Log in

No account? Create an account
Aussie Pagans

> Recent Entries
> Archive
> Friends
> Profile

May 23rd, 2006

Previous Entry Share Flag Next Entry
03:02 pm - Identification/Syncretism...
This post is in response to a discussion on a previous post (HERE!) about Herne The Hunter & his seeming similarity to other Gods/Spirits such as Pan or the Green Man.

This article is quoted directly from pages 63-64 from The Element Encyclopedia of 5000 Spells

(For clarity: The term "Spirit" is used in place of God/Goddess, deity etc)

Syncretism is the system by which one spirit is identified or fused to varying degrees with another. Although the process is most commonly & consciously associated with modern African-Diaspora faiths, the tradtion goes back millennia.

When the ancient Greeks began to travel their world, they encounted other people (Egyptions, Persians) with other pantheons. This frustrated them. Although they didn't insist on one god, they did insist on their own gods. Who were these other spirits? In some cases, spirits from abroad (Dionysus, Hecate) were merged into their own pantheon. In other cases, the Greeks decided other cultures simply used other names & told different stories about spirits who were the same as the Greek gods. Thus they created a system of identification: Hathor was a beautiful Spirit of love, who liked perfume & music. She must be Aphrodite, also a beautiful Spirit of love, who liked perfume & music. Although sometimes neat, obvious identifications can be made, sometimes this leads to confusion. The Persian Spirit, Anahita, was a beautiful deity interested in human romantic & reproductive matters. Obviously she was identified as Aphrodite (identification means she was Aphrodite), but Anahita also had a martial aspect, driving a chariot, leading men to war. Therefore she must be Athena, too.

Identification therefore attempts to identify one spirit within another. Syncretism takes this a step further. One spirit wears the mask of another. When one pantheon is outlawed, the only way to continue devotion to now-banned spirits is to pretend that you're worshipping others. This is precisely what happened to enslaved Africans in the Western Hemisphere. Forbidden to practice their own faith, they accommodated it to another. Syncretism permits forbidden spirits to wear acceptable masks. Syncretism also means that acceptable saints are incorporated into magic spells in suprising ways because, in essence, they are fronting for that forbidden someone else. How else can one reconcile the conventional & devout "official" Saint Anthony of Padua with the witch-doctor persona he displays so powerfully & benevolently in a multitude of magic spells?

Spirits, like magic in general, are fluid in nature. Shape-shifting isn't hard for them, even without conscious syncretism. Hence India's Durga is an aspect of Parvati. In a moment of terrible stress, Durga unleashed her alter ego, Kali. All three are aspects of one, but all three are distict beings too. Confused? Well, you should be, it is confusing.

The realm of the spirits is like a journey through a dream landscape. Syncretism only increases the confusion.

Because the syncretism of the African slaves was born of desperation, quick, frequently visual identifications were made. Slaves were forbidden to practice their own religions but were permitted Roman Catholic chromolithographs of saints. They scoured them, looking for coded references to the Orisha & Lwa. Sometimes these identifications really work; Ogun, Spirit of Iron, was syncretized with the archangel Michael because in his most famous image Michael weilds a sword. Yet they genuinely have much in common: both are tireless workers, & warriors on behalf of human safety. Michael even has his own associations with iron. Sometimes syncretism is surreal: Chango, that most virile Spirit of Fire & Lightning is sycretized to the virgin martyr Saint Barbara, because her chromolithograph depicts a lightning bolt.

The first generation to engage in syncretism is conscious of what they are doing. After that, though, all bets are off. At what point, if any, do these Spirits genuinely fuse? Perhaps Sain Peter, syncretized to road-opener Eleba because of his keys, really is Eleba or vice-versa. And if you're invoking Saint Peter in a magic spell, are you really invoking the saint or Eleba, hiding within, even if, after three generations, the orisha is no longer remembered?

Santeria earned it's name, "religion of the saints" because of syncretism. Those who emphasize Roman Catholic ties prefer to emphasize the saints or perhaps a combination. Others can no longer seperate saint from orisha; true fusion has occured for them. In Brazil, there have been calls to end syncretism as it is no longer necessary.

Were authorities truly unaware of the slaves subterfuge? It's hard to say. This system of identifying & syncretizing spirits is present whenever one faith demands that another abandon & deny it's spirits. Sometimes religious authorities presented syncretism to a population to make the new religion palatable. Hence, Goddess Aine becomes a Fairy Queen. She remains accessible to old devotees in that role, if not in her old one, which was percieved as dangerous to the new religious authority. Celtic Spirit Brigit, the Druid's daughter, becomes identified with Saint Brigit. They merge, where one stops & the other starts becomes very difficult to determine.

Sometimes, however, this process backfires. In the case of Maximon, also known as Brother Simon, missionaries' attempts to assimilate the Guatemalan spirit Maam with Saint Simon backfired. Maximon, spirit of male primal energy, defied boundaries & took on a life of his own. The Church then attempted to syncretize him with Judas Iscariot or even with the devil. This only enhanced Maximon's outlaw image, making his devotees love him even more. Although intended to merge, to syncretize, with an "official" saint, Maximon instead has emerged as a powerful "unofficial" saint.

Sometimes syncretism occured to long ago that the original spirit hiding underneath is completely forgotten. The only way to recognise that syncretism may have occured is the observation that the saint behaves strangely in an un-saint-like manner. This applies particulally to the Big Three of Magical Catholic Saints, Saint Anthony, Saint George, and John the Baptist. Although perhaps completely forgotten spirits lurk within, many believe that under their respective masks lie Hermes, Baal & Adonis.

All spelling & grammatical errors are my own (it's hard work trying to type up an artical from a huge book with a playful 2-year old boy trying to get your attention! :P)
Current Mood: impressedimpressed
Current Music: Saint Patrick in the Spirit - John Doan

(2 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:May 24th, 2006 02:58 am (UTC)
Thank you heaps for posting this. It was an extremely interesting read. I had to read it a few times to understand what they were saying. Raising an interesting question or two in my mind. If we are to believe that all deities are different even if they are similar than we are to believe there is a lot of deities?
[User Picture]
Date:May 24th, 2006 04:59 am (UTC)
Yeah I know whatyou mean about this artical raising some interesting questions. I was discussing this very topic with my girlfriend (who affiliates herself with both Celtic dieties as well as some ancient Greek ones.) just this morning. It's a great thought to expound upon at length without ever really coming to any definate conclusion. :D

What is life for but to gain knowledge & decide for one's self what to do with that knowledge though. :)

> Go to Top