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In Defense of Syncretism

Author: Phillupus Doctor Ekklesiae Antinoou
Posted: April 9th. 2006
Times Viewed: 7,845

One of the most virulent debates within the Pagan population rages over the topic of what it means to be “eclectic” as opposed to “traditionalist” or “reconstructionist.”

Reconstructionists, who tend to differentiate themselves from the “fluffier” mainstream Wiccans, tend to stick with one pantheon in their polytheistic religious practice, whereas Wiccans often deride the lack of freedom which restricts the possibilities for devotion to deities in Reconstructionist groups. There are many other issues over which the two factions disagree—including the importance of scholarship to one’s religious practice, ritual structure, the practice of magic, and many other subjects besides—but this particular one seems often to be the most divisive, and the one most closely defended by practitioners of each.

The “Chinese menu” Paganism of some Wiccans can result in a ritual which might include deities as diverse as Kwan Yin and Nuada sharing the same spiritual space; this strikes many Recons as culturally imperialistic, inauthentic, and reductionistic in terms of the real cultural and historical differences between the religions and deities involved. On the other hand, the “single pantheon” Paganism of most Recons seems limiting to many Wiccans, not to mention conservative and inattentive to the changes in culture and geography which have occurred since the suppression of the Greek, Norse, Celtic, Slavic, Egyptian, and other culturally-based religious practices that came with the ascendancy of monotheistic faiths.

How can Kwan Yin and Nuada be other than strange bedfellows? How can a person living in suburban southern California really be in touch with Norse divinities who were worshipped by people so long ago and in such a different climate? Each side has points to argue in the favor of its own views, and each side also severely (and often purposefully) misrepresents the other in their lampooning of such attitudes, whether the attitudes are critiqued for being too laissez-faire or too staunchly monocultural.

As a reconstructionist myself, I have often been angered by the rather easy and academically lazy formulations which I have heard used by certain more eclectic Pagans. But I’ve also been rather unimpressed by the efforts of some to be more culturally-monochromatic, as well as by the deities then invoked. I heard, for example, of a Samain festival a few years back in which all the deities invoked were Celtic, but one of them happened to be the Caillech Berri (using the earliest-attested Old Irish spelling), which seemed to me quite inappropriate: she would have been a territorial goddess of certain areas in Ireland and Scotland which bore her name, and thus was rather irrelevant to a ritual taking place in Western Washington state.

I have many friends who are strongly Reconstructionist, but the diversity of their spiritual backgrounds is often more eclectic than one might at first imagine. A good friend’s apartment is noticeable because of the various Native American artworks on the walls, a huge Hindu painting over the fireplace, and bits of other diverse cultural artifacts around, and yet she is primarily a Celtic Recon. And for anyone to say that Christianity—which has influenced society to such a degree that its effects are often unconscious in even the most devout Pagans—and all of its cultural baggage has been entirely removed from their practice is probably not being as honest as they might think; consider how many people refer to the quarter-day of Imbolc as Brigid’s Day, when most of our information on Brigid and her connection to that day is primarily through Christian hagiographies and calendars, and not secular narrative, archaeology or other sources.

But looking at matters from an historical perspective, the reality is never as simple as either side might like to think. What is called “eclecticism” today, in both Pagan practice as well as more mainstream religions (including such things as Christians who believe in reincarnation, Jews who do Zen meditation, and such), is what is referred to as syncretism in theological circles. Unfortunately, those who say they are “eclectic” tend to be those whose eclecticism is less-informed or researched than those who identify as “syncretistic.”

I myself am strongly syncretistic; but this is due to the fact that the historical cult with which my reconstructionist efforts have been focused is one that was also syncretistic by nature. Monotheistic religions have been very negative toward syncretism in most of their histories: the holiness codes of the Pentateuch were primarily aimed at ridding the Israelites of the Gentile practices of other Near Eastern cultures; and what has been conveyed to me as the greatest sin in Islam is sherk or “joining,” which is to say, joining other religious practices to what the Prophet’s teachings outlined.

However, Christianity’s negativity toward syncretism has hidden how extremely good at syncretism that particular religion was in the past. The date of Christmas coincides with the birthdate of Sol Invictus for very specific reasons that were at the forefront of concern for Athanasius of Alexandria, despite the ignorance of those who opposed the “war on Christmas” this past year. Valentine’s Day and Lupercalia—while not very similar practice-wise—are close in date as well. While the “moveable feast” of Easter changes from year to year based on the date of the Sunday following the first full moon after the Vernal Equinox, the date of the crucifixion itself (as well as the feast of the Annunciation/conception of Jesus) is said to have been March 25, reckoned on Christian liturgical calendars from early centuries, but coinciding with the date celebrated in Rome as the date of the death of Attis, the consort of Cybele the Great Mother of the Gods.

And nearly every NeoPagan knows of St. Brigid of Kildare, who is the Christianized and canonized figure of the pre-Christian goddess Brigid/Bríg; but many other Christian saints have Pagan origins, including several Irish examples based on Lug (Molacca, Lachténe, Lugaid), Christopher’s basis on Anubis, and many others.

A particularly difficult situation arises with Celtic materials. While narrative material is most abundant for medieval Ireland, none of this material was transmitted until the intervention of Christian learning and literacy, and much biblical and classical analogue is intermixed with these narratives, making the process of removing these textual elements very difficult. The same is true of medieval Welsh narratives like the Mabinogi. None of the writers of this material were crypto-Pagans, but rather learned Christians who did not see a fundamental opposition between their monotheistic religion and the pre-Christian narratives and lore of their own ancestors.

The information conveyed by various Greek and Roman authors on the Continental Celts is also often inseparable from those cultures’ views on barbarians and the literary topoi of what “primitive” people are like, as well as more idealized notions of “noble savages” whose learned druids are comparable to Persian magi and Indian Brahmins. And while noble attempts have been made to remove as much of the Christian or classical influences from Celtic religious remains in Recon practice, it is often very difficult to do so and have any useful information left at all. Indeed, nearly all of the deities who have inscriptions from Gaul, Northern Italy, and ancient Britain are a priori known to us specifically because of Roman influence. To be a Celtic recon, to an extent, is to be subject to the good and bad aspects of syncretism automatically.

But again, this does not seem to be as much of a problem, as one may realize, unless one entertains notions that the various cultures of Old Europe were independent and hermetically-sealed units with no contacts with or influences from their neighbors both far and near. Germanic and Celtic religion are similar in so many respects that crossover was inevitable in the pre-Christian periods, and indeed some scholars conclude the later Icelandic Sagas have much influence upon them from medieval Irish narrative.

Both the Greeks and the Romans readily saw analogues between their own deities and those in other cultures. Greek deities like Dionysos were adopted from various cultures quite early (with at least Cretan, Phrygian and Thracian influence on the figure quite likely), and other figures like Adonis were certainly imported from Near Eastern cultures. The Romans were promiscuous in their Interpretatio Romana (combining a Roman deity with a comparable foreign deity in an inscription) and the practice of evocatio (offering the deities of an adversarial culture a cult and temples in Rome if they would side with the Romans in overcoming their people), with such figures as Jupiter Dolichenus becoming quite popular in the later Empire, along with Isis from Egypt, Epona from Gaul, and any number of other deities.

The situation with magical practice also tends to be one where syncretism prevails. Since magic is inherently practical and designed to be effective and efficient, calling upon figures from a variety of cultures was seen as an asset rather than diminishing the purity of the spells thus produced. The Greek Magical Papyri often present the modern reader with a confusing array of deities, which can include figures as diverse as Persephone, Ereshkigal, Anubis, and even the Hebrew supreme deity under the names Adonai or Sabaoth (“lord of hosts”).

Irish magical texts from the middle ages likewise demonstrate the same tendency, with the Holy Spirit and Jesus invoked along with deities such as Dian Cecht, and more difficult figures to interpret, as in a protection prayer invoking both St. Laisrén as well as “the seven daughters of the sea” and “my silver warrior, who has not died, who will not die.” Sticking to one pantheon only, when an individual magician might know of more, seems to be extremely limiting indeed.

In my own group, the Ecclesia Antinoi, we have followed the lead of the ancient cult to a great extent when it comes to syncretism. To fully understand the ancient cult, some knowledge of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman practice is the absolute minimum. While Antinous is often honored on his own as a hero or a god in temples and inscriptions, he is also often portrayed with or named as any number of other deities. In Egypt, Antinous was honored as Osiris-Antinous; in Rome, an inscription calls him the “new Hermes”; countless depictions give him the attributes of Dionysos, and the epithets of Dionysos are also given to Antinous; and at Hadrian’s Villa, one inscription compares Antinous to Belenus—an originally Celtic god—honored into Roman times in northern Italy. Syncretism was not simply one approach to propagating the cult of Antinous in the late antique world; it was the primary means by which it was popularized.

So, to attempt a synthesis of the opposed views of Wiccans and Recons, one might say—against the more strict Recons—that syncretism not only has historical precedents, but it is also the most typical way that religions work and develop and become more practical in the daily lives of their followers. A religion that does not continue to grow and change as the situation of its followers changes is a religion that is doomed to conservatism and even fundamentalism, which we need not even illustrate with examples from the modern world to understand how difficult and potentially antagonistic such views can become.

And in seeking to reconstruct ancient religions, Recons often want to take into account these changes in modern life, location, language, and other factors, rather than adopting wholesale the practices of one version of a culturally-based religion from twenty-two centuries back. But likewise, syncretism should not be a haphazard affair simply determined by the eclectic tastes and whims of an individual practitioner or group; a little bit of research at least is much more useful than simply cultivating and expounding upon the characteristics of some deity when the individual Pagan involved can’t even pronounce the deity’s name properly.

While one need not become a postgraduate student and learn several dead languages simply to find out about one’s religion in an adequate way, serious reading of a few academic books has never been demonstrated to have resulted in the death or brain-explosion of anyone. So, in this compromise, informed syncretism is not only allowed, it can be extremely useful.

But people are people, and often these divisions are not so much based on methodological concerns as on the simple need some folks feel for opposition and conflict on those issues they find important; thus a “two party” system in Paganism is not only expectable, but for some it might even be considered necessary. No matter how much I or anyone else attempts to show how these viewpoints can reach some resolution, Recons will continue to think of Wiccans as ignorant and fluffy and Wiccans will continue to think of Recons as conservative fuddy-duddy bookworms.

Though, perhaps, even the majority of Pagans are much more moderate in their views, they seem to be a silent majority at this point. The greater visibility of the work of individual Recons and their more organized efforts, and the greater ability of Wiccans to take critique of their methodologies, will no doubt benefit each group greatly, and might even create a larger and literal truth to the oft-used term “Pagan community.”

For the protection prayer "Fer Fio's Cry, " see John Carey, King of Mysteries (Dublin, 2000) .

For other Irish magical texts, see Thesaurus Paleohibernicus Vol. 2, ed. Whitley Stokes and John Strachan (Dublin, reprinted 1975 from 1903/1910 original) .

For information on the cult of Antinous, see Royston Lambert, Beloved and God: The Story of Hadrian and Antinous (London, 1984) .

For the Greek magical papyri, see Hans Dieter Betz, The Greek Magical Papyri in Translation (Chicago, 1986) .


Phillupus Doctor Ekklesiae Antinoou

Location: Everett, Washington


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