It often amazes me how words get used incorrectly. I enjoy puns probably far more than the next person (such that I speak of “pottery readings,” “remaining clam,” seeing “pigments of the imagination,” and so forth regularly!), and a clever replacement of a similar word in a stock phrase can often create results far more profound than simple amusement at cleverness.
However, it seems that a lot of people within both general paganism and modern polytheism misunderstand the term “syncretism,” and speak of deities “synchronizing” with each other (which they can do, but that means “at the same time,” as opposed to anything necessitated by theological or methodological syncretism), amongst many other possibilities, including mistaken usage of the words “synthesize,” “symmetry,” and others, in addition to misspellings of the term (e.g. “syncratic,” as if a particular culture is idiosyncratic in its perceptions of a particular deity, etc.). This happens with other terms as well: the immanence of deities is often mistaken for their imminence (i.e. happening soon) or their eminence (i.e. being noticeable and noteworthy), and while all three can certainly apply, when the specific issue at hand is the accessibility of the experiences of a given deity, the deity’s bigness or its looming immediacy is not the main focus.
Just over four years ago, I wrote a piece on my blog called “Nuancing Syncretism” which ended up getting quite a few comments (a rarity for me!). In it, I attempted to differentiate the adjectives “syncretic” and “syncretistic,” both of which are considered grammatically and linguistically viable forms in English, and yet neither one has any particularly recognized or acknowledged shade of nuance which distinguishes their definitions or potential usages. I then attempted to use these attempted distinctions in other pieces, including a presentation at PantheaCon in 2012, a course I have taught, and even in one of my books, but in practice afterwards, I have not adhered to the shades of nuance I was attempting to theorize in my own usages, both on my own blog as well as here and elsewhere in contexts where I have had occasion to discuss syncretism.
However, on further reflection, I think a more useful distinction of definitions between “syncretic” and “syncretistic” can be suggested, and it is one that I hope to observe more assiduously in my own future usages.
In theorizing on this, I might draw readers’ attentions to a slight difference observed in some sectors of religious studies between two different types of belief involved in animism. Some scholars observe a difference between animism–the cosmology which suggests there is a spirit in everything, and thus there is no such thing as a truly “inanimate object”–and animatism (a term which spell-check hates!), which is animism but goes one step further, in a sense, and equates objects to the spiritual essence inhabiting them. Thus, a volcanic rock from Hawai’i may not just have the spirit of a particular deity or landform in it, it is that spirit, or at least has a part of it (and as a result should not be removed from the island!). All animatists, therefore, would be animists, whereas not all animists are automatically animatists.
While the morphological differences in “syncretic” and “syncretistic” may be somewhat parallel, my present suggestions for how to differentiate their usages is of a different sort. Yet, “syncretic” and “syncretistic” also cannot be separated from each other either in what follows. Religions that are “syncretistic” are also “syncretic,” but often frown upon syncretism generally (after a certain point); but while some “syncretic” religions have “syncretistic” origins, they tend not to be “syncretistic” strictly speaking for long periods of time.
What do I mean by the above?
I’d like to suggest that syncretic is an adjective best applied to a wide variety of religions, which are usually indigenous in context, animistic in outlook and cosmology, and polytheistic in practice…and, most often, all three of these things (which are never mutually exclusive, in any case!). Religions which have syncretic elements are able to incorporate new influences from other cultures, and thus new deities (whether they are imported from elsewhere and are localized, or are new developments within their own mythologies, cosmologies, and theologies), new practices, and all sorts of other novel or emerging elements without any difficulty. Most of the ancient indigenous polytheistic religions the world over have thus had syncretic elements. The cultus of Serapis in Egypt and Greece, the cultus of Sabazios in Thrace and eventually Greek and Roman cultures, and the cultus of Antinous in Greece, Rome, and Egypt are examples of phenomena which are syncretic in nature. The development of the cultus of Isis in Egypt, which was both intra- and inter-pantheonic in its syncretism, is a syncretic cultus. Hinduism is likewise syncretic, and can incorporate elements from other religions, as well as new developments within itself, quite easily. Shinto had no problem incorporating aspects of Buddhism, Taoism, and even Christianity (in the form of some saints who were turned into kami) at some shrines. And Buddhism itself remains highly syncretic, able to accommodate itself into or alongside a diverse range of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices with no difficulty whatsoever. The examples of this could be multiplied extensively, but I hope the basic premise here is clear: the syncretic element is an ongoing one in a wide variety of religions that are often polytheistic in outlook or practice.
My suggestion for syncretistic differs slightly, in that it does not refer to an ongoing process or particular elements in a religion, but instead refers to the origins of certain religions. Syncretistic religions, thus, are religions that would not and could not exist without syncretism occurring (both theologically and methodologically). These religions, thus, tend not to be indigenous religions, whose origins in the distant past are often entirely unknown and specific times, places, or founding figures cannot be pointed towards in their geneses; even if one of those variables can be narrowed down, the other two (and others) generally remain unknown or uncertain. Syncretistic religions emerge in definite historical periods, and tend to seek to distinguish themselves from earlier religions; and yet, not all newer religions are syncretistic, while some remain syncretic or have syncretic tendencies. As an example, Christianity is not simply a (failed!) Jewish messianic movement turned into a creedal monotheistic religion of salvation; various forms of Christianity, both in its first few centuries as well as after, incorporated elements of Greek philosophy and mystery traditions, gnostic ideas and practices, and a variety of other influences, including the transformation of some deities and heroes in various polytheistic cultures into saints and the adoption of some holy days and practices into Christian sacramental and liturgical life. At different times and in different places, Christianity’s syncretistic origins have seemed to continue, and it allows for syncretic innovations; but in general, syncretism is frowned upon in most forms of Christianity, despite the religion’s origins themselves being syncretistic. Islam, likewise, is a fusion of Arabic cultural norms and some practices from their polytheistic origins with a re-interpretation of Christian monotheism and a heavy reinterpretation of Judaism as well, which would make it syncretistic, even though it also thinks of syncretic innovations as being amongst the most dire and inexcusable of errors and sins. The Sikh religion is also syncretistic in its origins, having developed within a context where Islamic theological and Hindu practical elements combined in a new revelation to Guru Nanak in his founding of the new faith. Examples could also be extended here to many other religions, including more recent ones like Baha’i, Cao Dai, and Wicca. What makes a religion syncretistic, thus, is that it originates in the ferment of two or more religions even where it radically innovates or even deviates from the established practices of the ones which came before it.
Returning to my suggestion above, that religions that are syncretistic are also by (the above-suggested!) definition syncretic, but often frown upon syncretism generally, is demonstrated by Christianity and Islam, but not by Wicca, for example. Likewise, some syncretic religions may have syncretistic origins, but this is generally hard to determine (e.g. some indigenous cultures develop from the mutual influences of two or more earlier cultures existing in the same geographic areas), but nonetheless they tend not to be classed as syncretistic, strictly speaking (as defined above!) for very long periods of time. The ancient Greek religion that is most recognizable in its quasi-panhellenic forms was itself the result of influences not only from the Indo-Europeans encountering the Myceneans, but also Thraco-Anatolian, Near Eastern, and a wide variety of other religions, and yet we tend not to classify it as syncretistic, even though it continues to have many syncretic elements as time goes on. The same is true of Roman religion, and all of the Celtic and Germanic religions of which we have any knowledge. There are certainly individual cults within different polytheistic religions that are syncretistic in origin–the ones mentioned above, namely Serapis, Sabazios, Antinous, and Isis (which is only a small sampling)–but their existence does not mean that the polytheistic cultures in which they emerge or are adopted are, at that point, syncretistic in general, according to the distinctions outlined above. Those cults did not differentiate themselves from the wider polytheism in which they existed, even if they are syncretistic in their own origins, which demonstrates that what is syncretistic is not a priori opposed to what is syncretic, and the two can exist easily and happily within one another.
Thus, what is syncretistic is usually an outgrowth of what is syncretic, even though what is syncretic can be deemed at odds with a religion with syncretistic origins.
It is realized that the matters discussed here, to many people (including those with a vested interest in these issues as important components of their own theological outlooks or practices), may simply appear as irrelevant hair-splitting, and that many may not wish to adopt this usage or to respect the suggestions made herein. That is not really my concern, and it is entirely up to any individual whether or not they find these suggestions useful or their future employment expedient. If your responses to or comments about the above amount to a disagreement–for whatever reason–with the premises of my suggestion, then I would request that you outline your own views on the matter in a convenient spot elsewhere online, linking to the present discussion, rather than attempting to tell me why you think I’m
irrelevant, stupid, and wrong in the comments below. While I am an important voice in discussing syncretism within modern polytheism, I do not seek to control the discourse on this matter, nor to dictate to anyone what their own usages should be. I am attempting to provide useful options here, and elsewhere, and if you feel that I am accomplishing that, I’d appreciate your feedback indicating such. If you do disagree, then I look forward to reading your own explanations of how you think these terms might be better employed, if indeed they should be at all, in your own blogging spaces elsewhere.