One of the most difficult matters facing someone who is attempting to discuss syncretism in a nuanced and useful fashion within modern polytheism is that the term “syncretism” refers to at least two different phenomena as it is commonly used. The second of those phenomena can be further subdivided into (at least) two further categories. What I hope to do at present, however briefly, is to draw out those nuances here in an accessible manner.
But first, it might be worthwhile to have a quick look at the word-origin of syncretism. It comes from the Greek root syn (“with, together with”) added to Kretismos, “as the Cretans do.” It was used first by Plutarch to describe the way in which the Cretans ignored their various local differences in order to band together for common causes. Thus, many things that are positive, and many movements that have done something similar in order to achieve good results for a diversity of individuals, are doing syncretism. In that definition, the modern umbrella movement of Paganism can be considered syncretism, as can the present website, polytheist.com, since it is not seeking to create an orthodoxy of or amongst polytheists, but instead is a resource for bringing many different people and traditions together in conversation and solidarity for the good of all. Even if you do not agree that syncretism applies to all forms of polytheism, thus, you can certainly say that it applies to all the efforts here at polytheist.com!
The use of syncretism in more modern times, however, is quite different. There are two forms of it that are most commonly encountered, and I would like to distinguish these as methodological syncretism and as theological syncretism.
Methodological syncretism occurs when two or more systems (often religious, but also philosophical, or potentially any other form of thought, process, or the like) are combined together into a cohesive whole. This can occur to the degree that the joints and seams between the two (or more) systems are invisible, or it can occur in such a way as to almost (and sometimes inadvertently) highlight those joints and seams. When the term “syncretism” gets applied to entire religions or spiritual practices, this is the way it is being used on most occasions. The Afro-Diasporic traditions, which usually combine one or several West African indigenous religions with ethnic forms of Roman Catholicism (French for Haitian Vodou, Spanish for Cuban Santeria, etc.) as well as potentially incorporating indigenous traditions from the Caribbean Islands and the American Continents, and any number of esoteric practices in addition to these, is one area in which syncretism is often mentioned in this methodological form. However, some religions, including most polytheist traditions, are open to syncretism anyway, and have no problem incorporating deities or practices not indigenous to their own culture into their systems with ease. The Egyptians incorporated many deities from other cultures into their pantheons, like Apedemak and Mandoulis (from Nubia/Ethiopia), Reshef and Hauron (from the Canaanites), and a variety of others. The Roman practice of evocatio was one way in which this could be done on a tactical level, one might say, for military advantages; but, the general Roman tendency toward syncretism allowed a typical Roman in Italy in late antiquity to be able to worship Epona (from the Gauls), Jupiter of Doliche (from the Syrians), Sabazios (from the Thracians), and Isis (from the Egyptians), even though these would be recognized as “foreign” to Rome itself, without any difficulty.
In certain respects, this methodological syncretism can apply to a great deal more in life apart from religion and spiritual activities. The general human tendency to “take what works, ignore the rest” is a form of methodological syncretism in and of itself which can apply to almost anything, from cooking to world views to ethical reasoning to housecleaning, in my opinion.
With the case of Jupiter of Doliche, however, we come to the process which is often involved in religious methodological syncretism, namely theological syncretism. The specific theological dimension of this is when two (though occasionally more) deities are paired together, as with the Roman Jupiter and the Syrian Ba’al of Doliche. What has generally been assumed by many academics (who are either monotheists or are logical positivists who don’t like complicated realities), as well as by those who are inclined toward monism and what is commonly termed “pantheism,” is that these theological syncretisms indicate an underlying unity or synonymity of the deities involved. This leads to the notion that all syncretists are “just soft polytheists” in the view of some single-culture/tradition practitioners of reconstructionist methodologies, for example. If one reads Julius Caesar’s account of the Gaulish deities, he seems to indicate that the “Gaulish Mercury” and the other Roman deities he says are honored amongst the Gauls are simply forms of the familiar Roman gods, to the point that he doesn’t even include their Gaulish names (if, in fact, he knew them at all). However, on closer inspection, he is making distinctions between some of them that are rather important and unique. The “Gaulish Mercury,” for example, is said to be the inventor of all the arts, whereas the Roman Mercury (and the Greek Hermes, himself syncretized to Mercury as well) was not the inventor of more than a few items and practices. One can understand these cases of Interpretatio Romana (in Tacitus’ famous phrase), or Interpretatio Graeca (as occurs when it is said that the “Indian Dionysos” is likely Shiva, and that Osiris is the “Egyptian Dionysos,” etc.), as occasions of seeing a unity in the deities described, or even that the “barbarian” examples are simply localized forms of the more well-known Greek or Roman deities.
Yet, one can also view these occasions not as an equational syncretism, but instead as a translational syncretism, depending on how one understands the stated or implied “is” that occurs with any such instance of Interpretatio-based theological syncretism. If one understands the word “is” to signify that something equals something else, then the common understanding of these sorts of syncretism would then apply: Ba’al of Doliche IS Jupiter, Cocidius IS Mars (or Silvanus), Belenus IS Apollo, Tanit IS Juno, and so forth. However, one can also view the “is” stated or implied in these syncretistic formations as a metaphorical or translational “is,” such that what is being stated is not that the two are interchangeable or are equivalent in an existential sense, but instead are functionally equivalent in context and yet separate. In metaphor (which derives from the Greek metaphore, whose roots are the exact cognates of the Latin translatio, i.e. “translation”!), one does not literally mean that “Bill is a bull in a china shop,” but only that Bill’s actions resemble those of a bull in a china shop under certain circumstances. Likewise with the translational or metaphorical “is” in Interpretatio syncretisms: then Cocidius is Mars in a sense that indicates he is “like Mars” in a given circumstance, or that Belenus is “like Apollo” at a given cult site, and so forth. Translation, between two media or two languages, is never complete, and the same is true of translational syncretism–one deity can never fully stand-in for another beyond certain situational contexts.
In some cases, what particular ancient sources seem to be indicating is that it is an equative syncretistic understanding at play; but in others, it may not be, and that needs to be taken into account where polytheism is concerned. Rather than thinking that Interpretatio theological syncretisms are the first forerunners to a pervasive archetypalism amongst ancient peoples, we have other options to consider. It isn’t that equative syncretism is “wrong,” or that under certain circumstances it can’t exist, it’s only that it isn’t the only nor the best option, nor should its existence in some cases be taken as evidence of the validity of monism or pantheism on a pervasive basis.
With theological syncretism, though, there is a further dimension to be explored, which is that these kinds of syncretism do not necessarily only accompany the instances where methodological syncretism between religions is occurring. There are those types of inter-pantheonic syncretism that do occur, where a deity from one culture is juxtaposed with another, as in the cases given above. But, there are also many examples in which deities also become involved with intra-pantheonic syncretism, and one place where this is particularly prevalent is in the Egyptian pantheon (or, as may be more appropriate, “pantheons”). Re exists on his own, as does Sobek, and Osiris, and Amun, and Atum, and yet there is also Sobek-Re, Osiris-Re, Amun-Re, and Atum-Re. Ptah, Osiris, and Sokar also exist independently of one another, and yet there is also a syncretized form of all three together known as Pataikos, who has characteristics of his own (like being a dwarf) that distinguishes him from the other three. The existence of these new combined forms of the deities does not replace the individual deities or make them redundant, it is instead the phenomenon that Rev. Tamara Siuda refers to as “one plus one equals three” (or, in the case of Pataikos, “one plus one plus one equals four”!). These kinds of theological syncretism can exist both intra- and inter-pantheonically as well, as is the case with Zeus-Ammon, who is very definitely different and separate from both the Egyptian Amun and the Greek Zeus; or, Hermanubis, who is a combination of the Greek Hermes Chthonios and the Egyptian Anubis. In the latter case, there is even an inscription which has Anubis and Hermanubis addressed separately, thus demonstrating this independence of the combined forms vividly!
A pervasive process of intra-pantheonic syncretism likely exists behind the scenes in most of the ancient pantheons reckoned today as well. When the Greek city-states and colonies were independent and often antagonistic toward one another, it seems quite possible that the Spartans would have thought of Artemis Orthia and being quite different from the Athenians’ Artemis of Brauron, and both of these would have been thought different again from the Arcadian Artemis, and different yet again from Artemis of Ephesus, and so forth. But, as polities fought and combined, conquered one another and assimilated their cultures, traded and emigrated between one another, and eventually the larger national groupings we now recognize emerged, there was an underlying unity of “Artemis” understood as existing amongst all of the localized forms, practices, and epithets, which then allowed the Greeks to see a “different side” of Artemis in each of these places. Whether this sense of unity amongst the various local Artemises was a function simply of human politico-religious expediency, or was an example of process theology with the deity herself, or something else altogether, is not as important as realizing that the individual and communal cultic theophanies and epiphanies which occur can be thought of as much as a process of both human and divine adaptation, transposition, translation, and negotiation as they can be direct and purely divine revelations or simple human definitions that gain power and relevance as egregores through repeated and reinforced (and re-enforced) cultural transmission and tradition. The exact dynamics and mechanisms at play are likely not at the full access of and comprehension for everyday mortals, even in their greatest heights of mystical understanding and divinely-inspired insight; but, moderation would suggest that there are both human and divine elements at play in every such occurrence, and thus neither extreme should be entirely discounted nor ignored in any given instance.
So, in attempting to speak further of syncretism, it is important to realize how many different–though often related or intertwined–realities are being spoken of by using that term. There are both methodological and theological versions of syncretism; there are equative and metaphorical possibilities in every Interpretatio-based theological syncretism; and there are both inter- and intra-pantheonic forms of theological syncretism. While the word origins of “syncretism” might suggest that all of these fine distinctions should be swept aside in favor of “banding together” in commonalities for the pursuit of a greater good, in the case of understanding better how these different phenomena function and how modern polytheists would benefit from a such a better understanding, perhaps the mode to follow would not be the Cretan one so much as the Egyptian one, where even “one” might be two or three or more.