Ways Religious Syncretism Happens

May 18, 2015 at 2:02 am 2 comments

Syncretism is when you combine two things together to create a new thing, and it’s very common in many religions. It happens both historically and in modern times, for a variety of reasons. I’ll start by discussing historical examples, and will cover ways to approach syncretism yourself in another post.

Syncretism in the Roman Empire– We’ll Go to War with You and Then Add your Gods to Our Pantheon!

As Romans added territory to their Empire, they encountered people who worshiped other gods. Being polytheists, they didn’t really care so long as the Gauls, Germannii and so forth obeyed them. But the Romans liked to say “oh, that god you call Wodan is kinda like Mercurius”, just as they had done earlier with the Greek gods. This is referred to as Interpretatio Romana. Sometimes these foreign gods were adopted into Roman religion, often with Romanized names. Sometimes we don’t know the original Celtic, Germanic, Iberian or Slavic name as a result. In addition various Eastern mystery cults were brought in- often by soldiers and traders- including Isis (Greco-Egyptian) Kybele (Anatolian) Mithras (Persian) It was kind of like the ancient Roman version of the New Age- ooh, cool, I’m going to try out this new religion! Complete with parents and other authority figures getting annoyed by all this weird new-fangled stuff. More on mystery cults in another post.

Colonialism, Slavery, Suppression of Culture/Religion– When people from West Africa were enslaved and taken to the Caribbean, the American colonies, Brazil, and other parts of South America they brought their culture and beliefs with them. Because they were expected to be “good Christians” (often synonymous with being an obedient slave!) they kept their traditions alive under the guise of Catholicism- various spirits were identified with saints. Theology note: in many of these traditions there is a Creator God- identified with the Christian God who is more distant, and other beings who serve Him- so the world “god” is only used for the High God, the rest are Spirits or Powers.  In mainly Protestant areas such as the Southern United States (outside of French Catholic Louisiana) African influences can be found in music, ecstatic healing and dancing, folk art, stories like Brer Rabbit and Aunt Nancy (Anansi) belief and magic. These are often referred to as Afro-Caribbean religions. *Some* followers of these faiths identify as Pagans or associate with Pagan & metaphysical communities, others group themselves more with African Traditional Religions (ATRs)- some with both. Many also consider themselves to be Catholics, and would look at you strangely if you invited them to a Pagan Pride event!

Similarly in Central and South America, indigenous religious beliefs are often syncretized with Catholicism. It’s very interesting to watch how various Catholic officials in Latin American have reacted over time to manifestations of folk religion. La Virgen de Guadalupe, (who may be influenced by the Aztec goddess Tonantzin) is totally accepted as the patroness of Mexico. The cult of Santa Muerte (Saint Death, a female Grim Reaper figure) on the other hand is greatly discouraged by the Church, but has many devoted followers who generally identify as Catholic.

Conversion of Europe- Messier than Your Sunday School Teacher said it was… Now, to be clear in contrast to the mass conversion of the Americas, Christianization in Europe was not necessarily the result of colonialism. It was nasty sometimes, but it didn’t go along with slavery and genocide to quite the same degree. Within the Roman Empire, colonialism and slavery were already there, Christianity was just a nice bonus. Outside the Empire, people typically became Christian because their king or chieftain said, “I’d love to be allies with you, neighboring Christian king- sure I’ll get baptized if that’s what it takes!” and then the peasants had to at least pay lip service to Christ, even if their heart wasn’t in it. Remember, for a good chunk of European history, in many places there was a lack of formal churches and trained clergy, and most people were not literate. So often people were mostly “Christian” politically, but on a daily basis in their little villages, they were praying and making offerings to spirits and ancestors- over time more Christian language was added, and gods became disguised as saints, so in many ways not so different than the later examples I gave in the so-called New World. Actually one way we often learn of various gods and holidays and customs, is from accounts written by clerics complaining about this or that awful pagan thing those ignorant peasants keep doing! We have to keep in mind that they may exaggerate and make it sound “worse” than it was (especially if they are trying to convince Rome to send more missionaries to someplace cold!) but still it’s kind of a ironically fun way of finding information!

So likewise, if you are researching European forms of polytheism, you will likely need to research local folk versions of Christianity in whatever country and region you are studying.

Questions for reflection (this is messy so there are really no “right or wrong” answers!

How does syncretic polytheism in the Roman Empire remind you (or not!) of modern cosmopolitan cultures?

Who of the different people(s) I discussed might consider themselves pagan, Pagan, Christian, Catholic or a member of an indigenous religion? Might they identify with more than one label? Can you be both pagan and Christian? Why or why not?

What examples of syncretic folk religion are you familiar with in your own life? (Could be Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, Unitarian Universalist etc)

Have you noticed differences in how religion was taught officially vs. how it was practiced at home? Did this cause any confusion for you growing up?

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Redfaery  |  May 18, 2015 at 3:40 am

    Reblogged this on Flight of the Hamsa and commented:
    Perhaps the most obvious form of syncretism in my own practice is Honji Suijaku, or the merging of Shinto with Buddhism. Benzaiten-sama was the Indian goddess Sarasvati, but was absorbed into the Japanese pantheon after becoming associated with the goddess Ichikishima-hima. She was eventually so thoroughly nativized that she was again syncretized with a Buddhist figure – this time Kannon, better known as Guanyin.

    Reply
  • […] 4 Intro to Syncretism […]

    Reply

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