Pantheons as the Battleground of Syncretism

Pantheons as the Battleground of Syncretism

In modern polytheist discussions, a great deal of ink has been spilled—both to define and to avoid defining—what is the most basic and essential unit of polytheist theology and devotion: namely, “Deities” (and, on other occasions, other divine beings have also been defined, e.g. Ancestors, Land Spirits, Hero/ines, etc.). While that is an important and noble pursuit, and one often fraught with pressures both from within and without—due to the immensity of the task and the boundless nature of divine beings from the viewpoint of those within polytheistic religious frameworks, and because of the doubt and utter ridicule even thinking about such things can elicit from non-polytheists—something which can be equally fraught but which is of equal importance is the constitution, definition, and limits of groupings of Deities and other divine beings: namely, “pantheons.” The “poly-“ in polytheism presupposes a plurality, and thus it is rarely if ever “only one” Deity or other divine being with which one must interact as a polytheistic religious practitioner. Even if one is primarily devoted to a single Deity, that Deity has all sorts of relationships with other Deities and divine beings: as a child of divine parents, as a parent of divine children, as siblings to other divine siblings, as lovers or friends or allies of other divine persons, and even as adversaries of other divine contenders. No individual divine being of any category exists in isolation in a polytheistic framework, and it is impossible (and, I would argue, undesirable!) to wish otherwise; to veer to the opposite extreme would be monotheism.

But, what constitutes a “pantheon”? While we tend to think of pantheons in cultural terms (and, though the notion existed independent of these contexts, I suspect a great deal of the reason many of us of a particular generation do so is because of notions we learned via Dungeons & Dragons and other such role-playing games), clearly this is not the only possibility involved with understanding pantheons. A variety of approaches can be used to the question of pantheon constitution.

In Heathen traditions, is there simply a “Norse pantheon,” or is it (at least) three different pantheons—Aesir, Vanir, and Jotnar—or, as may be the case for some, are only one or more of those options “valid” as pantheons while the other(s) may be a further class or family of divine beings, but are not valid as a pantheon because they cannot (or, more likely, should not, in the opinion of a particular group or individual) be worshipped and receive veneration from humans? The same can apply for the Greek Olympian pantheon (which is to say, “the current Olympian” pantheon, which overthrew the one which overthrew another, etc.), in addition to the Titans, the Protogenoi, and perhaps even other classifications (e.g. Hero/ines, nymphs, etc.); the same can apply for the Irish pantheons of the Tuatha Dé, the Fomoiri, and the Fir Bolg (amongst other possibilities, e.g. the Dé and An-Dé, etc.); and the list of further examples can be extended.

There is also the possibility of sub-pantheons which may operate within a given pantheon which are often based around familial or other relationships. Leto and her two children, Apollon and Artemis, as well as some nymphs associated with them, might constitute a pantheon that has been recognized both historically and which might be considered important for some devotees today. Particular Deities might have whole retinues of lesser-known Deities attached to them, or They may organize Themselves by function or affinity, e.g. groups of healing Deities, etc.

There are also tradition-specific pantheons, which exist as a result of the relationships that human worshippers develop between groups of Deities and other divine beings. The Starry Bull pantheon focuses upon Dionysos and a group of Deities and divine beings (including Hero/ines and the dead) Who are attached to or affiliated with Him. The Antinoan pantheon can consist of Antinous and several Divae/i and Heroes immediately connected with Him, or it can extend to the vast network of Deities and Heroes to Whom He was syncretized or with Whom He came into contact in other ways.

The question of the constitution of a pantheon, therefore, goes far beyond simply “who is included” in the “Twelve Olympians,” for example. (How often do we default to Greece when discussing trends in polytheism? Given how much of our theological language derives from Greek roots—including the term “polytheism” itself—I suppose it’s no wonder!) It is a complex and varied matter, and one which has a huge number of questions and dimensions to consider, and the above examples do not exhaust the possibilities by any stretch of the imagination.

What I hope to have demonstrated with these examples, though, is to show how permeable the concept of “pantheon” is, even within singular traditions or particular cultures. The purpose of this demonstration is to draw attention to what I see as one of the greatest difficulties which modern polytheists experience with syncretism: namely, are customized pantheons “allowed” or not? Do pantheons have an intrinsic integrity and a hermetically-sealed nature which cannot be negotiated or complicated (as in “made more complex,” not in the sense of “messed up”!)? It is arguments along these lines which have often lead individuals and groups to suggest that people may not be practitioners or devotees of more-than-one particular culture (i.e. one culture’s pantheon), or that a single ritual or shrine should not honor divine beings from more-than-one culture (i.e. one culture’s pantheon, again!). It is justifications such as these which lead to notions of cultural exclusivity and anti-syncretism, built around the notion that Deities and other divine beings “keep to Their own” exclusively, and do not (and could not!) get along with other groups of divine beings from other cultures.

The Gods, in this view, are like humans in that they form in-groups and out-groups, and are utterly resistant to the possibility of working across such lines. I do think that some analogies between everyday human relationships and those of humans to Deities and Deities amongst Themselves are useful to entertain; but what amounts to theologically-sanctioned racism and ethnic exclusivism is, I would assert, not one of them. While there are not as many historically cross-cultural examples of inter-pantheonic syncretism outside of potentially problematic imperialistic cultural frameworks (e.g. the Greek conquest of Egypt, the Roman conquest of practically-everywhere, etc.), there are abundant examples of Deities working with one another across the distinctions within their own pantheons. The God Lug was born of a Fomoiri mother and a Tuatha Dé father, and had a Fir Bolg fostermother. Without Prometheus, Thetis, Hekate, and a number of other Titans, Zeus’ rebellion against Kronos would not have been successful. The Aesir and the Vanir traded hostages after their conflict ended, and do not seem to have any ongoing problems between one another. Because the primary antagonistic relationships between Deities are attested on an intra-pantheonic (and intra-sub-pantheonic!) level in most cultures, and these can be overcome—even Horus and Set can get along!—there is no reason to suggest that even cultures that have historically been opposed to one another cannot end up in situations where their Deities learn to cooperate, nor does it preclude the possibility that They may form further potential groupings together.

If most reservations and condemnations of “stupid/uninformed/irresponsible eclecticism” arise from concerns over the mixing of and potential permeable boundaries of pantheons, then the formation of pantheons—which are always arbitrary, even within single cultures or with localities within those cultures (which give rise to differing spouses and children attested in various locations for particular Deities, etc., which happens in every attested polytheistic culture of which I’m aware), and are based more on human perceptions within religious frameworks, most likely, than they are based on the “you’re in, you’re out” kickball team selections of Deities themselves—is the real battleground of syncretism. Of course, it should go without saying that the Deities Themselves have the ultimate and final say in whether or not They can and will work together with other Deities, on a temporary or a more ongoing basis, or with communities of humans in such novel groupings; but all the same, the boundaries of original cultures and groupings should not end up setting artificial limitations for modern polytheists.

Deities like Anat, Astarte, and Reshef from Canaan were adopted into the Egyptian pantheon during periods in which there was a lot of cultural contact in Egypt with Canaan; similar situations exist all over the ancient world, where the Deities of a neighboring culture become adopted into the pantheon of another culture, whether in a translated form or not. We currently live in the most multicultural cosmopolitan world that human history has ever witnessed. That the long tradition of pantheonic emigration and immigration will have ceased in order to continue an artificial “bugs-preserved-in-amber” configuration from the periods when polytheism was officially suppressed by hegemonic monotheism seems to be a notion more indebted to modern cultural prejudices than attested polytheist practices of the past. Even if a culture-wide, or even local-level, acceptance of one or more Deities from one culture into the framework of another culture’s pantheon is not a likely reality today, one should not discount the possibility of this occurring on the more limited level of either particular traditions or of individual devotional landscapes. Both the Starry Bull and the Antinoan pantheons mentioned previously are modern multi-cultural pantheons.

Individuals who have experience and involvements with several different traditions, and/or who have traveled to lots of different places and honored the divine beings found in them as appropriate and befits propriety, might likewise find themselves at the crossroads of several different pantheons. But to expect all of these divine beings to “stay in their corners” and to not even consider that They might like to know with Whom else They might be sharing devotional space, time, and persons, is nonsensical. By “devotional person” in the latter statement (“devotional time and space” should be obvious!), I mean to indicate individual human devotees—if our Gods live in our hearts and minds as a result of our devotion, then these interior devotional spaces of ours as humans are essentially divine apartment buildings, and in themselves, thus, are sort of like pantheons! To expect such boundless, energetic, creative, promiscuous (in every sense, and entirely positively!), and unpredictable beings like Deities to not interact with one another in contexts They share is as unrealistic as trying to make sure one’s own groups of friends never interact with one another via social media or any of the other more long-standing means of human interaction. If our own human perceptions place limits on what our Deities can do, then the fault lies with us, and may even blind us to the fact that our Deities might already be interacting in ways we wouldn’t have expected despite our insensibility to those mysterious and inscrutable ways.

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  1. Great article, and I agree that this is an important conversation. You said: “While there are not as many historically cross-cultural examples of inter-pantheonic syncretism outside of potentially problematic imperialistic cultural frameworks”… and I thought immediately of the Matronae, and was wondering if they actually may constitute such an inter-pantheonic syncretism… we have examples like the several inscriptions to the Alasiagiae, who are named as either the goddesses Friagabis and Baduhilli (sp?), or Beda and Fimmilene. In both cases, one name is believed to be Germanic, the other Gaulish. There are other examples among Matronae inscriptions as well, including epithets believed to be etymologically mixed Gaulish, Germanic, and of course Latinized. The Matronae as a whole are uniquely syncretic in this way, being a mix of Germanic, Gaulish, and Roman goddesses, nymphs, ancestors, land spirits/ spirits of place, and others.

    Of course, I suppose one could certainly quite easily argue that the Roman Empire constitutes a “potentially problematic imperialistic cultural framework”…. though Matronae and Matres worship was very widespread, probably predates the Roman Empire, and lasted at least 500+ years. I might argue actually that the underlying structure of Matronae worship may provide some meaningful, historically attested, and non -appropriative ways to engage religiously across pantheons, certainly (just going from surviving inscriptions) bridging Germanic, Gaulish, Roman, Etruscan, African, and possibly even Slavic pantheons.

    • P. Sufenas Virius Lupus

      Thank you, River!

      Yes, I agree, the Matronae are a great example of a historically-attested inter/intracultural syncretistic pantheon that is only “Roman” insofar as it continued during the Roman period (and then got added further Goddesses, nymphae, etc. from that culture and the ones with which it had also been in contact). In that sense, it’s quite an exemplary demonstration of how syncretism can and does work historically independent of the supposedly problematic political situations that have given rise to it in the past (i.e. huge empires) and more recently (e.g. aggressive colonization, missionary activity, and forced displacement and slavery leading to the Afro-Diasporic religions, etc.).

  2. Excellent post. I think what often happens is that we react to something that’s done poorly (like some “anything goes” eclecticism which ignores history, theology and the gods themselves) by going too far in the opposite direction (insisting on some kind of cultural purity to our pantheons and traditions). There is a thoughtful, spiritually mature way to do syncretism, as you show. And plenty of precedence for deities “coloring outside the lines” of our own rigid boxes. I think you make an important point that much of what we think of as “pantheons” are human constructions, not necessarily divine ones.

    I myself have long referred to my “personal pantheon” by which I mean the collection of gods and spirits I alone worship. Even though my spirits are not Greek in origin, and would otherwise probably never have encountered my gods, because I am close with all of Them, some interaction starts to happen. I have always been very careful to check if this was okay by all involved. Some gods and spirits don’t particularly mix much, and that’s fine. Others have formed surprising connections.

  3. Thank you for this!

    I’m currently struggling with this myself.

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