The brainstorm of divine origins

For those of you who are unaware of it, I’m not a fan of immediate equations of gods. That is to say, that I’m not into the simplistic argument that similar iconography or overlap in functions is enough to conclude that two or more deities are the same. I know it was a common thing in the ancient world and a lot of modern polytheists do it, but I tend to dig deeper and look into various specifics – etymology, cult history, nature or functions – instead of jumping to the conclusions based on a very broad and – dare I say? – shallow stroke. Why? Mostly because I like to know the gods I worship as best as I can and preferably based on more than just a “feels right” kind of argument. And also because, whenever History is concerned, I prefer to put things under a critical eye as opposed to merely accepting what is given to me by ancient sources or appearances. In this case, whether a god is originally native or imported and hence distinct or identical to another. It may not provide for a decisive conclusion – and the further back you go in History, the less certainties you have – but it does award a more solid basis on which to build my beliefs.

Case by case
In the past, this has led me to conclude that Hephaestus is different from Volcanus, for while they are both fire gods, the former is that of the forge – and hence civilized fire – whereas the latter is that of the wild and inner earth, which translates into a much more primal and violent force. Just because several deities are tied to the flames, it doesn’t mean that they’re the same. Otherwise, you might have to conclude that Hephaestus and Hestia are identical, despite the gender difference, because they both deal with fire. It’s the nature of the flame that matters. On the opposite end of the topic, I’ve come to conclude that Hermes and Mercury are the same, since the latter was not a part of the earliest Roman pantheon – as suggested by the lack of a flamen – and the location of His temple outside the pomerium, while not an infallible proof, nonetheless also hints at an originally foreign cult. The Greek colonies of southern Italy may well be the point from where Hermes entered Roman religion. And between equation and distinction, I’m unsure about Jupiter, for while His name is an etymological match to that of Zeus, both Latin and Greek are Indo-European languages, so if you’re going to name a sky god, chances are that you’ll use something that’s linguistically identical to what’s being employed in another tongue of the same group. Simply put, it could be a mere case of different gods being identified by means of common words.

General notions
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with believing differently, because 1) these are not orthodox or exclusivist religions and 2) it ends up being a bit indifferent. After all, if they’re the same, that just means you’ve been worshipping the same deity all along, whereas if they’re not, then you’ve been honouring the ones you name according to a chosen ritual praxis. And again, yes, simplistic and sometimes even contradictory equation was a very common thing in the ancient world. But when I look at pre-Christian authors claiming that the Egyptians worshipped Aphrodite (meaning Hathor) or that the Germans honoured Mercury (i.e. Wodan), I remind myself of what happened when Vasco da Gama reached India, in 1498, and the Portuguese mistook Hindu deities for Catholic saints. True, they found it odd that they had multiple arms, big teeth and weird heads, but that wasn’t an immediate disqualifier, in as much as Vasco da Gama is said to have prayed to a Hindu goddess thinking it was the Virgin Mary. Or at least that’s the account of Lopes de Castanheda, published in 1551, in his History of the Discovery and Conquest of India by the Portuguese (Book I, chapter 16). And the reason for the confusion is that, in the minds of Gama and his men, there were only three religions at the time: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. They were not particularly aware of any other. They may have heard about tribal African religions, though it’s unclear how they saw them exactly, but in any case, when confronted with the large stone buildings of Hinduism, with its many colours and statues, the only point of reference they had in living memory was Catholicism, since neither Jews nor Muslims worship images. And thus, the obvious conclusion was that the Indians were Christians.

This is how I often – though not always – look at classical equations: a simplistic reasoning born out of the fact that people had a limited knowledge of other religions and naturally assumed a sameness that filled in the blanks; or alternatively, an implicit statement of self-importance, in that you see yourself as superior or at the centre of things and so of course other people do the same as you. Much like modern, often ill-informed individuals may assume that what’s true for their country is true elsewhere in the world, because all they know is basically what they deal with daily or they see themselves as important enough for their specifics to be universal. And in the particular case of the ancient Romans, it was also an issue of the grass being more educated on the Greek side of the fence, so they claimed that it too was Roman.

Again, this doesn’t mean that there’s no merit in equation. It’s a valid theological perspective, one that I share in some instances, and, as said, this is not a matter of orthodoxy. But I cannot take it at face value, accept it simply because that’s what ancient authors did, no more than I can conclude that two or more gods are the same just because they share functions or looks. If human life is similar, of course you’re going to find different deities attached to similar spheres of influence. And iconography, like names and legendary elements, can move around and get tied to multiple things and entities that are nonetheless separate. Look at how the Japanese wind god Fujin is depicted with a bag or cloak similar to that of the Greek Boreas, not because they’re necessarily the same, but because the artistic convention was slowly carried over from Greece to Japan by way of conquest and trade. Consider also how the depiction of the Virgin Mary partially derives from that of pre-Christian goddesses like Isis, not because they’re the same entity, but because the iconography of the latter was used to depict the former. Or in a weirder, yet enlightening example, how peasants from 13th-century France transferred the name and martyr status of a human saint – Guinefort – to a greyhound they worshipped. They’re not the same character – one is a man, the other a dog – but the former’s name and title was used for a canine cult (Schmitt 2009: 91-105). And in a clearer case of imported elements being attached to a native figure, the words in hoc signo vinces, which were said to have appeared to Constantine before the battle of the Milvian bridge, in 312, are also part of a much later legend pertaining to the first Portuguese king and his victory at Ourique in 1139 (Pereira 1993: 436). Check Camões’ The Lusíadas III: 45 for an allusion to it. In short, parts of things can move and get attached to other, independent things. It’s a bit like clothing fashion, in that it too gets passed around between people, communities and cultures. But just because two or more individuals wear the same outfit, that doesn’t mean they’re the same person or of the same country.

A complex case
My most recent dive into the brainstorm that are such matters concerns Minerva. I’ve been going back and forth with it, sometimes leaning towards distinction, others towards equation with Athena, and a few days ago I revisited the matter and went a bit deeper, down a rabbit hole of sorts, you might say, and came out with a more solid conviction on the identity of a goddess to whom I perform a monthly sacrifice on the 19th day.

I started with the simplest and most common belief, that They are the same deity given the similarity of roles and an identical iconography. She was known among the Etruscans as Menrva and what little is known of their religion suggests a strong Hellenic influence that could have included the plain appropriation (*gasp*) of Athena, whose name would have been replaced with a native one. After all, as in Greek myth, Menrva is the daughter of the sky god, from whose head She was born, pairs up with the hero Hercles (i.e. Herakles) and is depicted in much the same way as Athena, with an aegis, spear, helmet and shield. This would seem to suggest that They’re the same, but take a closer look and you’ll start spotting differences. Namely, that Menrva was seen as a wielder of lightening, appears to have had a connection with divination and perhaps also with children, though it is unclear to what extent. Maybe just as an educator, but it could also be something else, enough for some to question whether She was seen as virginal as Athena (Grummond 2006: 72-5). So They’re not exactly the same goddess. The crucial question is whether the differences came before or after the Hellenization of Etruscan religion.

If one opts for the latter, then the distinctions are simply a form of regionalization, i.e. the product of Athena’s integration into the Etruscan context. Old gods in new places are often reinterpreted, with roles being dropped, stressed or added according to the needs, customs or experiences of the host culture, which may not be common to those of others, and so the differences may be no more than Athena’s Etruscan flavour. Yet they could also be traces of an older Menrva, one that pre-dates much of the Hellenic influence and is therefore a separate deity, but on which layers of imported Greek elements were superimposed, attached to Her like a new outfit, leaving only a few distinctive features as remnants of a previous self.

This is where linguistics becomes of particular importance, because Menrva is a name of Indo-European stock. It comes from the Italic meneswo (intelligent, understanding), which is rooted in men- or “thought” (Cor de Vaan 2008: 380-1). This is unlike what happens in the case of Tinia, whose name may come from the Etruscan tin (day), or Turms, whose etymology is unknown (Grummond 2006: 53 and 122). But here’s the thing: the Etruscan language was not Indo-European and thus the name of the goddess, which is attested as early as the 6th century BCE, was imported from elsewhere. Where exactly is unclear, but the Latin, Faliscan and Umbrian areas of central Italy have been put forward as possibilities (Cor de Vaan 2008: 381). Which is curious, because the traditional or standard interpretation is that the Romans acquired Minerva from the Etruscans. But if etymology is anything to go by, the truth is perhaps the other way around. And there may be a circumstantial indication of that in the fact that Menrva seems to be absent from the Piacenza liver, which was found in what used to be northern Etruria, but there was a temple to Her at Veii, which was closer to Rome (Simmon 2006: 59.1). So we have a goddess whose name is an import and whose cult may not have been present in a uniform fashion. Thus, if the theonym has a southern origin and, perhaps, She was more popular in the Etruscan south, then maybe that’s where one needs to look in order to find Her origins: south! And in ancient Italy, the further you went in that direction, the closer you were from the Greek settlements of Magna Graecia, some of which were founded in the 8th century BCE.

So what to make of it?
Now, as said, the further back you go in History, the less certainties you get and that’s exactly the case here: I’m trying to make sense of fragments of information on the origins of a particular goddess, knowing that in the end I’ll only have a theory and not a certainty. But having said that, where do I stand?

I’m leaning strongly towards believing that Menrva/Minerva is the same as Athena, though not as a direct Etruscan appropriation of a Greek goddess – or at least not at first – but an indirect one via non-Greek communities in central Italy. That is to say, people like the Latins, Falisci or Umbri picked up the cult of Athena from their contacts with Magna Graecia, changed Her name along the way and then the Etruscans, thanks to their proximity to central Italians, themselves took Her in already renamed as Menerwa. Hence Her Indo-European name in a non-Indo-European culture and the apparent possibility that She was more popular in southern as opposed to northern Etruria. And this could also explain the differences between Minerva and Athena, in that the former would be a bit like a translation of a translation – twice interpreted and hence somewhat distinct from the original.

Since the transmission would have taken place sometime between the 8th and 6th centuries BCE, it is fair to ask why then was Minerva absent from the traces of the older pantheon of ancient Rome? Specifically, why is there no flamen Minervalis? Perhaps because in the early period She was not popular enough for it. After all, just because the knowledge or even worship of a goddess gets passed around between people and communities, it doesn’t mean that it automatically becomes a State cult. That may have come later and in a reverse movement to how it started, i.e. from north to south, from Etruria to Latium and Rome.

Again, not a certainty, but it is a more solid basis than just feeling right that Minerva and Athena are the same. Because when things involve historical processes of some sort – like the origins and expansion of a cult – this is how I tend look at it. Through enquiry and critical thinking, not a mere acceptance of accounts or looks. Which come to think of it, is a very minerval thing to do, to make use of your ability to reason and construct ideas.

Works cited
COR DE VAAN, Michiel Arnoud. 2008. Etymological Dictionary of Latin and the Other Italic Languages. Leiden, Boston: Brill.

GRUMMOND, Nancy Thompson de. 2006. Etruscan myth, sacred History, and legend. Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia, Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

SIMON, Erika. 2006. “Gods in Harmony: the Etruscan pantheon”, in The religion of the Etruscans, eds. Nancy Thompson de Grummon and Erika Simon. Austin: University of Texas Press, pp. 45-65.

PEREIRA, Paulo. 1993. “A conjuntura artística e as mudanças de gosto”, in História de Portugal, volume III, dir. José Mattoso. Lisboa: Círculo de Leitores, pp. 423-467.

SCHMITT, Jean-Claude. 2009. The holy greyhound, trans. Martin Thom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

A month for Freyr: day 6

Is Ingui-Frey a god of the home? Not per se, since He’s not a deity of the hearth, kitchen or a house wight, nor a male Vesta, Hestia or Brigid. But He is connected with several things that are essential for the survival of a household: food, protection, reproduction, overall prosperity, a link to the ancestral line and authority over two possible house elves. Consider the following.

Hestia is the goddess of the hearth, the focal flame of both private dwellings and communities, yet She’s not the only one to play the role of house deity: Zeus Herkeios, for instance, protects the building and everything in it and often had an altar in the courtyard; another domestic aspect of the King of Olympus is that of Zeus Ktesios, where He appears in the form of a snake; Apollon is the guardian of gates and doorways or, to quote a post by Lykeia, He’s “the protector of the inviolable nature of the oikos“; the Dioskouri, who are well known as gods of horses, warriors and sailors, were also worshipped as house gods, especially in Their native Sparta. What these examples show is that a deity doesn’t have to have a domestic origin to be a domestic Power – if He/She’s important for the family as a whole and its dwelling, He/She can play a role as a household god/dess. So if Ingui provides food, heirs and protection of both people and animals, if He bless one’s home as a place of peace and inviolability and has two probable house elves as servants, it seems clear to me that He can be a god of the household. The connection is hinted at by His own name/title: He’s Frey or Frö, the Lord or Germanic pater familias; and in a modern Latinized cult the term can be translated as Dominus, the master of the house or domus.

Does this mean that Ingui is a god of everything? The answer is obviously no, though I understand why some may ask that. But the thing with polytheistic deities is that They don’t usually fall within clear-cut categories with very well defined “functions”. There’s a large degree of overlapping and a natural development of roles from a core nature: Zeus is a celestial father, so that extends His role of guardian and judge to the microcosm that is a home, where there is also a father, rules and a need for protection; Apollon is a god of light with an apotropaic nature and that naturally places Him at the gates, protecting the dwelling and the flame within the building.

Similar elements of relevance for domestic life and its survival can be found in Ingui as well and that, once the connection is established, places Him in the role of a god of the home.

As the crow flies

Corvo 01

Historically, there are mainly two animals associated with Mercury: the ram and the cockerel. They’re shown on a Roman coin from 172-3, which depicts a circular temple to the god, and also on a silver dish from the 3rd century. Other animals linked to Him are the tortoise, the hawk, and perhaps even the hare (references here). Then there is a bird that seems to get his share of attention from modern devotees, but appears to be absent from ancient sources: the raven.

In a blogpost last year, Lykeia pointed out how it’s actually more closely associated with Apollo and there is nothing in pre-Christian material that ties that particular bird to Hermes. And while this may be true, my mind nonetheless keeps liking the raven with Him. Admissibly, this may be an unconscious interpretatio: Odin has been equated with Mercury and the same is true for Lugh, both of which are connected with ravens. There’s also my love for Lisbon, whose coat-of-arms depicts two of those birds, so my mind may therefore be resorting to stored references and subconsciously connecting things I like. But it may also be hinting at a valuable link and despite the lack of historical references.

Traditionally, the raven is a bird of omens and a guide of souls. Due to its colour and because it can feed on decaying flesh, it’s an animal with an otherworldly aura that implies death, the ability to move between worlds, to bring things from the other side or to take them took it. In this, there’s also an implication of knowledge, for in its liminal freedom to move from one realm to another, the raven can see and hear a multitude of things, some of which are outside the normal human experience. The connection with Mercury is obvious: He’s a psychopomp, a messenger of the Gods, and while Apollo is undoubtedly an oracular deity, it’s also true that Hermes was taught cruder forms of divination by his Delphic brother. As such, He is not without the ability to look into the future and, in any case, by moving freely between worlds and being a conveyer of information, He has access to otherwordly knowledge and the ability to pass it on. It’s not by accident that He’s a god of hermeneutics.

The raven is also known for being a highly intelligent bird: they’re crafty, able to solve problems, and have even been seen using tools to acquire food, from fishing with bread crumbs to using strips of vegetation to scope for underground insects. Experiences have also shown how they can change materials into a desired form so as to create a better tool. Again, this reminds me of Hermes/Mercury, who’s well known for His inventive skills and crafty ways, like when He stole Apollo’s cattle at a very early age. He’s a trickster and the same can be told of ravens, whose ability to steal and hide things is not unheard of.

But how can a black-feathered bird of carrion be linked to a god who, while being a psychopomp, is not Himself a deity of death or battle? The answer may have been given by Lykeia with regards to Apollo: “He [the raven] feasts on the old that we can become reborn as it were into something better.” It is, in other words, a bird of change and transformation, and while that may be rightly associated with Apollon Agyieus, it can also stand for a god of movement like Mercury: like life, He is not static, but ever moving. And if there’s an initiation element in change and transformation, keep in mind that the god can go in and out of the underworld. In his book on the Guide of Souls, Karl Kerény pointed out how that implies some form of initiatory preparation or recognition of Hermes’ friendly terms with Hades (2008, 65).

All of this tells me what others have already hinted at and mentioned: the raven is a very hermetic animal, able to stand as a bird of Hermes/Mercury. Of course, one may ask how can that be if it’s already taken by Apollo, but this is hardly an issue: just as gods can share functions, the same may happen with animals. The snake, for instance, is linked to Dionysus, Demeter, Asclepius, and Ares; the dog to both Artemis and Hekate. These things don’t usually work on exclusive terms.

Musings on Hephaestus and Vulcan

Today, Neos Alexandria has reopened its call for submissions for Harnessing Fire, a devotional in honour of Hephaestus. It didn’t take me long to decide that I should seize the opportunity to make my contribution, either in the form of a tale or something along the lines of this post (or both). That, in turn, led me to consider my relationship with Hephaestus and His connection to Vulcan, which originated this blog post.

I should probably start by saying that I’m neither a metalworker, a fireman, or an engineer of any kind. Nor is anyone in my immediate family, though both my paternal and maternal grandfathers were veritable handymen and would do things in metal and wood at home, out of hobby or everyday need. I also don’t have any physical disabilities and the closest thing of the sort in my family is one of my uncles’ slight limping. I do work with clay as a hobby (hence the presence of Khnum in my religious life), but I don’t fire my pieces because I don’t have the means to do so and instead I just let them dry before I paint them. I’m also more of the mental than physical jobs kind of person. I do enjoy physical activity on a daily basis and take on a new challenge every now and then, but out of athleticism, not work. It has more to do with Mercury and the Dioscuri who, by the way, have been tapping on my shoulder recently. So I guess you can say that there’s not much in common between me and Hephaestus. Except that I have a soft spot for the underdog, especially when he rises high through honest hard work, in this case as high as Olympus, while managing to stay humble and loving. So I guess that means I have a soft spot for Hephaestus, even if our common activities are limited. He’s a good source of inspiration: persistence, dedication, and willingness to get your hands dirty to do an honest job are precious things. Even awe-inspiring, since we’re talking about a god. Actually, scratch that: especially since we’re talking about a lame god! I guess you could say He has the ability to inspire the best hard-working qualities in us.

As soon as these ideas settled, there came a wind bearing another question: so what about Vulcan? They’re the same, right? At which point I entered a several days-long mind storm (like I said, I’m a mental work kind of guy).

Though some will no doubt accept the interpretatio romana with little or no hesitation, I tend to be critical of it. It’s not that I don’t believe that some gods are the same, but there’s more to the problem than similar names, symbols, or functions. Just like several farmers are not one farmer because they all do the same thing or have similar tools and techniques, not every deity is the same simply because they share a few or even many things. At least that’s the way I see it and I don’t claim to own the ultimate truth. This is just me. I prefer a case by case approach and look for the perceived nature of the gods as opposed to Their outer look, which may be taken from one culture to another. Consider the bodhisattva Vajrapani, who’s depicted as Hercules in the Greco-Buddhist art of Gandhara (see here). I wouldn’t say They’re the same, even if They do share some traits, but that it’s more of a use of Greek artistic conventions on Hercules to represent another deity. Just like the Japanese wind god Fujin wears the same wind bag as the Greek Boreas. It doesn’t mean They’re the same god, but it does indicate how iconography can move around from one culture to another, in this case from Greece to Asia via Alexander the Great (see here) and then to China and Japan via the Silk Road. In the end, you get the same symbol being used by different deities. Similarly, the pottery depicting Hephaestus found in the shrine to Vulcan in the Roman forum, dating back to the sixth century BCE, may be an early case of Greek art being employed to represent a Roman god.

Of course, whether or not you believe They’re the same deity is up to you. I’m just pointing out that what we usually see as evidence of “oneness” may simply be a case of imported clothing for a native god, so to speak. I wouldn’t take the interpretatio romana or any other at face value (more on that here). But regarding Hephaestus and Vulcan, what makes me suspect that They’re not the same, even if They are close, is what I perceive as Their nature.

Hephaestus comes across as having a more docile temperament. He may be a hard worker with rough hands, but I get the feeling that He’s very approachable and down to earth, deeply in tune with human lives and needs. Which makes sense considering His background: lame, cast out of Olympus, honest, and persistent. He has an idea of what it’s like to be one of us. And He’s also a peacemaker and broker of deals, which adds to my impression of Him as a very practical and well tempered god. Hephaestus also has a dark side, but that’s true for most of the Powers: He can produce works of art and tools of war and it goes without saying that a red-hot piece of metal can be deadly and painful. He’s a fire god and fire can both nurture and destroy you; and His is not the virginal flame of the hearth, but that of the tough forge. But, again, there’s a sense of inner peace about Hephaestus: even when He acts on Aphrodite’s love affair with Ares, He exposes it for everyone to see, but does not take violent vengeance. Instead, He is satisfied with a settlement. His fire does not burn uncontrollably.

Vulcan, on the other hand, comes across as a darker and more chthonic kind of god. Originally, He may have been something along the lines of Vertumnus and presided over the inner warmth of the earth. And we all know where that comes from: lava! Which in turn means volcanoes and earthquakes. A necessary and even vital force of nature for life on this planet, no doubt about it, but it’s also a much less peaceful and human-friendly Power. At least that’s the impression I get. Whereas Hephaestus seems to be in tune with our needs, which work on a time-scale of a few decades to one hundred years, Vulcan, I’d say, sees things from the Earth’s perspective, which works on cycles of five hundred to thousands of years. The slow drift of the planet’s tectonic plates, the forming of new land from the ocean floor, the life cycle of volcanoes. That speaks less to human needs and more to those of the Earth, which will sacrifice scores of individual lives for the sake of long-term balance. Vulcan’s connection to wild fires reinforces that idea and it goes without saying that earthquakes and volcanoes are not the best example of docile temperament.

Maybe these are two opposing sides of the same god. Maybe They were originally two different entities who picked up each other’s traits at some point. Or maybe their worshipers did it, given their culture and geographical proximity. In the end, it all boils down to what you feel and my feeling tells me that, even though They are both fire gods with the ability to melt and mould things, there’s a difference in nature that hints at two different deities. But don’t take this as gospel: I may be wrong and may change opinion in the future. Otherwise this would just be hubris.

Pluribus unum or on syncretism (2)

What is the nature of syncretised deities? Are they entirely new gods or something else? This is a speculative question that will have an equally speculative answer, with no facts other than the historical existence of cults to such divinities. Let’s start by considering three possibilities.

The first is that a pre-existing entity moves into the syncretic form, perhaps a numen or local wight who then gets a boost in popularity. Take Serapis, for instance: if He’s a 3rd century Ptolemaic creation to unify Greeks and Egyptians, He may have originally been a local spirit from the delta of the Nile. And the reason why I assume He’s real is that there are modern worshippers who claim Him to exist and interact with Him, which is enough for me, since I generally don’t deny the existence of a deity (see here). So you have a newly created godly form, joining Hellenic and Kemetic elements, that attracts a native entity, itself probably already aware of the presence of inhabitants from two different cultural backgrounds.

But what if a new deity is generated by the syncretic form? Yes, I know what I’m suggesting may come across as extreme, but not being a god myself and having no direct knowledge of Their deepest and most intimate life, I like to keep the options open. And an inevitable possibility to consider when dealing with new cult forms is whether or not it refers to a new deity altogether. In the myths, the relationships between the Gods are often told of in terms of father, mother, brother, son, and daughter, which may not necessarily mean They actually breed like us, but there is a generative notion. So what if to a syncretic form created and worshipped by humans, the Gods – namely Those that are combined in the new guise – reply by generating a new entity? Controversial as this may be, it’s still an option I like to keep on the table. And it’s perhaps worth noting that the Gods and Their realms may well be two very different things: Poseidon was given rule over the sea, but He didn’t create it; Hermes presides over lesser form of divination, but didn’t invent them. It’s not such a far-fetched possibility that a new god may be given a role already played by other gods with Whom He will then have to share it.

A third and final possibility is that of a new guise to an already worshipped deity. For instance, it seems the Sumerian god Enki was also called Serapsi, which is pretty close to Serapis. Could They be the same entity? Has the old god from the land of the two rivers taken a new form in the kingdom of the Nile after the death of Alexander in Babylon?

These are all possibilities, speculative answers to a theological question. They are not certainties or dogmas, not even UPG (at least not fully). And there’s one last matter to consider on the nature of syncretised deities, namely two types of syncretism: ontological and functional. More on that in the final post of this series.

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.