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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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I have always been aware that I am susceptible to the emotional states of those around me. As I child I was both very emotional and very empathic, some times cripplingly. Over the years as I grew up, I gradually closed myself off. However, I have always been, as they say, sensitive. The silly thing is, that now, as an adult, I had all but forgotten about how heavily the emotions of others press on me.

These last few weeks I have felt bogged down and listless. I have had a hell of time motivating myself, I haven’t seemed to have any energy to get things done; even my creativity has waned. A few days ago, I realized that this wasn’t just a phase. I decided to make a conscious effort to improve my mood and motivate myself.

I always get a little irritated with the people who tell you to “think happy thoughts,” as though being happy were as easy as that. As someone with depressive tendencies, such advice always struck me as vapid and hollow. It’s patronizing. If I’m sad, I have reason to be sad, and when I don’t, I know that it’s my brain being weird and I work around it. Well, I realized that this long stretch of ennui wasn’t for any good reason, and I have to work around it. Thinking happy thoughts doesn’t work, so what does?

A few months ago, Emjay suggested a book to me, which I promptly forgot about and then only again remembered when she posted a review of it on her blog. I promptly bought and read Sophie Reicher’s Spiritual Protection, and then, as I do, filed it away as useful information to return to later. Well, as it turns out, I’m kicking myself for not having immediately put the ideas in that book into effect. As I said previously, I tend to forget how susceptible I am to the moods and emotions of those around me. Also, working at a coffee shop, I encounter a lot of less than lovely people who range from casually cruel to actively spiteful. I simply hadn’t thought, as a spiritually aware and active person, how much of the negativity of other people was beginning to collect around me and weigh me down.

So, earlier this week, I pulled out my chunk of black tourmaline and after grounding and anchoring myself, charged it to deflect and absorb the negativity, petty viciousness and outright cruelty and malignancy of the people and forces that I encounter. I have taken particular time to strengthen this charge before going to work. As silly as it is, I have to say that these last few days I have been feeling quite lovely.

Now, I am always hesitant to ascribe a magical/spiritual cause to anything. It is possible that the effect is entirely psychosomatic. I have this stone in my pocket that I touch occasionally when I feel pressed upon, and I am taking time every few hours to control my breathing and center myself. Already that is enough to ease my tensions. I have found my head to be clearer and my energy levels to be much improved with no other real changes to my routine.

One of my very few objections to Sophie Reicher’s book is the immediate assumption that you are under spiritual attack. The entire text is written as though you are under siege from malign forces, as though you are surrounded by malign practitioners bent on making you suffer. On further reflection, however, I find myself largely agreeing with her position. Though I think that your average spiritual practitioner is hardly likely to be under active magical attack, my experience of the last few weeks has certainly led me to believe that for the spiritually aware person, the world is quite overflowing with things that we need to protect ourselves from, be they conscious attacks or casual unpleasantness. I would hardly say that I am under attack, but I do know that there are people around me who enjoy provoking and antagonizing those around them. I have come to the conclusion that for my own well being it is necessary for me to take steps to protect myself mentally and spiritually from such malefic influences.

I have been thinking, recently, that as we become more spiritually aware of ourselves we become more, and I hesitate to quite use this word, but I shall, vulnerable to the spiritual influences around us, for good or for ill. As much as I flex against the idea that we are constantly under attack, I’m not certain if that it actually a bad metaphor. While we may not be the direct targets of negativity, we are certainly besieged by it. I have come to realize, lately, how vital it is that I be aware of and combat these forces in my life. I think that it is important to come to terms with the fact that we don’t live in perfect little spiritual bubbles. We are influenced by the world around us and we need to be capable of protecting ourselves. The world is not sunlight and roses and puppy dog kisses, and no matter how good a person you are, no matter how enlightened you may be, that won’t protect you.

I was planning on writing a fairly detailed review of Spiritual Protection, but honestly, I don’t think that I have much more to say than Emjay already said, and so suggest that you go read her review instead. Now that said, I’m not necessarily, after that long preamble, advocating that you cling to every word that Sophie Reicher wrote. Spiritual protection is incredibly important and Sophie Reicher’s book is a very good, concise and detailed volume describing various techniques for various situations, but, as in all things, every individual is going to have different view points. I suggest detailed research and investigation, and Spiritual Protection is a good place to start, but it is by far not the only text available. In the end, all that matters is that we be aware of the forces around us, that we understand ourselves well enough to recognize when we are feeling the effects of forces outside of us, and that we are able to act appropriately. It’s not so much that we are under attack, I think, as we are surrounded.

They’ve Got Us Surrounded!

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