My title on this column echoes the phrase often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, from a letter of 1789, which read (in full): “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” (emphasis mine). However, Daniel Defoe said it even earlier than Franklin, in 1726: “Things as certain as Death and Taxes, can be more firmly believed.” There have been many clever and not-so-clever variations on this phrase over the years, though it must be said that it is a very “first-world,” capitalist statement, because there are many indigenous societies that did not (and still don’t) have anything like taxes.
But–and I’m sure you’ve guessed this by now!–I think we can add something to the relatively short list of the inevitables of life, which mostly consists of “death,” with the concept of syncretism. Whether you like it or not, chances are some of the religious practices, theological concepts, deities, or other matters of a spiritual nature are probably the results of syncretism; indeed, with several cultures, it is only via people outside of a certain religion documenting myths of earlier cultures (which they inevitably shape based on their own cultural biases and interests, languages, and so forth) that has given us any information at all about certain deities or narratives, and thus even looking at them now presumes syncretism to some degree or another. It is a reality that one should either accustom oneself to, or give up the endeavor entirely if one thinks that some sort of cultural, linguistic, or theological “purity” is desirable, or even remotely achievable.
However (or, yet another ‘but’!), my purpose today is not to expand upon the inevitability of syncretism, it is to instead discuss how death and syncretism can actually go together and can become factors in each other’s functioning. It is probably not surprising that I have some thoughts on this topic, given that Antinous’ death is what made him into a hero and a god; and furthermore, the Irish tradition is full of individuals (both human and divine) who, even if they are important ancestors after their deaths, often became spirits of place to an extent, tying their own genealogies to the genealogy of the landscape and its varying names and identifications and histories over the course of being inhabited for ages upon ages. It was Antinous’ death that made him a god, and that allowed him to be syncretized to other deities in turn. In wider Egyptian tradition, though, syncretism to Osiris for any of the justified dead was commonplace, as anyone familiar with the Book of Coming Forth By Day is aware.
It is not just gods, heroes, or land spirits that one might become syncretized to in death, though. In fact, in certain remarkable cases, death itself might be the locus of a particular syncretism for some individuals. The Greeks had a concept not only of the keres, spirits of fated violent death (often in battle), but of the Goddess who oversees all of these, Ker. An individual’s death may be long-fated, and thus the one among the keres who will be the spirit of that violent death may be waiting for a long time, and the Greek gods are often said to keep them at bay for some period of time during difficulties for the individual encountered; but, at some point, that violent death will arrive, and the ker of that individual’s fated violent death will no longer be distant, and will in essence “join” with them at the moment of death, bringing about their death. What happens to that individual ker at that point is never specified, and whether these get “recycled” or repurposed, under the direction of Ker, after bringing about the violent death of the person thus fated seems a likely possibility, just as the souls of that person who has been fated to a violent death then go onwards to whatever lies after their life for them, simply as ancestors, heroes, enduring torments, or having another existence (and none of these possibilities invalidates the others also happening, particularly if there are multiple souls or soul-parts involved).
It may also be possible that the keres and other afflicting spirits or daimones may persist with the individual involved, and might even become linked to them for a longer period. Some of my own experiences suggest this might be the case, and that a particular affliction in life and its accompanying spirit might persist with a person after their death, causing them pain and torment. Removal of that afflicting being from the soul or soul-part of the person would have been accomplished by observing the correct burial and funerary practices in many other cultures, and still does go on in indigenous cultures today, but most of our so-called “Western” funerary customs have shifted away from even considering that they may have an impact on the dead person, and instead are shifted in emphasis for remembering the person’s life, and making their living friends and relatives feel better now, rather than ensuring the continuation and spiritual health of the person in their afterlife. This is one of the reasons that practices falling under the most broad and culturally-inclusive rubric of ancestor elevation are both useful and necessary to take into consideration, not only for our ancestors who have already died, but which should be done for anyone and everyone in the modern polytheist communities at their deaths.
Indeed, planning and arranging for this should be a priority for all of us, so that whatever family complications or apparent obligations might arise for a person when their death arrives, there is someone (or, preferably, a community of someones!) who is looking after their spiritual health once they have died. It might even be useful to start some sort of registry or listing in this regard, giving permission before one’s death for polytheist colleagues, known and unknown, near and far, to perform rituals like ancestor elevation and other similar processes for one after death. The issue of whether or not a particular ancestor wants to be honored or venerated or elevated has been raised recently in relation to the Trans* Ancestors Ritual of Elevation, and consent in every area of life (and death) is an extremely important matter to pay attention to and actively seek, certainly. Having a kind of “standing order,” however, on this matter for the wider community, as modern polytheists, might be very useful indeed in making sure that people’s wishes are not only observed, but known in the first place. Why have a lot of guesswork at some later stage when clarity and a large degree of certainty can be achieved now?
With the notion of death and syncretism, it becomes the responsibility of one’s community, family, friends, and loved ones, as well as any well-wishers who did not know someone, to help ensure that the negative forms of syncretism that can occur with death do not happen, and to encourage some of the positive ones via the spiritual technologies each has at its disposal, or which have been (respectfully!) borrowed and adapted from another culture to one’s own context. Life is very short, and the fame and accolades one might be able to enjoy during life are also fleeting; but death and one’s existence after it lasts much longer, and doing all possible to ensure that one’s existence after death is positive should not solely be thought of as in the hands of oneself. Our communities, our own ancestors, and perhaps most importantly, our Deities, are intimately involved in the process, and doing everything possible to strengthen positive relationships with each of these groups (and others as well) while we are still alive is extremely important as far as one’s overall outlook as a modern polytheist.