Neoclassical Syncretism: A User’s Guide

At this beginning of this project I described myself as a Neoclassical Syncretist, and then briskly moved along without bother to properly explore what I meant by that. My interest in developing this idea as a practice has grown out of the deep wealth that we have in the Western Art History and Literary cannon that has been profoundly influenced by Classical Greek and Roman mythology and religion. For as powerful an effect that Christianity has had on Western creative production, the influence of Greek and Roman thought has been just as, if not more, profound. With my background in the arts, I had been immersed, from a very young age, in that tradition. Despite being raised in Christianity, I have travelled through my life with the presence of these Gods and concepts for the span of my living memory, and in many cases have felt much more kinship for the beings which have appeared in sideways references and allusions in the popular ephemera of my life than the concepts of the religion that I was raised in.

Syncretism has been a powerful force in religion almost certainly since its inception. I have spoken before of the strange ways in which the interactions of the cultures of Mediterranean led to fascinating blending and overlapping in the discrete traditions, and the difficulties inherent in trying to isolate and reconstruct particular belief systems. The impact of Greek thought on Egypt led to a radical reworking of the Egyptian religion, and vice-versa (consider the spread of Isis through Hellenistic Civilization). However, this in no way illegitimates the results as authentically Egyptian. Even before that, the Egyptian religion, generally viewed as an unchanging monolith (probably as a result of the power of the architectural remains) experience dramatic modifications over the course of Egyptian culture frequently tied to dynastic shifts. My method of Neoclassical Syncretism simply extends this procedure through to the modern era.

One of the great conundrums of Modern Paganism is lineage, as I have discussed before. We view ourselves, frequently, as competing with faiths which have extended in unbroken tradition back a thousand or more years and so feel the need to legitimate ourselves by making similar claims. Consider the claims of early Wicca, that it was merely the bringing into the light a religion which had existed for centuries hidden by a secretive sect of English witches. Despite the eventual debunking of those claims, many people to this day still assert that Wicca represents an ancient faith with just as much authentic lineage as Christianity. I do understand the necessity people feel to establish themselves on an unshakeable foundation, I just personally feel that this particular strategy in fundamentally flawed.

Part of the difficulty with accurately reconstructing the ancient Pagan faiths is that we have very little authentic first hand information on the actual practice and structure of those faiths. Most of what survives of Celtic and Norse tradition was recorded by Christian monks or Roman invaders. The struggle of reconstruction is to identify what elements of those writings are true depictions and what represents a Christian or Roman interpretation. Reconstruction is very much an art, and a very subtle and mindful one — it requires a great deal of familiarity with the concepts not only of the culture which one is trying to reconstruct, but also the concepts of the cultures whose lenses we are forced to look through. Reconstruction seeks to correct the distortion applied to the material by the invading cultures: like a plane of polarizing glass, it removes the wavelengths which obscure the desired image. Reconstruction avoids the problem of lineage by attempting to go back to the source and rebuild, as accurately as possible, now extinct belief systems from currently available data.

Neoclassical Syncretism, on the other hand, looks to the places where the traditions have been preserved. While it is true that as a spiritual system, the religions of the Classical Greece and Rome have died, they have continued to be developed in literature, art, and popular culture. Essentially, Neoclassical Syncretism is a way of approaching texts. With this strategy, the idea of holy text is reconfigured. This approach allows for new insights on traditional concepts by exploring the ways in which these concepts have been deployed through the arts, and the ways in which we as a culture have continued to build upon ancient cultures. While I myself am personally drawn to the fine arts and philosophy, this strategy works equally well with popular culture, and, when employed thoughtfully, can yield perfectly valuable insights into our relationships with the ancient gods.

Of course, I am not suggesting that this strategy be employed haphazardly. Like Reconstruction, it requires a strong understanding of the core concepts being explored, and the development of a sharp hermeneutic to cut away frivolous or inconsequential references. Not every reference will be of use, and many times the appearance of Classical Religions in subsequent culture betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the concepts being deployed. By analyzing typically non-religious texts with an eye toward spirituality, Neoclassical Syncretism allows one to find connections with the divine spread throughout our culture.

As an example of the way this strategy may be realized, I recently read Jeanette Winterson’s Weight, a novella length retelling of the myth of Atlas and Herakles. The book itself is less than perfect, but it Jeanette Winterson’s handling of the interactions of the characters and their passage through into modernity is compelling, particularly the way in which Atlas conceives of himself and his relation to the world. Winterson explicitly preserves the strange dichotomy of Herakles, which the Greeks themsleves were never able to resolve to their own satisfaction: Herakles is emphatically simultaneously both human and divine, entirely and in equal measure. Herakles is a paradox. He himself does not understand his nature. He knows that he is more than human, though his relation to the divine is more problematic (is he more, is he less?). His own mortality is less than certain, he has been to Hell and back, quite literally, more times than bear mentioning, and yet quite probably can die, maybe. Herakles, by Winterson’s account, is simply emphatically other. His strength lies in his otherness, and the choice between the human and the divine is essentially his undoing.

After reading Weight, I returned to a book I had read much earlier this year, Grief Lessons, a collection of four of Euripedes’ plays recently translated by Anne Carson. Two of the four plays feature Herakles (the first being the eponymous Herakles), and the handling of Herakles there is just as stunningly ambiguous. Euripedes, filtered by Carson, builds up a Herakles who, while the greatest of all men, is bowed down and broken by the weight of the gods, by divine imperatives which he cannot comprehend and more often than not appear as mere catastrophe. Herakles is never given a moment of emotional stability, he swings through triumph, anguish, hope and hilarity and despair in just a few pages. Herakles is emphatically shredded by his nature. He does not have the luxury of semidivinity. He is fully divine and fully human, and because of that has earned the wrath of forces that he cannot understand or control. The Gods of Euripedes are frightening, not because of their power, but because of their prerogative. Herakles, the most powerful of men, the God trapped in flesh, cannot resist the divine, burgeoning within him and pressing down from outside.

Herakles represents an incredibly difficult relationship to the divine, and his struggle to fix himself at one point on his polarized nature is reflects that. Herakles’ nature emphatically “others” him, it queers him from the rest of society, from his peers. Herakles is made strange by divinity. Comparing these two texts allows us to see more clearly the ways in which Herakles works through his relationship to the divine.

Neoclassical Syncretism takes the first part of its name very seriously. Neoclassical here means that the work done is grounded heavily in traditions past. What differentiates it from simple modern eclecticism is both focus and scholarship. Theology is developed along lines of scholarship originating in the target culture. I apply Neoclassical Syncretism to Hellenistic Civilization, but it could just as easily be applied to Celtic or Germanic civilizations. Starting with an understanding of the parent culture, Neoclassical Syncretism moves forward examining texts spread throughout time, and assembles from them a growing theological/philosophical practice. Unlike Reconstruction, which has an end point in mind, the successful reconstruction of the target religion, Neoclassical Syncretism is entirely open ended.

Neoclassical Syncretism aims to provide a basic groundwork through which multiple personal experiences within a particular faith path can relate through their fundamental grounding in the same tradition and technique while still providing a great deal of room for personal expression and exploration. This approach thus removes the difficulty of unverified personal gnosis, as each practitioner will eventually establish a unique and idiosyncratic view of the parent tradition. Indeed, Neoclassical Syncretism prizes variation, as a plurality of voices provides more and more room for insight.

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