Syncretism and Bricolage

Syncretism and Bricolage

At the moment (and for the next several months), I’m taking a course with Sannion on the “Toys of Dionysos,” which are particular Spirits of initiation in the Bacchic Orphic tradition that in its modern form is practiced under the name of the Starry Bull tradition. The Toys Themselves have ancient origins, and in various sources, different lists of these Toys are mentioned. (If you’d like more information on all of this, see one of Sannion’s most recent books, Spirits of Initiation: A Study of the Toys of Dionysos.)

One of the ideas that comes up in modern scholarship on the Orphic traditions, however, is the idea of an “Orphic bricoleur.” Strictly speaking, a bricoleur is someone who practices “bricolage,” which is the use of various materials that are at-hand to create new things, usually in an artistic sense. In French, it has a “do-it-yourself” valence as well, and originates in architectural contexts in which buildings of different periods and architectural styles are all close to one another, and the resulting effect of having this diversity and eclecticism of styles all closely juxtaposed with one another.

As applied to the Orphic traditions, scholars such as Fritz Graf, Sarah Iles Johnston, Radcliffe Edmonds III, and others have used it to describe the ways in which various Orphic practitioners in antiquity incorporated various strands of myth and tradition—including superlatively local traditions—into their resulting texts. Some argue that it is this strong element of bricolage in Orphic texts which both makes them distinctive, but also allows for the wide diversity found within the tradition that can be accounted for by the localized elements in the activities of a given Orphic bricoleur. Others say that this element of localization in a given Orphic bricolage obscures the fact that there is a “core” set of teachings or ideas in the tradition that can be found no matter where Orphic ideas and practices can be traced. It thus comes down to regarding Orphic matters as “a tradition” or “a number of traditions,” and thus is a question of unity or diversity. As so many of these sorts of questions arise in inquiries into ancient and more modern polytheisms, so too does the most logical answer seem to be that the many is the reality over any theorized oneness.

In many respects, Orphic—or other forms of poetic—bricolage is something of a fancy and somewhat appealing manner in which scholars have tried to account for the individual element in religious experience and practice, especially since Orphic texts were seen almost as “revealed” texts, and all bear the name and thus certain connections to the figure of Orpheus, the Thracian poet and mystic himself, and thus a theorized “unity” must lie behind all of their diversity, divergence, and even outright contradictions of one another. In a sense, the idea of bricolage is an attempt to deal with what in other contexts, especially involving poetry of any sort, would be called “poetic license,” and as Orpheus is one of the arch-poets of all Western culture, his license was probably one of the oldest and most valid of all.

As Orpheus was widely traveled in his capacity as resident poet, seer, and musician in the crew of the Argo, perhaps Orpheus more than any of the other legendary poet-seer-mystics of ancient Greek tradition lent himself and his character to the notion that localization and thus a diversity of travels to different locations is what allows for the variations in the material all attributed to one person. Indeed, many poets known from history, both ancient and modern, vary their poems and the ideas presented in them based on who and where their likely audiences, patrons, and other consumers of their art are located.

Anyone who deals with poetry would take this as an obvious and assumed given. It is only because the idea of “religion”—whether it is a polytheist mystery tradition or an institutional creedal monotheism—seems to imply a systematization and a lack of contradiction or diversity within the tradition, at least as understood by many, including a majority of scholars of religion in the Western world. And yet, even looking at Christian tradition, it is readily obvious to anyone who is not a mindless zombie of a believer that the four canonical Gospels are quite different in their tone, their messages, their events, and even the implied meaning of their events, as suited to the communities for whom they were written and from which they were given rise. Perhaps it is because of the implied “unity” in a monotheistic viewpoint that such diversity is not accounted for easily nor readily acknowledged, and thus it is difficult to quantify it when scholars from such backgrounds attempt to examine religious realities in polytheistic contexts.

So, this brings us to the question of syncretism. Is the idea of Orphic (or other) bricolage yet another expression of the natural syncretistic tendencies which are found in all human endeavors, but which are especially prominent in polytheistic religious contexts? I would say yes, and yet the phenomenon of bricolage also points out something that can easily be missed even when accounting for such a formulation within syncretistic polytheist contexts. Bricolage not only takes a diversity of preexisting elements and combines them into something new, but in the process of doing so, it creates something entirely new that is not simply the sum of its previous parts. The Orphic traditions are not simply forms of Graeco-Thracian (or –Roman or –South Italian or –Egyptian or –Scythian, etc.) syncretism, but are profoundly localized religions that probably make far less sense when understood outside of the localities where they are practiced, the communities who practice them, and the particular Orpheotelestes and that individual’s style of bricolage and preferred sources, images, and ideas. It would have made the competitive spirit between different Orpheotelestai not merely a matter of prestige and economic conflict, but also often of mutual exclusivity, unless they combined forces and created something anew once again. In this, the tradition itself echoes not only the diversity of lists of Toys of Dionysos, but also Dionysos and His dismemberment itself: which Titans (or other individuals) tore Him apart in which ways and consumed which pieces of Him? What pieces of Dionysos were saved, and by whom? What became of those pieces? What became of the Titans who consumed those pieces? When Dionysos reformed (in so many respects, the Orphic traditions are a “reformed” variety of Dionysian religion in themselves!), what parts became reused and how? Is all that is needed for Dionysos to become Dionysos again His heart, or His phallus, or something else? Is all that is needed for a set of religious phenomena to be called Orphic the figurative (or even literal!) head of Orpheus to speak the poetic voices which are recorded and are given written and ritual forms? When can a part stand for the whole, and when does the whole become more than the sum of its parts—and if the latter is true, then does that mean that even one part can be the whole, but perhaps a different form of the whole rather than the original whole? Is one part more of the “essence” than another, and if so, what is the nature of the other parts? If consuming one part or another confers the essence, what does consumption (or excretion!) of the other parts confer, or still contain?

There are so many questions that are posed by all of this, and yet it is both a metaphor and an example of what this entire process—this form of syncretism that can be called bricolage—can encompass. If the inter- and intra-pantheonic forms of syncretism are what is going on at the level of the wider societies and communities of polytheists at various points, then the syncretistic bricolage that also occurs is what is happening at an individual level, with itinerant poet-mystics and the texts and communities that develop around them and as a result of their actions.