Tag Archives: Thracian


A Syncretistic Saturnalia

I don’t know if it is coincidence or not (and I’m not sure I believe that “coincidence” actually happens–!?!), but it seems that people seem like they’re a little bit “off” these days, and it really started to happen hot and heavy as of December 17th, when Saturnalia began. Saturnalia is one of the great “feasts of reversal,” so to speak, when the Golden Age of humanity returns again, kings serve slaves, slaves are crowned as kings, and all sorts of mirth and games are afoot.

And, apparently, people lose their minds, too.

Whether one ascribes it to our mania of over-commercialization and the holiday excesses of food, money, and enforced family gatherings and the dramatic stresses they create, or the secular-skewering-religious-while-religious-tries-to-skewer-back overculture’s general atmosphere at the present time of year, or just the weather and the season, or the Roman festival’s arrival, it’s a very strange time of year. I will not say it’s the “Most Wonderful Time” by any stretch of the imagination, and I’ll say that even less the more that song gets played; but, I find myself looking at my festival calendar, and there’s all sorts of things going on from a variety of different traditions.

In the Ekklesía Antínoou, there are various threads to follow–Greek, Roman, and Egyptian, for starters. We honor the Roman by celebrating the seven nights of Saturnalia themselves (and some other Roman festivals that fall within that time), as well as the birth of Sol Invictus on the 25th–on which more in a few moments. Saturn, Ceres, and Bacchus were all honored during the wider period of Brumalia, a Winter Solstice festival that could commence as early as November 24th, and each of them are honored during our Saturnalia feasts. Some of us honor the Greek tradition by a modern nine-night festival called Heliogenna, but for me it comes forth most in the Graeco-Thracian festival of Nyx, Mother Night, which is on Winter Solstice itself. Further, the main syncretism of Antinous to Dionysos is also celebrated on Winter Solstice, and a further Graeco-Egyptian dimension is brought in by honoring him as syncretized to Harpocrates on that day as well.

But, from my various Celtic practices, there are further dimensions about these days. The birth of Cú Chulainn also happens on Winter Solstice (gosh, EVERYONE wants to be in on that one, don’t they?). And, one of the only Gaulish festivals that we have record of in Roman practice, the Eponalia, happens on December 18th, since she was eventually incorporated into Roman practice after the long period of conquest and then colonization of Gaul as a mother goddess and a goddess beloved of the cavalry. While this could just be a random date chosen by the Romans to honor this foreign goddess, I suspect there may be more to it than that. In my own personal musings on the timing of this date, I am reminded that Cú Chulainn had strong connections to horses as well as hounds, and his comparanda in other Celtic cultures were likewise mothered by horse goddesses, and so perhaps there is more at work here than can be discerned with certainty by the source-aware eye.

Undoubtedly, there will be lots of people–both in paganism and in the wider culture–that will be talking about how Christmas is just a Christianization of an older pagan solar festival, and usually Mithras comes into the discussion at some point as well. It is one of the points of the year where Christians are willing to concede that many of their own most beloved practices are the results of early syncretisms of their movement with what was going on in the wider Roman polytheistic world. (Indeed, decorated trees at this time of year probably come from Saturnalia practices.) That’s certainly true of Christianity, and illustrates the irony that many religions which have historically been most opposed to syncretism have often been extremely good at doing it themselves, especially in their earlier periods. But, on this particular score, it doesn’t seem to pan out on closer scrutiny, which few people actually want to engage in on these matters, whether they are on the pro-pagan side or not.

The Romans used to honor a god called Sol Indigenes, the “Native Sun,” who had a feast on August 9th, and may have also been the recipient of the Agonalia sacrifice of a goat on December 11th. There was no major or active syncretism, however, of Sol Indigenes to the Greek Helios that is visible to archaeologists or scholars of religion.

Then there was that whole thing with Elagabulus, the teenage Syrian Roman Emperor (whose comics, action figures, and films you should eagerly watch for!) of the Severan Dynasty, who brought the cultus of the Syro-Roman Sol Invictus Elagabulus to Rome, and attempted to impose a kind of pagan monotheism with it in the early 3rd century CE. That left a very bad taste in the Romans’ mouths for a few decades after his assassination, though probably as much from his rather excessive and hedonistic lifestyle and his disregard for other Roman social customs than the specific matters of religion.

It was not until the principate of Aurelian in the mid-3rd century CE that a state-sponsored cultus of Sol Invictus, stripped of any specifically Syrian associations, was commenced, and continued for the rest of late antiquity, and began celebrating his birth on December 25th. The first high priest of the cult was one Virius Lupus, interestingly enough (though I’m not named after him, but an earlier person of that name who was a governor of Britannia during the reign of Septimius Severus…which is another story!). You can read more about all of this in Gaston Halsberghe’s book The Cult of Sol Invictus (Leiden: Brill, 1972).

A few decades before the time of Elagabulus, however, Tertullian of Carthage–one of the important Christian church fathers–reported that the Feast of the Annunciation was celebrated on March 25th. The Annunciation is the occasion of Jesus’ conception by Mary, and thus nine months from then would be the reasonable time to expect that Jesus would be born. Thus, some Christian churches were potentially celebrating his birth on December 25th decades before the birth of the Sun–native or otherwise–was marked by the Romans. It is important, when facts like this are known by polytheists, to admit and acknowledge them without any major fuss. It does our traditions no good at all to always cloak them in the authority of hoary antiquity when it can sometimes be proven that such is not the case. To disabuse oneself of the notion that “older” = “better” where all things polytheistic are concerned is a very good step. Doing so, likewise, helps to shed some of the objectifying tendencies we have toward our own traditions, to think of them as “pure” and “ancestral,” and in doing so thinking of them in manners half-a-step short of the distorting and romantic notions of the “noble savage” who did things prompted not by history and its often political and social circumstances but instead by nature and the “timeless” existence of ancient peoples as well as still-living indigenous cultures.

And Mithras? There is no evidence that his birth was celebrated on December 25th or anywhere near it. Of the various relics left to us by the cultus of Mithras, a cult calendar was not one of them. It is only via his apparent mythic narrative connections to and occasional syncretism with Helios in early iconography, understood at later periods to be “the same as” the Roman Sol Invictus (even though Mithras’ cultus in the Mediterranean exists at least three centuries before that of Sol Invictus), that such suggestions come about. These get erroneously misunderstood by those who aren’t aware of the actual chronologies involved. This suggestion was especially made in scholarship of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when much was made of the “rivalry” of the Mithraic cultus to Christianity and the supposed similarities between the two–many of which were entirely invented, and which are still used by atheists to discredit Christianity’s “originality” despite there being no substance to them at all. It behooves us to know the specifics on these matters so that the discussions of both atheist and Christian interlocutors can be corrected when such points are raised either for or against their particular theological positions, or our own.

Rather than ending this multi-syncretistic reflection on the holy tides of different cultures at this time of year with a set of good wishes to all, no matter what they celebrate–which is what you’d expect, isn’t it?–I’ll instead make a suggestion in line with what I’ve just outlined. Saturnalia is a time of reversals. so it is said. Those of us who make our livings at educational institutions usually enjoy a break–however long or short it may be–between our scholastic or collegiate terms at this time of year, when the last thing we might want to be doing is reading and studying. Enjoy the holiday parties and rituals, and hold some of your own, I’d advise those who are in a similar boat. And, for those who are not used to making friends with books and libraries and the spirits that haunt them? Make it a point to take a few moments when you’re indoors (from the dark and cold of winter in the Northern Hemisphere; or, a few moments out of the sun and in the shade in the Southern Hemisphere!) to pick up a book or a trusted and vetted internet source and find out more about the specifics of whatever holiday tradition you celebrate, whether of ancient provenance or of more modern vintage, and understand that holidays and the history of them happen in real time, with real people under real circumstances deciding to commemorate the turning of the seasons and the gods associated with them in particular ways. Holy days, not unlike syncretism generally, happen with real people in real historical situations, and it can be a wonderful and indeed important way of honoring the ancestors of your spiritual tradition to find out not only what they did, but what historical circumstances lead them to begin doing so in the ways of which we are now aware so many centuries (or smaller spans of time) from their origins.


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.