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On the Subject of Syncretism

So I had a discussion this evening with someone about syncretism. Apparently, there had been some push back recently over certain Gaulish Deities having been treated to the interpretatio romana. It really made me think about the process of syncretization, how it works and why it’s an important way of engaging with certain Deities.

For the most part, the Romans were very respectful of indigenous religions. The times when they oppressed or legislated against a particular tradition it was never (despite how Roman propaganda may have spun the issue) purely about the religion. It was, without exception, due to political issues. For instance, four examples spring readily to mind: there was the persecution of Bacchic Cultus in the second century B.C.E. Southern Italy was a hot bed of resistance to Roman rule and much of that resistance was fomented by leaders of that particular cultus. Likewise with the Druids and the Isle of Mona. It was central to resistance to Roman rule. The cult of Isis was briefly prescribed by Octavian but this had little to do with the cult itself and everything to do with the aftermath of the civil war with Antony, in which Cleopatra (who positioned herself as an incarnation of Isis) was central. Then of course there was Christianity. That rather, in my opinion, speaks for itself. Romans were a bit horrified when they found out what the cultus of Cybele entailed but they never prescribed it. There was a period where Roman citizens were forbidden from becoming galli, but the cultus itself was otherwise allowed to flourish uninterrupted. For the most part, the Romans attempted to respect and engage with indigenous religion. They were very pious people. Quite often this was done through the interpretatio romana.

When Rome took over a province, they would often append the names of their Gods to that of local Deities. For instance, we have Sulis-Minerva, Mars-Lenus, and Tacitus in his Germania gives us an account of Germanic Deities where suddenly Odin becomes Mercurius, Tyr becomes Mars, and Thor becomes Herakles. This was not done out of disrespect but as a means of finding a keyhole, a window, a doorway to understanding and engaging with these Deities. This was especially true for those Romans who settled permanently in a territory. Looking at Britannia or Gaul or any other province, the syncretism became a meeting point for both the indigenous people and the Romans and it gave the Gods more power.

Moreover, insofar as the Romans went, this was done as a mark of respect, an acknowledgement of the Deity’s power. Gods are powerful and the Romans ever and always acknowledged that in their religious and military practices. They had several specific religious rites performed by their military to ensure that the Gods of those people they conquered would support the Roman cause, rites like evocatio, which invited those Gods to join the Roman side. In this respect, it seems the Romans used the names of Their Gods almost as titles. If they saw a particular aspect of an indigenous Deity that in their minds connected that Deity to one of the Roman Ones, then it was easy to augment that connection with syncretization. For instance, with the Gaulish God Lenus, there is significant martial symbolism. Therefore, the Romans logically equated connected Him with Mars. In other words, They were putting Him in a place wherein He would receive the same attention and awareness as their own Deity Mars. It is almost as if the names were titles, markers, placeholders wherein the Gods might dance. It was also on the Roman point of view, a mark of respect. Rome was the greatest power in the world during its time, and to acknowledge a Deity with a Roman title was one of the most respectful things to the Roman mind that one might do.

Now, I will admit, as I once told my [academic] students: syncretism is not a simple term. When it comes up, it means that something happened. There was movement, interaction, migration, colonization and that might happen naturally and organically or it might be a matter of conquest. It should never be taken at face value. Where there is syncretism there is a story, and sometimes a bloody history. Like it or not, however, syncretism is part of the history of polytheism. Sometimes in fact, that syncretism was spurred by the indigenous peoples themselves and not always under duress. Points of syncretism became a point of weaving culture, religion, and a meeting point for the indigenous communities (be they Celts or Gauls or Britains, etc.) and the Roman people. Ignoring syncretism takes away a place of power from the Gods in question and ignores that complex history of Their worship.

All of this, of course, raises questions for us about whether or not we should include Roman imagery in our icons of various Deities and more importantly whether or not we should venerate syncretized Gods. I think it is important that we do. The syncretic form and space in which the God or Gods (because after all, we don’t know what deals the two deities in question might have made with each Other regarding that form) are honored is part of that Deity (or Deities’) history. It’s part of Their cultus. It is a huge part of how the ancestors for generations engaged spiritually. To cut that off, to ignore it, to demand that it be erased is deeply disrespectful not only to the Gods but to the ancestors as well. It is nullifying their religious experience of their own Gods. It is also nullifying a point of peace, neutral territory if you will, between the Romans and the various peoples they conquered. In some cases, it is nullifying the horror and pain our ancestors experienced (i.e. in the Middle Passage which gave us religions like Lukumi, Candomble, and Voudoun) and the fact that their Gods followed them into exile.  

Returning to the question of specifically Roman syncretism, if nothing else, we should remember, I think, that we owe the Romans a debt. For Heathens at least, we know the names of certain Deities (including the Matronae) largely from Roman inscriptions. This is not because Rome destroyed sanctuaries (they didn’t) but because literacy was not widespread in the northlands until the Christian invasion. Knowledge of certain of our Holy Powers exists because Roman men and women were grateful to Them, prayed to Them, petitioned Them, and then left markers and offerings of thanks. They did this in their own vernacular. They did this via interpretatio romana. If the Gods in question could accept it and allow Their cultus to flourish, can we do any less?

Shutting that out and excluding all of that in the hopes of having some illusionary purity of religion shuts out all of these complex conversations that we could be having about the subject and ignores a very uncomfortable reality: there was never any such pure practice. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Religions and cultus always developed in conversation with each other.

 If I were confronted with a syncretic form of a Deity I venerate, and I were uncertain as to whether or not I should venerate this God or Goddess via such a form, I would simply divine on it. That is one of the most powerful tools we have at our disposal. Polytheisms ancient and modern were always religions of diviners. In the end, this isn’t a difficult question at all. It comes down to one thing, between the individual and their holy Powers: what do the Gods want?  That answer should define practice not the opinions of so-called community members you’ll never meet face to face, who will always find something to be critical of in your devotion usually reflecting the paucity in theirs.