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?