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Speaking of Syncretism

Bring up the topic of “syncretism” to a group of people, and those who even know what the word means at all might have mixed reactions.  To many Christians, it implies what I hear people within a certain denomination deride as “Cafeteria Catholicism.”  To Muslims, syncretism is fundamentally equal to shirk, their most grievous and heinous sin, because it challenges the completeness and perfection of Islam by “joining” other practices and/or beliefs to their religion, and in particular “partnering” the deities of other religions to Allah.  To pagans, it tends to get thrown around relatively commonly as a synonym for “eclecticism,” and depending on the individual pagan’s viewpoint, that can be a good or a bad thing.  To some types of historian or religious studies scholars, it might refer to a practice of linking two (or more) different deities between cultures, often with the assumption that such linking either indicates the decline and dilution of a given culture, or a trend toward pantheism and/or monism, which in many of their minds simply shows that monotheism is inevitable with the “advancement” of human cultures through history.

To almost all of the above, I would respond:  think again.

While we can dismiss the Catholic (and other Christian) as well as Muslim critiques out-of-hand simply because they reflect theological contexts which are irrelevant to our own, I think the Islamic notion deserves a momentary closer examination for what it reveals.  Both Christianity and Islam emerge–like every “new” religion–from a plethora of religious influences and contexts which pre-date their origins, and both were very good at syncretism in their embryonic stages (and, for Christians, their later developmental stages in proselytization and assimilation of other cultures).  Even though Islam emerges from Arabic culture and continues many of its practices, including by virtue of denouncing some aspects of Arabian polytheism and revising others (e.g. promotion of Allah as father and head-of-pantheon to only deity), its re-mapping of Allah and his prophets over both Judaism and Christianity is an appropriation and revision of those individual religions.  Few groups of people are spoken of more derisively and are condemned more strongly in the surahs of the Qu’ran than polytheists.  I wonder if the reason that shirk is such a grave sin is because it is something which the early Muslims perceived, and correctly, to be intrinsic to polytheism, and which thus constituted the greatest threat to the hegemonic monotheism of their own religion.

For the most part, polytheism doesn’t proscribe which deities are valid to be worshipped, and in fact almost every polytheistic culture that exists has happily done so alongside peoples with very different deities, practices, and beliefs.  More often than not, the deities of those other peoples cross over into their own pantheons, and have often done so at such an early stage that they have become completely naturalized over the course of time.  When we speak of Aphrodite as a Greek goddess, we often do so in ignorance of her Near Eastern origins, despite the Greeks giving her epithets that connect her to her likely origin place of Cyprus.  Aprhodite is one example amongst many of this process.

As much as I am of the opinion that polytheism is an expectable, and even perhaps a natural, tendency amongst humans, so too do I think that syncretism is just as intrinsic to polytheism.  One cannot be a polytheist without also being a syncretist.

Yes, as much as you might not wish to acknowledge it, every single person reading this column who is a polytheist is already a syncretist.  If that horrifies you, I’ll still be here when (or if) you would like to read further.  If that excites and fascinates you, please continue to read.  If you already knew you were a syncretist…well, you still may want to read to the end of this column, since you’ve come all this way already.  😉

Many polytheists, especially of the reconstructionist variety, have more nasty words for “fluffy” eclectics than anyone else, and they throw syncretists into that mix as well.  The reconstructionists who insist on the notion of “cultural purity” as a necessity to be practicing their religion, in many respects, are as disingenuous as the Muslims who took so much of their mythological history from Jewish and Christian narrative, refashioned it, and yet insist that it is the one-and-only-truth about all the figures concerned.  The Greeks and the Romans were promiscuously syncretistic, certainly, and the Egyptians were likewise heavily syncretistic at many different periods of their history.  The situation with both the Germanic and the Celtic polytheistic religions is of a different sort, even though this non-existent cultural purity notion comes into their pre-Christian phases as well.

Almost all of our information upon which reconstructionist methodologies are employed to build modern forms of Celtic or Germanic practice relies upon sources that are not “native” to the cultures concerned.  The ancient Greeks and Romans wrote about these peoples during the pre-Christian period, and interpretatio Graeca et Romana, as well as ideas about “noble savages” and other such literary themes that were more or less reified in the minds of the writers concerned, are so heavily employed in those sources that they cannot be extracted without losing a great deal of content.  The same is true of the post-Christian period, even though people from given cultures were writing the literatures concerned, where both Christian and classical literature influenced every word written in the case of Ireland, and both of these plus Irish sources influenced every word written for Icelandic literate cultures.  These influences are often more emphasized and have been employed to highlight, enhance, or revise materials that existed in the native Irish or Norse/Icelandic traditions.  One is as much indebted to Jerusalem and Rome (both the polytheist and the Christian Rome) if one has ever looked at a source from medieval Ireland or Iceland as “lore.”

But–and here’s the point that many seem to miss in all this–that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

As long as what is being stated doesn’t invalidate polytheism, or simply is written to bolster “faith in One God and His Son Jesus” and the like, there isn’t really anything wrong with simply accepting myth as myth, whether it comes from an indigenous European (or other) culture, or it was invented with pre-existing characters and places in a given locality who are then written into a story that parallels the Greek epic tradition or the triumphs and hardships of the Sons of Israel.  Specifically Christian non-creedal elements can be assimilated into a syncretistic mindset without any difficulty, and certainly without the severe “allergies” that many people seem to view as “necessary” reactions to them.  One can accept a character, a story, or even a deity without having to accept the monotheism that is preferred (and required and enforced!) by the religious cultures that propagated them.  It is, in fact, more polytheistic to accept their existence and to integrate it into one’s understanding than to reject them; there is no such thing as shirk as a sin for polytheists.

Even if a given piece of literature does suggest that Jesus, the Christian God, or the Holy Spirit are involved in ways that make them players in a narrative rather than as ideals of faith to be accepted and never questioned, what harm?  There is nothing in polytheism which makes it necessary that Jesus, the Christian God, the Holy Spirit, any of the saints, the Jewish God, Allah, or any other divine being or heroic figure from these traditions be “rejected” as existing, or even as being deserving of worship, so long as it is understood that they are further beings amongst many other polytheistic deities beyond number.  If you think that there is only one “Abrahamic god,” then that’s fine, but then you’re giving credence to Abrahamic monotheism, and a particularly Islamic form of it, rather than being a polytheist.  To say or indicate by one’s actions “My culture and my culture ONLY” is a monotheistic position; to say “Many deities, many ways, many cultures, many possibilities” is the way of polytheism, and of syncretism.

There are many more threads that could be followed in the present discussion, and I hope to perhaps elaborate on a variety of them in future columns.  The idea of “syncretism” in itself refers to several different phenomena, which also need to be distinguished from one another, explored further, nuanced and qualified (often with further terms added), and discussed at greater length.  I hope to do exactly that in the months and years to come in the present column, and I eagerly look forward to discussing these topics with those who choose to read and comment here!

Syncretism happens:  now, let’s talk about it.