Tag Archives: ancestors


Death and Syncretism

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.


To Syncretize or Not To Syncretize…!?!

We are now in late October, when many people are either getting ready for, or have already done, something in relation to the Irish quarter-day of Samain (I use the Old Irish spellings of many terms because they taste better to me–yes, I am a synaesthete!). Those who celebrate “astrological Samain” are doing something entirely novel from the last 40 years or so, which has no basis in Irish tradition or anything remotely Celtic whatsoever; but if it works for them as a modern innovation, that’s fine, as long as they recognize it is such, and don’t say it’s the “real Samain,” since Samhain in Ireland today is the name of the month of November. So, whether you celebrate it on November 1st, or on October 31st (since in Irish reckoning, a day began with the night that preceded it), it will be coming up soon.

But, also, in the Ekklesía Antínoou, we have entered the nine-day holy tide known as the Sacred Nights of Antinous, which span from October 24th through to November 1st. The most important date in this period is October 30th, Foundation Day, which is the day that Antinous’ cultus was first founded in 130 CE and the holy city of Antinoöpolis was also founded in his honor. It is a day to honor him and remember his death and deification, and to re-deify him in our rituals and welcome him in as Antinous the Liberator.

In Irish tradition, at least as recorded in Serglige Con Culainn, “The Wasting Sickness of Cú Chulainn,” there is a period known as the “Thirds of Samain,” which encompasses the three days before Samain, the three days after Samain, and Samain itself, thus forming a seven-day festival. Of course, October 30th thus falls within the Thirds of Samain, and the Sacred Nights of Antinous generally speaking also overlap with much of it.

A reasonable-seeming person would suggest “combine your efforts in these matters.” Many modern polytheists, who have been critical of the notion of being “dual trad” and so forth (and rightly in many cases), might suggest doing likewise. In 2004, I even encountered someone in Ireland who came to our Foundation Day ritual who suggested that she thought Hadrian knew about Samain (since he had been in the northern areas of Roman Britain in 122 CE, and therefore knew “Celtic” things), and set the date of Antinous’ deification on that date around Samain purposefully, and that he likely died at some other point. While there are holes in that theory for a variety of reasons (e.g. Northern Britain did not necessarily have the same practices, month-names, or anything else that Ireland did, especially at that period; and Roman records are better on exact dates than pre-medieval Irish ones are), at the same time, for a polytheist and a syncretist to combine the holidays might seem like a good idea.

I never have done that before, and likely as not, I never will.

Granted, there is some slippage between the two in my own practices. The poem I wrote last year for the Sacred Nights of Antinous featured a Hibernian slave narrating events around the death of Antinous. When we have Foundation Day rituals, there is often a kind of “god-party” involved in it, where deities of any and all cultures are invited to take part and be honored alongside Antinous, and various Irish (and other Celtic) deities from my own practices and those of others often have been. Especially when I was in Ireland, this was the case, particularly with Cú Chulainn, who has a variety of connections to the Samain season and festival, as well as being in certain ways comparable to Antinous (a youthful death, connection to or control of the flooding of rivers, being an avid hunter, having homoerotic relationships, and connection to hounds, amongst many others).

But, other things have mitigated against me combining them in a comprehensive fashion for a variety of reasons.

The chief reason is that in polytheism, there is no such thing as “one-stop shopping,” as I’ve written in various other places before. The fact that “poly- means ‘many'” tends to suggest to me that thoughts, considerations, rituals, deities, and particular attentions to all of these should tend to increase rather than decrease, and they should rarely if ever decrease due to combination or some apparent notion of reduction being beneficial. Convenience on the part of humans should not enter into the considerations either (outside of the bare necessities and utter limitations of time and space themselves), and if it means having two rituals on two days, even if one of them is a work-day, then that’s what should happen. For the past few years, I’ve taken the day of Foundation Day off no matter what, because celebrating it on the actual calendar day is extremely important, and significant enough to warrant taking the full day for preparation and contemplation of the festival and the god.

There are other reasons, though, that are personal and particular for which I don’t combine the festivals. I’ll share one of them in relatively brief detail here. In 2010, when I was still a part of a local Celtic Reconstructionist group in Seattle, the date they decided to hold their Samain all-night vigil was on October 30th. I had to travel down to Seattle for this occasion, and was able to celebrate Foundation Day in the afternoon at one venue with several co-religionists, and then pack up and head to the house where we were having the all-night vigil just after that. I had brought something I had written on Antinous and Cú Chulainn to potentially read during the all-night storytelling that was supposed to take place. I never read it, because when I suggested that I do so, the suggestion was met with a rather deafening and negative silence. Instead, later we were treated to such things as excerpts from “Geoffrey Chaucer Hath a Blogge” and bits of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which I honestly found a bit inappropriate to the day and occasion in a variety of ways.

But, the following year, the real difficulty occurred when there was going to be a similar overlap, and I asked if it would be possible to have a short observance of Foundation Day for an hour out of the all-night vigil, the rest of which would be for the usual Irish (and other Celtic) matters. It was made known to me that certain people in the group objected to me ever mentioning Antinous during meetings or other occasions because it was a “waste of time,” as was any mention of Hanuman or Shinto on my part. As these were all things that I have a great interest in or involvement with, and had discussed over the informal dinner that would follow various meetings of the group in the past (where such edifying topics as The Venture Brothers or Cthulhu were also discussed), it seemed readily apparent to me that someone in the group had a personal problem with me and all that I was interested in, and decided to single those things out as wastes of time, while they would not even admit to having those problems with me directly.

Unfortunately, I have a bit of a geis where it comes to Antinous (now there’s some Irish-Antinoan syncretism for you!). If someone is actively hostile towards Antinous in some fashion, whether in a group or at a particular venue or event, then I cannot continue to be associated with that event, venue, or person (outside of any social or material absolute necessities) because it would be a violation of their hospitality, and even if I don’t speak of Antinous in such a setting or with such a person, he is still with me in various ways at all times by virtue of my mere physical presence. That incident, thus, ended my association with the CR group in Seattle.

Perhaps more importantly than this sordid personal history, though, there is another issue at stake. The two occasions of Samain and Foundation Day do not have themes that directly overlap without shoehorning one or the other festival into shapes that end up (if you’ll excuse the extended conceit) cutting off a few toes. Cú Chulainn was said to have had seven fingers on each hand and seven toes on each foot, and while that is unusual enough and cause for wonderment and marveling, and would make it hard to find standard shoes or gloves, it would thus not be wise to say “Sorry, you can’t come to our house unless you wear normal shoes and gloves, so you’ll have to cut off a few fingers and toes to make us more comfortable.”

Samain in the beginning of the Irish year, and is a time for divination and getting oneself in right relationship with the Otherworld. It is also a time when supernatural incursions into this world are likely, and thus the tribe comes together in solidarity for a feast and for mutual protection, which is why people stayed up all night in a vigil–doing so was especially effective in protecting the king from dangers that might befall him in sleep or dreams. Some people think that Samain is the time for honoring ancestors, which is not strictly true as far as Irish customs and lore are concerned until much later, and this is due to Christian influence with All Saints and All Souls Days in early November, and has little to nothing to do with actual Irish (or wider Celtic) practices associated with this time, at least as far as we can tell from the extant sources. (In modern paganism in the U.S., it is also due to cultural appropriation of Day of the Dead celebrations.) Honoring one’s ancestors is a good thing to do at any and all times throughout the year; suggesting it should be done only on this holy day, or especially on it, is not very good ancestor-worshipping methodology nor is it in line with what is known of “strictly non-Christian” Irish practice. If one has no problem with incorporating Christian syncretistic elements into those practices, however (which Irish and Scottish folk custom has done, definitely!), then one certainly can and should, and should also admit that this is where these things come from and that one is a practitioner of Christian-Irish polytheist syncretism.

Foundation Day is the beginning of a particular cultus that arose out of the tragic death and traditional Egyptian deification of a human, and the foundation of a city with that human as its eponymous hero. Death and deification (which is not the same thing as “resurrection” or “rebirth,” though rejuvenation is certainly a part of it) is a part of the festival intrinsically, and the possibility that this fate can await all of us is also hoped for. While sacred space (in terms of the city of Antinoöpolis) and sacred time, as well as “beginnings,” are thus a part of the festivities, it’s not quite the same as Samain as the “new year,” nor of the interpenetration of the Otherworld with this world implied by the Irish holy day.

Differences and distinctions are important to recognize in polytheism. Thus, papering over such differences for human convenience, and not having to have two big feasts or two big rituals as a result, is not what polytheism is all about, nor what syncretism should be used for. Making easy equations of “death” and “the supernatural,” “new year” and “beginnings of things,” and the famous deeds and near-death or actual death experiences of particular heroes (Cú Chulainn as far as near-death at Samain, and Antinous as far as actual death before Foundation Day), might seem clever to one extent or another, but it doesn’t necessarily make for good polytheist ritual praxis, or for contented deities and heroes. Cú Chulainnn always has a place at the feast of Foundation Day, and Antinous always has a seat around the fire for Samain, at least as far as I can see it and as my practices have occurred, and as the deities involved seem to suggest; but neither Antinous nor Cú Chulainn and all of the Irish deities and heroes are going to call their festivals off in favor of just combining with those of the other on the day before or after. It would be just as rude for someone whose birthday was the day before or after yours to suggest to you that you call off your own celebration and simply come to their party instead as it would be to tell either the Irish gods or Antinous and his divine companions that their day is being downsized into someone else’s whether they like it or not.

There are many gods in polytheism, which means there are many ritual obligations and cultural involvements (depending on the person who is involved in polytheism). Rather than seeing this as any kind of inconvenience or extra effort on behalf of humans, it should instead be seen as an opportunity to show how serious one is about one’s traditions and one’s deities, to honor both or each or all according to propriety and custom and tradition as fully as possible and expected given one’s circumstances. If it takes three efforts to please two gods, then it is worth each of those efforts being done as well as possible.