It’s the kind of early autumn day where the sky is a bland and unremarkable grey, and against this backdrop the leaves slowly reveal their inner fires of crimson and gold. A nearby mountain, what I can see of it beyond a black painted chain link fence and a row of tall black maples, has begun to change its robe from summer emerald to autumn finery. The mountain looks like a many-humped dragon curling in a peculiar crescent shape moving, curving, from east to west. There are some ruins atop one of the humps—the one that is furthest east. There are sheer rusted bare faces on the hump that is westernmost. I was curious recently about the ruins so I looked about on the internet: they are the remains of an old vacation resort which burned down. That interested me, but what interested me more was that these ruins were listed as being on a mountain other than the one I looked up.
Turns out what I thought was one mountain with many undulating humps is actually two separate mountains. There is no fence, no wall, no definitive boundary-carving valley, no river, no major change in the types of trees, no visual marker whatsoever that tells me that this here is one mountain and that there is a different mountain. And yet…they are not the same mountain. Clearly there are ruins on one mountain, and rusted, aged bare cliffs on the other mountain. The mountain with the cliffs does not have the ruins, the mountain with the ruins does not have the cliffs. One mountain is named for an American Indian of long ago, and the other is named for a white man of long ago.
Because there’s no fence, no wall, no definite boundary marking one mountain from the other, it is easiest to tell them apart when I start at either end and work towards the center. It’s that nebulous territory in the center when things get a bit squiffy and it’s not easy to tell which mountain is which. Indeed they’re merged at that point—both mountains at once. But just because a boundary is nebulous, not hard and fast, does not mean that the boundary isn’t there. Just because a boundary is mutable, changeable, and without a line down the middle doesn’t mean that it isn’t there. At some point there is overlap. At some point one mountain and the other mountain have merged. At some point in the middle it is both mountains at the same time. Yet just because there is a point of overlap where a hiker could experience being on both mountains at the same time, it does not mean that they are the same mountain. They are not, and to know this all you have to do is to look, again, at the east end with the ruins and the west end with the cliffs. Points overlap, yet areas of merging do not make two things into the same thing.
Being both things at once does not mean both things must be the same thing. Think of it this way: if I were to ask you if a zebra is black or white, you’d tell me that the zebra is both. If I further try to press you into telling me if the creature is black or white, you’ll only get more frustrated because you know the zebra is both black and white at the same time. Thus it is with these two mountains in the center where they come together.
It is easy to confuse an overlap itself for the beings that are in the association together. The overlap is not the two beings themselves, it is just simply an overlap. It’s not so easy to look at the situation and realize that the two beings are not the same being, and they are not either one being or the other at this merged point. Instead, at this merged point, they are both beings. They are not the same being. They are not one being or the other being. They are both beings. They are both there at the same time. Sometimes an overlap or a relationship is confused, mistaken, as evidence of “oneness” instead of as evidence of an interrelationship between beings, a very local overlap, even a symbiosis, which happens to and with specific beings in specific contexts.
When we see two beings merged in this way, it causes our brains to form painful little exclamation marks in clouds near our heads like what you see in an anime when a character has a rough time accepting something that just happened. It’s difficult for us to resolve in our minds. We want the situation to look like either one mountain or the other mountain with a nice wall down the middle, neat, tidy, not nebulous. Or, in a similar effort to resolve this mental tension, we want to see the mountains as just one mountain—the same mountain—neat, tidy, no longer a need for nebulousness. We want to throw away what appears to us as nebulousness instead of confronting it and dealing with it; problem is we’re supposed to deal with it, we’re supposed to work through it.
Seeing the mountains as the same one mountain, or seeing it as definitively one mountain or the other, seems to cause the little hamsters that power the wheels-of-thinking in our brains to calm down, it causes the little anime exclamation point to evaporate. But it’s a calm based on a forced and erroneous conclusion because it’s not an accurate assessment. We can still have that calm while looking at the situation-as-it-is, it just requires a little bit of flexible mental yoga, thinking in a way we’re often not used to but is not as difficult as we sometimes make it out to be.
The mountains strangely make me think of “Brangelina.” Brangelina is not one person, not the same, and certainly not the same person. Look at the two ends again: at Brad, then at Angelina. Although it’s a nifty to acknowledge Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie together in a relationship with a catchy name of “Brangelina,” it is folly to forget that although they operate in relation together merged as a singular unit sometimes, they also have separate identities that function outside of that unit. They have separate individual identities that function outside of that relationship as well as within it. You can take photographs of Brad separate from photos of Angelina, and you can take photos of them together; you can potentially have conversations with one or the other, or with both at the same time.
If Brad and Angelina were stuffed together in the same very large t-shirt for some media stunt, you couldn’t see where Angelina ended and Brad began. However, you still know that although in a relationship together and although in a t-shirt together where their boundaries appear nebulous, they are both Brad and Angelina—two different beings together. Again, look at Brad, then look at Angelina, and work your way to the center. You can’t see them as completely separate because that big t-shirt obscures your view, but even if you can’t see and don’t know where one person ends and the other begins, it doesn’t mean that Brad and Angelina don’t know. They are individual people together merged in a relationship and merged in a t-shirt, without being the same person and without being obviously one person or the other. They are Brad and Angelina, in the state of being individuals and in the state of being together, and they are in both of these states simultaneously. They are in both of these states without losing their individuality and without being completely separated with an easy-to-see boundary between them.
Also, it almost goes without saying that if Brad Pitt were in a relationship with Nicole Kidman, the relationship they would have together would be totally different, Bracole would not be the same as Brangelina, even though we’re still dealing with Brad Pitt. Brad Pitt would, however, still be Brad Pitt even if he exhibits different personality traits while in a relationship with Nicole. If Angelina Jolie were in a relationship with Ashton Kutcher, Ashelina would be totally different from Brangelina, too, and yet again, it is still the same Angelina Jolie, even if she may exhibit different aspects of her personality with Ashton than she does with Brad.
In a situation of syncretized deities, or perhaps even deities “translated” through interpretatio romana and interpretatio graeca, deities may appear and be as two merged deities. This can also apply to deities merged with localities and local land deities, or deities who have particular idiosyncrasies when they come forth in one locale and different idiosyncrasies when they come forth in another locale. Like Brangelina above, this does not mean that the beings connected are the same deity, and it does not mean that they must be clearly either this deity or that deity. It often means that the deities are in the state of being individuals and in the state of being together. The deities are in both of these states simultaneously, without losing their individuality and without being completely separated with an easy-to-see boundary between them. And like Bracole or Ashelina above, a deity may exhibit different aspects of his or her personality when in a merger or syncretism with a different deity or locale.
This does not mean that everyone’s interpretation and experience of every deity everywhere is always right. It’s not. A hyper-relativistic view which insists that each person’s own viewpoint is automatically “correct” for the reasons that someone has that view and we want to avoid the conflict that comes from trying to sort out differences, understandings, and misunderstandings, misplaces the matter entirely. It’s not about how we view the deities, instead it has to do with how the deities are. Whether or not we view the deities accurately and relay that information accurately are different matters entirely and must be considered and weighed individually from the matter of how the deities are, as well as in relation to how the deities are.
With syncretized deities, or deities that appear one way when merged with one locale and another way in another locale, sometimes it is challenging to know who is whom. In a syncretism, you may not know where one deity ends and another begins because the boundaries are not hard and fast, but this does not mean that the deities are the same one being, and it does not mean that the deities must be either one deity or the other deity clearly separated by a visible wall. It’s like the two mountains with a merged middle ground between them where they are both mountains at once. It’s like Brangelina in a big t-shirt.