Syncretic Electric

Practically, I have come to define my approach to worship as Syncretistic Classicism. The more I read about the culture and religions of the ancient world, the more I come to understand how interconnected they all are. I personally feel that we, as Modern Pagans, have this urge to find a pure line of descent for our religious practices. I think that a lot of this is a result of many of our upbringings in the Big 5 faiths, which, on the surface, appear to have strong single, unified narratives stretching back thousands of years. Though, it is important to realize, as even a brief foray into the history of the Early Christian Church will show, that this is certainly not the case. All of the major religions currently extent have suffered a series of dramatic transformations and schisms through their lifetimes, and their interactions with other cultures and belief systems had dramatic impacts on their development. Modern Christianity bears very little in common with the religion practiced by its earliest members. I feel that it is important, as Modern Pagans, to have an understanding of the fluidity of ancient religions.

The religions of the ancient Mediterranean, what we think of as Classical Antiquity, were deeply intertwined. Partially because of the literary and art historical narratives which have been built up over the passing centuries, we seem to have lost track of that. We do have these conceptions that the Gods of Ancient Greece were uniquely Greek, the Roman’s uniquely Roman (though adapted from the Greek, but still somehow discreet, as if they erased their predecessors with their emergence). This was simply not the case, however. Cults of various regional deities spread throughout the Mediterranean, drifting far from their origins and coexisting within the established structures of other religions, in some cases becoming integrated into them: the Isis cult seems to have spread as far as the British Isles. When we claim to worship the Old Gods, we need to understand that these Gods did not live in a theological vacuum. The Old Gods lived shoulder to shoulder with each other, their demesnes overlapping and interpenetrating. What is the true Roman Religion? Well, at what point historically do you decide was the most purely Roman of all of Roman history? Do we count only the early Etruscan faith that preexisted Greek contamination? Do we take the religion of the Late Roman Empire, with all its deified Emperors and Egyptian influence? Let us not forget, either, that Christianity became the state religion of Rome.

Therefore, in my practice, I try to keep myself intellectually honest, with an understanding that to the ancients religion was not necessarily an impenetrable unchanging edifice, but a fluid and syncretic thing, constantly absorbing, repulsing, and always interacting with its neighboring cultures. I do not mean to make an excuse to sloppiness in worship, however. A good deal has already been said about approaching one’s Gods in culturally appropriate ways. Research and cultural understanding are vital to any healthy spiritual practice. However, I do sincerely believe that it is important to allow oneself to maintain fluidity and adaptability within one’s practice and spiritual experience.

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2 thoughts on “Syncretic Electric

  1. Saitiah says:

    I very much agree with you but on two points I must nit pick a bit, though not exactly discredit.

    1. “Gods of Ancient Greece were uniquely Greek, the Roman’s uniquely Roman (though adapted from the Greek, but still somehow discreet, as if they erased their predecessors with their emergence)”

    – There is a delicate balance with the gods of Greece and Rome and it seems difficult to find many who fully grasp it, both pagan and those just interested in mythology. More often I see people who use the names interchangeably, as if Diana and Artemis are the exact same goddess. There are differences in cults and dominions. Diana doesn’t have the same concerns with women’s issues that Artemis does. Studies at Diana’s center at Nemi show that visitors are, where identifiable by gender, split fifty fifty, and among healing votives there’s not a lot that are clearly female, i.e. related to genitalia and childbirth, that would indicate that they were more apt to offer there than men. Also Diana has political connotations that Artemis does not appear to have.
    There is a lot of cross pollination after these two cultures met, in pre-Hellenized Roman religion gods didn’t have statues, many didn’t really have any myths. A lot of those came from Greece, and the tones became stronger when the Romans set themselves up as the custodians of Hellenistic culture, thus adopting many Greek things into their religious practices, like statuary, myths and so on. A good example is when 12 of the Roman gods were paired up very much like the Greek Olympians and there was a big feast. I can’t remember how to spell the name, I know it started with an L. If I recall correctly this was before 300BCE.
    I would argue that while with out the help of a time machine can’t completely unravel how these ideas traveled and cross pollinated each other, I would argue that the Romans had their own gods and conceptions there of, and that similarities between the two actually derived from the fact both share Indo-European roots, which had it’s own gods whose names are etymologically related to the gods of the Greeks and Romans and even the Etruscans. I think later when these cultures came into contact they acknowledged the similarities and borrowed things where there were matches because Roman gods who do not have a clear Greek counterparts don’t get Hellenized so far as I’ve seen.

    2.”What is the true Roman Religion? Well, at what point historically do you decide was the most purely Roman of all of Roman history?”

    -There is one, that is attested to in Classical sources. King Numa Pompillius was the legendary second King of Rome who with the help of Egeria the nymph codified and set up the what was called the Numa Tradition, which was believed even in ancient times to be the true and quintessential Roman religion. Regardless if King Numa actually lived we do know things about the tradition that bears his name. In times of great distress or transition there were those who would advocate for a return to the tradition of Numa.

    • eidolos says:

      Oh,I certainly agree with your first point, I was certainly not trying to claim that theses religions were all one and the same, merely that they are not the totally discreet and separate things that many modern people conceive them to be. The Roman Deities owe a great deal to their Greek forebears and there was certainly a good deal of back and forth between the two.

      As to the second, even then, to claim that as a single authority is rather like claiming the Catholic Church as the only authentic Christian Faith: merely because something is codified and recorded doesn’t mean that it actually resembles in any reasonable way the practice of the religion. I think it’s also dangerous to say that there was one “true religion” of the ancient Romans. Merely because something was uniquely Roman in origin does not mean that it reflects the culture at large, nor that it is the only viable source for those seeking to worship and draw inspiration from the ancient faiths. I think it’s worth noting, that, as you say there were those who called for a return to that tradition, which implies that it was not a part of the general practice at large. That said, I will certainly look deeper into it, as it what you’ve said is quite fascinating. Can you provide a scholarly source for this material? My google searches are yielding information on Numa Pompilius, but not on any cult of his name. The Wikipedia article on Egeria states, “Numa (latin “numen” designates “the expressed will of a deity”[4]) is reputed to have written down the teachings of Egeria in “sacred books” that he made bury with him; when some chance accident brought them back to light some 400 years later, they were deemed by the Senate inappropriate for disclosure to the people and destroyed by their order;[5] what made them inappropriate was certainly of “political” nature but apparently has not been handed down by Valerius Antias…” That seems to imply that whatever that religion actually was, we no longer have it.

      Also, we have a much greater time frame to pull from now in the 21st century. We see the Roman civilization through the lens of centuries, while it is certainly important to note what the Romans have viewed as authentic at various points in their history, we have a much greater span to analyse and draw from. The Christianity can be quite legitimately described as the true religion of Rome, one merely needs to shift one’s focus a few centuries forward.

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