Pluribus unum or on syncretism (1)

Apollodorosh and I have been discussing syncretism and he recently posted a text on the subject in his blog, which I invite you all to read. We share doubts and views on the nature of syncretic deities, and our conversation has triggered a few thoughts in my mind which I will try to expand on in the next series of posts.

As Apollodorosh did, it’s important to start by distinguishing between eclecticism and syncretism. The difference may be subtle, but nonetheless important. The former is the combining of different elements from different backgrounds without creating a unified system; it’s unsystematized diversity, if you will. The latter refers also to a combination of diverse parts, but into a systematized whole, where contradictions have been dealt with and unified forms created. So, for instance, worshiping Zeus and Amon side by side as separate gods would be eclecticism, while morphing Them into a single form with its own system would be syncretism. A related term is monism, which is the belief in a common source from which spring different manifestations.

The theological question
Are gods from different communities, but with shared functions, different and individual deities or cultural manifestations of the same entities? This question is not easily answered, even when historical information may allow one to track down the origins of a god to another deity, because ultimately it’s a matter of personal faith and gnosis. As such, what you’ll read here are solely my beliefs and will not necessarily be shared by other polytheists, Romans or otherwise. The following examples can illustrate both the question and my insights on it.

Are Zeus and Jupiter the same god? There’s a tendency to syncretise Roman and Greek deities and not without historical basis, but personally I tend to be a sceptic and take Them at face value, as separate entities, unless I get clear signs or experiences of otherwise. Of course, the fact that They’re both thunder deities at the head of neighbouring Mediterranean pantheons may indicate that They’re the same, but then I wonder if we’re not dealing with two individual thunder numens, one from Mount Olympus and another from Capitoline Hill, both “promoted” in time to the highest status in Greek and Roman pantheons, respectively. This latter possibility would naturally mean that Zeus and Jupiter are neither thunder itself nor do They have exclusive control over it, which may generate new questions.

Minerva and Athena are another good example. The former seems have originally been an Etruscan goddess that naturally found Her way to the Roman pantheon in an early period and by then She may have already been depicted like Athena: with a war helmet, a spear, a shield, and/or an owl. However, identical guise doesn’t necessarily indicate the same goddess, as it’s not always easy to distinguish between the usage of one deity’s outer look to represent another and outright syncretism or importing. Was the Etruscan Menerva an Italian divinity depicted like Athena or Athena as worshiped by the Etruscans? I used to be sure of the latter, but not anymore.

The case of Hermes and Mercury may be clearer. Since the latter had no flamen in Rome, it is assumed that He’s not an early Roman deity, but there are news of a temple to Him dedicated on the Ides of May of 495 BCE. One theory is that He’s Hermes imported by Roman merchants from the Greek cities in southern Italy, which would fit His name: Mercurius from Latin merx (merchandise, business) and mercor (to buy, to trade). In other words, a foreign god spotted by traders who then took and named Him after their job as their patron.

Finally, there’s the case of greater deities of major bodies, namely the sun, the moon, and the Earth Herself. Is the sun Amon, Helios, Sol, Sunna, Amaterasu, or another god/ddess? This is where I tend to take a monistic approach and believe that the spirit of these unique and greater bodies has different avatars, sometimes within the same culture. The numen of the Earth manifests itself as Cybele, Gaia, Geb, Nerthus, and Jord, to name a few examples, which are all individual and autonomous faces of a single entity. A different case is that of deities who work the soil (like Freyr and Demeter, for instance) and local wights who inhabit rocks, hills, or other natural places: these, I’d say, are independent beings, not avatars of greater numens. It’s like a distinction between the planet itself, people who work the fields (individual, despite a common occupation), and those who live on the planet (which don’t necessarily have to be farmers).

Hopefully, I expressed myself in a comprehensible manner (especially on this last part). The question to tackle next will be on the nature of syncretised deities, namely those that combine gods who developed separately for thousands of years.

6 thoughts on “Pluribus unum or on syncretism (1)

  1. Pingback: Some thoughts on syncretism « A Young Flemish Hellenist

  2. I added a link to this blogpost in the one I published on syncretism, in the “related articles” section 😉

  3. There are not universally, or even widely, accepted definitions for either syncretism or eclecticism.

    The word “syncretism” originates from an ancient practice of the people of Crete, who constantly fought among themselves, but immediately banded together as one when any foreigner threatened to invade their island. Therefore it is very clear that in its original meaning, “syncretism” does not necessarily (but see below) mean that differences are actually resolved, for as soon as the foreign threat was repelled, the Cretans went back to making war on each other.

    Because of this origin, the word “syncretism” has often been used in a pejorative sense by Christian theologians, who used it to refer to those who, in their opinion, were eager to achieve a false unity that belied underlying, unresolved disagreements. The great Renaissance Humanist Christian philosopher, Erasmus, however, revived the ancient, positive sense of syncretism. This positive sense recognizes that the reason that the Cretans banded together to fight against a common enemy was that, despite their incessant fighting among themselves, they still viewed one another as brothers. And as everyone knows, it is not unusual for siblings to fight among themselves, but then put aside their differences to defend one another. To this day, “syncretism” continues to be used with these very different meanings: (a) a kind of superficial, even opportunistic, unity without a firm basis, or (b) a unity based on “fraternal love” (as Plutarch put it), which is strong enough to withstand even intense conflicts and infighting.

    The situation with eclecticism is even more muddled. To many people it means nothing more than open-mindedness, while to others it is synonymous with unseriousness.

    • Thank you for your contribution to the topic.

      Precisely because of what you said, it’s important to explain in which sense one speaks of syncretism and eclecticism, so read what I wrote as how I see those two words (at least in the context of the present post).

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