Tag Archives: Greek


Is There A Difference Between “Syncretic” and “Syncretistic”?: A Suggestion

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.


A Syncretistic Saturnalia

I don’t know if it is coincidence or not (and I’m not sure I believe that “coincidence” actually happens–!?!), but it seems that people seem like they’re a little bit “off” these days, and it really started to happen hot and heavy as of December 17th, when Saturnalia began. Saturnalia is one of the great “feasts of reversal,” so to speak, when the Golden Age of humanity returns again, kings serve slaves, slaves are crowned as kings, and all sorts of mirth and games are afoot.

And, apparently, people lose their minds, too.

Whether one ascribes it to our mania of over-commercialization and the holiday excesses of food, money, and enforced family gatherings and the dramatic stresses they create, or the secular-skewering-religious-while-religious-tries-to-skewer-back overculture’s general atmosphere at the present time of year, or just the weather and the season, or the Roman festival’s arrival, it’s a very strange time of year. I will not say it’s the “Most Wonderful Time” by any stretch of the imagination, and I’ll say that even less the more that song gets played; but, I find myself looking at my festival calendar, and there’s all sorts of things going on from a variety of different traditions.

In the Ekklesía Antínoou, there are various threads to follow–Greek, Roman, and Egyptian, for starters. We honor the Roman by celebrating the seven nights of Saturnalia themselves (and some other Roman festivals that fall within that time), as well as the birth of Sol Invictus on the 25th–on which more in a few moments. Saturn, Ceres, and Bacchus were all honored during the wider period of Brumalia, a Winter Solstice festival that could commence as early as November 24th, and each of them are honored during our Saturnalia feasts. Some of us honor the Greek tradition by a modern nine-night festival called Heliogenna, but for me it comes forth most in the Graeco-Thracian festival of Nyx, Mother Night, which is on Winter Solstice itself. Further, the main syncretism of Antinous to Dionysos is also celebrated on Winter Solstice, and a further Graeco-Egyptian dimension is brought in by honoring him as syncretized to Harpocrates on that day as well.

But, from my various Celtic practices, there are further dimensions about these days. The birth of Cú Chulainn also happens on Winter Solstice (gosh, EVERYONE wants to be in on that one, don’t they?). And, one of the only Gaulish festivals that we have record of in Roman practice, the Eponalia, happens on December 18th, since she was eventually incorporated into Roman practice after the long period of conquest and then colonization of Gaul as a mother goddess and a goddess beloved of the cavalry. While this could just be a random date chosen by the Romans to honor this foreign goddess, I suspect there may be more to it than that. In my own personal musings on the timing of this date, I am reminded that Cú Chulainn had strong connections to horses as well as hounds, and his comparanda in other Celtic cultures were likewise mothered by horse goddesses, and so perhaps there is more at work here than can be discerned with certainty by the source-aware eye.

Undoubtedly, there will be lots of people–both in paganism and in the wider culture–that will be talking about how Christmas is just a Christianization of an older pagan solar festival, and usually Mithras comes into the discussion at some point as well. It is one of the points of the year where Christians are willing to concede that many of their own most beloved practices are the results of early syncretisms of their movement with what was going on in the wider Roman polytheistic world. (Indeed, decorated trees at this time of year probably come from Saturnalia practices.) That’s certainly true of Christianity, and illustrates the irony that many religions which have historically been most opposed to syncretism have often been extremely good at doing it themselves, especially in their earlier periods. But, on this particular score, it doesn’t seem to pan out on closer scrutiny, which few people actually want to engage in on these matters, whether they are on the pro-pagan side or not.

The Romans used to honor a god called Sol Indigenes, the “Native Sun,” who had a feast on August 9th, and may have also been the recipient of the Agonalia sacrifice of a goat on December 11th. There was no major or active syncretism, however, of Sol Indigenes to the Greek Helios that is visible to archaeologists or scholars of religion.

Then there was that whole thing with Elagabulus, the teenage Syrian Roman Emperor (whose comics, action figures, and films you should eagerly watch for!) of the Severan Dynasty, who brought the cultus of the Syro-Roman Sol Invictus Elagabulus to Rome, and attempted to impose a kind of pagan monotheism with it in the early 3rd century CE. That left a very bad taste in the Romans’ mouths for a few decades after his assassination, though probably as much from his rather excessive and hedonistic lifestyle and his disregard for other Roman social customs than the specific matters of religion.

It was not until the principate of Aurelian in the mid-3rd century CE that a state-sponsored cultus of Sol Invictus, stripped of any specifically Syrian associations, was commenced, and continued for the rest of late antiquity, and began celebrating his birth on December 25th. The first high priest of the cult was one Virius Lupus, interestingly enough (though I’m not named after him, but an earlier person of that name who was a governor of Britannia during the reign of Septimius Severus…which is another story!). You can read more about all of this in Gaston Halsberghe’s book The Cult of Sol Invictus (Leiden: Brill, 1972).

A few decades before the time of Elagabulus, however, Tertullian of Carthage–one of the important Christian church fathers–reported that the Feast of the Annunciation was celebrated on March 25th. The Annunciation is the occasion of Jesus’ conception by Mary, and thus nine months from then would be the reasonable time to expect that Jesus would be born. Thus, some Christian churches were potentially celebrating his birth on December 25th decades before the birth of the Sun–native or otherwise–was marked by the Romans. It is important, when facts like this are known by polytheists, to admit and acknowledge them without any major fuss. It does our traditions no good at all to always cloak them in the authority of hoary antiquity when it can sometimes be proven that such is not the case. To disabuse oneself of the notion that “older” = “better” where all things polytheistic are concerned is a very good step. Doing so, likewise, helps to shed some of the objectifying tendencies we have toward our own traditions, to think of them as “pure” and “ancestral,” and in doing so thinking of them in manners half-a-step short of the distorting and romantic notions of the “noble savage” who did things prompted not by history and its often political and social circumstances but instead by nature and the “timeless” existence of ancient peoples as well as still-living indigenous cultures.

And Mithras? There is no evidence that his birth was celebrated on December 25th or anywhere near it. Of the various relics left to us by the cultus of Mithras, a cult calendar was not one of them. It is only via his apparent mythic narrative connections to and occasional syncretism with Helios in early iconography, understood at later periods to be “the same as” the Roman Sol Invictus (even though Mithras’ cultus in the Mediterranean exists at least three centuries before that of Sol Invictus), that such suggestions come about. These get erroneously misunderstood by those who aren’t aware of the actual chronologies involved. This suggestion was especially made in scholarship of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when much was made of the “rivalry” of the Mithraic cultus to Christianity and the supposed similarities between the two–many of which were entirely invented, and which are still used by atheists to discredit Christianity’s “originality” despite there being no substance to them at all. It behooves us to know the specifics on these matters so that the discussions of both atheist and Christian interlocutors can be corrected when such points are raised either for or against their particular theological positions, or our own.

Rather than ending this multi-syncretistic reflection on the holy tides of different cultures at this time of year with a set of good wishes to all, no matter what they celebrate–which is what you’d expect, isn’t it?–I’ll instead make a suggestion in line with what I’ve just outlined. Saturnalia is a time of reversals. so it is said. Those of us who make our livings at educational institutions usually enjoy a break–however long or short it may be–between our scholastic or collegiate terms at this time of year, when the last thing we might want to be doing is reading and studying. Enjoy the holiday parties and rituals, and hold some of your own, I’d advise those who are in a similar boat. And, for those who are not used to making friends with books and libraries and the spirits that haunt them? Make it a point to take a few moments when you’re indoors (from the dark and cold of winter in the Northern Hemisphere; or, a few moments out of the sun and in the shade in the Southern Hemisphere!) to pick up a book or a trusted and vetted internet source and find out more about the specifics of whatever holiday tradition you celebrate, whether of ancient provenance or of more modern vintage, and understand that holidays and the history of them happen in real time, with real people under real circumstances deciding to commemorate the turning of the seasons and the gods associated with them in particular ways. Holy days, not unlike syncretism generally, happen with real people in real historical situations, and it can be a wonderful and indeed important way of honoring the ancestors of your spiritual tradition to find out not only what they did, but what historical circumstances lead them to begin doing so in the ways of which we are now aware so many centuries (or smaller spans of time) from their origins.