Tag Archives: Egypt


Death and Syncretism

My title on this column echoes the phrase often attributed to Benjamin Franklin, from a letter of 1789, which read (in full): “Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes” (emphasis mine). However, Daniel Defoe said it even earlier than Franklin, in 1726: “Things as certain as Death and Taxes, can be more firmly believed.” There have been many clever and not-so-clever variations on this phrase over the years, though it must be said that it is a very “first-world,” capitalist statement, because there are many indigenous societies that did not (and still don’t) have anything like taxes.

But–and I’m sure you’ve guessed this by now!–I think we can add something to the relatively short list of the inevitables of life, which mostly consists of “death,” with the concept of syncretism. Whether you like it or not, chances are some of the religious practices, theological concepts, deities, or other matters of a spiritual nature are probably the results of syncretism; indeed, with several cultures, it is only via people outside of a certain religion documenting myths of earlier cultures (which they inevitably shape based on their own cultural biases and interests, languages, and so forth) that has given us any information at all about certain deities or narratives, and thus even looking at them now presumes syncretism to some degree or another. It is a reality that one should either accustom oneself to, or give up the endeavor entirely if one thinks that some sort of cultural, linguistic, or theological “purity” is desirable, or even remotely achievable.

However (or, yet another ‘but’!), my purpose today is not to expand upon the inevitability of syncretism, it is to instead discuss how death and syncretism can actually go together and can become factors in each other’s functioning. It is probably not surprising that I have some thoughts on this topic, given that Antinous’ death is what made him into a hero and a god; and furthermore, the Irish tradition is full of individuals (both human and divine) who, even if they are important ancestors after their deaths, often became spirits of place to an extent, tying their own genealogies to the genealogy of the landscape and its varying names and identifications and histories over the course of being inhabited for ages upon ages. It was Antinous’ death that made him a god, and that allowed him to be syncretized to other deities in turn. In wider Egyptian tradition, though, syncretism to Osiris for any of the justified dead was commonplace, as anyone familiar with the Book of Coming Forth By Day is aware.

It is not just gods, heroes, or land spirits that one might become syncretized to in death, though. In fact, in certain remarkable cases, death itself might be the locus of a particular syncretism for some individuals. The Greeks had a concept not only of the keres, spirits of fated violent death (often in battle), but of the Goddess who oversees all of these, Ker. An individual’s death may be long-fated, and thus the one among the keres who will be the spirit of that violent death may be waiting for a long time, and the Greek gods are often said to keep them at bay for some period of time during difficulties for the individual encountered; but, at some point, that violent death will arrive, and the ker of that individual’s fated violent death will no longer be distant, and will in essence “join” with them at the moment of death, bringing about their death. What happens to that individual ker at that point is never specified, and whether these get “recycled” or repurposed, under the direction of Ker, after bringing about the violent death of the person thus fated seems a likely possibility, just as the souls of that person who has been fated to a violent death then go onwards to whatever lies after their life for them, simply as ancestors, heroes, enduring torments, or having another existence (and none of these possibilities invalidates the others also happening, particularly if there are multiple souls or soul-parts involved).

It may also be possible that the keres and other afflicting spirits or daimones may persist with the individual involved, and might even become linked to them for a longer period. Some of my own experiences suggest this might be the case, and that a particular affliction in life and its accompanying spirit might persist with a person after their death, causing them pain and torment. Removal of that afflicting being from the soul or soul-part of the person would have been accomplished by observing the correct burial and funerary practices in many other cultures, and still does go on in indigenous cultures today, but most of our so-called “Western” funerary customs have shifted away from even considering that they may have an impact on the dead person, and instead are shifted in emphasis for remembering the person’s life, and making their living friends and relatives feel better now, rather than ensuring the continuation and spiritual health of the person in their afterlife. This is one of the reasons that practices falling under the most broad and culturally-inclusive rubric of ancestor elevation are both useful and necessary to take into consideration, not only for our ancestors who have already died, but which should be done for anyone and everyone in the modern polytheist communities at their deaths.

Indeed, planning and arranging for this should be a priority for all of us, so that whatever family complications or apparent obligations might arise for a person when their death arrives, there is someone (or, preferably, a community of someones!) who is looking after their spiritual health once they have died. It might even be useful to start some sort of registry or listing in this regard, giving permission before one’s death for polytheist colleagues, known and unknown, near and far, to perform rituals like ancestor elevation and other similar processes for one after death. The issue of whether or not a particular ancestor wants to be honored or venerated or elevated has been raised recently in relation to the Trans* Ancestors Ritual of Elevation, and consent in every area of life (and death) is an extremely important matter to pay attention to and actively seek, certainly. Having a kind of “standing order,” however, on this matter for the wider community, as modern polytheists, might be very useful indeed in making sure that people’s wishes are not only observed, but known in the first place. Why have a lot of guesswork at some later stage when clarity and a large degree of certainty can be achieved now?

With the notion of death and syncretism, it becomes the responsibility of one’s community, family, friends, and loved ones, as well as any well-wishers who did not know someone, to help ensure that the negative forms of syncretism that can occur with death do not happen, and to encourage some of the positive ones via the spiritual technologies each has at its disposal, or which have been (respectfully!) borrowed and adapted from another culture to one’s own context. Life is very short, and the fame and accolades one might be able to enjoy during life are also fleeting; but death and one’s existence after it lasts much longer, and doing all possible to ensure that one’s existence after death is positive should not solely be thought of as in the hands of oneself. Our communities, our own ancestors, and perhaps most importantly, our Deities, are intimately involved in the process, and doing everything possible to strengthen positive relationships with each of these groups (and others as well) while we are still alive is extremely important as far as one’s overall outlook as a modern polytheist.


Syncretism: Some Definitions and Clarifications…

One of the most difficult matters facing someone who is attempting to discuss syncretism in a nuanced and useful fashion within modern polytheism is that the term “syncretism” refers to at least two different phenomena as it is commonly used. The second of those phenomena can be further subdivided into (at least) two further categories. What I hope to do at present, however briefly, is to draw out those nuances here in an accessible manner.

But first, it might be worthwhile to have a quick look at the word-origin of syncretism. 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!

The use of syncretism in more modern times, however, is quite different. There are two forms of it that are most commonly encountered, and I would like to distinguish these as methodological syncretism and as theological syncretism.

Methodological syncretism occurs when two or more systems (often religious, but also philosophical, or potentially any other form of thought, process, or the like) are combined together into a cohesive whole. This can occur to the degree that the joints and seams between the two (or more) systems are invisible, or it can occur in such a way as to almost (and sometimes inadvertently) highlight those joints and seams. When the term “syncretism” gets applied to entire religions or spiritual practices, this is the way it is being used on most occasions. The Afro-Diasporic traditions, which usually combine one or several West African indigenous religions with ethnic forms of Roman Catholicism (French for Haitian Vodou, Spanish for Cuban Santeria, etc.) as well as potentially incorporating indigenous traditions from the Caribbean Islands and the American Continents, and any number of esoteric practices in addition to these, is one area in which syncretism is often mentioned in this methodological form. However, some religions, including most polytheist traditions, are open to syncretism anyway, and have no problem incorporating deities or practices not indigenous to their own culture into their systems with ease. The Egyptians incorporated many deities from other cultures into their pantheons, like Apedemak and Mandoulis (from Nubia/Ethiopia), Reshef and Hauron (from the Canaanites), and a variety of others. The Roman practice of evocatio was one way in which this could be done on a tactical level, one might say, for military advantages; but, the general Roman tendency toward syncretism allowed a typical Roman in Italy in late antiquity to be able to worship Epona (from the Gauls), Jupiter of Doliche (from the Syrians), Sabazios (from the Thracians), and Isis (from the Egyptians), even though these would be recognized as “foreign” to Rome itself, without any difficulty.

In certain respects, this methodological syncretism can apply to a great deal more in life apart from religion and spiritual activities. The general human tendency to “take what works, ignore the rest” is a form of methodological syncretism in and of itself which can apply to almost anything, from cooking to world views to ethical reasoning to housecleaning, in my opinion.

With the case of Jupiter of Doliche, however, we come to the process which is often involved in religious methodological syncretism, namely theological syncretism. The specific theological dimension of this is when two (though occasionally more) deities are paired together, as with the Roman Jupiter and the Syrian Ba’al of Doliche. What has generally been assumed by many academics (who are either monotheists or are logical positivists who don’t like complicated realities), as well as by those who are inclined toward monism and what is commonly termed “pantheism,” is that these theological syncretisms indicate an underlying unity or synonymity of the deities involved. This leads to the notion that all syncretists are “just soft polytheists” in the view of some single-culture/tradition practitioners of reconstructionist methodologies, for example. If one reads Julius Caesar’s account of the Gaulish deities, he seems to indicate that the “Gaulish Mercury” and the other Roman deities he says are honored amongst the Gauls are simply forms of the familiar Roman gods, to the point that he doesn’t even include their Gaulish names (if, in fact, he knew them at all). However, on closer inspection, he is making distinctions between some of them that are rather important and unique. The “Gaulish Mercury,” for example, is said to be the inventor of all the arts, whereas the Roman Mercury (and the Greek Hermes, himself syncretized to Mercury as well) was not the inventor of more than a few items and practices. One can understand these cases of Interpretatio Romana (in Tacitus’ famous phrase), or Interpretatio Graeca (as occurs when it is said that the “Indian Dionysos” is likely Shiva, and that Osiris is the “Egyptian Dionysos,” etc.), as occasions of seeing a unity in the deities described, or even that the “barbarian” examples are simply localized forms of the more well-known Greek or Roman deities.

Yet, one can also view these occasions not as an equational syncretism, but instead as a translational syncretism, depending on how one understands the stated or implied “is” that occurs with any such instance of Interpretatio-based theological syncretism. If one understands the word “is” to signify that something equals something else, then the common understanding of these sorts of syncretism would then apply: Ba’al of Doliche IS Jupiter, Cocidius IS Mars (or Silvanus), Belenus IS Apollo, Tanit IS Juno, and so forth. However, one can also view the “is” stated or implied in these syncretistic formations as a metaphorical or translational “is,” such that what is being stated is not that the two are interchangeable or are equivalent in an existential sense, but instead are functionally equivalent in context and yet separate. In metaphor (which derives from the Greek metaphore, whose roots are the exact cognates of the Latin translatio, i.e. “translation”!), one does not literally mean that “Bill is a bull in a china shop,” but only that Bill’s actions resemble those of a bull in a china shop under certain circumstances. Likewise with the translational or metaphorical “is” in Interpretatio syncretisms: then Cocidius is Mars in a sense that indicates he is “like Mars” in a given circumstance, or that Belenus is “like Apollo” at a given cult site, and so forth. Translation, between two media or two languages, is never complete, and the same is true of translational syncretism–one deity can never fully stand-in for another beyond certain situational contexts.

In some cases, what particular ancient sources seem to be indicating is that it is an equative syncretistic understanding at play; but in others, it may not be, and that needs to be taken into account where polytheism is concerned. Rather than thinking that Interpretatio theological syncretisms are the first forerunners to a pervasive archetypalism amongst ancient peoples, we have other options to consider. It isn’t that equative syncretism is “wrong,” or that under certain circumstances it can’t exist, it’s only that it isn’t the only nor the best option, nor should its existence in some cases be taken as evidence of the validity of monism or pantheism on a pervasive basis.

With theological syncretism, though, there is a further dimension to be explored, which is that these kinds of syncretism do not necessarily only accompany the instances where methodological syncretism between religions is occurring. There are those types of inter-pantheonic syncretism that do occur, where a deity from one culture is juxtaposed with another, as in the cases given above. But, there are also many examples in which deities also become involved with intra-pantheonic syncretism, and one place where this is particularly prevalent is in the Egyptian pantheon (or, as may be more appropriate, “pantheons”). Re exists on his own, as does Sobek, and Osiris, and Amun, and Atum, and yet there is also Sobek-Re, Osiris-Re, Amun-Re, and Atum-Re. Ptah, Osiris, and Sokar also exist independently of one another, and yet there is also a syncretized form of all three together known as Pataikos, who has characteristics of his own (like being a dwarf) that distinguishes him from the other three. The existence of these new combined forms of the deities does not replace the individual deities or make them redundant, it is instead the phenomenon that Rev. Tamara Siuda refers to as “one plus one equals three” (or, in the case of Pataikos, “one plus one plus one equals four”!). These kinds of theological syncretism can exist both intra- and inter-pantheonically as well, as is the case with Zeus-Ammon, who is very definitely different and separate from both the Egyptian Amun and the Greek Zeus; or, Hermanubis, who is a combination of the Greek Hermes Chthonios and the Egyptian Anubis. In the latter case, there is even an inscription which has Anubis and Hermanubis addressed separately, thus demonstrating this independence of the combined forms vividly!

A pervasive process of intra-pantheonic syncretism likely exists behind the scenes in most of the ancient pantheons reckoned today as well. When the Greek city-states and colonies were independent and often antagonistic toward one another, it seems quite possible that the Spartans would have thought of Artemis Orthia and being quite different from the Athenians’ Artemis of Brauron, and both of these would have been thought different again from the Arcadian Artemis, and different yet again from Artemis of Ephesus, and so forth. But, as polities fought and combined, conquered one another and assimilated their cultures, traded and emigrated between one another, and eventually the larger national groupings we now recognize emerged, there was an underlying unity of “Artemis” understood as existing amongst all of the localized forms, practices, and epithets, which then allowed the Greeks to see a “different side” of Artemis in each of these places. Whether this sense of unity amongst the various local Artemises was a function simply of human politico-religious expediency, or was an example of process theology with the deity herself, or something else altogether, is not as important as realizing that the individual and communal cultic theophanies and epiphanies which occur can be thought of as much as a process of both human and divine adaptation, transposition, translation, and negotiation as they can be direct and purely divine revelations or simple human definitions that gain power and relevance as egregores through repeated and reinforced (and re-enforced) cultural transmission and tradition. The exact dynamics and mechanisms at play are likely not at the full access of and comprehension for everyday mortals, even in their greatest heights of mystical understanding and divinely-inspired insight; but, moderation would suggest that there are both human and divine elements at play in every such occurrence, and thus neither extreme should be entirely discounted nor ignored in any given instance.

So, in attempting to speak further of syncretism, it is important to realize how many different–though often related or intertwined–realities are being spoken of by using that term. There are both methodological and theological versions of syncretism; there are equative and metaphorical possibilities in every Interpretatio-based theological syncretism; and there are both inter- and intra-pantheonic forms of theological syncretism. While the word origins of “syncretism” might suggest that all of these fine distinctions should be swept aside in favor of “banding together” in commonalities for the pursuit of a greater good, in the case of understanding better how these different phenomena function and how modern polytheists would benefit from a such a better understanding, perhaps the mode to follow would not be the Cretan one so much as the Egyptian one, where even “one” might be two or three or more.