Tag Archives: Edward Butler

Edward Butler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edward Butler

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.