Tuesday, March 4, 2008

You say "eclectic" and I say "syncretic" -- let's call the whole thing off!

Eclecticism and syncretism are a couple of words that tend to generate a lot of heat in reconstructionist social circles. Sometimes they're used interchangeably while other times eclectic is taken to mean a much looser form of intercultural exchange while syncretism is offered as a more measured, thoughtful alternative.

We can take a look at dictionaries to help us a little. Merriam-Webster's 11th Colligiate has eclectic as:

"1. selecting what appears to be the best in various doctrines,  methods, or styles."

Syncretism is defined as:

"1. the combination of different forms of belief or practice."

Both of these practices were found in the ancient world. Both were practiced by our ancestors, whoever they were and wherever they lived. It isn't eclecticism or syncretism that are, in and of themselves, a bad thing. Far from it. What a lot of us are actually concerned about is not eclectic or syncretic practices, but sloppiness and disregard for context. 

Context is an extremely important part of any reconstructionist process. Language and culture influence religions and spiritual practices deeply and they help to determine what types of practices develop in different regions and for different deities or spirits. Sincerity is fine, but when you're looking at culture and custom, a sincere mistake may still be an insult and can have some serious consequences. Culture and pre-existing practice determine things as important as acceptable offerings, how one approaches deity or spirit, and often the forms used for prayer or propitiation. What is acceptable in one practice may be strictly forbidden in another, and if you are inviting deities or spirits from many cultures to your table, knowing these rules can make the difference between success and failure in your relationships with them.

In spiritual practices that regard deity or spirit as something strictly internal, this is obviously not going to be all that much of an issue. If it's all in your head, from what I can see, it doesn't matter that much what you do so long as you get the results you're looking for. But from the viewpoint of someone who believes in the external/Otherworldly existence of deity and spirit, small things can make all the difference in the world. Effort is important. History and custom are important. This doesn't mean that nothing can change, but it does mean that knowing the road signs is useful and can often keep you out of troublesome spots along your path. If the mountain is an illusion, the map doesn't matter, but if it's real, you'd best not ignore the place where it says there's a five hundred foot cliff. It makes all the the difference between whether you bring a day pack or your mountain climbing gear.

Both eclecticism and syncretism can be legitimate parts of CR and other reconstructionist religious practices. It's best when those things are approached carefully and allowed to grow organically. Time and depth of both study and practice are necessary in understanding how to enlarge a practice or invite a new deity or spirit into your life. Sometimes they come pounding at the door while at other times they approach quietly and subtly. Often this will depend on the personality of the deity or spirit in question. Sometimes it happens that we decide we need new energies in our lives or wish to cultivate new relationships to help us with goals and areas that are challenges. Like people, each spirit or deity is going to have its own areas of expertise, and sometimes going to a deity from a different culture may be the best answer for us.

It's helpful in these cases to remember that not all our deities have to get along, in much the same way that not everyone in our family or among our friends gets along with everyone else. Uncle Fred's favorite pot roast might upset your vegan best friend Clara's sensibilities. It doesn't mean you can't invite them to the same party, but it's a good idea to have things that they can each enjoy when you're feeding them if you want both of them to be happy at your table. Remember that a favorite offering for one deity might be unclean or an offense to another, and keep those things as far separated as necessary -- different altars, or even different rooms in the house might be a good idea.

Eclecticism and syncretism aren't about cooking everything together in the same pot. They're more like creating a satisfying, multicultural meal that includes favorites and harmonious dishes from many lands, with many ingredients. It takes great skill and a strong knowledge of ingredients to have it all come out right and be satisfying for everyone joining you. 

Sometimes the experiments fail pretty badly, but that's a part of what it takes to create a working practice that involves deities and spirits from more than one culture. Be prepared to offer apologies if you've unintentionally offended. It goes a long way with humans and with spirits.

When it works, it can be glorious.


  1. Very, very true. I am reminded of a pagan comic strip in which the resident fluffernutter Wiccan circle called Cernunnos and Kali as their god and goddess for the ceremony. The two gods looked at each other quizzically, then Kali asked for a suggestion as to which one of the silly hoomans she should take out first.

  2. *laughs*

    Well yeah, I suppose that's one way it can work out! Of course, "alfrecht" had the odd experience of being at a Kali puja recently where a Wiccan circle was cast first, and he felt that it was a very strange moment for him.

  3. While syncretism may be possible in a CR context (though, debatable still), I don't believe eclecticism is. One of the tenets of CR and reconstructionist movements in general is a non-eclectic approach.

  4. Ah, but Tomas, if you're building anything for Gaelic reconstructions and you refer to Welsh materials, that's "eclectic". If you're working primarily with the Tuatha De Danann and you pull in stuff from the Ulster cycle, that's "eclectic."

    And if you reject the idea of animal sacrifice but still celebrate Samhain, you're "taking the best of an approach" and leaving out something that was previously there. That's "eclectic" too.

    Eclectic isn't evil. Doing it in a stupid way that does violence to the system is what's bad.

  5. I know that properly done eclecticism isn't evil :) If people find that fulfilling, wonderful.

    I'm not sure I agree with the examples you provided. Being a Gaelic Reconstructionists and drawing from Welsh mythology and traditions, yes, that would be eclecticism. Focusing on the Tuatha De Danann and looking towards the Ulster Cycle (which I don't know why you would, they hardly appear in there anyway =P) is not eclecticism in the sense of mixing, borrowing or combining elements or practices from outside religions, cultures or philosophies.

    I don't see removing elements that are inappropriate for modern society as necessarily eclectic, either. My understanding of reconstructionism is the effort to recreate a Celtic polytheism that is based in Celtic cultures and historical practices, and apply it to contemporary times. Sure, we've invented things and have decided what's best in or out of our reconstruction, but that's more pragmatism, something we've always been good at.

    To me, CR/ GR is a lifestyle that involves living the Gaelic life and seeing the world through a Gaelic polytheist consciousness. It is full loyalty to the Gaelic gods, culture and people. If we start incorporating incompatible foreign elements, worshiping non-Gaelic deities and the like, then we are no longer Gaelic Reconstructionists. Call me old-fashioned, conservative or traditional but that's my take on the matter.

    Cathryn, Kym and other CR framers, the CR FAQ, Wiki, and the CR Essay, documents that even you had a major hand in, clearly state that eclecticism is clearly not a part of CR practice and that only historical syncretisms are acceptable. Not that these documents are canon, but to say that eclecticism of any sort is legitimate in a CR context seems to be redefining what CR was intended to be.

  6. Tomas -- Yes, to a certain extent it's pragmatism. But sometimes being "eclectic" and "syncretic" is pragmatic. To give a personal and rather important (to me) example, let's look at the whole three cauldrons thing. We know something was going on there, but no matter how hard we look, we're not going to find out exactly what. In order to create a working system, we have to look at Indian and other Asian systems because that's where similar things are most clearly articulated. That's where syncretism comes in. When we look at those systems, it's obvious that they're not talking about exactly the same things, but we can see that a lot of the techniques and the explanations are working with similar things and we choose what seems to work best within the Celtic framework -- that's eclecticism. Without both of those techniques, all we have is the fact that we have three internal cauldrons and the Irish poets did something with them. Without allowing for some eclecticism and syncretism, we have nothing more than a few texts and maybe a theory.

    If, on the other hand, all I did was go "okay, I'm going to meditate on these things and whatever it is that they tell me is what I'm going to do," I'd be pulling stuff out of my ass, and I feel like that's a lot less true to the Celtic material than reaching out to these other cultural sources. Care needs to be taken, but as I've said several times in the past couple of posts, nothing grows in a vacuum. We can't explain Celtic cultures without acknowledging that other cultures influenced them. We can't reconstruct pre-Christian understandings and practices without going to other places that preserved non-Christian elements.

    By advocating eclecticism and syncretism, I'm not advocating adding "incompatible" elements or foreign deities. I'm not advocating carelessness. I'm advocating common sense, because some things we're never going to be able to recreate or reconstruct without reference to other cultures and their mythologies and methods. Basically I'm saying let's not have a stick up our ass about how "pure" things have to be lest we fall into the same errors that lead to the sort of racist and "folkish" crap you get in some branches of Heathenism.

    Although I certainly honor other deities in my home, I do it differently than I do the Celtic deities, in keeping with each one's culture as far as I understand it. Land spirits are a slipperier slope, obviously, because there are a number of ways to approach that and some land spirits are going to be pickier about being approached in the local way than others. That part of practice remains for each person to deal with as they must and as they are called to do so.

    One thing to remember about the CR FAQ is that it was created by a process of compromise as much as by consensus. There's a lot in there that each of us disagrees with, but we felt we needed to say something and so things got put in that I disagreed with, that Chris disagreed with, that Kathryn and Kym disagreed with. Don't view the text as a monolithic document that we all agree with every word of. It never was that, and the definition of "eclectic" we were using there was one of the kind of extremes that you get in some Wiccan or other Neopagan groups who have no regard at all for context.

  7. Tomas--On this issue, I take a point from Nuala Ni Dhomnaill, someone who has made a living out of making Irish a living language for poetry and in general. I heard her speak in 2003 at a conference, in which she introduced an Irish film, and she said that the Irish spoken in it has a lot of loan words and fully English words in it; it is, however, the type of Irish that is spoken in the Gaeltachtai these days, and anywhere Irish is spoken (at my college in Cork, for example). She said that some argue for the "linguistic impurity" inherent in such usages, but she concluded that all notions of "linguistic purity, really, are just pedantry." And this from someone who makes her living from Irish!

    So, looking at languages, Old Irish has many loan words from Old Norse, and a ton from Latin, for religious and physical realities which were previously unknown. The Irish took to these, they adapted them as they saw fit, and they became as Irish as anything else. And in this respect, they are like every other culture that has ever existed anywhere and at any time.

    If one were to take your stance, one could actually argue that it is permissible to worship Ba'al, Jove, Mars, and Osiris in an Irish context. Why? Because in the late Ulster Cycle tale Cath Findchorad, which has a lot in it that actually looks quite based upon ancient traditions (including calling the Donn Cuailnge a dam dilenn, "ox of flood"), it also said that the Ulstermen like Conchobor used to worship Jove, Mars, and Osiris. In Sanas Cormaic, an equation of Ba'al or Bel (i.e. the middle eastern/biblical deities) with the deity after whom the festival of Beltaine is named, is made. This is certainly not the case; the Celtic *Belenos and all of its cognates certainly does not derive from Bel or Ba'al; and the ancient Irish certainly didn't worship Jove, Mars, and Osiris (unless they did so in Roman Britain or further afield, of which we have no definite knowledge at this stage). And yet, because this was the self-understanding of some Irish people at some stage, and it appears in the attested texts, one could reasonably say that yes, in fact, one should/could worship Iobh and Mairt and Os in an Irish context.

    Using technologies adapted from elsewhere, other cultures and other contexts, is just the way humans have always operated. There were no round towers in Ireland--something which eventually became as prominent a symbol of Irishness as the harp, the shamrock, and the Irish wolfhound--until pilgrims to the continent began returning in the 11th and 12th centuries. And the reason so many of them didn't last to the modern period is because they were not built with foundations of any kind, so it's a wonder that as many of them did last! However, this was an adaptation of an outside thing to the Irish context and to the Irish sensibility. We know that the neolithic Irish had access to trade channels in Britain and the continent, and external influences of this sort are apparent at places like Newgrange, and yet that is a site quite different from ones in other places, and is yet another of those "quintessentially Irish" things. Religious technologies like deities and rituals are certainly no exception to these architectural things, and I think we can assume this took place at all periods--both pre-Celtic and post-Christian and all of that time in between when the Celtic culture(s) were the dominant ones both socially and religiously.

  8. Erynn and Phil,

    I don't mind modern innovation, comparative mythology, etc., and I'm aware Gaelic culture didn't evolve in vacuum. We just need to be careful about how we approach that type of eclecticism in CR, REALLY careful. A regard for history, culture and context is very important, I agree.

    Initially I thought you were advocating something quite different, that it's okay to honor other deities and participate in other practices, though being respectful to cultural context, and still calling it CR, or that something like Irish-Egyptian syncretism is legit. Now that we've had time to elaborate on this, I see what you're saying. I apologize for my misreading that.

    For the most part, I agree with what both of you have said in regards to looking at influences on the culture, comparing similar practices, and creating modern techniques built in a CR framework. In what we are trying to accomplish in our efforts, it's inevitable if not necessary.

  9. Thanks Tomas -- I think it's important that we look at the actual definitions of eclectic and syncretic rather than our kneejerk emotional reactions to them based on the worse usages of some people in the Pagan (and other) communities. If I honor, for instance, Thoth, it will be in a very different and much more culturally appropriate way than through my CR practice, but honoring Thoth would not mean I was no longer practicing CR!