici Filius in response to the keynote of Morpheus Ravenna and the presentation on local cultus by The Anomalous Thracian/Theanos Thrax. There is a great deal in that post—as well as in Morpheus and Thrax’s presentations—which could merit further comment and discussion in light of this particular column’s focus (including how syncretism can involve Deities coming together with both local land spirits and archetypes). But, at present I wish to focus on something that I was reminded of in thinking of all of these matters together, rather than something which was directly addressed by any of them.

To put it briefly, though in lengthier terms than the present post’s title, the matter at hand is that any Deity is already syncretistic before a given religious culture or pantheon comes into contact with another religious culture or pantheon. There is a process of syncretism that has occurred long before a Deity’s name first appears on an inscription or in print anywhere. While I discussed this phenomenon briefly under the category of intra-pantheonic syncretism last year, perhaps the point needs to be made again, with further elaborations.

It is not as if any and every pantheon that has ever existed in historically attested forms of polytheism has been hermetically sealed (so to speak!) from the start, and then a base process of contamination by foreign influences later infiltrates and dilutes that pantheon’s cultural purity with syncretism as time goes on, despite the ways in which this is exactly how some scholars of the past century and more have portrayed events on many occasions. Lying behind the emergence of any culture into the historical record are any number of influences from earlier cultures and periods of development, which includes an ongoing process of both adoptions and adaptations of external forces—including conceptions of Deities—from other cultures, as well as further evolutions of understanding that stem from a given culture’s interactions with a Deity over time. An early Mars in Latin cultures will be different than a later one; Hesiod’s Hekate will be different than Diodorus of Sicily’s Hekate, and each of these will be different again from the Hecate of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. We should not be in the least surprised by these examples where the contexts of different historical periods are obvious, and yet the prehistory of these Deities in terms of their appearances is also a factor. Aphrodite is most likely a Near Eastern Goddess in origin, and long before She was the foam-formed daughter born of Ouranos’ severed genitals in Hesiod, or the child of Zeus and Dione in Homer, Her Cypriot cultus had probably been an insular instance of a cultus to Astarte.

This is one example amongst many, however: Zeus, or Artemis, or Apollon, or any of the major Greek Deities was (and is) an amalgam of a variety of individual local cultus to these Deities whose local character is often still preserved in long-standing descriptive or toponymic epithets. In these ways, local place-specific cultus, translational syncretism of other Deities from other cultures, and even syncretism of archetypes to Deities that may give epithets descriptive of functions, roles in myths, or divine attributes can all lie behind a Deity’s character as known in myth and cultus long before they appear in the literary or archaeological record.

This is more often than not the norm rather than the exception for any Deity one might consider. Especially if a Deity is from an Indo-European cultural provenance, there is at least one layer (if not two, three, or more!) between a given culture’s instantiation of the Deity and the proto-forms of the Deity in earlier cultures or cultural periods.

Perhaps more background needs to be given first on the idea of archetypes and Deities syncretizing with one another. Here, I depart from Morpheus Ravenna’s characterization of this matter in her keynote at Many Gods West. (I do very much agree, however, with Morpheus’ suggestion that the 20th century literary and psychological theoreticians got it backwards in thinking that individual and “local forms” of Deities descended from common universalized archetypes.) As I have written on two occasions in the past, I don’t think of archetypes as being the mere screens through which the pure light of Deities takes form, I think of them as very basic, somewhat boring, abstract and nebulous divine beings in-and-of-themselves. They can be as specific as “smith deity” or as unspecified as “Goddess.”

It is clear that a number of humans can and have interacted with these archetypes in manners that suggest they are not “higher” forms of individual Deities where various “lower” cultural expressions of them “merge,” but instead they are simply another variety of divine being that has a few basic characteristics, but little story or personality. It is with these archetypes, I think, that individual and distinct Deities syncretize when they take on strongly archetypal roles, in a manner similar to how an individual human’s history and peculiarities of personality often yield before the part they play in a given situation based on their occupation (“nurse,” “construction worker,” “fighter pilot,” “office manager,” etc.) or relationship role (“mother,” “boyfriend,” “friendly neighbor,” “work rival”) in one’s own perceptions and interactions with them. It isn’t that Hermes is a Greek cultural expression of the “Trickster” archetype, or even that Hermes has as part of his character certain aspects of the “Trickster” archetype, but instead that in some people’s interactions with him, in some mythic accounts of him, and various other possibilities, Hermes has syncretized with “Trickster.” There are some people who deal with Hermes in ways that have nothing to do with “Trickster” (and he is no less Hermes for lacking that!), and likewise there are those who deal with “Trickster” exclusively that have never come into contact with Hermes, or Loki, or Coyote, or any other Deity who is said to partake of the “Trickster” archetype. Similarly, there are some people who will never know or understand me outside of my role in a particular family, or outside of my role as a metagender person, or who will not think of me as anything other than a college history professor, or as a patient at their medical practice, and so forth; all of those roles are parts of me, as equally as important in each of those situations as any of the others are for the exact nature of the interactions involved in those various contexts.

So, attributes and roles derived from archetypes can be involved in the already-syncretistic situation of any Deity. Time can also be involved in this already-syncretistic situation for any Deity, as well as space and place, both in the forms of local cultus and syncretism with individual land spirits or features. Indeed, we can almost think of local cultus not so much as strictly the syncretism of a Deity with spirits (and possibly also ancestors) of land and place, but instead as “what a Deity is like and does in a given place.” The version of myself that one might encounter in front of a college classroom is different from the one found in a hotel hot tub, the local supermarket, or sightseeing in another country. With Deities, perhaps a local cultus that is oracular in nature is simply where that Deity has inspired insights and has given prophetic utterances, whereas somewhere else that same Deity might have practiced or perfected the healing arts, and so forth. One is not likely to find a dentist doing fillings on their favorite golf course, and thus a similar situation applies with the localized cults of Deities.

I’ve occasionally said that “Syncretism Happens,” in the effort of conveying that when it does, it’s not a bad thing or anything to be alarmed about. For all that they are individual beings, Deities, it seems, have semi-permeable membranes enclosing them, and while simply standing next to another Deity from their own pantheon, or those from other pantheons—much less land spirits, archetypes, ancestors, zeitgeists, deified abstractions, or any other category of divine being—does not mean that a merging will occur, nonetheless it can and will be a possibility in many cases, some of which may become significant enough to suggest ongoing cultus or mythic documentation. But, this slogan for syncretism is not merely one that applies to potential futures, or intriguing presents (for those experiencing syncretism in their real time interactions with various divine beings), but it in fact has happened in the past so often and so frequently, that even in the prehistory of any given Deity, it has already happened potentially countless times. Even if one encounters a human at the very moment of that human’s birth, a process of genetic syncretism has already occurred for many months prior to that moment of emergence; and at every point later in life than that for humans, we are constant processes of assimilation of the influences and results of every interaction with our environment and every relationship we’ve ever had. We, as humans, are constant processes of becoming and adapting and changing and evolving—sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, but nonetheless we are always dynamic rather than static, no matter how much a given individual may appear to be stable and identifiably themselves at any given moment. How much more so is this the case with Deities, whose capacities are so exponentially beyond what is possible for mortal humans in our perfect contextual limitations?