Speaking of Syncretism

Speaking of Syncretism

Bring up the topic of “syncretism” to a group of people, and those who even know what the word means at all might have mixed reactions.  To many Christians, it implies what I hear people within a certain denomination deride as “Cafeteria Catholicism.”  To Muslims, syncretism is fundamentally equal to shirk, their most grievous and heinous sin, because it challenges the completeness and perfection of Islam by “joining” other practices and/or beliefs to their religion, and in particular “partnering” the deities of other religions to Allah.  To pagans, it tends to get thrown around relatively commonly as a synonym for “eclecticism,” and depending on the individual pagan’s viewpoint, that can be a good or a bad thing.  To some types of historian or religious studies scholars, it might refer to a practice of linking two (or more) different deities between cultures, often with the assumption that such linking either indicates the decline and dilution of a given culture, or a trend toward pantheism and/or monism, which in many of their minds simply shows that monotheism is inevitable with the “advancement” of human cultures through history.

To almost all of the above, I would respond:  think again.

While we can dismiss the Catholic (and other Christian) as well as Muslim critiques out-of-hand simply because they reflect theological contexts which are irrelevant to our own, I think the Islamic notion deserves a momentary closer examination for what it reveals.  Both Christianity and Islam emerge–like every “new” religion–from a plethora of religious influences and contexts which pre-date their origins, and both were very good at syncretism in their embryonic stages (and, for Christians, their later developmental stages in proselytization and assimilation of other cultures).  Even though Islam emerges from Arabic culture and continues many of its practices, including by virtue of denouncing some aspects of Arabian polytheism and revising others (e.g. promotion of Allah as father and head-of-pantheon to only deity), its re-mapping of Allah and his prophets over both Judaism and Christianity is an appropriation and revision of those individual religions.  Few groups of people are spoken of more derisively and are condemned more strongly in the surahs of the Qu’ran than polytheists.  I wonder if the reason that shirk is such a grave sin is because it is something which the early Muslims perceived, and correctly, to be intrinsic to polytheism, and which thus constituted the greatest threat to the hegemonic monotheism of their own religion.

For the most part, polytheism doesn’t proscribe which deities are valid to be worshipped, and in fact almost every polytheistic culture that exists has happily done so alongside peoples with very different deities, practices, and beliefs.  More often than not, the deities of those other peoples cross over into their own pantheons, and have often done so at such an early stage that they have become completely naturalized over the course of time.  When we speak of Aphrodite as a Greek goddess, we often do so in ignorance of her Near Eastern origins, despite the Greeks giving her epithets that connect her to her likely origin place of Cyprus.  Aprhodite is one example amongst many of this process.

As much as I am of the opinion that polytheism is an expectable, and even perhaps a natural, tendency amongst humans, so too do I think that syncretism is just as intrinsic to polytheism.  One cannot be a polytheist without also being a syncretist.

Yes, as much as you might not wish to acknowledge it, every single person reading this column who is a polytheist is already a syncretist.  If that horrifies you, I’ll still be here when (or if) you would like to read further.  If that excites and fascinates you, please continue to read.  If you already knew you were a syncretist…well, you still may want to read to the end of this column, since you’ve come all this way already.  😉

Many polytheists, especially of the reconstructionist variety, have more nasty words for “fluffy” eclectics than anyone else, and they throw syncretists into that mix as well.  The reconstructionists who insist on the notion of “cultural purity” as a necessity to be practicing their religion, in many respects, are as disingenuous as the Muslims who took so much of their mythological history from Jewish and Christian narrative, refashioned it, and yet insist that it is the one-and-only-truth about all the figures concerned.  The Greeks and the Romans were promiscuously syncretistic, certainly, and the Egyptians were likewise heavily syncretistic at many different periods of their history.  The situation with both the Germanic and the Celtic polytheistic religions is of a different sort, even though this non-existent cultural purity notion comes into their pre-Christian phases as well.

Almost all of our information upon which reconstructionist methodologies are employed to build modern forms of Celtic or Germanic practice relies upon sources that are not “native” to the cultures concerned.  The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about these peoples during the pre-Christian period, and interpretatio Graeca et Romana, as well as ideas about “noble savages” and other such literary themes that were more or less reified in the minds of the writers concerned, are so heavily employed in those sources that they cannot be extracted without losing a great deal of content.  The same is true of the post-Christian period, even though people from given cultures were writing the literatures concerned, where both Christian and classical literature influenced every word written in the case of Ireland, and both of these plus Irish sources influenced every word written for Icelandic literate cultures.  These influences are often more emphasized and have been employed to highlight, enhance, or revise materials that existed in the native Irish or Norse/Icelandic traditions.  One is as much indebted to Jerusalem and Rome (both the polytheist and the Christian Rome) if one has ever looked at a source from medieval Ireland or Iceland as “lore.”

But–and here’s the point that many seem to miss in all this–that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As long as what is being stated doesn’t invalidate polytheism, or simply is written to bolster “faith in One God and His Son Jesus” and the like, there isn’t really anything wrong with simply accepting myth as myth, whether it comes from an indigenous European (or other) culture, or it was invented with pre-existing characters and places in a given locality who are then written into a story that parallels the Greek epic tradition or the triumphs and hardships of the Sons of Israel.  Specifically Christian non-creedal elements can be assimilated into a syncretistic mindset without any difficulty, and certainly without the severe “allergies” that many people seem to view as “necessary” reactions to them.  One can accept a character, a story, or even a deity without having to accept the monotheism that is preferred (and required and enforced!) by the religious cultures that propagated them.  It is, in fact, more polytheistic to accept their existence and to integrate it into one’s understanding than to reject them; there is no such thing as shirk as a sin for polytheists.

Even if a given piece of literature does suggest that Jesus, the Christian God, or the Holy Spirit are involved in ways that make them players in a narrative rather than as ideals of faith to be accepted and never questioned, what harm?  There is nothing in polytheism which makes it necessary that Jesus, the Christian God, the Holy Spirit, any of the saints, the Jewish God, Allah, or any other divine being or heroic figure from these traditions be “rejected” as existing, or even as being deserving of worship, so long as it is understood that they are further beings amongst many other polytheistic deities beyond number.  If you think that there is only one “Abrahamic god,” then that’s fine, but then you’re giving credence to Abrahamic monotheism, and a particularly Islamic form of it, rather than being a polytheist.  To say or indicate by one’s actions “My culture and my culture ONLY” is a monotheistic position; to say “Many deities, many ways, many cultures, many possibilities” is the way of polytheism, and of syncretism.

There are many more threads that could be followed in the present discussion, and I hope to perhaps elaborate on a variety of them in future columns.  The idea of “syncretism” in itself refers to several different phenomena, which also need to be distinguished from one another, explored further, nuanced and qualified (often with further terms added), and discussed at greater length.  I hope to do exactly that in the months and years to come in the present column, and I eagerly look forward to discussing these topics with those who choose to read and comment here!

Syncretism happens:  now, let’s talk about it.



  1. A fantastic article as always. Your insight always makes me walk away and think and then re-read before I can fully absorb it.

    I find this article particularly helpful as it comes at a time when I have been struggling with putting into words some concepts for myself and for a couple of others as far as the Ancient world and cross-over heroes and deities.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed your article! In my personal practice, I worship both Celtic and Norse deities. On the occasions when I am asked how I reconcile this,, I simply say that they are drinking buddies. 😉

    I look forward to reading more.

    • Thank you!

      Indeed, I think the Norse and various Celtic pantheons would enjoy drinking together very much, even when their historic populations may not have (or at least didn’t initially). 😉

  3. Lupus, I have found that people (polytheists in particular) use different definitions of the word “syncretism”. Can you give your definition? Thanks.

    • That is probably the fodder for another full post, at very least…

      But, in brief, I think “syncretism” refers to at least two different phenomena. One is the combination of two (or more) different religious systems, philosophies, cultures, etc. In this, it is very much like the general human “operating system,” so to speak, i.e. “take what works, disregard the rest.” What given instances of cultural or religious syncretism take and discard varies by time and place, of course, even during the continued existence of a particular culture (e.g. Graeco-Egyptian cultures).

      The second phenomenon it can refer to is the combination of two or more deities in a given set of cultures. This occurs both on an inter- and intra-pantheonic scale. We all know things like Zeus Ammon and the like in the case of intra-pantheonic syncretism. However, the intra-pantheonic syncretistic phase usually occurs somewhat prehistorically and is rather invisible to many people (including those involved), and tends to occur when the larger “pantheon,” such as it may be, is being constructed actively as a result of (usually) larger political groupings. So, at some stage, someone said that Artemis of Ephesus, Artemis of Brauron, Artemis Orthia in Sparta, and the Arcadian Artemis (amongst many others) are all “Artemis,” when in fact they were probably independent local cults to begin with. The same occurs for any of the Greek deities (i.e. most of them!) who have multiple epithets and different local cultic practices.

      It would be nice if we had more recognizable terms for each of these matters that don’t require a huge amount of further nuancing and drawing of distinctions, but alas, this is what we have to work with at present. But, it’s an important question, so thank you for asking it! 🙂

  4. Really liked your piece. Although I have one problem with the last bit. Unless we have a relationship with a deity, we can really only about it from it’s followers. So the Abrahamics, for example, claim there is only one god they all follow. It’s not for me to tell them otherwise. They say it’s one god, fine. Just because it looks like many gods to me doesn’t make it so. And I think to treat those you mentioned as other gods is insulting to them. As another example, the Virgin Mary in Roman Catholic teaching is not a goddess. Yet some insist she is. That’s offensive to that woman, who did not see herself as a goddess according to Christian tradition and writings, and it’s offensive to those religions. Essentially it’s saying, “Yeah you think you’re not worshiping a goddess but really, we all know you are.” Just some thought. Otherwise, liked your piece. I tried on the recon “hat” for a bit and…yeah ran into the same issues you pointed out. Well done.

    • I have a few thoughts concerning this issue you bring up. On the one hand, history is rife with the kind of syncresis that results in, for example, Christian saints being used as “masks” for the continued worship of pre-Christian deities: e.g. St. Elijah for Perun, St. George and even St. Olaf for Thunor/Thor, etc. Over time and the passage of generations, practitioners of these cults may no longer know that these cults were originally non-Christian. In that case, who is receiving veneration? The god behind the mask of a saint, or the saint him- or herself? This is directly applicable to the veneration of St. Mary, as I seem to recall that there is evidence to suggest that such veneration may have been a mask for the veneration of a goddess originally, whatever later worshipers might have felt.

      Second, I think that it is acceptable as a polytheist to grant the status of truth to some of my beliefs, even where these contradict the beliefs of others – perhaps especially in the case where those other beliefs are blatantly inimical to my own. I experience and understand the Holy as a plurality; that it *is* so is, I believe, true. Those who say that it is a singularity are, I believe, misguided. Monotheists do (and have) pointed to the gods I worship and called them “demons”, and I think they are misguided. I do not feel compunction against pointing to their saints and calling them gods, especially given the history of their saints being just that; gods worked over by the church, or by the laity, to make their worship acceptable.

      To an extent, I think that this is a matter of us using our own language when it comes to discussing religion in broad terms, rather than borrowing the language of monotheistic theology. From a polytheistic point of view, the veneration of saints is in fact polytheistic; a “truth that will out” as it were, regardless of monotheistic doctrine. That this is disrespectful of purported monotheists who venerate saints is potentially true, and I probably wouldn’t tell any Catholic friends or family that they are really polytheists who can’t bring themselves to admit it. That said, I think that it is useful in this forum for polytheists to be able to put truth in their (our) own terms, without necessarily worrying too much about whom it might offend. None of this is to dismiss your concern, however, which I think is well-stated and well-intentioned.

      • Looking specifically at the Virgin Mary, I can think of three Finnish deities off the top of my head with whom she was syncretized in the folk religion: Päivätär, Kivutar, and Lemminkäinen’s mother (and the use of Jesus/Mary imagery is very powerful to me personally when contemplating Lemminkäinen and his mother). It’s also interesting that in Karelian, the word ‘jumala’ was used both for God (or gods) as well as Christian saints.
        Of course, the major problem I run into with the suggestion that Christian and Pagan/Heathen figures must be kept separate so as not to offend Christians is that I’m building my practice on an inherently syncretic folk religion. I could just subtract the Christian bits and call what I’m left with ‘Finnish Paganism’ but the longer I’m at this, the less satisfied I am with that.

        • That is a big problem, I think, with many of the northern European traditions.

          As with the surgical removal of a cancer, sometimes it is “more involved” and when removal occurs, there is loss of functions and anatomy in what is left afterwards. This is very much the case with the Irish stuff, and rather than whine over it, I think people should just accept it, take it for what it is (as we have it), be aware of and educate themselves on what may have come from where, and then let it work with the “Jesus, the Christian god, the Holy Spirit, and the saints are particular divine beings as much as any other” and go on their merry way. 😉

      • Very well stated, Nick!

    • Like Nick, I understand your point and largely agree, though I think that it is possible to maintain both positions and remain respectful. For example, I think that a Polytheist can approach the Virgin Mary as a Goddess (provided that she is willing to be approached in that manner), while recognizing that such a practice is not acceptable within the mainstream Christian tradition. I would suggest that the kind of condescension that you reference only really becomes a problem when the Polytheist then insists that the Christians are doing it wrong.

      If we understand the kind of syncretism being described here as creating new ways of relating to divine beings, then there isn’t necessarily any contradiction in the two positions. The Virgin Mary of the Polytheist and the Virgin Mary of the Christian may indeed be the same being, they are simply being approached through different frameworks. Further, if we grant Divine Beings the same kind of richness that we know ourselves to possess, then it seems reasonable to suspect that they are capable of manifesting in various guises and roles, and that they can be approached through various angles and procedures.

    • I do have an ongoing relationship with Iao Sabaoth, which is the Judeo-Egypto-Hellenic rendering of the name of the Jewish god.

      I think you might be having a difficulty here that many people in the pagan and other communities do, in terms of granting a truth-quality to all religions, which simply can’t be he case on further examination. While I am open to the possibility (or, more accurately, likelihood) that I may be wrong about a lot of these things, there is nothing in polytheism, paganism, or any other independent, self-contained and self-actualized religion or religious system which says it has to accept the truth value of all other religions as equally as its own. The only religions that have ever done that are the Unitarian Universalists, and the Baha’i, and in the latter case, only provisionally (i.e. insofar as what is in other religions agrees with their general viewpoint). All religions have theological positions on the standing of other religions, and polytheism and paganism should be no different in that regard. I think it is far more respectful to grant the likelihood that all of the monotheistic religions’ deities are real and exist, but that their theologies (in particular, the ones about their god being the only god) are entirely incorrect.

      Further, you’re conflating monotheisms in your suggestion. Jews do not see their singular deity as being the same as the Christian one (or else they’d have Jesus in their god, which they don’t), and Christians as well as Jews have also not tended to see Allah as being the same as their god (which, historically, he isn’t and can’t be). Whether this makes me popular or not, I’ll never accept the viewpoint of Islam on the status of their god, whether they are offended by that or not. As Nick pointed out, all of these religions (with the possible exception of the more henotheistic interpretations of Judaism) don’t see anything wrong with saying that my gods are either delusions or are devils; I’ve been told as much directly by Muslims, who have said that my gods are just djinn who are trying to deceive me, and I’m angering Allah by being deceived by them when I’m obviously “so smart otherwise.”

      Having these viewpoints is not telling them they’re doing their religion wrong; that is none of my business. But, stating these viewpoints and having them is actually doing my own religion right, which is far more important to me. Muslims don’t have to like what I think about Allah; in fact, I’m certain they don’t like it, and many of them would like to have me killed for it. Now tell me who’s doing their own religion “right” or “wrong”…

      But, the common pagan interfaith thing of going to Christians, Muslims, and others and telling them “We’re really not devil worshippers” and so forth, actually, IS telling them how to do their religion. In their monotheistic viewpoint, there is no other possibility apart from our gods being either mental delusions (which more of them go with these days) or devils/demons/evil spirits/djinn, etc., and no matter how much we say “We’re not devil-worshippers, we don’t worship Satan,” if there is any deity that isn’t their One And Only in the mix, then that’s the only possibility that it can be. So, there’s that dimension of the question as well, which rarely gets addressed.

      I hope that I have conveyed this as clearly as possible, and my apologies if I have not managed to do so, or have seemed in any way aggressive…I am staunch in my viewpoints, which some people would be shocked and dismayed by, but I can do nothing other than hold them and put them forth as accurately as possible when prompted. Your caveats are heard and understood, but I think there are more properly polytheistic ways to look at the issues involved, and I hope that has come across correctly here. In any case, let me know how I failed if you feel I have! 🙂

    • To paraphrase our author, offense happens.

  5. Syncretism can be a tricky thing. It’s pretty well unavoidable if you have any involvement in diasporic traditions, especially the African diaspora. On the one hand, I do want to respect separate entities as individuals. On the other hand, when Their established practice already includes honoring Them along with, under the guise of, or otherwise connected to another entity, or even a whole group, who the hell am I to say “Nope, you can’t have that.”?

    Aaaand then there’s the problem of all those little localized Germanic goddesses…

    So, I suppose I use it when it seems to work and avoid it when it feels like it’s in the way, and most importantly, I do my best to *recognize* it when it occurs – because that’s really what matters, isn’t it? That we’re intellectually and spiritually honest, rather than that we come to any particular conclusion.


    • I don’t remotely disagree. Syncretism happens, A LOT, and when it does, it’s best just to accept it (and not grudgingly!).

      The only place it becomes a problem is when people think it means there is an abiding equivalence or interchangeability with the beings involved, or that the theological systems at play must reflect an underlying “pantheism” (which generally isn’t, actually!) or monism involved, and thus that any form of “syncretism = ‘soft’ polytheism.” It isn’t.

      Take Hermanubis. He’s very clearly Hermes Psychopompos and Anubis syncretized in the double theophoric fashion many Egyptian and Graeco-Egyptian deities are. And yet, his existence does not invalidate the separate existence of either of those deities…and in fact, in one inscription, both Anubis and Hermanubis are honored together as separate beings, and are depicted separately. As the Nisut of Kemetic Orthodoxy says, “One plus one always equals three” in these situations.

  6. I can’t wait to read more of this column! Syncretism is such a fascinating topic and has taken so many forms through the centuries, you’ll never run out of things to talk about!

    • Thank you! Yes, we’re a bit spoiled for riches on this matter…

      I’m debating between about three different possibilities for my next column…but, it’s better to be spoiled for choice than grasping at straws, I suppose…?!? 😉

  7. We run into problems with syncretism. For example, the concept of a Creator_god can be traced from the Aryans through the Bantu, influencing countless cultures along the way. Is Dyēus the same entity as Yahweh or Allah or Atum-Re or Chiuta (Tambuka culture)? Or (borrowing from Adolf Bastian) was the elementary idea of an intelligence behind creation syncretized into various cultures as a folk idea? The answer, I believe, is that once introduced to the elementary idea, of creation, cultures incorporated it as an aspect of one of their own Deities (if they were able to – sometimes a conquering tribe would incorporate local aspects of Deity into their Deities.)
    So all this begs the question of what are we honoring? If we honor Brigit at Imbolc, are we honoring the Pagan Deity of the Celts or the Saint of Christianity? You are honoring Deity as you perceive it – and that is probably the best we can do.

    • I don’t really hold with the idea of “elementary ideas” (which is pretty much “archetypes”), and thus when you refer to a “creator god,” I have to ask, what qualifies? Not all creator gods, if you’ll excuse the phrase, are created equal, and thus in context (which is where religious devotion actually takes place), it loses coherence and relevance as a concept.

      As a polytheist, it is clear to me that there are several Brigits, and the one being honored at Imbolc, if indeed one is only honoring one of her, is the Christian saint re-paganized in almost all cases. When you approach the Brigits as individual goddesses, one’s results differ greatly.

      The phrase “honoring Deity” doesn’t exist for me, as a polytheist; “honoring Deities,” yes, frequently and constantly, but the use of the singular there belies a monistic and archetypalist viewpoint that I cannot hold based on experience or my own process of reason.

  8. The notion of Celtic cultural purity is particularly problematic when applied to Gaul, where we have plenty of evidence that every cult in the Roman world found adherents after the Conquest. This leaves out the Interpretatio Romana, one of the signal examples of syncretism in the ancient world, though it was hardly confined exclusively to Gaul.

    • Indeed…there is no Celtic culture that we know in a “pure” or “unadulterated” form…and that’s just something we should accept as a reality where things Celtic are concerned. The Gaulish material, even as we have it, and even via Interpretatio Romana, is incredibly rich and rewarding to work with and investigate.

  9. You’re right- we are all syncretists- most written records we have of various ancient religions have already smooshed together multiple local tribal deities/spirits/ancestors to create a pantheon. We can get an idea of this by looking at all the epithets of a god, for example.

    • Precisely…religions are already syncretistic when they are first attested, and likewise for the cultus of almost every deity. So, why not accept that, and then revel in it? 😉

  10. Wonderful thoughts. Western polytheism is inherently syncretic, especially when we adapt what we can gather of the ancient practices to do it. I hope you write more on this topic.

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