Some Thoughts on Eclecticism, Syncreticism, and Inter-Cultural Transmission

Alternative Title: Get the Blog Juices Flowing!

And now for a bit of a “no duh” post..that will more than likely just sort of ramble.

Eclecticism has become something of a dirty word within reconstructionist/recon-derived communities, where it is viewed with distaste because of the appropriationist and culturally insensitive actions of the New Age community and the Wiccan boom of the 1990s. And this kind of mentality has come to dominate approaches towards methodologies like syncretic belief. Syncretism is well attested as kind of an intercultural transmission between different groups in classical antiquity, and even that is an overly used and misunderstood terminology.

Which is unfortunate, really, because eclecticism denotes a lack of rigidity and dogmatist allegiance to a singular set of paradigms. It is also not a new phenomenon: the Greeks viewed it as choosing the best of things. And it transcends cultural or religious methods that are taken and mutated into a personalized belief. It is also not a focus on religious terminology, but

I’m of the mind that eclecticism cannot be truly obtained in an individual polytheistic practice. Conversely, I am not personally of the mind that syncretism is intrinsic to polytheism and I dispute the application of the term “syncretic” with the use of source material derived from outside the religion itself. I believe that the polytheist approach allows a great deal more give-and-take in terms of inter-cultural transmission and is probably one of the greatest beauties of the theistic understanding it provides.

After all, we’ve seen Romano-Gallic, Graeco-Buddhist, West African Vodun and other Diasporic religions, Mystery Cults, and even inter-cultural transmission in the “culturally isolated” world of the Northern European peoples (among countless others), all before the advent of the internet and globalization! These examples, and other attested historic interactions, are the reasoning why I believe that rigidly enforced religio-cultural isolation and “purity” is a pointless, frivolous enterprise designed to do nothing much else but engender a sense of superiority over other people.

That is not to say that individuals and groups who stick with exclusive pantheons and practices are wrong, at all. My sense is the distinction between “syncretic religion” and “personal religion” is a lot more nuanced than many people think and cannot be so easily applied. I don’t think that a personal religion, which many of us often perform (especially those of us who are solitaries) can be syncretic, and that the term itself represents a broader melding of different factors, both cultural and religious, into something identifiably different.

A core problem with the idea of eclecticism (and, to a lesser extent, syncretic interpretation) is because there’s a certain level of cultural appropriation that is seen as inherently happening, and this comes in to play from the cherry-picking nature of the New Age influences of the ’70s and ’80s. And I feel that this appropriation is more noticeable when the religion that is suffering from the pejorative of “eclecticism” is more rigidly defined in terms of methodology and practice. I’m sure there’s some residual irritation at the lengthy history of Christianity and the appropriation of non-Christian traditions in order to spearhead conversion.

There are always going to be people who have an issue with the appearance of appropriation. And I am not saying that being culturally appropriationist is permissible. The line between appropriation and a realistic transmission is slim and ill-defined. But I tend to be a bit more forgiving now than when I was younger. I don’t have any sources to back these ideas up, other than the recognition that cultures were not static entities and that religion – as a prime mover of cultural interests – was hardly a fossil. There’s no reason to treat these beliefs as living dinosaurs.

I also am not saying that polytheists can’t be appropriationist and that it’s all those dastardly Wiccans or monotheists that do it. I’m saying that the polytheistic experience allows for a greater dissemination of ideas and beliefs across cultural boundaries. And to argue otherwise is historically and culturally ill-informed.

Just some thoughts.

This’ll probably be edited later when I think of this more, I just wanted to get something up.

Thanks for reading.

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~ by thelettuceman on September 12, 2014.

10 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Eclecticism, Syncreticism, and Inter-Cultural Transmission”

  1. Reblogged this on Lean in to Joy (transition priestess, spiritual midwife) and commented:
    Food for thought.

  2. The line between syncreticism/eclecticism and cultural appropriation is a fuzzy one I’m not sure of yet. I have a draft of a post on my own blog in the works about this subject.

    For one thing, there’s really no such thing as racial purity, and I just can’t stand those Heathens who think that Who we worship is linked to “blood”. Besides, I don’t even know much about my lineage. I know my mom was born in Germany, but I bet I also have some Celtic, Roman, and who knows what other “blood” back there somewhere. I doubt I have any non-European in there, but I could be mistaken. I haven’t had my DNA tested.

    I feel like I could just as easily worship Celtic or Greek gods as Germanic. The only reason I worship Germanic gods is because they’re the only ones who have indicated to me that they wanted my worship (and I have no idea why that is – you’d have to ask Them). And it’s not like I haven’t tried other gods, but none of the other ones “clicked”. I really don’t think it would strange at all for a person to worship, say, both Brigid and Odin, for example.

    And the Roman/Greek gods are all over the place, so I feel like it’s OK for pretty much anyone to worship them, at least in the USA. I can’t see how I can appropriate a culture that’s had such a massive influence on my own culture.

    As for going outside of Europe, things get a little tricky, and I think that’s mostly because of imperialism. I really don’t blame Native American or African-descended people getting upset when Europeans appropriate their gods. Especially since a lot of the time it seems like they’re only doing it because those other gods seem “exotic” or something.

    Of course, if you’re a “white” person who has some strong ties to one of those other cultures, that’s different. But I think those people are the exception rather than the rule. And I mean strong ties, like intermarriage in your family, not “I went to a couple of pow-wows.”

    So I guess the line has something to do with how deeply you understand the culture you’re picking things up from, and some cultures are more readily accessible than others.

    • Oh, I totally agree.

      Racial religions work in very limited circumstances, none of which are generally in the “Pagan” sphere. Especially when it comes to reclaiming or reconstruction. Personally, I’m of the mind that blood CAN help, but not necessarily the ONLY way to help. And there are ALWAYS exceptions.

      In my case, I have had no significant inclinations whether or not my worship is appreciated. Across any spectrum. I’m pretty radio silent. I do it out of pure tenaciousness, stubbornness, and because it’s the only thing I have any remote claim to.

  3. I’m not quite understanding the thrust of your argument here, I don’t think.

    Conversely, I am not personally of the mind that syncretism is intrinsic to polytheism and I dispute the application of the term “syncretic” with the use of source material derived from outside the religion itself.

    What do you mean by this? Is it that it’s an etic vs. an emic matter, and that the label “syncretistic” is getting applied by outsiders (i.e. me) to cultural traditions that don’t see themselves as such?

    All of the other things you say above in relation to syncretism seem to be in agreement with what I’ve said (at least as far as I’m reading them at present without further clarification), so I don’t quite see how the theological diversity and openness of polytheism that you’ve praised and described above (which I think is accurate and true!) does not, therefore, suggest that syncretism is intrinsic to polytheism (at least in the definitions of syncretism that are from later periods and understandings).

    Help? 😉

    • Hey! My apologies for taking so long to get back to you. I’ve been a bit under the weather today (where DID the day go?). I’m not really arguing, per say, just kind of..thinking aloud. I had been wanting to have a few thoughts jotted down about eclecticism, and I read your article and it sort of just provided the impetus for it.

      I think my biggest hurdle with what you wrote was when it came to the idea that one is “syncretic” for using external source material? At least that’s what I read from part of it? Maybe I misread or read too quickly what you were saying there, admittedly. I mean, obviously we agree a lot about a number of things within the article(s). If anything, I’m disputing certain grumpy heathens I know about the idea of eclecticism and syncreticism (which get conflated) as inherently modernist or “bad”.

      I think I sort of wrote the topic too quickly, or with too little clarity. I think the crux of my view compared (not in real argument) to yours is that there are two polytheisms. Please, feel free to dispute this, especially given you’re far more knowledgeable about this subject matter than I am. In this sense I do not believe that personal polytheist practices can be syncretic, or rather the term is a bit problematic as I see it as a larger religious/cultural term; something larger than the individual.

      It’s one of those topics I need to think about more! Hope I made some sense and/or didn’t trip over what I was trying to say.

      • Let me see if I have it clear, then. It isn’t really syncretism if the source material is from outside of the culture, right? So, does that mean that if one uses the Eddas, it isn’t and can’t be syncretism, even though the people writing them weren’t Heathens, and were bringing in influences from classical, Christian, and Irish sources (at very least)? That, therefore, isn’t syncretism, but Romano-Germanic or Gallo-Germanic stuff would be, because it’s actually by the people concerned?

        I think this is an important matter to discuss, which is why I want to clearly understand the point you’re making.

        The individual vs. communal/cultural argument is also an interesting one; I don’t agree that one can’t be a syncretist if what one is doing is strictly individual, but that can certainly just be a matter of preference. Many of the most interesting examples of syncretism seem to be unique to certain individuals or locations, so I don’t think it necessarily requires a kind of “council” on the matter to take place in a community or a culture to occur and be legitimate, as that certainly wasn’t the case in the ancient world. The modern examples seem to be following the same pattern, and then (as occurred in the past), people seem to follow those precedents and continue them, or they don’t, varying widely as to their reception.

        Certainly, the conflation of eclecticism and syncretism is something of a problem; and the assumption that anyone who is syncretistic or eclectic is therefore “wrong” or “not as good as” those who aren’t from a recon perspective is fatuous at best.

      • I need to change my settings so I can reply to more than one reply, so I don’t have to reply to myself and hope you see it:

        I guess I’m confused as how using views and data from outside a culture IS syncretism. How is using Tacitus to understand an early German history syncretic, if you don’t conflate Odin and Mercury as one individual? Or did I misunderstand what you were saying? I have a feeling that we’re arguing the same thing just from slightly different levels. I tend to do that!

        I’m also not trying to de-legitimize anything, just wondering if there’s other terminology that is more or less appropriate.

        • To address the latter point first: it’s very unfortunate that “syncretism” means at least two things–a combination of beliefs/cultures/ideas/religions/philosophies, etc., OR a theological phenomenon in which one deity (or more) combines with another (or more). Often, the latter arises from a situation of the former, though it also occurs within cultures (e.g. the Egyptian tendency to get deities like Sobek-Re, Atum-Re, Amun-Re, etc.). So, either of these can be involved in the situations you’ve cited…

          I think that seeing any culture from the viewpoint of an outside culture automatically means that one is seeing the target culture not from its own viewpoint or by its own lights, so to speak, but instead from the very different viewpoint and standards and definitions and interpretations of that outside culture. It’s not that it isn’t valid or useful or true, or that it can’t provide excellent insights (especially when we have nothing else, e.g. Caesar’s reports on the “Gaulish Mercury,” etc.), but it’s not the same as having it from the direct Gauls and so forth.

          Interpretatio Romana, I think, is best understood as a translational phenomenon rather than an equational one. When one has an instance of Mercury ____ in some area of Germania, it’s not saying that Odin (who it is thought many of these syncretisms refer to) IS Mercury, but instead Mercury “is like” ____ (whether those are Odin or not). Translation is never complete or perfect, and that’s why it’s important to recognize that Interpretatio syncretisms (whether they happen with Romans to Gauls, Germans, or even Greeks; Greeks with Egyptian or Syrian or Indian; etc.) are not equative but metaphorical or translational (and, remember, “metaphor” and “translatio” mean exactly the same thing in Greek and Latin).

          Anyway, it’s a complex set of questions…

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