Essays in the Tim Maroney Web Collection
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The Book of Dzyan
Definition of the Sacred
Descent: A Meditation
Even If I Did Believe
Facts and Phallacies
The Freedom of Doubt
Healing The Spiritual Community
Hekate and the Satanic School
Introduction to Crowley
The Included Middle
A Letter to Close
The Problems of Syncretism
Theory of Divination
Why Crowley Doesn't Suck
Why I Study Magic
"Syncretism" is a technical term in religious studies describing the combination of one mythic figure with another from a different tradition. Syncretism has been practiced from ancient times to the modern day. During the Ptolemaic rule over Egypt, many syncretistic deities were created, such as Hermanubis, a combination of the Greek Hermes and the Egyptian Anubis. Later, during the Graeco-Roman mystery period, syncretism became common within the mystery traditions, the rituals of which often featured prayers which stated that a particular deity had many other names, and listed those names. Syncretism is an inevitable consequence of internationalism and it is not surprising that syncretism has become a common part of the new occult and pagan religions of today's multicultural world.
Sometimes syncretism seems to go too far. For instance, in Neo-Pagan Witchcraft and related modern occult traditions, it is said that "all gods are The God and all goddesses are The Goddess." The theory of the religion is that a Goddess and a God ruling over the world in a marital union and producing all phenomena. This has often been criticized as reducing all the characters of world myth to mere gender attributes, submerging their individual complexity in an overarching doctrinal agenda. In another case, the Golden Dawn, an influential occult group of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, combined Egyptian deities with Hebrew divine names from the Bible and other sources. In fact, as most people know, there is no small amount of historical animosity between the ancient Egyptian and Hebrew traditions. You wouldn't invite them to the same party, so how can they both be at the same ritual - more, even conflated, so that an Egyptian and Hebrew name are seen as synonymous?
The ancient Greek and Roman syncretists were often just as insensitive and poorly informed, and their practices of assimilation are largely responsible for the disrepute in which syncretism is held today in the academic community. The academic response, however, is starting to become less dogmatic, or at least more readily challenged, as in Kingsley's recent book on Empedocles(1), or the concerns raised by Robert F. Campany in his comparison of the ancient Chinese sage Xunzi with the pre-modern mythic theorist Durkheim(2).
The new critique, self-referentially including scholarship itself among its subjects, notes that it is just as much an error to hold religious practitioners to the criteria of current scholarship, and to derogate their efforts for their inevitable failure to satisfy as-yet-uninvented criteria, as it is to dismiss the efforts of traditional commentators to understand their own ritual and mythic practices. Both these naive critiques of traditional religious philosophy depend on ill-founded assumptions about the unique superiority of current scholarly methods and viewpoints.
In syncretism as practiced either in ancient or modern times we find conflations which are meant to be taken as literal statements about an underlying substrate of symbolic commonality. That is, the connection between, say, the Egyptian Osiris and the Qabalistic Tiphareth, is presented as a longstanding fact which has always been true, even if it was not well known. Many occult syncretisers claim that a connection such as this was always known by a secret group of initiates who have only now cleared this mystic truth for public release(3). Judged as comparative religion or textual analysis this sort of assertion is defective. It is therefore tempting to dismiss syncretism as a failed attempt at amateur scholarship.
If we look at what these commentators are trying to accomplish in context, however, we wind up at a different model. Although a claim of traditionalism is made, new myths are being created. Specifically, the myth of syncretists is that all known myths are only differentiations of a single unifying primordial myth, sometimes called the Secret Doctrine. This type of universalist myth can be found not only in occult and Neo-Platonic sources, but in Freemasonry, Baha'i, pre-modern comparativism, popular Roman attitudes towards foreign gods, and so forth. The myth that Osiris is an expression of Tiphareth deserves the same deference that the observer gives to any other myth, and its faux historical content is no more a matter for concern than, say, the fact that Pandora was not really the first woman. These are the terms on which syncretistic statements need to be engaged: as expressions of the myth of a common system behind the appearance of diversity in myth and ritual.
(There is a risk of condescension in this reinterpretation. Writers like Blavatsky and Crowley really believe that they are contributing to comparative religion, and letting them off the critical hook by transposing their writing to a new domain - that of myth-making - derogates their own account of their intent. However, the fact is that when judged by the standards of fields like anthropology, religious studies, or even philosophy, their work fails to make much of a contribution. We can take them at their face value, and so be forced to dismiss their work completely because it does not succeed in the scholarly arena, or we can try to recognize that there is a difference in intention between their work and scholarly work, and so recognize its value with respect to its actual context. The latter approach is less hostile and dismissive, although either interpretation would be rejected by the writers themselves due to their insistence that they are making a scholarly contribution.)
The act of correlation is creative because it is largely arbitrary. Major figures such as Apollo have so many attributes that they could be correlated at some small remove to almost anything. The selection of some particular attribute (such as music, inducement of visionary experience, solar illumination, the progression of the seasons, stateliness, archery, or what have you) as the primary attribute by which Apollo is connected to the universalist table of correpondences is an arbitrary choice by the syncretistic practitioner. Apollo is not Ra and the claim that he is Ra creates a new myth. Through a set of arbitrary choices of this kind, each of which reduces a complex symbol to a simple cipher, a new universalist myth consisting of a set of relationships is created.
While a table of correspondence a la Agrippa, Barrett or Crowley is useless for the scholar, for the ritualist it serves as a new kind of myth from which ritual practices may be generated by juxtaposing the contents of the columns. It masquerades as the key of all religions, but it is not that - it is an original and creative divination table, based on a set of freshly-minted mythic "facts" about the relations between traditional symbols. It is above all a practical tool, and judging it by the same standards as a dissertation in religious studies would miss the point, even though its creators might want it to be judged that way.
An objection to syncretism that has often been raised is that it leads to awkward and inelegant combinations of elements that are actually irreconcilable. Again the strongest example is the combination of divine names from the devoutly anti-Egyptian Hebrew tradition with the names and images of Egyptian deities from the 19th-century Egyptology craze. While this criticism may be valid on a literary level - a great deal of freshly-rolled myth is poorly crafted - it is inevitable that in a system based on a myth of universalism, disparate symbols will be deliberately juxtaposed. This illustrates the basic premise of the myth, that all the appearances of diversity in religious symbolism are only illusionary, and that on an inner level accessible to the initiated, the symbols are all instantiations of an abstract unifying monomyth.
These juxtapositions of opposed symbols are not ignorant or careless. They represent a deliberate flouting of taboos. The symbolic universalist knows full well that it is offensive to an ordinary Christian to say that an aspect of Jehovah is virtually synonymous with a Greek god, an astrological sign, and an Arabic demon, and so he or she chooses to be offensive, to express a protest against these differentiations. A system that did not contain these "erroneous" juxtapositions would be a system that did not express the universalist myth. Similarly, the popular Roman belief that foreign deities were only degraded forms of their own specifically expressed a myth of the propriety of Roman world domination.
Obviously, a mythic system based on protest creates conflicts with those who are dedicated to the targets of the protest. A devout Jew, steeped in an idea of sacralization which is rooted in the overthrow of Egyptian polytheism by Hebrew monotheism, must find it grotesque and absurd to combine the two traditions. From this conservative Jewish perspective, universalism is erroroneous in its leveling, while to the universalist, traditional Judaism is erroneous in its parochialism. It is not the work of the scholar to resolve such disputes, because they are not disputes on a scholarly plane - they derive from the social and emotional factors by which people accept certain myths and reject others. The scholar is treading on very dangerous ground in making normative statements about mythic acceptance and rejection and must ordinarily be content with simple observation(4). At the same time, it is possible to contribute descriptively in explaining in what ways the criticisms that each side aims at the other fail to accurately engage the other's intent and assumptions. In the end syncretism is a religious practice, which the scholar must study with the same deference or lack thereof that would be afforded any other practice.
(1) Peter Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition (Oxford University Press, 1995).
(2) In Ronald L. Grimes (ed.), Readings in Ritual Studies (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), pp. 86-103.
(3) One can easily find claims of this sort in occult writers such as Blavatsky, Mathers, and Crowley.
(4) For some important considerations in normative discourse on ritual and myth, see Ronald L. Grimes, Ritual Criticism (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1990).