It’s Syncretistic Already!

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?

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  1. The Thracian

    Wonderful post! The “constancy” of syncretism, as a thing that is always present in one form or another — often without our recognition — in the deities we so devotedly praise, is an important consideration.

    We differ slightly in how we discuss archetypes, however: I do no use this term to refer to deity roles in the same manner, as I understand (and attribute) archetypes as a purely human-consciousness oriented structure and phenomenon; I do not believe that they exist outside of us. I believe that archetypes are a part of us, not at all divine, and similarly would offer that each species likely has its own sort of archetypes; wolves or penguins do not care for blacksmith or nursemaid or wisened sage figures in their collective consciousness, after all!

    So I believe that archetypes are a part of our psychology, not a part of our cosmology. Gods may “syncretize” with these in their way of relating to us (or at us!) and our cults, but not at all in the same way that they syncretize with what I consider a “divine role or office”. It’s a less catchy and flashy bit of language than archetype, and certainly has less buzzy quality to it, but I find it to be more accurate: when I am discussing a deity’s role in my cult (say, as “guide of the fallen warrior dead”) I do not believe that this deity is relating to a human archetype, but to a divine office, which may indeed find descended relation in human archetypes.. but which is situated firmly outside of human consciousness. (He would, for example, fulfill this same role for a wolf or a penguin warrior, if that was a part of the function and process of the cult he had guided the crafting of.)

    In discussing these matters, I always veer on the side of caution in distinctions of language: better to separate “divine roles” from “archetypes” because one of these two sits primarily in an established field of study (psychology, and psychologically informed mythographic literature) whereas the other is, simply put, -bigger- than that, by virtue of being bigger than humans.

    It may seem like an unnecessary distinction to most, but I have no interest in over-anthropomorphically regarding my gods or the “physics” of how they relate (or do not relate) to this world and us or wolves or penguins. Archetypes are a universally anthropomorphic concept, and are I believe inarguably tethered to human consciousness. Are they divine or of some higher order of being? I don’t think so, but I don’t seek to end discussions that view them or experience them in this way; I believe that they are furnitures and fixtures that come pre-installed in our consciousness, like organs in our bodies, to fill certain necessary interpretative functions. All of human existence is a process of interpreting cognitively sense-data pulled in from our seen and unseen world; archetypes are the cognitive schemas that divine encounters and also human encounters can be “fit into” unconsciously to interpret readily what is going on around us. I don’t see that as any more divine than the biological functions of where heroin binds in the body if injected, a process which piggy-backs our natural endorphin receivers. I clearly also do not miss the importance of it — I’ve just compared it to one of the most essential-to-life biological functions, after all! — nor the power therefore found in archetypes. Can they be related to as distinct constructs, separate from us? Well of course, because so can our individual organs or toes or even memories. Because humans — as with all things — are far more complex than people are ever comfortable acknowledging.

    Deity roles and/or offices on the other hand are not human archetypes, in my definitions, but jobs and relational configurations which exist independent of humans and human consciousness.

  2. I think it’s significant that we don’t seem to have any terminology from antiquity answering to the modern conception of “archetypes”. When “syncretism happens” back then, we just have the names: the principal God of the Romans according to Tacitus is “Mercury”, the Egyptians according to Herodotus “call Zeus, Ammon”, and so forth. And it’s the same thing in more properly theological contexts.

    Now, we could posit that some sort of process of determining “essential” attributes or functions has gone on in the background to arrive at these identifications, and it’s this background thought process that the modern conceptualization of “archetypes” (whether as used by psychologists or by historians and anthropologists) claims to bring to the surface, so to speak, but it still seems significant that the ancients don’t speak this way. They just don’t speak of “Trickster Gods” or “Fertility Gods” or the like, at least to my recollection.

    This is partly because sometimes the syncretism doesn’t come about by “essential” attributes at all, but rather by those one would consider “accidental”, and as a result, sometimes we are at a loss to even say what characteristics or functions might be “referenced” by the syncretism, to an extent that raises the question of whether such a “reference” is even implied. Why, for instance, is Heryshaf syncretized with Herakles? Thereby hangs a tale, I’m sure, but rather a *tale* than a function or essential, “archetypal” attribute, I would imagine. And where we have a proper system of classification, among the Platonists, it of course looks nothing like modern “archetypal” classification at all, because it’s based on a proper division of Being or of the cosmos, rather than something arrived at by comparing Gods at all.

    I raise this issue, not as a criticism, but simply because it had never struck me quite so forcefully as it did reading this piece and the Thracian’s comment above.

    • Yes–a very important set of points…and I will be responding further to the Thracian above once I get this comment to work (if, in fact, I can!).

      I suspect that about as close as the ancient world gets to archetyalism–and even there, it’s quite different–is with deified abstractions like Spes, Eirene, Ma’at, perhaps even the Muses, and so forth, who generally (though not exclusively) don’t have as much narrative or myth associated with them, though they often have a complex and very specific iconography by which they are identifiable. They are rarely synonymous with other Deities, but in a few cases may become very aligned with them (e.g. Dike and Themis). What those deified abstractions’ origins are is less clear, but since many of them (e.g. Disciplina) can appear at very specific times in history, it suggests their existence is a bit more complex and human-determinate/determined than most other varieties of Deity and Divine Being.

      • A very good point, and I think that if modern “archetypalism” were to follow more closely this ancient model, instead of attempting to arrive at a reduction of the Gods to some other category of being, it would be making a far more valuable contribution, intellectually speaking, than it is. Such entities are like the Gods in that they resist translation to some degree—the Roman concept of Spes, in just the sense that is deified, must be regarded as irreducible without remainder to the English concept of Hope, or that in any other language/culture—and also transcend psychology, narrowly construed, in the sense that they are socially constituted. A science proper to these would be a useful acquisition indeed.

  3. [Sorry–for some reason, this will not post in response to your comment, Thracian…so here it is instead.]

    Thank you for your interest, your encouragement, and your very important comments here!

    I make no particular statements about the origins of archetypes above, but I think it is worth suggesting (which I’m now going to do as a result of your highly valuable discussion here!) that unlike Deities, who appear (for the most part, with a few exceptions–e.g. deified humans, etc.) to be pre-existent, as well as other types of Divine Beings like land spirits and such, that perhaps one of the big differences between the simultaneous internality and externality of archetypes (on which more in a moment) is that likewise archetypes are not pre-existent either, but come about as a result of specific cultural forces, patterns of thought, and language…in other words, archetypes are a kind of egregore. When this egregorization (!?!) occurs, it is then that they become external entities, able to interact with others, no longer dependent on the cognitive wiring of a single individual, and thus they can then be imparted–so to speak–into other’s cognitive framework to function in ways that appear to be strictly internal. As Edward is saying below, I think it is noteworthy that archetypes are not really things that exist in most ancient cultures, and in order to recognize such a thing existing, and something which is so dependent upon such a high level (and I say that not in terms of it being “more advanced” to do so, just as something which takes that much more literal cognitive effort to theorize and thus perceive) of abstraction that it is beyond most people who are simply more aware of Deities and other Divine Beings on a simple existential level. It’s probably also the reason that so many people who are aware of such Divine Beings don’t ever need to (or want to) deal with archetypes.

    But anyway, yes…again, thank you for your excellent thoughts on this!

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