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Why Syncretism Makes Sense Within Paganism

Author: B. T. Newberg
Posted: February 7th. 2004
Times Viewed: 4,834

Paganism and syncretism are complementary, not contradictory, paths. I find that one of the core values of Paganism can lead naturally to syncretism -- namely, the focus on this earth and this life. Today many of us on this earth live culturally diverse lives, and syncretism can be a way of reflecting and celebrating this cultural diversity. Syncretism may cause problems, both for Pagans and for the world, but these are not insurmountable if dealt with constructively. Ultimately, syncretism can produce a profound and beautiful spiritual path.

This is of course my view, and readers are welcome to disagree. My discussion will necessarily be biased toward the two Paganisms with which I have had the most experience: Neo-Shamanism and Wicca. I hope Pagans of other paths will find insight here and drop me a note if anything makes them feel excluded (it isn't intentional).

Before I get into my argument, I should define my terms. By "syncretism" I mean the mixing and matching of elements drawn from spiritual traditions that have historically remained distinct. Examples of syncretism include invoking Shiva at a Yule rite, practicing Buddhist meditation in service of Wiccan magickal training, or accepting the guidance of both Coyote and Ishtar.

While I won't attempt a final definition of "Paganism" (so much diversity makes definitions difficult), I want to follow Harvey (1997) in emphasizing it as a profoundly earth-centered religion. Thus when I speak of "Paganism" I am speaking of a religion primarily focused on this world, not on some transcendent spiritual realm or any world to come. Paganism may include notions of reincarnation or afterlife, but the focus is on this world. This earth matters. This life matters. This body matters. All that happens on this earth, in this life, and to this body is of profound spiritual importance.

Not only is this world important; this world is the manifest body of the Goddess (this is true in Wicca, if not for other paths; it may at least be fair to say that this world is as sacred as if it were the body of the Goddess). Our homes, our bodies, and our life experiences are all manifestations of Her. But not only is each of us Her manifestation; we are also each unique manifestations of Her. To me it follows clearly that we ought to revere and celebrate our world in the same unique way she reveals Herself in and through us -- if she reveals Herself in a diverse, heterogeneous cultural experience, there is no reason we ought not revere her in a diverse, heterogeneous way.

The reason I harp so heavily on our unique experiences of the Goddess is because I find that syncretism can reflect the uniquely heterogeneous way in which we encounter Her. Today, not all of us go through life exposed only to one cultural or spiritual hegemon. For instance, just because we are born in America to American parents does not mean we cannot learn about, experience, and enjoy Hungarian culture. Via travel, the media, Internet, encyclopedias, music, films, festivals, multicultural classes, community get-togethers, foreign relatives, and more, we have access to a cultural world so much larger than our blood or place of birth bequeaths. Ours is a cultural experience that can be profoundly heterogeneous. This diversity is itself a manifestation of the Goddess. A Swedish-descended American may immerse herself from youth in folktales of the Ojibwe Indians while also swimming the myths of her Nordic heritage. A man of Yoruban blood may develop a love affair with the Celtic fiddle without making jealous the drums of his African roots. The passions we develop arise not only from our blood-heritage or place of birth, but from all our life experiences. All these are manifestations of the Goddess, and can be celebrated in our spiritual lives in all their diversity. It would be a denial of life experience for the Swedish-descended woman to have to choose either Ojibwe or Nordic spirituality. It would deny the Goddess for the Yoruban- blood musician to have to lay down either the fiddle or the drum when he enters the spiritual music hall. More true to their experiences of the Goddess would be to holistically weave their unique cultural experiences into an equally unique, holistic pattern.

This approach makes more sense in Paganism than in other religions because Pagans are able to look to their own life experiences for spiritual authority. Other religions, by contrast, may look to scripture for authority. It makes less sense for them to be syncretic since all the truth they need is already set down in their holy books. Or, other religions may find authority in a transcendent divinity not thought to be manifest in this world. In such cases the diversity experienced in this life would have little bearing on spiritual truth. Finally, other religions may look for authority to a central teacher or lawgiver whose life experiences trump those of followers. Paganism, on the other hand, boasts no central teacher or all-defining scripture, and gives central concern to the experiences of this world. The only true Pagan teacher is the earth. The only true Pagan scripture is the Goddess manifest in all Her many unique ways.

The many ways of the manifest Goddess makes a case for many unique ways of revering Her. Now I want to switch gears a bit. So far this essay has focused on the harmony between Pagan values and syncretism. It has not yet touched on the discord syncretism can create in and out of Pagan circles. There are serious potential problems that ought to be considered and dealt with in constructive ways.

Inside Pagan circles, syncretism can cause the dilution of spiritual energies. For example, I am always a bit uncomfortable if in ritual I rattle off a roster of goddess names, as is typical in some Wiccan liturgies. Who are all those goddesses, are they all really similar enough to be called as one, and do I really want to invoke all their differing energies? To me it seems to dilute more than enhance the energy of the circle. Much the worse is invoking together deities from different religions, such as Cernunnos and Shiva, Kwan Yin and Mary, or Coyote and Anansi.

Worse than this, in the literature of Neo-Shamanism is often quoted "Many native peoples believe..." or some such formula. American Indians I have met tell me that religion differs so much between North American tribes that comparisons can hardly be made. How much more the case with indigenous cultures the world over! Broad references to the ways of "many native peoples" threaten to betray the syncretic Pagan for an ignorant fop.

These stumbling blocks are significant but not insurmountable, however. Careful research and deep attunement with the elements syncretized can overcome the problem of diluted energy. One who wants to syncretize the paths of Cernunnos and Shiva, or the shamanic insights of multiple tribes or peoples, may do so in the full awareness of the similarities and differences of all traditions involved (Chaos magickians may disagree with me, but so be it).

These problems within Pagan circles are small compared to the havoc that may be wrought outside Pagan circles. Syncretism can initiate problems for the cultures whose elements have been syncretized. The most devastating critique of syncretism, in my opinion, is its tendency to appropriate the spiritual symbols of other cultures and give nothing in return. Starhawk (1999) calls this "spiritual strip mining." More often than not, the victimized culture is an indigenous one, and the process leaves it culturally impoverished.

On a similar note, I was recently stunned to learn that many American Indians were profoundly angered by the publication of Black Elk Speaks. The argument as I understand it is that the sacred visions and ways explained therein, once submitted to the digestive system of popular culture, would be broken down and excreted as kitsch.

I must admit that many shameful instances of this digestive process can be found in Western culture. What, for example, does it mean that Madonna can adopt for her tour's symbol the Kabbalistic Tree of Life? When syncretic Pagans incorporate into their paths sweat lodges, shamanic journeys, chakra work, or Kabbalistic mysticism, how are we different from any other consumer? How do we avoid the ravages of the spiritual strip miner?

I don't have the answer to this dilemma. Starhawk suggests, "If we learn from African drum rhythms or the Lakota sweat lodge, we have incurred an obligation to not romanticize the people we have learned from but to participate in the very real struggles being waged for liberation, land, and cultural survival," (p. 232). I agree with her. Ultimately, each syncretic Pagan must draw his or her own conclusion.

This is not the final word on problems with syncretism; there are many more that I don't have the space or the insight to point out here. Nevertheless, these problems constitute difficult but not insurmountable challenges.

This essay has made a case for Paganism and syncretism as complementary paths. It has shown, I hope, that syncretism follows naturally from the Pagan focus on this earth. We encounter the Goddess manifest in our life experiences. Where those experiences are culturally diverse, a syncretic approach may be the most honest and holistic way to revere the Goddess. Because Pagans are able to look to their own life experiences for spiritual authority, it makes sense within Paganism to syncretize diverse cultures where such cultures have influenced profound life experiences.

Of course, not all Pagans will necessarily find syncretism in alignment with their life experiences. Some proudly carry on ancient ways handed down through the family for generations. Some simply feel a clear and univocal call to one particular pantheon or tradition. The choices of these purists do not devalue the choices of syncretic Pagans. Nor do syncretic ways detract from purist ones. The tree of Paganism invites both purists and syncretists to rest under its leafy canopy.

This essay has shown that, despite problems that must be confronted and dealt with constructively, there is a natural place for syncretism within Paganism. I'll conclude with a quote from Terry Pratchett's Small Gods:

"What the gods said was heard by each combatant in his own language, and according to his own understanding. It boiled down to:

I. This is Not a Game.

II. Here and Now, You are Alive." (Quoted in Harvey, 1997)

Works Cited:

Harvey, Graham. Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Starhawk. The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, Twentieth Anniversary Edition. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1999.



B. T. Newberg

Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota

Author's Profile: To learn more about B. T. Newberg - Click HERE

Bio: Brandon has been a student of mythology since he was nine. After practicing Zen for four years, he now explores Neo-Shamanism and Wicca. His current occupations include tutoring children, eating cookie dough, and figuring out what to do with his life.

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