I am, for the most part, a hard polytheist. I believe in the literal and individual existence of innumerable gods and spirits. Sure, I’ll accept that in some cases, two differently-named gods might be the same god, just due to the influences of time and place and culture (e.g., the Romans borrowing a god from the Greeks and changing the name). But I’m not very comfortable with syncretism (e.g., worshipping two formerly separate gods from different cultures as one combined deity, or as aspects of the same deity). While I can see the similarities between certain gods, I am too aware of the differences as well. Hermes and Odin might share the distinction of being gods of travelers who wear wide-brimmed hats and have deep connections to knowledge and wisdom, but Hermes is also a trickster, a god of shepherds, a playmate of the nymphs, and the inventor of the lyre, while Odin, who rides with the Wild Hunt, is a battle god, a god of prophecy, a god of kings. Not to mention the many interconnections each has with the other deities of their pantheon, which are unique to them. Or the different ways in which they are traditionally worshipped, according to their preferences as perceived by generations of devotees.
However, I do think there is something important that is expressed in syncretism, something I too acknowledge albeit in my own way. There are certain energies in the world that are significant enough to have gods attached to them – I call these “Powers” when I think of them. An example might be “fertility” or more specifically “male fertility” and then this could lead more specifically, for example, to “antlered animal” and then “stag”. Many gods share a connection to, interest in, and influence over, fertility. Fewer share Powers the more specific they become, but those are still important. There may be one sun in the sky, but many gods are attached to the sun in some way, and beyond that to Light, Heat, Growth, and other related things (not just as concepts – this isn’t an intellectual exercise – but as real and vibrant Powers that exist in our world).
When two gods share several Powers, especially the more specific they become, it might seem as if they are the same entity. But in my opinion, this is rarely the case. Because on further inspection, each of those gods also shares other Powers with other deities that they don’t share with each other. It is a complex and infinite web of connections.
However, when viewed only or especially from one vantage point, encompassing just one or two of those connections, these gods can appear to meld together. And there can be good, meaningful uses for such a selective viewpoint. For instance, in planning out an upcoming festival this fall, I realized that the aspect of Dionysos I was attempting to connect with wasn’t simply chthonic, it was a part of Him that seems to overlap with Haides (and I wouldn’t be the first to see this by far, as Heraclitus said they were the same god). This happens not only via their shared underworld connections, or even their relationships to Persephone (who is the mother of Dionysos in Orphic accounts, and of course the wife of Haides), although these things are important. It is more than that, something ineffable, a feeling I have when I experience each god in this way. I could call this “Dionysos-Haides,” and I could perform ritual and worship in this context. But it doesn’t mean I’ve decided they are the exact same god. Just that I’ve decided to, for this one festival, view them with the lens that filters out all the differences as momentarily irrelevant, and instead leaves a vision of one combined deity – although in practice it is more Dionysos than Haides for me, because I know and am close to Dionysos and only experience Haides peripherally. It’s more like I’m seeing only the parts of Dionysos that echo parts of Haides, the places – the Powers – where they connect and overlap.
Hopefully, I’ve explained this in a way that makes some sense. I’m still in the process of sorting it out for myself. But I wanted to add something to the often black and white conversation about hard vs. soft polytheism, because I think that the more one experiences the gods, the more complicated and grey the issue becomes – once they are not simply intellectual concepts, but spiritual realities.