A syncretic religion is one that combines different spiritual beliefs and faiths to create something new. We in North America primarily know about them through the faiths that brewed in Central and South America, combining elements of Christianity and other faiths; often ones that are much older and more “primitive-feeling.” Voodoo came from a complex cauldron of Catholicism, the Yoruba faith, and, depending on region, some First Nations beliefs; Santeria came from a blending of Catholicism, West African faiths, and Central and South American indigenous healing practices. There’s a multitude of syncretic faiths that come out of the region due to the mixing of cultural influences of indigenous peoples uncomfortably blended with forcibly transplanted African-descended populations and Europeans, enough to keep an anthropologist busy for lifetimes.
But syncretism is hardly a new phenomenon. The truth is that religion is like any other human idea, and it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Most existing religions came from, or were influenced strongly by, other religions or philosophies. Arguably, early Christianity could be defined as a syncretic faith that originated from a blending of Judaism, Greek philosophy, and a mixture of mystery cults of the ancient world. Judaism may, itself, have originated in Egyptian monotheism merging with the faith(s) of the Mesopotamian region, and later was likely altered by Zoroastrianism. Roman religion was strongly influenced by Greek religion. Sufism, which is a practice of Muslim mysticism that has been around likely since there has been Islam, has syncretic elements of Pantheism and Panentheism in much of its historical and present-day practice. Many First Nations religious movements have combined traditional First Nations beliefs with Christian beliefs. And there are a host of modern faith movements that are syncretic.
Some faiths that have syncretic elements choose not to acknowledge the term, believing the description is contrary to their understanding that they are individual divinely revealed faiths. Bahá’ís, for example, believe that Bahá’u’lláh’s revelation was an independent, though related, revelation from God, not unlike the belief that Christians generally have concerning their relationship with Judaism.
I believe, however, that the current academic attitude towards syncretic faith movements is missing the point. If you read just these descriptions, you would get the impression that syncretism is a bunch of unrelated stuff randomly jumbled together, and practitioners of such faiths are clutching on to a jumble of flotsam in their attempt to traverse the waters of life. But a syncretic faith is, like any other faith, a boat. And a boat has a consistent and integrated design philosophy. That boat might include design elements that are a lot like some other kinds of boats (perhaps it has a keel like a longship, but sails like a galley and perhaps even a modern radio system and backup onboard motor; and maybe they’ll decorate the whole thing in the style of a British Navy ship circa the Napoleonic Wars) but it still has a certain internal consistency and symmetry. The designers of the boat might occasionally try to install innovations pioneered by other boat designers. If they work, they’ll be incorporated into the design. If they don’t, they will be discarded.
So, that longship keel design might superficially resemble its namesake; but the truth is, it is now being used in an entirely different way and it is an integral part of the new design. Therefore, if a well-meaning Viking were to come along and tell the sailors on the new boat that they were using the keel incorrectly, that would represent a misunderstanding of what the keel was being used for. If a Catholic priest were to tell a Voodoo Queen that she misunderstands the worship of Mary, that would instead indicate that he doesn’t understand what the Voodoo Queen is doing. She isn’t actually worshipping the Virgin Mary as the Catholics understand her; for her, Mary is a manifestation of Erzulie Freda, who is no more “the Virgin Mary” than She* is the Orisha Oshun, from whom She is derived. Nor is the Haitian Voodoo Legba quite the same as the Louisiana Voodoo Legba; nor the West African Legba, though certainly They have a common root and look similar.
This article at Wikipedia lists a variety of faith practices as “modern syncretic religions”; including (but not limited to) Hoodoo, Louisiana and Haitian Voodoo, Dutch Pennsylvania Pow-Wow, Thelema, and the Theosophical Society, and suggest that mysticism, occultism, astrology, Neopaganism and the New Age movement are “Examples of strongly syncretist Romantic and modern movements with some religious elements.”(2)
Aside from the veiled insult inherent in their desire to not take us seriously as a religion, let us consider the idea. Is Wicca a syncretic faith?
Unlike Wikipedia, I won’t presume to speak for all Pagans, of course. Reconstructionists do their best to distill everything down to the closest they can possibly get to OP (Original Practice.) By definition that excludes them from the moniker “syncretic.”
Thelema “is a mixture of many different schools of belief and practice, including Hermeticism, Eastern Mysticism, Yoga, 19th century libertarian philosophies (i.e. Nietzsche), occultism, and the Kabbalah, as well as ancient Egyptian and Greek religion.”(3) Seems pretty syncretic to me.
The case for the Theosophical Society is thinner, but since Madame Blavatsky herself wrote “Theosophists, collectively, respect the Bible as much as they do the sacred scriptures of other people, finding in it the same eternal truths as in the Vedas, the Zend-Avesta, the Tripitakas, etc.”(4) then there was clearly a mixture of Christian, Hindu and Buddhist influences, along with occult sources. It seems that it would qualify also.
Hoodoo “has some spiritual principles and practices similar to spiritual folkways in Haitian, Cuban, Jamaican and New Orleans traditions . . . most practitioners of hoodoo integrate this folkway with their Christian religious faith. Icons of Christian saints are often found on hoodoo shrines or altars.(5) Syncretic? Sure.
I think Dutch Pennsylvania Pow-Wow is especially interesting. Wikipedia tells us that “Its name comes from the book Pow-wows, or, The Long Lost Friend, written by John George Hohman and first published in German as Der Lange Verborgene Freund in 1820. Despite the appropriation of “pow-wow”, taken from an Algonquian word for a gathering of medicine men, the collection is actually a collection of European magic spells, recipes, and folk remedies of a type familiar to students of folklore. The formulas mix Christian prayers, magic words, and simple rituals to cure simple domestic ailments and rural troubles. Early Pennsylvania was a melting pot of various religious persuasions, as William Penn’s promise of religious freedom opened the doors for many Christian sects: the Anabaptists, Quakers, Lutherans, German Reformed, Catholics, and all manner of religious mystics and free-thinkers. It is from this blending that the Pennsylvania German Pow-wow tradition was born.”(6) Wikipedia also tells us that “It is primarily understood by practitioners of the Powwow tradition that Powwow is an Americanized version of English Cunning Craft.(7)
Well, let’s consider this. According to Ronald Hutton, whose book Triumph of the Moon is often criticized but mostly accepted by current academia, Gerald Gardner cobbled together modern Wicca from European and Classical Paganism, specifically the mystery cults of the ancient world; the Romantic, naturalist, and woodcraft movements; Freemasonry, occultism, English Cunning Craft and European folk magic. An argument could also be made that the Theosophical Society and the Thelema of the O.T.O. had influence on the development of Wicca, since Gerald Gardner was a member of both groups and pieces of their writings have been found in his original Book of Shadows; along with bits from Robert Graves, Sir James Frazer, and Charles Leland. I would also make a case, which I intend to present in a future article, that Wicca was strongly influenced by Anglicanism (Jason Mankey pointed out the interconnectedness of Christianity and Paganism in a recent article.) In the 1970s North American Wicca acquired the grafting on of the modern feminist movement, feminist anthropology, Jungian psychology, the environmentalist movement, and some First Nations elements. Which, I think, conclusively demonstrates that Wicca is, indeed, a syncretic religion.
If that is true, there are numerous implications that may have a bearing on current inter-Pagan politics. First of all, North American Wiccan strains and European Wiccan strains may be seen to have a similar relationship to one another as Haitian and Louisiana Voodoo do to one another; they are interrelated but distinct.
Secondly, even though Feri looks a lot like Wicca, and though only the assertions of its practitioners (which I’m willing to respect) have convinced me that it isn’t actually a different strain of Wicca; well, perhaps it had a parallel evolution from superficially similar, yet different, syncretic influences. (I would really love to chat with a Feri Witch about that sometime! I would be fascinated to pursue that theory.)
Third, this makes a powerful case for the separate identity of culturally-based Reconstructionist faiths. Imagine if some of the Haitian Voodoo practitioners tried to distill their practice back to the faith of the Yoruba. I imagine there would be the ghost of the syncretism lingering on it like a bad smell, but it would otherwise just be a slightly different form of the Yoruba faith, informed by cultural influence. It would probably look a lot like West African Voodou (light Christian influence but mostly Yoruba). Is it still Voodoo? Does it exist in an overlapping circle between Voodoo and Yoruba? Or is it something else entirely? The original Christian Fundamentalists truly believed they were trying to get back to Original Practice too. Reconstructionist faiths have been telling us that they are entirely separate for quite some time and we haven’t been listening as well as we could be. From this perspective, we are cousin faiths working together towards similar goals, but we are as different as Christianity is from Islam.
In that understanding, we should accept that our conception of the gods is not the same. The Wiccan/Neopagan Thor is not the same as the original Norse Thor; which is different again from the present Heathen/Asatru understanding of Thor. The practice of another, superficially similar faith can inform our practice, but it should be understood that it is a different faith and therefore, perhaps the gods, while related, are different too.
And finally, perhaps we Wiccans have more in common with our syncretic Afro-American religious cousins than we originally thought. Maybe we even have more in common with them than we do with the Hellenisimos. And with that understanding, perhaps we can get past some of the malaise I have seen in the Wiccan community since academia disproved all of our “ancient, unbroken religion” myths, and move into the future.
- Syncretism as Religion by Sarah Anne Lawless
- Because We Can: Syncretism from a Pagan Perspective by Apuleius Platonicus
- Return of the Pagans by Vamadev Shastri
- Being on the margins of the margins: the dual-trad thing by Nornoriel Lokason (added in response to a comment: see below)
* My choice to capitalize the “she” for Erzulie Freda, and not for the Virgin Mary, is not due to preferences on my part, but instead represents my respect for the Catholic choice not to recognize Mary as a goddess.
1. Dictionary.com “Syncretism.” Accessed November 14, 2014.
2. Wikipedia. “Syncretism: Other Modern Syncretic Religions.” Accessed November 14, 2014.
4. Blavatsky 1966 “Neo-Buddhism” pp. 478–511 [context at p. 341]. Groningen, Netherlands: katinkahesselink.net. Retrieved January 1, 2011.
5. Wikipedia. “Hoodoo (folk magic).” Accessed November 14, 2014.
6. Wikipedia. “Pow-wow (folk magic.” Accessed November 14, 2014.
7. Wikipedia. “Syncretism: Other Modern Syncretic Religions.” Accessed November 14, 2014.