Situational Syncretism

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.

~ by Dver on July 11, 2010.

16 Responses to “Situational Syncretism”

  1. This really makes sense to me, and my opinions are similar.

    I have theories about sun gods. I believe there to only be one animistic spirit of the sun, which could be seen as the actual spirit/soul/life force of that celestial body. However, I believe there are many deities ‘attached to’ or associated with the sun. The bigger the influence of the ‘power’ as you say (in this case the sun) the more deities and spirits will become associated with it.

    I hope that paragraph made some kind of sense.

    For the purposes of actual worship, none of this makes a difference to me. I honor the gods as seperate beings regardless.🙂

    • Yup, agreed (with your example re: the sun, and also with the fact that in practice, it doesn’t usually make much of a difference to me).

  2. Funny. I’m currently in the middle of some reading regarding the differences between Poseidon and Neptune, namely the etymological connections between their names (or lackthereof). It’s easy with those like Odin/Wotun/Wodan, right? Obviously, that’s the same deity. Some slight regional and cultural differences, but still the same.

    I think some people just take it too far, one way or the other. They aren’t just their sound-bytes, they’re more than that, but they’re also connected to the powers they’re connected to, that can also be more than the gods themselves. I think that connection can bind them to others. I get that Poseidon isn’t, or wasn’t, a sea-god of the seas in general. He was specific to a place. Yet, I experienced him first on the shores of the Atlantic. I’ve never been to Greece. And, through him, I feel bound in small ways to other sea deities and water deities, a sort of kinship.

    Babble. This makes sense, is all I mean.

  3. This isn’t a topic I’ve pondered much, but your assessment makes a lot of sense.

  4. I agree with most of your thoughts here. But just to add a pedantic note of my own, Odin can be a trickster too, and is shown as such in some of His traditional myths. (Not to the extent of Loki though, by any means.) Which doesn’t take anything at all away from your line of reasoning; as I said, I’m being pedantic.🙂

    • I know, I know… I was just over-simplifying to make a point. Being pedantic is fine with me, considering I usually am myself.🙂

  5. Excellent post; I couldn’t agree more. People could avoid so much bad theology–and by “bad theology”, I simply mean theology that gets in the way–simply by distinguishing between Powers and Persons: community of powers ≠ identity of persons.

    I especially appreciated this:

    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

    This is exactly the correct way in which to understand divine fusions in Egyptian theology, like Sobek-Re or Ptah-Sokar-Osiris. An Egyptologist once compared these fusions to molecules: the elements involved are in a relatively stable fusion, but they haven’t lost their identity, and retain their freedom to form different combinations, or intensify their individual identities separately.

  6. Just… thanks. Again. I truly enjoyed this explanation which is very close to my own.

  7. […] The King Is Dead Today I mark the annual death of the Slavic god Yarilo. In reality, for me it is Yarilo-Dionysos, each in about equal parts. It is the Yarilo aspect of Dionysos, one could say. (For more on my thoughts regarding syncretic theology, see this post.) […]

  8. […] posts of our own. (In my case all the “Sexy Sextilis” posts, in hers stuff like “Situational Syncretism“, “Living by Moon and Sun“, ”We are so lucky“, ”Sleep as […]

  9. […] again, not necessarily in the exact same terms–are Galina Krasskova, Dver, Star Foster, and I did touch on some of these issues in my polytheology article on […]

  10. […] is the Skenia, a modern festival we’re just starting up. It honors Dionysos-Haides and Persephassa. We will be fashioning a skias of sorts in the backyard (think: like a sukkah, a […]

  11. […] build a little outdoor canopy of vegetation, and hold a feast beneath it for Dionysos (in His role most closely cognate with Haides) and Persephassa (an underworld title of Persephone). Having it at night, outside under […]

  12. An excellent post! Thank you so much for your insight, it was a pleasurable read.

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