Tag Archives: Osiris


Plutarchian Syncretism: Can We Unite Without Being Cretans (and Cretins)?

It’s been an interesting couple of weeks–at least for me–in terms of the wider dialogues in the modern polytheist communities. There have been difficult discussions which have been necessary, and likewise there have been moments where good intentions and motives on various sides of different debates have lead down less-productive paths. As is the case with so many minority groups deprived of privilege, we are often left scrambling for what scraps we can manage, and often we scramble against one another in the process, for a variety of both legitimate (because true and valid), less legitimate (but often just as true or valid), and entirely selfish reasons (which nonetheless we often acknowledge and do not begrudge one another because we understand the natures of one another’s struggles, even if in a given moment or on a given issue we feel we must defend our own position).

I said to Sannion in a comment on his response to a post and comments I had made what follows:

I also wonder if, in our hunger for understanding and community (which many of us have, anyway), we end up being at each other’s throats rather than having each other’s backs simply because we just want people to touch us but have not figured out how to ask for that, if that makes any sense. Hmm…

While this small thought could be taken in a variety of directions, all of which would be useful, I think it does point out something which too many of us have downgraded as a priority within modern polytheism: yes, the Deities are paramount in importance, and they can touch us in all sorts of different ways, but sometimes we need divine beings in our lives who (as I heard a child quoted in a Catholic sermon long ago express) “have skin on,” which is somethingSarenth discussed on a podcast recently. While other humans may not be deities, they are potentially divine beings with whom interactions matter for reasons far more significant, often, than what we might otherwise refer to as “mere community-building.” As humans, we have divine capacities, but we are also mammals, and we love being touched, including in casual social ways. The presence of a number of Deities can only be felt, or can be greatly intensified, when encountered amongst and amidst and within other people, which is one of many reasons why community is important in polytheism. If a given Deity of our devotions is interested in, say, warfare or communication or language, we often go to great lengths as devotees to pursue those interests, or at least acknowledge and respect them. It stands to reason that if Deities also find humans interesting and worthwhile enough to interact with, then we should probably find other humans interesting and worthwhile to interact with as well, and if our Deities are touching us spiritually, they may also want to touch and be touched by us in and through the presence of other humans.

One of the many ideas mentioned at the Polytheist Leadership Conference last summer that particularly resonated with me and has come up again and again in my own thoughts since then is something Raven Kaldera said in his opening statement in the final panel at the conference, which I moderated. In essence, he said that diverse groups of people coming together have usually had one of two results: either they come together in conflict that does not seek to lessen the differences between them; or, in favor of peaceful interactions, their differences are lessened and watered-down for the purposes of pursuing common goals. However, he noted that the Polytheist Leadership Conference was perhaps one of the first times in known (and certainly recent) history where a diverse group of people has come together, has sought to preserve their differences and to truly respect diversity, and yet to also try to work toward common goals. While other interfaith movements have sought to do this, the majority (monotheist) voices amongst them still tend to dominate and insist on a monistic understanding of deities in order to facilitate everyone getting along. Modern polytheism (and in this respect, it is very much unlike mainstream paganism) cannot ever do that, and has never sought to do so. But, the possibility of working together is not a potential option or a matter to consider any longer, it is becoming a necessity.

This brings me back to something I discussed in one of my first columns here, namely thePlutarchian etymology of syncretism, which I explain there in the following fashion:

It comes from the Greek root syn (“with, together with”) added to Kretismos, “as the Cretans do.” It was used first by Plutarch to describe the way in which the Cretans ignored their various local differences in order to band together for common causes. Thus, many things that are positive, and many movements that have done something similar in order to achieve good results for a diversity of individuals, are doing syncretism. In that definition, the modern umbrella movement of Paganism can be considered syncretism, as can the present website, polytheist.com, since it is not seeking to create an orthodoxy of or amongst polytheists, but instead is a resource for bringing many different people and traditions together in conversation and solidarity for the good of all. Even if you do not agree that syncretism applies to all forms of polytheism, thus, you can certainly say that it applies to all the efforts here at polytheist.com!

While Edward Butler’s caveats and suggestions on the etymology (given in the comments on that post) are excellent and should be taken into account, he also did quip on that occasion:

But perhaps I’m not giving due credit to just how impressive it was for Cretans to put enmities aside for a common purpose!

While that may or may not be the case, nonetheless it seems an almost insurmountable obstacle in modern times to find polytheists who line up in terms of their prioritization of–as only a few examples among many–religious matters as opposed to politics and social movements, community-building as opposed to deepening individual devotion, building infrastructure as opposed to critiquing and avoiding it, being paid money for skilled spiritual services as opposed to doing all such things for free, or respecting and rebuilding hierarchies as opposed to demolishing them and their vestiges wherever they may be found. Recognition for and honoring of diversity is a hallmark of the modern polytheist movement (at least in ideal), and valuing what everyone has to bring to the table in terms of viewpoints, skills, interests, and the like is an excellent methodology, not only in terms of inter- and intra-religious community dynamics (which both apply within modern polytheism), but in life generally speaking. But, what if those different ideas are ones that completely clash and can never be reconciled or compromised over? Should we even want them to be? As the Anomalous Thracian has said on several occasions, compromise is a lose-lose situation (despite how often it is lauded), and no one wants their health, integrity, or many other things to be “compromised.”

On that same panel with Raven Kaldera at the Polytheist Leadership Conference, Edward Butler said something that was likewise extremely important on a theological level, but perhaps it can be applied on an interpersonal level as well. We often assume that if one deity doesn’t like another deity or has enmity with them in some myth or other, that therefore they may not like the other deity still, or may not prefer nor even allow their devotees to associate with the devotees of those others, and so forth. (This can also apply to cultures, too–more than one Heathen I’ve seen wears “Burn Rome!” t-shirts, for example.) Dr. Butler instead suggested that because deities have the powers and capabilities that they do, those deities have chosen to manifest themselves in those situations of conflict with one another, even when it might end up to their apparent (at least from a human perspective) detriment. Indeed, these relationships of opposition and conflict might actually be more significant than some of the friendships, alliances, and loves that some Deities have with others. Thus, it should go without saying that worshippers of Set and Osiris need not be against one another; devotees of Dionysos or Herakles need not resent those dedicated to Hera; and the list goes on and on.

Whether or not one believes in reincarnation or any sort of predestination in our own individual destinies, perhaps there is something in this that can apply to our human situations as well. Perhaps some of us will never see eye-to-eye on certain issues, but we need not put out each other’s eyes because of it. If we can model this inclusiveness and respect for one another despite those differences, then our movements will do something almost unprecedented, and will be more robust for the strength in diversity that they are able to accommodate. Certainly, we will have to agree that certain matters–like racism, misogyny, homophobia, trans*phobia, insistent gender binarism and gender essentialism, ableism, ageism, classism, and so forth–will have no place in our movement, and that those who wish to suggest that they can be religiously justified in these viewpoints will not be tolerated amongst us. But, different ideas on what sort of economic system would best support a healthy society, manifold strategies on how to move toward more just outcomes for diverse populations, and a multitude of ways to prioritize our time and energies toward these ends can certainly co-exist amongst our groups…and, though it won’t be easy and will not just happen because we wish it to be so, nonetheless with effort and diligence it can become a reality.

The more time we spend in one another’s actual (rather than virtual) presences will bring this about, certainly, and advantage of those opportunities should be taken whenever and wherever possible–Many Gods West being one such occasion that will happen later this year. It’s harder to do syncretism if none of us actually live on Crete, or ever visit there, so to speak! So, with this more social understanding of “syncretism” in play, and acknowledged–to use modern academic terminology–as a requirement rather than an elective, if we prudently prioritize attention to it alongside the other desiderata of our own religious pursuits, we are more likely to become a viable and formidable force in the future, for our Deities, our societies, and hopefully for our planet and its general well-being, too.


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.