Syncretism

I. Definition

Where did the Easter Bunny come from? It doesn’t seem to have any connection with the story of Jesus!  In fact, the bunny and its eggs are symbols of reproductive fertility, which has always been celebrated in the Spring—by pagans.  Easter is an example of religious syncretism – the blending of different religious.  Easter was named after an ancient Germanic pagan fertility goddess.

Religious syncretism is probably the most talked about kind of syncretism, but you can also talk about cultural, political, musical, linguistic, culinary, or other sorts of syncretism.  Any time aspects of two different cultural traditions blend and become something new, it’s syncretism.

However, syncretism is potentially quite different from diversity, or multi-culturalism.  The ideal of the ‘melting pot’ is syncretic because the things that go into a melting pot lose their original identity and become something new.  Diversity or multi-culturalism is more of a “tossed salad.” In syncretism, different traditions blend and become one, such as Easter’s blend of Christianity and paganism; in diversity, traditions don’t change or blend as much; they just co-exist—which is a common condition for minority cultures in America.  And people have often disagreed about which is preferable—syncretism or diversity; we will look more at these arguments in sections three and four.

The opposite of syncretism is purity, or orthodoxy; and supporters of orthodoxy often fight against syncretism—for example, people who oppose celebrating Halloween are fighting against syncretism in our culture.  Whether you’re talking about religious, or any other kind of syncretism, it tends to happen naturally over time in multi-cultural environments (which includes the internet), so it is a real threat to the purity of cultural traditions (if that is important to you).

 

II.Types of Syncretism

We have already discussed religious syncretism quite a bit.  Here are some other types:

Cultural syncretism.  American food is a great example of cultural syncretism.  Most American foods originated in other nations, like pizza, tacos, and egg rolls, and what’s more, we have made most of them more syncretic now, with Mexican fajita toppings on pizza, and Asian tacos.  American music is also rife with cultural syncretism.  Jazz was originally a combination of German parade music, Brazilian beats, and elements of the blues, which themselves developed out of mixed African and European traditions.

Syncretic politics is a movement to reconcile the political right and left by creating new positions acceptable to both.  It is therefore considered a syncretisation of right and left politics.

 

III. Controversies

Should syncretism be embraced or feared?

Syncretism is not only the opposite of cultural purity and religious orthodoxy, it is also actively opposed and feared by many people concerned for the survival of their cultural identity.  While some might welcome syncretism as preferable to religious and cultural conflict, others may rightfully fear that it could mean the loss of their unique cultural heritage or religion.  For example, the pagan cultures which once covered northern Europe were indeed mostly lost during the process of syncretisation with Christianity—and most people would agree that the same thing is still happening to the Native American and native African cultures that have been colonized and Christianized by Europeans.

And it is easy to see the fear of syncretism among minority religions and cultures in many nations today.  For example, many Jewish people believe that it is important for their children to marry other Jews—not because of prejudice, but because they fear the eventual disappearance of Judaism.

However, others welcome this kind of syncretism; for example, many non-Christian families in America already celebrate the major Christian holidays.  While, at the same time, elements of their cultures, such as bagels, yoga, and kung fu, have become part of mainstream American culture.

So, although few people doubt the value of adopting Chinese food or yoga into our lives, fears of syncretism cannot be easily dismissed; it is true that minority cultures can lose their traditions forever under syncretism; already, most young Chinese people in America don’t practice Tai Chi. So, it is understandable if people who value tradition feel threatened by syncretism.

As the world continues to become more inter-dependent (and inter-married), the value and threat of syncretism will both continue.  Syncretism seems to be winning overall, as most people in developed nations no longer practice ancient traditions or limit their social network to other members of their parents’ culture, however, one can also see the recent strengthening of some fundamentalist religious groups as a reaction against the growing syncretism of the past few generations.

 

IV. Famous Quotes about Syncretism

Quotation #1:

“Secular thinkers have no more been able to work free of the centuries-old Judeo-Christian culture than Christian theologians were able to work free of their inheritance of classical and pagan thought. The process… has not been the deletion and replacement of religious ideas but rather the assimilation and reinterpretation of religious ideas.”

— M. H. Abrams

In this very original statement, the literary critic, M. H. Abrams points out that it isn’t only the major religions which have a long history of syncretism, but also that modern secular thought itself is syncretized with previously dominant religious beliefs.  His point seems to be that ALL major belief systems and world-views have syncretic origins, since old views are not simply erased by new ones, but rather assimilated and reinterpreted.

Quotation #2:

“The increasing tendency towards seeing people in terms of one dominant ‘identity’ (‘this is your duty as an American’, ‘you must commit these acts as a Muslim’, or ‘as a Chinese you should give priority to this national engagement’) is not only an imposition of an external and arbitrary priority, but also the denial of an important liberty of a person who can decide on their respective loyalties to different groups (to all of which he or she belongs).” ― Amartya Sen, The Idea Of Justice

According to this quote, pressure has been increasing for people all over the world to denitfy themselves as members purely of one group, and Sen objects to this as a limitation on personal freedom.  His claim that this pressure is stronger now than in the past seems questionable, but the connection he describes between syncretism and freedom is not; it has been a great source of inter-generational conflict over the past century as young people all over the world have chosen to adopt elements of many cultures into their lives, sometimes to the horror of their traditionalist parents!

 

V. History of Syncretism

 

Looking at the long view of human history, syncretism has certainly been the norm, rather than the exception.  Almost every culture, language, and religion has changed through cultural mixing more than once.  So, people today who are upset and anxious about syncretism, should probably consider that their religion or culture has already been partially syncretic for over a thousand years!

Although almost all cultures probably have some syncretism, we can pick out some landmarks in world history.  Mesopotamia, the earliest Western civilization (the modern-day Middle East) fostered syncretism for most of its long history.  In fact, the area was ruled by many different religions and ethnic groups during its 3,000-plus years of existence, some of them Semitic (such as Arabs and Hebrews) and others not, such as the Hittites, the Persians, and the earliest group—the Sumerians.

Ancient Egypt and China, on the other hand, were relatively pure for long periods of time, compared to less isolated places; however, even Chinese culture gradually became syncretic over the millennia as it incorporated Buddhism from India, Chinese Taoism and Confucianism, and elements of many surrounding Asian cultures and ethnic groups.

Christianity developed in an already highly syncretic world, where Jewish mystics (with whom Jesus supposedly studied) practiced Indian meditation and the Roman empire struggled to govern people of many different cultures and religions.  The fact that there were other crucified gods in the Middle East before Jesus suggests that Christianity was syncretic from the start, with the story of Jesus combing elements of Hebrew, Roman, and other cultures.  And most modern versions of Christianity have been syncretized with the old pagan cultures of northern Europe, giving you Christmas trees and Easter eggs.

Indian culture is a product of much syncretism—a nation in which 100s of different ethnicities, religions, cultures, languages, and political systems have been blending already for 1000s of years, at least ever since the Indo-Europeans invaded over 4,000 years ago, blending with the several other cultures who were already there.

Conquest and colonialization are ancient sources of syncretism in the world, especially for the past 600 years or so since global trade and colonization led by European nations really took off.  But even before that, few places on Earth, if any, were owned by the tribes who first lived there!

As a result of growing globalization over the past few hundred years, there are now countless relatively new syncretic religions, languages, and cultures all over the world—such as Santeria (voodoo) in the Caribbean, and the religion of the Mayan people in Guatemala and Mexico today, which blends Spanish Christianity and ancient Mayan polytheism!  Many other deeply syncretic traditions now exist, especially in post-colonial environments, such as Africa, South America, and South-East Asia.

The latest development in syncretism has been the appearance of new religions, such as modern Wicca, Unitarianism, and the “new age,” all of which purposely combine spiritual beliefs from a variety of religions.

 

VI. Syncretism versus multiculturalism

You might get syncretism confused with multi-culturalism.  And they do overlap—especially because multi-cultural environments tend to cause syncretism.  But they are very different.  While syncretism fuses different cultural elements together, multi-culturalism would merely have them exist peaceably together in the same society, while maintaining their separation and differences.  For example, giving kids off school for Jewish, Islamic, and Christian holidays is multi-culturalism–but Jewish people exchanging Christmas gifts is clearly syncretic (in fact, gift-giving was added to Hanukah under the influence of Christmas)!

 

VII. Syncretism in Pop Culture

Example #1: Graceland by Paul Simon

In the 1980s, Paul Simon (formerly of Simon and Garfunkel) released one of the most syncretic and most popular albums of all time—Graceland.  The songs blended traditional and popular styles of African music with American blues, rock, gospel, and zydeco music (all of which are descended originally from African music).

Example #2: The “New Age” movement:

Beginning in the 60’s and continuing through the present day, the “new age” movement, somewhat associated with the hippie movement, has come to refer to a syncretic blend of mystical elements from many religions–Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Native American, Christianity and more—along with western occultism, and a variety of even more eclectic ideas, such as “ancient aliens,” Atlantis, the secrets of the pyramids, crystal power, the astral plane, quantum physics, etc. The term “new age” comes from the idea, made famous by the 60s musical Hair, that Earth is entering the astrological “Age of Aquarius,” corresponding to a new current of cosmic energy which will bring enlightenment to humanity.  This idea itself is an example of syncretism—combining Eastern ideas about enlightenment with western astrology and Judeo-Christian ideas about the coming messianic age.

Quiz

1.
Which of the following is a product of religious syncretism?

a.

b.

c.

d.

2.
What is a definitely a danger of syncretism?

a.

b.

c.

d.

3.
Which of the following accurately describes the history of syncretism?

a.

b.

c.

d.

4.
Which of the following are benefits of syncretism?

a.

b.

c.

d.

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