Articles/Essays From Pagans
June 16th. 2013 ...
How To Stay Spiritual Amidst This Chaos?
Hearing The Music And Dancing The Dance
A Tale of the Wood
June 9th. 2013 ...
The Nature of Sacrifice
The Magick of Buildings
Start your own Pagan Church in Canada - A Detailed Guide
June 2nd. 2013 ...
Maiden, Mother, Who?! (A Discussion of the Triple Goddess)
Gods Who Live In My House
Why the 'Redneck Pagan'?
Among the Greenwod - An Interview with Raven Grimassi
May 26th. 2013 ...
So You Think You've Found a Teacher...
Learning To Live Your Own Life
Raising Personal Magickal Energy for Spellwork
Casting The Wiccan Circle
May 19th. 2013 ...
The Role of Identity in Magic
Talking Trash? It's a Dirty Subject but Waste Happens.
My Wiccan Journey
13 Keys: The Victory of Netzach
May 12th. 2013 ...
Pagan Studies I: How Should We Define Modern Paganism?
The Third Path
Nothing Special... Part Two
May 5th. 2013 ...
The Value of Multicultural Awareness
Put Your Back Into It (Our Lady of the Sacred Honey Badger)
Moon Musings, Planetary Preponderances and Red Lipped Bat Fish
April 28th. 2013 ...
Lessons from the Lessers: Iris
April 21st. 2013 ...
Taken By The Goddess: The Crescent Moon Tattoo
The Gods/Being Godbothered
To Be A Witch
The Archetypes are Gods: Re-godding the Archetypes
April 14th. 2013 ...
On The Inclusion of Children
'Wand Fun' With Grandson
Lessons from a Baby
Lessons of Freedom: On Divinity and Healing
April 7th. 2013 ...
Out of the Broom Closet... Sorta
A Journey Through the Witches Tarot
History and Science Behind Numerology
March 31st. 2013 ...
What is the Magickal Self?
Ethics and Numerology
March 24th. 2013 ...
Keystones of the Sacred Land
March 17th. 2013 ...
Why Some Pagans and Witches Still Hide
Witch Heritage 101: What Happens When Witch Haters Joke about anti-Witch Films
I'm Not a Broom. So What's with the Closet?
March 10th. 2013 ...
Top Ten Stupid Things I Did as a New Pagan: Part 3
Hunting for the Real Witch in Film
The Collective Shadow
Lies - The Opposite of Truth
March 3rd. 2013 ...
Grounding and Releasing Negative Energy
A Patchwork of Magick
February 24th. 2013 ...
Top Ten Stupid Mistakes I Made as a New Pagan (Part Two)
February 17th. 2013 ...
Top Ten Stupid Mistakes I made as a New Pagan... Part One
Gardening with Crystal Energies
A Call from the Ancestors
Moon Musings, Planetary Preponderances and Black Water Snakes
February 10th. 2013 ...
We Are the Weirdos, Mister: A Completely Uncool Story of Origin
February 3rd. 2013 ...
"I'll Grind Your Bones to Make my Bread": Pagans and Animal Husbandry
The Role of Contemporary Culture in Magic
A Pagan Response to Endangered Earth
The Great Mother's Gift, Heinlein, and the Nature of Squirrels
13 Keys: The Glory of Hod
January 27th. 2013 ...
Why We Do Need Wicca
The Cosmos In the Coffee Shop
On Travel Spirituality and Magick
January 20th. 2013 ...
Beloved Backs and How to Save Them
Building or Burning Bridges?
Plants, Magic and Intuition
Plagiarism - How It Harms Our Community
January 13th. 2013 ...
Ramblings of a Pagan Guy: Stupid Clichés
The Magick and Power of Words
Aging Is Not Easy
The Riddle of Who We Are?
January 6th. 2013 ...
Wicca v Witchcraft
NOTE: For a complete list of articles related to this chapter... Visit the Main Index FOR this section.
Why Syncretism Makes Sense Within Paganism
Article ID: 8284
Age Group: Adult
Days Up: 3,420
Times Read: 3,700
Author: B. T. Newberg
Posted: February 7th. 2004
Times Viewed: 3,700
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)
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.
Other Articles: B. T. Newberg has posted 8 additional articles- View them?
Other Listings: To view ALL of my listings: Click HERE
Email B. T. Newberg... (No, I have NOT opted to receive Pagan Invites! Please do NOT send me anonymous invites to groups, sales and events.)
Web Site Content (including: text - graphics - html - look & feel)
Copyright 1997-2013 The Witches' Voice Inc. All rights reserved
Note: Authors & Artists retain the copyright for their work(s) on this website.
Unauthorized reproduction without prior permission is a violation of copyright laws.
Website structure, evolution and php coding by Fritz Jung on a Macintosh G5.
Any and all personal political opinions expressed in the public listing sections (including, but not restricted to, personals, events, groups, shops, Wrenâ€™s Nest, etc.) are solely those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinion of The Witchesâ€™ Voice, Inc. TWV is a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization.
Sponsorship: Visit the Witches' Voice Sponsor Page for info on how you
can help support this Community Resource. Donations ARE Tax Deductible.
The Witches' Voice carries a 501(c)(3) certificate and a Federal Tax ID.
Mail Us: The Witches' Voice Inc., P.O. Box 341018, Tampa, Florida 33694-1018 U.S.A.
of The World
NOTE: The essay on this page contains the writings and opinions of the listed author(s) and is not necessarily shared or endorsed by the Witches' Voice inc.
The Witches' Voice does not verify or attest to the historical accuracy contained in the content of this essay.
All WitchVox essays contain a valid email address, feel free to send your comments, thoughts or concerns directly to the listed author(s).