Articles by P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

P. Sufenas Virius Lupus is a metagender person, the founder, Sacerdos, Mystagogos, and Doctor of the Ekklesía Antínoou (a queer, Graeco-Roman-Egyptian syncretist reconstructionist polytheist group dedicated to Antinous--the deified lover of the Roman Emperor Hadrian--and related divine figures), a contributing member of Neos Alexandria, a practitioner of Gentlidecht and Filidecht, with additional devotions to deities from Roman Britain, Wales, Gaul, and much further afield, as well as dedications to various land spirits (especially Mt. Erie) of North Puget Sound and its islands. E is widely published in the Neos Alexandria devotional volumes, as well as other periodicals and anthologies, particularly in poetry but also with essays and fiction. Eir published books include The Phillupic Hymns (2008), The Syncretisms of Antinous (2010), Devotio Antinoo: The Doctor's Notes, Volume One (2011), All-Soul, All-Body, All-Love, All-Power: A TransMythology (2012), A Garland for Polydeukion (2012), A Serpent Path Primer (2012), and Ephesia Grammata: Ancient History and Modern Practice (2014). Follow em and eir work further at eir blog, Aedicula Antinoi.

Syncretism and Signs of the Times

When we think of theological syncretism, we tend to think of phenomena which involve deities combining with other deities in either temporary or more persistent forms. This can also occur with deities and other varieties of divine being, including (in attested cases) hero/ines, deified rulers, and what (in hitherto unattested or unnoticed instances) one can imagine would be an endless string of further possibilities. The subject of this particular column is one such possibility, and my discussion of it stems from a larger conversation (if one can call it that) occurring amongst a few individuals in the polytheist and wider pagan communities recently.

The conversation, such as it is, began with an admittedly poorly-worded contribution by Jason Mankey asking if devotion to and the popularity of particular deities (in that specific blog post’s case, the Morrígan) can be considered a “fad.” Morpheus Ravenna, priestess of the Morrígan and founder of the Coru Cathubodua (a Morrígan priesthood), not surprisingly responded, drawing attention (usefully and appropriately) to the role of particular deities’ agency in situations where something seems to be (to use the poor wording of Jason Mankey) “faddish.” A third voice was introduced into this discussion when a self-professed atheist with no very good reason for discussing deities at all given such an adamant denial of their existence, muddied the waters considerably by suggesting the military-industrial complex of modern warfare may be due to the Morrígan, and that the rise of the Third Reich and the Nazis—according to the holy writ of Carl Gustav Jung—was due to the influence of Wotan/Woden/Odin.*

I would like to begin my own responses to some of these questions, in line with the main purpose of my essay on this occasion, with an easily-known word that could have saved some of the difficulty in this entire conversation which Jason Mankey could have used (and knows) without any sense of dismissiveness or disrespect. Perhaps what is going on in some instances—perhaps in the situations discussed here, but not exclusively so—is not a “fad,” but instead is a reflection of a zeitgeist, literally a “spirit of the times.” There is an active attempt, for example, in Catholic theological circles (since the time of Vatican II) to look for “signs of the times” that may be relevant to the ongoing revelation of their own deities in the world, though this explicit theological orientation has seemed to be ignored frequently and conveniently when some of their doctrines (particularly in their moral theologies) come face-to-face with scientific realities. (More will be said on this later.)

Nonetheless, it seems that “signs of the times” might often be a good place to look for the presence of identifiable zeitgeists, and not simply in the metaphorical sense that most people use it in today. As a polytheist who recognizes that the forms and types of divine being are nearly as numerous as the individual deities themselves, I think that historical eras, ages of time, and movements within particular societies do have actual animating spirits—whether deities, deified abstractions, hero/ines, iunones loci of particular lands, or any other category of divine being—which preside over and influence them to greater or lesser extents. To some degree, the spiritual category of zeitgeist might be usefully added as another variety of divine being to distinguish them and their effects (obvious and conscious as well as subtle and unconscious) on a wider populace—which seems a necessity to be truly considered a zeitgeist—from deities generally and strictly speaking, who may only be consciously influencing events through the acknowledged relationships they have with their devotees.

Jason Mankey’s piece mentioned earlier suggests that the god Pan may have had a “fad” period in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century, especially amongst some of the Romantic poets, which reframed him to a large extent as a god of wild nature in the context of the rise of industrialization, urbanization, and all of the early (and still extant) excesses of capitalism. It is not that Pan was not a deity associated with wild nature by the Greeks, though that association was not exclusive to him either, and he was as much a deity of shepherds and of hunting (both rustic in comparison to certain “civilized” pursuits, yet still not exactly natural in the sense many people mean it as non-human-based or human-beneficial) as of anything else. There was a zeitgeist at this time, thus, which made industrial capitalism a prevailing and successful force in global society (not necessarily for the good!), and Pan seems to have stepped forward to counter some of those excesses. What makes it essential, in my view, as to the question of whether Pan was part of the counter-zeitgeist of that era is whether or not he was worshipped by active cultists during the period, and it seems that this was the case, to whatever extent it was possible and feasible for them to do so, in the case of several of the English romantic poets. It could thus be said that Pan came to embody that particular zeitgeist, though I would suggest that he was not solely responsible for it, nor the originator of it, but instead became joined to it and syncretized with it, which caused certain changes to be witnessed in him that had not hitherto been attested in earlier Greek polytheist traditions related to him.

Pan was not the spirit of the age, and certainly not the only spirit of the age involved—industrial capitalism certainly had and continues to have its spirits as well—but Pan did became involved with it, and for some people, then as equally as now, Pan became synonymous with it. This is not the case of necessity, however, any more than would be the case in any other theological syncretistic combination—Dionysos is not Osiris, nor Osiris Dionysos, and one is not replaceable with the other nor are they synonymous, even though they syncretize with one another.

Another possible case of when a different class of divine being became syncretized with the spirit of an age—which is suggested to me based on some reflections by Sean Donahue about the iuno loci of the United States, Columbia—is Roma. Contrary to popular perception, Roma was not the goddess of the city of Rome from the very beginning; her cultus developed gradually as Rome’s reach became greater and greater, and she was initially worshipped only in the Eastern Empire, where certain Roman generals and leaders were also worshipped as divine (sometimes while still living) long before anyone ever heard of Julius Caesar or Augustus. It was not until Hadrian built the Temple of Venus and Roma in Rome itself in the early 120s CE that she was given an active state-sanctioned cultus in the city of Rome. It could be argued that at that point, the Roman Empire was at its height and in its florescence in the Antonine Era and dynasty which followed. Rome was pre-eminent in Europe, and thus the iuno loci of Rome itself became Rome Herself, the goddess Roma.

Something similar could be said for the post-polytheist phenomenon of Britannia during the period of the British Empire. Britannia became the iuno loci of the isle of Britain during the invasion and reconquest of Britain by Claudius, but her cultus was never widespread even in the province of Britannia. When Great Britain became one of the first true world powers, though, in the age of conquest and colonization, she was hymned with anthems by the military—with lyrics, ironically enough, written by a Scottish poet who was subject to the British Empire—and yet remains a symbol of the country in popular culture, with her hymn even sung at sporting events today.

Likewise with Columbia, who was first given name and form by a young African-American woman poet and slave named Phyllis Wheatley in 1775 in a poem she wrote in a letter to George Washington. Before the Declaration of Independence was written and signed, Wheatley’s poem became popular with Washington, was circulated more widely by Thomas Paine, and gave the cause of the American Revolution a divine face, which from the start was poised as a woman in need of defense from Britannia after first showing her might against the Gallic powers (of the French and Indian/Seven Years’ War). Two decades later, the song ”Hail, Columbia” was not only the song played for the President’s entry, but was also the unofficial national anthem of the United States until after World War I. Columbia’s name has been given to many things, from the capital city of the United States, to many colleges and universities and towns, to a major river in Oregon and Washington, and even to a province in Canada. For the age of manifest destiny, Columbia was the goddess. In this particular case, I think it is fair to say that the goddess was largely synonymous with the spirit of the age, for she had no existence before it.

People worshipped Pan actively as a deity in the romantic era that Jason Mankey (and Ronald Hutton in Triumph of the Moon) discusses. While they may not have realized they were doing such, the devotees of Britannia and Columbia sang them hymns, made icons of them, and in the case of Columbia, built her almost literal temples, giving them cultus just as fervent and frequent as the ancient citizens and subject peoples of the Roman Empire praised Roma. It is this deliberate cultus—whether it is seen to be such or not—that I think makes it essential when a divine being and the spirit of a given era come together, syncretize, and support one another in accomplishing the features (whether positive or negative in the later views of history) of the era in question.

I thus wonder if Antinous might have a role to play in this as a contributing divine being to one or another of the spirits of particular ages. When his cultus first existed, it cannot be said to have been the spirit of the age more than any other deity worshipped in the ancient world, for that was an age of many deities (though, technically, every age is, too!). Antinous’ knowledge, and to an extent his cultus, never fully disappeared, and he seems to have had a heyday in the late nineteenth century amongst certain individuals like the Uranian Poets in Britain, a group which includes Oscar Wilde, who makes references to him in a variety of stories and poems. Some of these individuals, it seems, were not simply poets and scholars of the Greek world, but were active cultists of a number of deities, Antinous amongst them, and his statuary (both ancient originals and reproductions) were highly prized by some of these individuals. Some of these individuals were among the first to argue for queer acceptance, and though scandalized in Wilde’s case, became some of the first public queer figures.

Antinous’ devotion has existed in the modern polytheist and pagan world for decades, but really came to greater (though by far still quite limited) prominence in 2002 with his more public organized worship. Parts of the LGBTQIA+ communities have witnessed an increased visibility and have gained access to certain civil rights during this time. I cannot help but think that even though most of the recipients of those rights (far from comprehensive though they may be at this point) have not even heard of him, and certainly don’t worship him, that his active cultus amongst some people has both assisted and in its own way been a reflection of that particular spirit of this age which has allowed some of these advances to be made. No, Antinous is not the spirit of the age, even for various parts of the queer community, but I think his interests and the interests of those who are doing active cultus to him have merged enough with the incipient spirits of the age that these advances have started to take place. If a small handful of romantic poets doing ad hoc and guerilla cultus to Pan can be said to have played a role in the zeitgeist of the early nineteenth century which lead to a desire to preserve nature (and, in Hutton’s view, which contributed largely to the formation of modern paganism generally), then likewise a small number of devoted cultists coordinating their efforts toward Antinoan devotion can have had an impact on these legal advances for queer people. What Catholics are struggling with facing as a “sign of the times” in terms of the world and their own religion’s views on these matters is a de facto reality for many who have nothing to do with that religion, or with polytheist devotion to Antinous.

It is this active and deliberate cultic dimension, I think, which is necessary to the view that any particular deity has become involved with the zeitgeist of any given historical period or the prevailing ideals, and the intellectual and social movements, within it. This is why I find the reasoning (if, indeed, it can be called that) of certain atheists writing on religious topics such as this so lacking. It is not the use of theology to illuminate the signs of the times—for someone who has no theos cannot meaningfully be said to have a theology!—but instead is an ill-informed attempt to interpret certain negative historical occurrences and phenomena with equation to the most pejoratively-loaded aspects of complex and multi-faceted deities. The Morrígan is responsible for the military-industrial complex no more than Freyr and Freyja are responsible for HIV/AIDS; Odin is responsible for the Nazis no more than Hermes is responsible for the Bernie Madoff; and the list could go on and on. In each of these cases, active cultus is missing, and thus it cannot be said to fit the zeitgeist patterns already discussed. It is best not to take the opinions on deities made by people with no interest in deities seriously, in any case.

Of course, this makes me wonder if the ultimate irony behind the religious movement known as modern atheism, which many are adamant in denying is a religious movement at all (for reasons that so frequently rely on circular logic—a long-standing tactic of certain monotheistic religions—that it almost assures it is a religious movement!), is that it may not be “godless” at all. Perhaps it is instead motivated by something that could be considered a divine being, though it cannot attain the distinction of godhood because its devotees refuse to acknowledge it as such. This would account for all of the anger and frustration this divine being’s devotees evince when questions of religion come up. I suspect that the fact many (though, note, not remotely all) vocal atheists are cisgendered heterosexual and fairly affluent white men may also be a part of this deity’s character. Perhaps Snarkus, the daimon of atheism, is the child of Priapus and Eris, and tends to be the biggest and most disruptive dick in the room, and is in a constant state of arousal but is never allowed to actually have an orgasm. As the animating spirit of a particular modern movement, the unknowing devotees of such a being are indeed unfortunate, and it would be no wonder that their conduct in so many areas having to do with religion—including the insistence on being included in it despite saying they do not have it and are against it—is utterly reflective of this divine parentage and the status of the daimon.

I would add one final note on what I have suggested above, not only as a general matter, but one which I think is very important in the considerations given here. I have emphasized the necessity of deliberate and conscious cultus as a component in much of what I discussed previously. I find that this comes into direct conflict with the statement that many people in modern paganism (though not so much modern polytheism) often say—particularly amongst the more monistic and humanistic voices in those groups—namely, that the deities don’t need humans to fight their battles for them nor to defend them. It does not take subtle theological ingenuity to see, however, that direct and obvious actions by deities in the world (outside of certain natural disasters, perhaps) are pretty thin on the ground these days. The key in a deity becoming involved in a zeitgeist is that the spirit of the times and of the deities possibly involved with those times move in groups of people influencing the course of events in the world. The movements of the deities and their divine wills are only perceptible in the presence of actual movement and (social) movements, thus. There is nor needs to be no difficulty nor inherent contradiction in this, nor is there a raising up of what is human to a divine level, nor is there a lowering of divine will to simple equation with human activity either. As I have tried to make clear in interpreting the phenomena of zeitgeists as separate from but occasionally syncretized with deities, the two are separate, and human activities and their results are a yet a further separate phenomena again.

This is important to the present discussion, certainly, but I also find that it is a piece that is sadly missing from many modern engagements with deities, including by polytheists. I may not “need” someone to stand up to someone who bullies me, but it certainly is damn nice when it happens that someone does stand up to them with me. Collaboration is great when it can happen between any varieties of person, whether a group of individual humans, a group of deities, or humans and deities together (amongst many other possibilities). It is astonishing how often some modern pagans refuse to say that they “worship” deities but instead they prefer to say that they “work with” them, and on occasions their deities may even be defending and protecting them, yet this collaborative personhood does not seem to apply in situations where a deity’s good name might need defense or protection. (And yes, names and the honor associated with them are important, and should rank as more important than they often do in the modern world.) It also amazes me how often people in paganism and polytheism may take some amount of pride in being an ally to socially marginalized groups of people and acting in ways that support this alliance with both individuals from those groups and the wider groups as well, and yet they refuse to act in similar ways where their individual or collective deities are concerned.

Thus, I think those who suggest that humans don’t need to defend their deities are demonstrating a serious lack of significance attributed to their own actions, and human actions generally. In many cases, I suspect they are actually excusing very bad behavior in themselves and often in others as well, and in some instances are using this explanation as an excuse for their own cowardice or laziness. If human cultus is at all effective and useful to deities, then human actions must be useful in some sense. Further, how else will the work of particular deities come about in the world without humans actively taking part in it and largely doing it in directly material manners? And if this is the case, then humans coming to the defense of their deities against the foolish and slanderous words of other humans who have little understanding of the subjects they discuss is not an inconsequential thing. It does not require institutional or legal sanctions, threats of physical harm, or coercion of any sort (often associated with the excesses of creedal monotheism’s approach to such matters) to say to someone that their words and actions are ill-advised or are inappropriate. If someone claims to be pious but does not actually defend the name and honor of the deities of their devotion, it is a victory for nothing but the disconnected nihilism and hipsterish irony of pseudo-liberalism that says “anything goes” and ultimately nothing really matters. The spirits motivating such behavior are attempting to reign supreme in the present age, and are one of the few (pseudo-) intellectual viewpoints that have been given public sanction and space in recent years. As a group of individuals who are against such things on the whole, I would think polytheists would have a much different approach to this matter than they have often demonstrated in their actions or words.

In conclusion, I would suggest that when looking for the spirit of a given age, and the many different animating spirits active amongst varied communities in any historical period, it is thus important to realize that just as a human can change residences or professions, and likewise that deities also shift in character and emphasis based on the localities of their cultus, so too can deities change their interactions with humans based on the context of a given space of time and the ways in which they can combine with the spirits found within those temporal spaces. Both deities and humans are multi-dimensional, and thus just as humans move in three dimensions of space and one of time, so too can deities manifest themselves differently in time, space, and space-time, even if they also transcend those limited number of dimensions. Just as there is more attention being given now to the intricacies of place in relation to divine cultus, so too does there need to be attention given to time in this process as well.

*: If my disdain for certain viewpoints within this discussion is obvious in my phrasing here, I do not apologize for it. Just as I know they do not respect my own opinions here and elsewhere, I likewise do not respect theirs, though I do fully acknowledge that I respect their personhood and their agency in holding and expressing their opinions as they wish. The divine beings motivating them are just as divine as the ones who motivate me, and I try to remember that always in dealing with them, even though I may not feel they are always interpreting their divine motivations—if and when they are directly divine—in ways that are the most productive.

Gender and Syncretism:  Rarely the Twain Doth Meet?!?

Theological syncretism takes many forms in a variety of cultures.  It can include such things as the fusing of two (or more) different deities in Egyptian or Graeco-Egyptian culture, as is the case with Amun-Re, Re-Harakhte, Sobek-Re, Zeus-Ammon, Hermanubis, Bawy (Set and Horus combined), and Pataikos/Ptah-Sokar-Osiris, for example.  It can involve the subsuming of many deities into the overarching folds of one deity, as is the case with Isis and many goddesses from Egyptian, Greek, Near Eastern, and other cultures.  It can involve the identities, names, attributes, or epithets of one deity being adopted by another in particular localized forms, as is the case with Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus (who was, in any case, worshipped far outside of the sphere of Roman Asia Minor!).
But, no matter how many distinct or indistinct types of theological syncretism occur, and no matter how wide an array of examples can be cited, one matter does tend to hold sway in almost every culture where it is found:  theological syncretistic combinations tend to occur amongst deities of the same gender.   While it is tempting to suggest, therefore, that syncretism can be a way to imagine polyamorotheism allowing deities of the same gender to produce (syncretized) offspring, the prevalence of this pattern instead prompts me at present to observe that the impermeability of the boundaries various cultures have observed between the binary genders is something noteworthy.  For all of the gender-variance that can and does occur with some deities in some pantheons, the majority do not seem to partake in such transgressions of the norms (insofar as any premodern culture has a concept of normativity—see Karma Lochrie’s Heterosyncrasies for more on this topic) of gender.
While my knowledge of all world mythologies and polytheistic cultures is quite limited, I can think of only five definite examples of syncretism which involve deity-forms that originate out of not only separate deities, but deities of different genders.  The final result of such combinations is not always a being that is non-binary gendered, either.  I will also discuss a further example that some might cite as favoring the multi-gender syncretism approach, but which on further and deeper reflection does not involve this at all; and finally, I will suggest some possibilities for the future as well.
I can think of two examples—both from Indian/Hindu mythology—where a new deity-form comes into existence and is accompanied by a narrative explaining how this came to be, and both of them involve the god Shiva.  In one, Shiva and Parvati are enjoying a bout of lovemaking, and become so enthralled with one another that they decide to fuse into one, and thus become Ardhnarishvara.  That hypostasis persists as its own deity afterwards, not unlike many other deities in Hinduism who originate as an avatar, aspect, or alternate (often utilitarian) form of deities that already existed.  Another instance of a fused male-and-female deity in Hinduism is Harihara, who originates in the love which Shiva had for Vishnu in Vishnu’s feminine form, Mohini, which results in the fusion of Shiva and Mohini.  Shiva also takes feminine form on some occasions—by choice or otherwise!—but these feminine forms do not tend to persist as discrete entities the way that Mohini appears to have done in relation to Vishnu.
I can also think of two East Asian deities that are the result of multi-gender theological syncretism, but no accompanying narrative or myth indicates how this took place; it was much more of a historical and, in the first case, a methodological syncretistic development (i.e. the result of several different religious systems comingling) than one which takes place on a mytho-theological level.  The first of these, Guanyin (also sometimes written as Kwan Yin), is a Chinese goddess in  traditional Chinese polytheism and Taoism, and is a bodhisattva in Buddhism, with variations in name and local languages throughout several East Asian cultures.  Her name is a Chinese translation of the name of the Sanskrit Avolakiteshvara, “the lord who looks down [to hear the cries of the suffering],” and in the original Chinese Mahayana Buddhist writings, Guanyin does appear as male and simply as a translation of the Sanskrit name.  As time goes on, an androgynous or feminine form becomes more common for Guanyin, and eventually the feminine form prevailed.  The feminine form and attributes, as well as many of the mythological accounts of her, certainly derive from indigenous Chinese polytheist sources rather than from Buddhist traditions about the bodhisattva.
The second deity—widely acknowledged as a “composite” deity, though the names and number of identities of the composition vary greatly—is the Shinto Inari-Okami, one of the most popular and widely-venerated kami, with over 32,000 shrines of the 80,000+ known shrines in Japan being devoted to this particular divine being.  Inari-Okami is known to appear in male, female, and androgynous forms of varying ages, as well as in the form of foxes (particularly white foxes), snakes, dragons, and on one occasion, a spider.  Inari-Okami is usually understood to be a singular entity, but on occasion, Inari-Okami is considered to be Inari-Sanza (“three-part” Inari) or Inari-Goza (“five-part” Inari).  The various other kami who might be identified with Inari-Okami, or with the constituent parts of this three- or five-part versions, include Ukanomitama, Ogetsu-Hime, Toyouke, Izanagi-Okami, Izanami-Okami, Ninigi, Wakumusubi, Ukemochi, Omiyanome, Tanaka, Shi, and Sarutahiko-no-Okami, or (in the specifically female form) the Buddhist Daikiniten or Benzaiten of the Seven Lucky Gods.  Very interestingly, Inari-Okami’s shrines are the only ones that are “official” but are, yet, not maintained by the Jinja Honcho that oversees all other Shinto activities in Japan (and elsewhere), but instead are maintained by everyday laypeople.  That such variation is observed in Inari-Okami’s worship, down to the level of gender, may thus be a reflection of this grassroots and individualized, localized, and community-specific veneration of the kami.
We have briefly examined two examples of multi-gender syncretism with mythological narratives of the etiology of such forms in Hinduism; we have also examined historical methodological syncretism leading to new deity-forms that span several gender categories in Chinese and Japanese polytheistic religions.  What about situations in which a fusion occurs between separate deities of different genders, but which has little historical context and no grounding in mythological narrative?  This is precisely what we have in the example of Hermekate, a fusion of (the male) Hermes and (the female) Hekate, attested in the lines of the Greek Magical Papyri (PGM) III, lines 45-47:  “I call upon you, Mother of all men, you who have brought together the limbs of Meliouchos, even Meliouchos himself, OROBASTRIA NEBOUTOSOUALETH, Entrapper, Mistress of corpses, Hermes, Hekate, […], Hermekate, LETH AMOUMAMOUTERMYOR…”  Based on the notes to the text, this name “Hermekate” may also occur in a few other defixiones, but I have not been able to confirm this at present.  In any case, what we have here is a magical formula, and such magical contexts are fertile grounds for novel syncretistic formations.  Though the formula before Hermekate’s appearance seems to indicate a feminine divinity is being addressed, clearly the combination of Hermes and Hekate, intended by the spell-writer to be in the mind of the one who reads it and uses it since the individual forms are given beforehand, complicates the picture of the “Mother of all men” and “Mistress of corpses” considerably.  Hermes and Hekate are perhaps a “natural match,” in any case, due to their similar functions and associations, though their mythology does not often overlap.  Also, given the Graeco-Egyptian context, double theophoric names (e.g. Sarapammon, Hermantinous, etc.) are also not uncommon, so even if a permanent multi-gendered syncretism was not intended, nonetheless the combination of the powers of both deities on this occasion were drawn upon in a manner that would have not been unusual, despite the unexpected divine gender mixing.
One ambiguous divine figure (and the ambiguity is in the divine status, not the gender) that many might consider as an example of multi-gender syncretism in the Greek world is Hermaphroditos.  The origins of a possible cultus to Hermaphroditos may date back to a Cyprian form of Aphrodite that was portrayed as bearded, and thus was called Aphroditos, which dates at least back to the 7th century BCE.  The philosopher Theophrastus writes of Hermaphroditos in the 3rd century BCE, and both Diodorus Siculus and Ovid write of this figure in the 1st century BCE, with only Ovid giving the story of the male child of Hermes and Aphrodite becoming fused with the nymph Salmacis into the multi-gendered form familiar from ancient depictions of a breasted, feminine-like figure with male genitals.  Hermaphroditos is also discussed by Macrobius as late as the 5th century CE.  Whether Hermaphroditos was ever worshipped as a full deity, or only as a particular form of Cyprian Aphrodite, is not as clear, and thus their situation is quite ambiguous on a theological level.  But, additionally, Hermaphroditos is never portrayed, under that name, as a theological syncretistic fusion of Hermes and Aphrodite, but instead as the child of the two deities, which is quite different than most of the multi-gendered syncretistic examples we have discussed here.
Based on these various examples, it is obvious that while not by any means common, such multi-gendered syncretisms could be possible.  Edward Butler, in “Polycentric Polytheism and the Philosophy of Religion“ (available here), argues that every deity, by virtue of being a deity, has the potential to embody or act in the role of any other deity, and in arguing this, he makes no caveats on the gender of the deities involved.  Given that this is the case, it is perhaps strange that such multi-gendered syncretisms are not more common than the few examples given here, and the likely limited number of others out there as well.  (If I have missed any, please inform me of them in the comments below!  I’m always happy to learn more in this area!)
It may be, to an extent, inherent in Egyptian tradition already, since the various “Eye of Re” goddesses (e.g. Hathor, Sekhmet, Tefnut, Wadjet, Mehit, Sia, Bast, Qadesh, etc.) are, obviously, feminine in comparison to Re himself, and thus are often considered to be his daughters; though perhaps an interpretation whereby they are not only instantiations of Re’s power, but instead are multi-gendered syncretisms of Re with various goddesses, would be beneficial.  The possibility of multi-gendered Greek syncretisms also seems intriguing and potentially revelatory, especially in the context of magic and the historiolae (short mythic narratives) that accompany and empower magical utterances and operations.  Would it be possible, for example, for a syncretism of Hermes and Persephone—Persephermes?—to assist mystery initiates in returning from the underworld with the blessings of its queen but the guidance of the psychopomp?  It seems possible, but then again, anything is possible where deities are concerned.

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,, 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!

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.

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.

PantheaCon, Paganism, and Syncretism; Or, “Let’s Get Literal!”

[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.

Syncretism and Shinto: A Short Examination

Syncretism is something that is not restricted to any single culture, time period, or religious viewpoint: every religion syncretizes, or has syncretized, in their long histories. Often, when we are examining how syncretism works within our own modern polytheist traditions, it is good to look at the examples of religious cultures that are still active and thriving to see how they handle certain issues. One such example came to prominent light in my own life recently, as I alluded to here, and this column will explore it further.

For most Western peoples, whether secular or specifically spiritual, the new year has begun. From the viewpoint of traditional Chinese and Japanese cultures, however, we’re in the liminal period leading up to it at present. My last column was somewhat focused upon the end-of-year celebrations we often see in Western polytheistic contexts, many of them focusing on the rebirth and return of light and the deities associated with light or the sun. Such a myth of the sun’s disappearance and return (whether over the course of a year and solstice-focused or more of an allegorization of solar eclipses being equally possible and non-exclusive options for one’s own interpretation) does exist in traditional Japanese Shinto in terms of the solar goddess Amaterasu-Omikami, but the end-of-year and new year festivals of the Shinto tradition do not focus on the figure of this particular kami or any of the others, they instead focus on various acts of purification, which is a basic focus and theme throughout all of Shinto’s ceremonies.

Perhaps some of you saw, in the 1990s, the common e-mail forward which listed different world religions, and described each of them in terms of the phrase “shit happens.” Shinto itself tops the version of that list I was most familiar with, and was expressed by stating, simply, “Shit happens.” It took me many years to see how this was at all applicable to the religion–and, whether one likes it or not, it is! There are many concepts within Shinto that are closely related to certain conceptions within various Western polytheisms, and the concept of kegare is one of these, closely paralleling the Greek concept of miasma. Kegare is impurity, and it happens simply as the result of going through life and being in contact with the things of life, up to and including all the small deaths which are required to continue life. There are also forms of kegare known as tsumi which are actively cultivated by impure actions, as well as ritual violations and unethical behavior; but even if these grave errors of tsumi are avoided, everyone accumulates kegare (and, often unwittingly, tsumi), and thus going to a Shrine to engage in Shinto ceremonies is important, because all of them include rituals of purification, and oftentimes even several pre-purifications before the main one takes place. Other than the deliberately tsumi-accumulating actions which one might do, there is no moral negativity attached to kegare in Shinto, and thus it is nothing at all like the concept of “sin” that pervades so many Western monotheisms, even though it is often translated as if these concepts are equivalent.

At the end of the year, and at its mid-point, rituals of purification are especially important to Shinto practice. The Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Granite Falls, WA–which is the place where my engagement with and education on Shinto has mostly occurred–celebrates the end-of-year purification ceremony, Oharahishiki, usually in mid-December. The Shrine grounds are in an amazing spot of nature along the headwaters of the Pilchuck River (near the mountain of the same name), where evidence of Native American activity has been found dating back thousands of years. The river, which is considered a kami in physical form, is used for various ceremonies during the year, and for the regular practice of misogi-shuho purification (involving near-full bodily immersion in its cold waters), which I’ve participated in on one occasion, and which has formed the basis of a water-based purification practice we now perform in the Ekklesía Antínoou. During the Great Fall Ceremony a few years ago at the site, I watched salmon in the river who were spawning right before me! It is truly a place that is literally the “source of life” for the salmon and much else in nature, and thus is a great location to serve as the focus and actively-cultivated source of communal spiritual life for local Shinto practitioners. At this Shrine, which serves the large Japanese diaspora in Western Washington state, as well as a growing number of Western people (many of them polytheists, pagans, and occultists of various stripes), major seasonal festivals are held on Sundays before noon, which is an obvious accommodation to prevailing religious sensibilities in this country, and in itself represents a syncretistic reckoning of sacred time on the local Shrine’s level. The Oharahishiki takes place on the Sunday in mid-December, and represents the first of four ceremonies that mark the passing of the old year and the beginning of the new, and which stretch from mid-December to early February.

A gohei–a wooden purification wand with two paper shide or paper streamers representing the spiraling energy (ki) of the kami‘s presence. They are used for purification, as well as marking sacred areas.

In the Oharahishiki, each person (and, hopefully, their home) is purified by a special small hand-held gohei (“purification wand”), and the oharae-no-kotoba or “great words of purification”–a prayer that occurs in many Shinto ceremonies–is read facing the gathered people rather than directing it toward the enshrined kami. This peculiar “direction” of the prayer of purification occurs only twice during the year, at the mid-year and end-of-year purification ceremonies. In my own experience, the energetic effects of this are palpable, and the cold and white character of Shinto’s purifying energies, and of the presence of the kami generally speaking, washes in a wave over the people at various points during the recitation of the norito (“prayer”). By this ceremony’s completion, the accumulated tsumi and kegare of the latter half of the year is purified, and fresh ki (“life-energy”) from the abundance of nature around the Shrine, as well as the direct involvement of the kami (and especially Sarutahiko-no-Okami–the head of the earthly kami and the giver of ki–in the case of the Tsubaki Shrines in Japan and the U.S. where he is enshrined), is infused into the participants for the close of the year and the beginning of the new year.

Next in time is the Hatsumoude, the first Shrine visit of the year, on which thousands of people come to the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America at times ranging from midnight on New Year’s Eve to late in the afternoon on January 3rd or 4th (depending on the year). While this is the busiest festival of the year at the Shrine here in the U.S., major Shrines in Japan can receive literally millions of visitors over those few days. Many people participate in a ceremony, but many others simply come and make small monetary offerings and pray before the Shrine only, and then obtain omamori (amulets) and other items for their personal or domestic practices, and often also have divination via omikuji for the year-to-come. The atmosphere over those few days is festive, and there is also food available on the Shrine grounds, as well as tea, and fires are kept going outside to warm people who are waiting for a ceremony or are simply enjoying their tea in the intensified energetic environment of the Shrine. I will come back to a particularity of this festival in a few moments.

Following this, on a Sunday in mid-January, is the Kosatsu-Takiage-Shiki, which is a ceremony that expresses thanks, purification, and then proper disposition of all of the sacred instruments used in the previous year. In Shinto, many things are renewed on an annual basis–not unlike the movement of nature itself–and this includes all gohei and haragushi purification wands, all the shide that mark sacred areas of the shrines, the shimenawa ropes that similarly indicate sacred areas or objects, and all of the omamori that were used by people during the previous year, as well as many other such items. The culmination of this ceremony is the burning of all of these items in a grand purifying pyre while all present chant Harae Tamae Kiyome Tamae Rokkonshyojo, which translates very roughly as “purify me completely through the six roots of my being,” and which is used in a number of different purification ceremonies and other practices in Shinto.

The final ceremony of these four is Setsubun and the Mamemaki, which is usually right about the time of Imbolc, and at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America, usually falls on the morning of that greatest of secular sporting holidays, Super Bowl Sunday. (As I am not a football fan, this has never made any difference to me!) Setsubun simply means “season-division,” and it was the old new year festival, and likewise Chinese New Year usually takes place around that time as well. Several important actions are taken on the part of the Shinto kannushi (“priest”) on this occasion, including firing misfortune-dispelling arrows in various auspicious or inauspicious directions for that particular year. But, the real fun for the gathered people occurs in the Mamemaki, when two brave Shrine volunteers, dressed as oni, come menacing and attacking, and (due to cultural puns) the people mercilessly pelt them with roasted soybeans to dispel the negative energies they bring while yelling “Oni wa soto!” This is literal fun for the whole family, as you can imagine. Once the oni are driven away, some soybeans are thrown toward the Shrine itself to bring good fortune to it, as people shout “Fuku wa uchi!” The two phrases together essentially mean “Out with the bad, in with the good!”

We can see an evolution here, however, in how these various festivals eventually stacked up in this order, and how the secular new year as observed in the West came to be influential in all of this. Though the older traditions are still preserved in terms of Setsubun, the major focus has shifted to Hatsumoude both in Japan and in Shinto as practiced elsewhere. Participation in the larger and more formal ceremony for those who come to the Shrine is pretty much the norm for all four of these festivals except for Hatsumoude, where simply coming to the Shrine, making an offering and praying, and obtaining various sacred items or other services is individual and though “formal” is essentially informal, and can be done without any difficulty or sense of it not being “odd” to have traveled all that distance without taking part in the official ceremony. And, the ceremonies themselves on each occasion demonstrate this. For the Oharahishiki, Kosatsu-Takiage-Shiki, and Setsubun ceremonies, there is a preliminary purification, followed by a great and reverent deep bow by everyone present to open the official ceremony, and then the presentation of food offerings and all the other activities of that particular ceremony occur, and at the end, there is a final deep bow as well to complete the ceremony. For Hatsumoude, the ceremony which is followed is exactly like any other ceremony that one might make an appointment for during the rest of the year at the Shrine, and is in fact one for purification (which is usually the ceremony I take first-time visitors, as well as my college students, to at the Shrine). There is a preliminary purification, of course, but then after that, there is no major formal bow, nor are food offerings given (though, since they are given daily at the Shrine, they are already present); it simply goes right to the appropriate norito for the occasion.

While the casual observer and participant in the Shrine’s rituals might not think this is a very major detail to focus upon, it speaks volumes to the student of religious history, of polytheist practice, and of syncretism. The three more traditional rituals, with their various distinctive characteristics and practices, are all accompanied by a formal bow at the beginning and end of the ceremony. Yes, there is bowing throughout the ceremony as well (especially by the kannushi), but also before the ceremony begins several times for those who approach the Shrine in a reverent fashion, but this additional deep bow, without clapping (as is done with praying), and a deep (ninety-degree) rather than slight (forty-five-degree) bow, really demonstrates the more ancient and traditional character of those festivals as opposed to the newer and less-formalized ceremonies on the several days of Hatsumoude‘s observance itself.

There are a great many things, and probably many more obvious ones, which Shinto can teach about syncretism (not only with Buddhism and Taoism, but also with Christianity), and thus this particular issue may seem like a very small matter to focus upon, but it is intriguing to do so in any case. What might this suggest for our own practices of syncretism? While the form of Hatsumoude described above, held on its modern dates, has been done for over a century in Shinto, really the concept of “first Shrine visit of the year” has been done for ages, and would entail any time this occurs, whether on January 1st or March 19th if that date happened to be one’s first visit of the year. The accommodation of this tradition to Western orderings of time, represents a major syncretistic innovation for Shinto in Japan and elsewhere based on contact with Western culture; likewise, the holding of ceremonies on Sunday at the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America represents a similar innovation.

One of the major points of my last column here was to emphasize that holy days and festivals take place in real time, with real people (and, needless to say, honoring real deities!), and thus they have histories that can be traced and understood, instead of assuming that they are all part of some distorted romantic notion of “antiquity” and “tradition.” As we continue to research the ancient practices of our various Western cultures and the holy tides and days they observed, likewise innovations can and will occur based on any number of factors, whether personal or communal in nature. This process can (and, I’d argue, should!) also be taking place with the wider occasions observed both secularly and religiously in our wider overcultures. Chanukkah has only become a “major” Jewish holiday as a result of the over-hyping of Christmas in American culture; likewise, in Shinto, the secular New Year of Western society has become a multi-day festival amidst the constellation of traditional Shinto observances that has entirely eclipsed the others in importance. While such syncretistic innovations may not (and, likely, should not!) overshadow other observances that we have as modern polytheists, perhaps we should look to these examples as possibilities for how such innovations can become even more meaningful and important for us when they are consciously entered into, rather than simply relying on some reflected glory of an ancient and unchanging past–which, it should be pointed out, never existed and has never been a reality. History is not a record of unbroken continuity and sameness, it demonstrates that no matter how much matters may seem the same, or may continue similar themes, there is change of all sorts occurring at every point. Our traditions are not amazing dragonflies in amber, they are many types of salmon hatching, swimming downstream and out to oceans and returning to their native rivers to spawn once again–rivers that can never be swum the same way twice.