Syncretism and Signs of the Times

Syncretism and Signs of the Times

When we think of theological syncretism, we tend to think of phenomena which involve deities combining with other deities in either temporary or more persistent forms. This can also occur with deities and other varieties of divine being, including (in attested cases) hero/ines, deified rulers, and what (in hitherto unattested or unnoticed instances) one can imagine would be an endless string of further possibilities. The subject of this particular column is one such possibility, and my discussion of it stems from a larger conversation (if one can call it that) occurring amongst a few individuals in the polytheist and wider pagan communities recently.

The conversation, such as it is, began with an admittedly poorly-worded contribution by Jason Mankey asking if devotion to and the popularity of particular deities (in that specific blog post’s case, the Morrígan) can be considered a “fad.” Morpheus Ravenna, priestess of the Morrígan and founder of the Coru Cathubodua (a Morrígan priesthood), not surprisingly responded, drawing attention (usefully and appropriately) to the role of particular deities’ agency in situations where something seems to be (to use the poor wording of Jason Mankey) “faddish.” A third voice was introduced into this discussion when a self-professed atheist with no very good reason for discussing deities at all given such an adamant denial of their existence, muddied the waters considerably by suggesting the military-industrial complex of modern warfare may be due to the Morrígan, and that the rise of the Third Reich and the Nazis—according to the holy writ of Carl Gustav Jung—was due to the influence of Wotan/Woden/Odin.*

I would like to begin my own responses to some of these questions, in line with the main purpose of my essay on this occasion, with an easily-known word that could have saved some of the difficulty in this entire conversation which Jason Mankey could have used (and knows) without any sense of dismissiveness or disrespect. Perhaps what is going on in some instances—perhaps in the situations discussed here, but not exclusively so—is not a “fad,” but instead is a reflection of a zeitgeist, literally a “spirit of the times.” There is an active attempt, for example, in Catholic theological circles (since the time of Vatican II) to look for “signs of the times” that may be relevant to the ongoing revelation of their own deities in the world, though this explicit theological orientation has seemed to be ignored frequently and conveniently when some of their doctrines (particularly in their moral theologies) come face-to-face with scientific realities. (More will be said on this later.)

Nonetheless, it seems that “signs of the times” might often be a good place to look for the presence of identifiable zeitgeists, and not simply in the metaphorical sense that most people use it in today. As a polytheist who recognizes that the forms and types of divine being are nearly as numerous as the individual deities themselves, I think that historical eras, ages of time, and movements within particular societies do have actual animating spirits—whether deities, deified abstractions, hero/ines, iunones loci of particular lands, or any other category of divine being—which preside over and influence them to greater or lesser extents. To some degree, the spiritual category of zeitgeist might be usefully added as another variety of divine being to distinguish them and their effects (obvious and conscious as well as subtle and unconscious) on a wider populace—which seems a necessity to be truly considered a zeitgeist—from deities generally and strictly speaking, who may only be consciously influencing events through the acknowledged relationships they have with their devotees.

Jason Mankey’s piece mentioned earlier suggests that the god Pan may have had a “fad” period in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, especially amongst some of the Romantic poets, which reframed him to a large extent as a god of wild nature in the context of the rise of industrialization, urbanization, and all of the early (and still extant) excesses of capitalism. It is not that Pan was not a deity associated with wild nature by the Greeks, though that association was not exclusive to him either, and he was as much a deity of shepherds and of hunting (both rustic in comparison to certain “civilized” pursuits, yet still not exactly natural in the sense many people mean it as non-human-based or human-beneficial) as of anything else. There was a zeitgeist at this time, thus, which made industrial capitalism a prevailing and successful force in global society (not necessarily for the good!), and Pan seems to have stepped forward to counter some of those excesses. What makes it essential, in my view, as to the question of whether Pan was part of the counter-zeitgeist of that era is whether or not he was worshipped by active cultists during the period, and it seems that this was the case, to whatever extent it was possible and feasible for them to do so, in the case of several of the English romantic poets. It could thus be said that Pan came to embody that particular zeitgeist, though I would suggest that he was not solely responsible for it, nor the originator of it, but instead became joined to it and syncretized with it, which caused certain changes to be witnessed in him that had not hitherto been attested in earlier Greek polytheist traditions related to him.

Pan was not the spirit of the age, and certainly not the only spirit of the age involved—industrial capitalism certainly had and continues to have its spirits as well—but Pan did became involved with it, and for some people, then as equally as now, Pan became synonymous with it. This is not the case of necessity, however, any more than would be the case in any other theological syncretistic combination—Dionysos is not Osiris, nor Osiris Dionysos, and one is not replaceable with the other nor are they synonymous, even though they syncretize with one another.

Another possible case of when a different class of divine being became syncretized with the spirit of an age—which is suggested to me based on some reflections by Sean Donahue about the iuno loci of the United States, Columbia—is Roma. Contrary to popular perception, Roma was not the goddess of the city of Rome from the very beginning; her cultus developed gradually as Rome’s reach became greater and greater, and she was initially worshipped only in the Eastern Empire, where certain Roman generals and leaders were also worshipped as divine (sometimes while still living) long before anyone ever heard of Julius Caesar or Augustus. It was not until Hadrian built the Temple of Venus and Roma in Rome itself in the early 120s CE that she was given an active state-sanctioned cultus in the city of Rome. It could be argued that at that point, the Roman Empire was at its height and in its florescence in the Antonine Era and dynasty which followed. Rome was pre-eminent in Europe, and thus the iuno loci of Rome itself became Rome Herself, the goddess Roma.

Something similar could be said for the post-polytheist phenomenon of Britannia during the period of the British Empire. Britannia became the iuno loci of the isle of Britain during the invasion and reconquest of Britain by Claudius, but her cultus was never widespread even in the province of Britannia. When Great Britain became one of the first true world powers, though, in the age of conquest and colonization, she was hymned with anthems by the military—with lyrics, ironically enough, written by a Scottish poet who was subject to the British Empire—and yet remains a symbol of the country in popular culture, with her hymn even sung at sporting events today.

Likewise with Columbia, who was first given name and form by a young African-American woman poet and slave named Phyllis Wheatley in 1775 in a poem she wrote in a letter to George Washington. Before the Declaration of Independence was written and signed, Wheatley’s poem became popular with Washington, was circulated more widely by Thomas Paine, and gave the cause of the American Revolution a divine face, which from the start was poised as a woman in need of defense from Britannia after first showing her might against the Gallic powers (of the French and Indian/Seven Years’ War). Two decades later, the song ”Hail, Columbia” was not only the song played for the President’s entry, but was also the unofficial national anthem of the United States until after World War I. Columbia’s name has been given to many things, from the capital city of the United States, to many colleges and universities and towns, to a major river in Oregon and Washington, and even to a province in Canada. For the age of manifest destiny, Columbia was the goddess. In this particular case, I think it is fair to say that the goddess was largely synonymous with the spirit of the age, for she had no existence before it.

People worshipped Pan actively as a deity in the romantic era that Jason Mankey (and Ronald Hutton in Triumph of the Moon) discusses. While they may not have realized they were doing such, the devotees of Britannia and Columbia sang them hymns, made icons of them, and in the case of Columbia, built her almost literal temples, giving them cultus just as fervent and frequent as the ancient citizens and subject peoples of the Roman Empire praised Roma. It is this deliberate cultus—whether it is seen to be such or not—that I think makes it essential when a divine being and the spirit of a given era come together, syncretize, and support one another in accomplishing the features (whether positive or negative in the later views of history) of the era in question.

I thus wonder if Antinous might have a role to play in this as a contributing divine being to one or another of the spirits of particular ages. When his cultus first existed, it cannot be said to have been the spirit of the age more than any other deity worshipped in the ancient world, for that was an age of many deities (though, technically, every age is, too!). Antinous’ knowledge, and to an extent his cultus, never fully disappeared, and he seems to have had a heyday in the late nineteenth century amongst certain individuals like the Uranian Poets in Britain, a group which includes Oscar Wilde, who makes references to him in a variety of stories and poems. Some of these individuals, it seems, were not simply poets and scholars of the Greek world, but were active cultists of a number of deities, Antinous amongst them, and his statuary (both ancient originals and reproductions) were highly prized by some of these individuals. Some of these individuals were among the first to argue for queer acceptance, and though scandalized in Wilde’s case, became some of the first public queer figures.

Antinous’ devotion has existed in the modern polytheist and pagan world for decades, but really came to greater (though by far still quite limited) prominence in 2002 with his more public organized worship. Parts of the LGBTQIA+ communities have witnessed an increased visibility and have gained access to certain civil rights during this time. I cannot help but think that even though most of the recipients of those rights (far from comprehensive though they may be at this point) have not even heard of him, and certainly don’t worship him, that his active cultus amongst some people has both assisted and in its own way been a reflection of that particular spirit of this age which has allowed some of these advances to be made. No, Antinous is not the spirit of the age, even for various parts of the queer community, but I think his interests and the interests of those who are doing active cultus to him have merged enough with the incipient spirits of the age that these advances have started to take place. If a small handful of romantic poets doing ad hoc and guerilla cultus to Pan can be said to have played a role in the zeitgeist of the early nineteenth century which lead to a desire to preserve nature (and, in Hutton’s view, which contributed largely to the formation of modern paganism generally), then likewise a small number of devoted cultists coordinating their efforts toward Antinoan devotion can have had an impact on these legal advances for queer people. What Catholics are struggling with facing as a “sign of the times” in terms of the world and their own religion’s views on these matters is a de facto reality for many who have nothing to do with that religion, or with polytheist devotion to Antinous.

It is this active and deliberate cultic dimension, I think, which is necessary to the view that any particular deity has become involved with the zeitgeist of any given historical period or the prevailing ideals, and the intellectual and social movements, within it. This is why I find the reasoning (if, indeed, it can be called that) of certain atheists writing on religious topics such as this so lacking. It is not the use of theology to illuminate the signs of the times—for someone who has no theos cannot meaningfully be said to have a theology!—but instead is an ill-informed attempt to interpret certain negative historical occurrences and phenomena with equation to the most pejoratively-loaded aspects of complex and multi-faceted deities. The Morrígan is responsible for the military-industrial complex no more than Freyr and Freyja are responsible for HIV/AIDS; Odin is responsible for the Nazis no more than Hermes is responsible for the Bernie Madoff; and the list could go on and on. In each of these cases, active cultus is missing, and thus it cannot be said to fit the zeitgeist patterns already discussed. It is best not to take the opinions on deities made by people with no interest in deities seriously, in any case.

Of course, this makes me wonder if the ultimate irony behind the religious movement known as modern atheism, which many are adamant in denying is a religious movement at all (for reasons that so frequently rely on circular logic—a long-standing tactic of certain monotheistic religions—that it almost assures it is a religious movement!), is that it may not be “godless” at all. Perhaps it is instead motivated by something that could be considered a divine being, though it cannot attain the distinction of godhood because its devotees refuse to acknowledge it as such. This would account for all of the anger and frustration this divine being’s devotees evince when questions of religion come up. I suspect that the fact many (though, note, not remotely all) vocal atheists are cisgendered heterosexual and fairly affluent white men may also be a part of this deity’s character. Perhaps Snarkus, the daimon of atheism, is the child of Priapus and Eris, and tends to be the biggest and most disruptive dick in the room, and is in a constant state of arousal but is never allowed to actually have an orgasm. As the animating spirit of a particular modern movement, the unknowing devotees of such a being are indeed unfortunate, and it would be no wonder that their conduct in so many areas having to do with religion—including the insistence on being included in it despite saying they do not have it and are against it—is utterly reflective of this divine parentage and the status of the daimon.

I would add one final note on what I have suggested above, not only as a general matter, but one which I think is very important in the considerations given here. I have emphasized the necessity of deliberate and conscious cultus as a component in much of what I discussed previously. I find that this comes into direct conflict with the statement that many people in modern paganism (though not so much modern polytheism) often say—particularly amongst the more monistic and humanistic voices in those groups—namely, that the deities don’t need humans to fight their battles for them nor to defend them. It does not take subtle theological ingenuity to see, however, that direct and obvious actions by deities in the world (outside of certain natural disasters, perhaps) are pretty thin on the ground these days. The key in a deity becoming involved in a zeitgeist is that the spirit of the times and of the deities possibly involved with those times move in groups of people influencing the course of events in the world. The movements of the deities and their divine wills are only perceptible in the presence of actual movement and (social) movements, thus. There is nor needs to be no difficulty nor inherent contradiction in this, nor is there a raising up of what is human to a divine level, nor is there a lowering of divine will to simple equation with human activity either. As I have tried to make clear in interpreting the phenomena of zeitgeists as separate from but occasionally syncretized with deities, the two are separate, and human activities and their results are a yet a further separate phenomena again.

This is important to the present discussion, certainly, but I also find that it is a piece that is sadly missing from many modern engagements with deities, including by polytheists. I may not “need” someone to stand up to someone who bullies me, but it certainly is damn nice when it happens that someone does stand up to them with me. Collaboration is great when it can happen between any varieties of person, whether a group of individual humans, a group of deities, or humans and deities together (amongst many other possibilities). It is astonishing how often some modern pagans refuse to say that they “worship” deities but instead they prefer to say that they “work with” them, and on occasions their deities may even be defending and protecting them, yet this collaborative personhood does not seem to apply in situations where a deity’s good name might need defense or protection. (And yes, names and the honor associated with them are important, and should rank as more important than they often do in the modern world.) It also amazes me how often people in paganism and polytheism may take some amount of pride in being an ally to socially marginalized groups of people and acting in ways that support this alliance with both individuals from those groups and the wider groups as well, and yet they refuse to act in similar ways where their individual or collective deities are concerned.

Thus, I think those who suggest that humans don’t need to defend their deities are demonstrating a serious lack of significance attributed to their own actions, and human actions generally. In many cases, I suspect they are actually excusing very bad behavior in themselves and often in others as well, and in some instances are using this explanation as an excuse for their own cowardice or laziness. If human cultus is at all effective and useful to deities, then human actions must be useful in some sense. Further, how else will the work of particular deities come about in the world without humans actively taking part in it and largely doing it in directly material manners? And if this is the case, then humans coming to the defense of their deities against the foolish and slanderous words of other humans who have little understanding of the subjects they discuss is not an inconsequential thing. It does not require institutional or legal sanctions, threats of physical harm, or coercion of any sort (often associated with the excesses of creedal monotheism’s approach to such matters) to say to someone that their words and actions are ill-advised or are inappropriate. If someone claims to be pious but does not actually defend the name and honor of the deities of their devotion, it is a victory for nothing but the disconnected nihilism and hipsterish irony of pseudo-liberalism that says “anything goes” and ultimately nothing really matters. The spirits motivating such behavior are attempting to reign supreme in the present age, and are one of the few (pseudo-) intellectual viewpoints that have been given public sanction and space in recent years. As a group of individuals who are against such things on the whole, I would think polytheists would have a much different approach to this matter than they have often demonstrated in their actions or words.

In conclusion, I would suggest that when looking for the spirit of a given age, and the many different animating spirits active amongst varied communities in any historical period, it is thus important to realize that just as a human can change residences or professions, and likewise that deities also shift in character and emphasis based on the localities of their cultus, so too can deities change their interactions with humans based on the context of a given space of time and the ways in which they can combine with the spirits found within those temporal spaces. Both deities and humans are multi-dimensional, and thus just as humans move in three dimensions of space and one of time, so too can deities manifest themselves differently in time, space, and space-time, even if they also transcend those limited number of dimensions. Just as there is more attention being given now to the intricacies of place in relation to divine cultus, so too does there need to be attention given to time in this process as well.

*: If my disdain for certain viewpoints within this discussion is obvious in my phrasing here, I do not apologize for it. Just as I know they do not respect my own opinions here and elsewhere, I likewise do not respect theirs, though I do fully acknowledge that I respect their personhood and their agency in holding and expressing their opinions as they wish. The divine beings motivating them are just as divine as the ones who motivate me, and I try to remember that always in dealing with them, even though I may not feel they are always interpreting their divine motivations—if and when they are directly divine—in ways that are the most productive.



  1. I think the words “offensive” and “blasphemy” have become so loaded, that it is almost impossible to use them without the hearer assuming that violence is about to be committed by the person who feels offended. So I think your choice of the adjective “ill-advised” is much better.

    I was not offended by Jason’s article, because I didn’t think that the use of the word fad denied agency on the part of Pan and the Morrigan – it just failed to take it into account – though Jason did acknowledge their agency later in the article.

    I have never liked Jung’s idea that Odin possessed Germany and somehow made it Nazi.

    To me, Odin is god of poetry, and creative madness / genius, and shamanism, and wandering off to find wisdom, and retrieving it from the depths, and discovering the runes, and sacrificing his eye to gain wisdom, and watching over the world from his high seat, and being cunning, and kingly, and wise, and leading the Wild Hunt, and and and. That is one complex being with a multi-faceted personality. None of that suggests anything to do with inspiring the Nazis.

    I am not as well acquainted with the Morrigan as I am with Odin, but I can see that she is an equally complex and multifaceted being and therefore very unlikely to be the driving force behind the military-industrial complex.

    If we have to pin the blame for warmongering on a spirit, I would suggest the egregore of capitalism. But the egregore of capitalism, I would suggest, is an emergent entity from the sum total of the lust for money.

    • Thank you, Yvonne–I agree.

      I think Neil Gaiman may have been close than he may willingly admit when he posited a showdown between the older deities and the newer ones, like TV and ATMs, etc.