Posts tagged ‘folk magic’

Ways Religious Syncretism Happens

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?


May 18, 2015 at 2:02 am 3 comments

Magic & Religion

One thing that attracts many people to Paganism(s) is a curiosity about magic (sometimes spelled magick). Magic is a common practice among many religions that fall under the Pagan umbrella. But you don’t need to be Pagan to practice magic, and not all Pagans practice magic. Many Christians and Jews have practiced forms of magic throughout history and still do today. You also don’t need to practice or believe in a religion to practice magic.

I don’t practice magic (being rather skeptical of it, in fact!) so this post will be briefer than some of the others. Mainly I wanted to clear up the distinctions between magic, religion and Paganism, and discuss different types of magic. If you want to learn more about *what magic is* from someone who practices it, check out Jenett’s page.

Folk Magic– magic as practiced by regular common people, handed down orally, folk magic traditions typically survive most strongly in rural areas that are more isolated from outside influence. Folk magic is often associated with folk religion- beliefs and practices of regular people that are not officially endorsed by religious authorities. Regular household objects and ingredients tend to be used, saints and plant or animal spirits might be asked for aid. Some traditions of folk magic are more open to people from outside the culture, others are much more secretive. Spiritual practices that are often labeled as “shamanic” in nature are often interrelated with folk magic and religion. (See future post on shamanism)

Witchcraft– a wide variety of magical practices, arising from Western cultural contexts. Witchcraft can be religious or non-religious, it includes Wicca but is not limited to it. That is- most Wiccans are Witches, but not all Witches are Wiccan. The word “witch” when translated into most languages generally comes off as very negative even in cultures where the practice of magic is quietly accepted. Just as it does in American and European cultures- typically in spite of public relations efforts! Therefore I would recommend if you speak another language, rather than directly translating witch, look for words that mean something like healer, wise one, herbalist and so forth. Though most self-identified witches are Pagans of some variety, there are also Christian Witches, Jewitches, atheist or agnostic Witches and yes, Satanic or Luciferian Witches. (See future post on syncretism)

Recommended: Jenett’s explanations of Wicca and religious witchcraft

Ceremonial magic– this body of magical arts and philosophies that underpin it are part of what is called the Western Mystery Tradition,  that draws from many sources including the Hebrew Kabbalah, esoteric and mystical forms of Christianity- such as Gnosticism, medieval & Renaissance lore about angels and demons, Greek and Roman philosophy- especially Neoplatonism, which had a major influence on Kabbalah. Tantra, a branch of Hindu philosophy & practice, and Egyptian religion are also influences. Ceremonial magic is typically practiced by secret societies or lodges, that require initiation. Freemasonry, though less magical in nature, is a related philosophy and order, and Gerald Gardner was a Mason, which accounts for Masonic influence on Wicca. Individuals also can practice ceremonial magic alone. Some examples of groups who practice ceremonial magic include- off-shoots of the Golden Dawn, Ordo Templi Orientalis- the order devoted to Thelema, the magical philosophy developed by Aleister Crowley. Ceremonial magicians may or may not choose to identify as Pagans- it often depends on if they have a desire for community outside of CM, or religiously identify as Pagans or have close associates that do so.

Chaos Magick– If you’re a fan of Dungeons & Dragons- while Ceremonial magicians are like Paladins or Wizards, Chaos Magicians (or chaotes) are the Rogues! Chaos magic is much more free form, sees belief as a tool and an active magical force. Chaotes typically draw freely from many sources, from traditional religions to pop culture. Use of technology- computers and the internet is very common- technomagick and technopaganism overlap quite a bit with chaotes, though technomages/technopagans are not necessarily chaotes. Discordianism– a part serious, part parody religion or philosophy- is also a big influence.

Pop Culture Magic– use of characters, concepts, symbols and phrases from popular culture (TV, films, comic books, manga, anime, video/computer games) in magical spells and rituals. This is usually an outgrowth of the ideas of chaos magic- the idea that “hey, if it works, use it”. Pop Culture Paganism or Polytheism is related, though I get the impression most people who engage in pop culture-influenced magic, don’t necessarily incorporate it into a religion. See my post on Pop Culture Paganism

May 17, 2015 at 4:32 am 5 comments


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