[Cue a filk of an Olivia Newton John song…!?!]
In a short while, PantheaCon will be happening once again in San Jose, California. It is one of–if not the–largest indoor Pagan festivals in the United States, and it draws several thousand attendees over President’s Day weekend. I have attended all of them since 2007, and this year will be no exception.
But, you may wonder what this has to do with syncretism as a general topic. And that’s where we have to “get literal,” as my subtitle above suggests.
Before we get literal, however, I’d like to point something out. Many modern Pagans, polytheists, and others of an alternative and specifically non-Christiaan outlook are somewhat biased against the entire concept of “literality” when it comes to anything religious. Enforced biblical literalism in some denominations is what a great many people who eventually leave Christianity cite as one of the things about it which is intolerable. This same idea is then carried over to non-Christian religions, including various forms of polytheism and Paganism.
I suspect that this “non-literal” approach to things, and the near-insistence upon it, is why so many mainstream Pagans do not understand polytheism and tend to call us “fundamentalists” and so forth. I know very few (if any) polytheists who insist on a literal interpretation of any myth in any one of the cultures from which we draw our inspirations and our practices; I also know very few who, whatever about the factual impossibility or non-literal approach they might have to myths, do not approach myth as something containing deep truths not only about cultures and their outlooks, but also (and more importantly) about their theologies and the personalities of our deities.
Things get deeper than that, however, and the critique of polytheism often arises from other forms of Paganism along the lines of “You actually believe in the literal existence of your deities,” as if a deity is in some sense “more powerful” if it remains a figment of someone’s imagination, an archetype that is only a localized form of some more universal “force” inherent in the human psyche, or some other notion which robs the deities in question of individual and independent identity, volition, and existence. As I have said on other occasions in other places, modern mainstream Paganism is one of the only religions I’ve ever encountered that considers actually believing in the supernatural aspects of its religion as “fundamentalism.”
However, no matter how important it is to understand these matters as a backdrop to talking about the term “literal” in relation to anything pagan (in the adjectival/descriptive sense) or polytheistic, these matters are a bit too large to deal with in the present context…and yet, also knowing they are issues which are present does foreground one of the questions I hope to address seriously and in a provisionally complete fashion in the present column.
While Edward Butler pointed out in the comments to one of my earlier columns the possibility of Plutarch’s apparent coining of the word synkretismos by creating a story about it involving Cretans banding together and putting aside their differences (and Butler’s ideas on this should be taken very seriously indeed!), nonetheless folk etymologies are important to take into consideration when getting into the minds of the people in a particular culture. Though modern “scientific” etymologies are based more on morphology and comparative phonology and semantics, and arrive at derivations of terms which are more likely than the folk etymologies, nonetheless they’re often far less colorful and infinitely less rich in terms of the intra-cultural information they convey about a given culture’s self-understanding and prioritization of meaning within its own boundaries. So, “syncretism” as “doing as the Cretans do” has an important element in it that needs to be considered, and especially so in the present circumstance.
Often, when I have presented on syncretism and I give this earliest explanation of it from Plutarch in the early 2nd c. CE, I then immediately suggest that many modern religious and social movements–including and perhaps especially, at least in recent decades, modern Paganism itself–is thus inherently syncretistic, not because of its diversity of theologies and practices and the ways in which these are combined despite their often wide disparity in sources and cultural origins, but instead in a more bare and political sense of “banding together despite differences for a common goal.” Over and over again in the wider modern Pagan community, we have been entreated and sometimes even admonished to support certain causes, like the “pentacle quest” for the Wiccan pentacle to be recognized by the Veteran’s Administration as a legitimate religious symbol for use on tombstones, no matter what form of (likely non-Wiccan) paganism one might practice. I’ve even heard, on occasion, a suggestion that on some censuses in other countries, that “everyone” who is pagan should identify as Wiccan so that their numbers appear to be unified in order to secure certain rights and recognitions by various governments. Sometimes, these efforts for recognition are positive and useful, and can pave the way for further recognition of diversity down the road. Sometimes, though, these calls for unity of purpose and support of causes serve to be a substitute hegemony that seeks to erase diversity, silence dissent, and to disguise the plurality of our profound and important differences on the ground and in our daily functioning.
It is often under these kinds of auspice that we are encouraged to attend events like Pagan Pride Days, or large Pagan conventions like PantheaCon. We are told that we, as polytheists, are included under this “large tent” and the greater “umbrella” of modern Paganism, whether we want to be or not (and, certainly, some of us do want to be, while others do not), but do we do so at a cost that sacrifices our individuality, or elides our differences, all in the interests of peace?
PantheaCon in particular often refers to itself as “the gathering of the tribes” for modern Pagans. I have certainly found this to be the case, but what it has never done, and which I don’t think it claims to do, is to equally represent all of those tribes, or even to recognize some of them at all. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? How much diversity becomes too much diversity? And, if groups do not attempt to at least participate in some fashion or other, they will never be represented. On the other hand, many of us have proposed a plethora of events over the years, and are participating quite extensively, and yet because our groups do not have the numbers and our practices remain marginal (though I’d have to point out that there may be some relationship between this and the fact that polytheist events often get slotted in marginal positions which have far less attendance, even by other polytheists, than certain other prime time slots), we still get told that we’re not doing enough, that we haven’t made the effort that others have, and any number of other excuses that contravene the facts on the ground and that serve as a kind of self-justification of our continued marginalization.
This is one of the very uncomfortable questions which the emergence of the modern polytheist movement has posed to the wider world of modern Paganism: are we too different to have a comfortable space under the umbrella, and are there active reasons that we are kept from recognition under it? And if so, can these be addressed in a way that does not force us to cede some of our uniqueness and our own particular traditions, theologies, and practices in order to gain more recognition and respect?
In other words, at what point does this political form of syncretism become not for the good of the people, but for the good of Crete–here understood as the wider Pagan movements and communities rather than the individual factions and traditions within it which are said to comprise it?
I, for one, hold out some hope that possibilities will emerge and that further engagement and cooperation is, has been, and still can be useful. I have encountered many wonderful people in the broad modern Pagan community, and have allied myself both personally and as a representative of my group with other non-explicitly-polytheist Pagan groups, and hope to do so with others eventually as well.
And yet, the question must remain, and must be asked over and over again: can ceding, ignoring, or downplaying one’s differences ever really lead to a “common good” when it involves compromising–in the negative sense (i.e. one doesn’t want “compromised health, for example!)–and a watering down of what makes a particular group or tradition unique? Is any effort which asks its individual constituents to cede such uncomfortable aspects of itself in order to have public and apparent unity an effort worth making?
I will be interested to know what people think on these matters, as ever.