Tuesday, February 24, 2009

CR and personal syncretisms

Originally posted on my LiveJournal, I felt this essay dealt with enough CR material and was important enough to my view of my life as a CR that it warranted posting here. In this post, I talk quite a bit about some of the other practices I follow in my life and deal with questions I've been asked about how I can be CR while also following other paths. I know others in the community sometimes struggle with these issues as well. Please take this as my own personal approach -- nothing here implies that anyone has to do as I do or think as I think. If you're also struggling with multiple paths and self-definition, please take this as encouragement along your way and perhaps as cause for further meditation.

Over the next week or so I'll probably be doing a short series of posts about some of the things I did at PCon this year. I wanted to start with the Ekklesía Antínoou Lupercalia ritual. There were vasty numbers of people in attendance -- 60 or so, in contrast to the smaller numbers last time, and the tiny rituals we do here in Seattle with usually 10 or fewer people. 

Part of the ritual had been a Communalia, a drawing of formal alliances between the Ekklesía and other Pagan and polytheist traditions, most especially between our group and AMHA the polytheist tribal Hebrew group represented by Elisheva Nesher. Eli is a wonderful older woman, wise and forthright and delightfully funny. She's one of the people who regularly attends the con and who hangs with 
Diana Paxson's group when she's in town whom I find both priceless and irreplaceable. I adore her beyond all measure and bless the day when Diana and Lorrie Wood introduced us.

Phillipus has described his feelings of accomplishment and happiness for this alliance in light of the Roman emperor Hadrian's role in the Bar Kochba war and the repression of the Israelites during his otherwise reasonably enlightened reign. He is of Jewish extraction himself and so felt that it was extremely important for the Ekklesía to make strides toward building bridges between our group and those that one of our exemplary figures and deities had wronged. The other groups represented were a Dianic group led by Rabbit and a local Heathen community represented by Ember.

The ritual itself was, as is usually EA's nature, heavily liturgical with much singing and recitation. I do think that some of this could use a little more group involvement as it currently is primarily the lead ritualist and a few assistants doing most of the work. There's nothing particularly wrong with this, though I know that PCon attendees tend to expect more personal involvement in big public rituals rather than sitting on the sidelines as spectators for big chunks of it. I read the Hymn for Hecate and the Prayer Against Persecution as well as carrying two of the lotus lights as one of the Mystai in the processional.

This year 
Lupa ran as one of the Luperci as I did a couple of years ago, carrying on the fine EA tradition of including women as wolf-warriors in the ceremony. The race was exciting and fun, though Eli stepped out during this portion, as it involved some symbolic flogging and she has some combat-related issues with people raising a hand against others in even symbolic violence. All the ritualists did a lovely job, I think. 

Some time after the ritual, 
Ember approached me and talked about some cultural dissonances she felt as a Heathen at a Roman-based ritual. She wondered aloud if I had been there representing for CR or was there just as myself, as one of Phillipus's friends. At the time I said I had been there just as myself but, being so tired after everything I had been doing, I hadn't thought to give her a more in-depth answer so I'm going to explore that here. It has great resonance for my practices in other non-CR religions and may help to explain some of my views on how and why I am still primarily CR in my life and self-identification despite my other allegiances. I'll also talk a little about the syncretic nature of my life, as this is an unavoidable adjunct to the discussion.

My attendance at Lupercalia was not merely as an individual or as 
Phillipus's friend, though my interest in Antinous started as the curiosity of a friend who wished to explore another's spirituality. I attended in my ritual function as both Mystes and Luperca. I am, if you will, what passes for an initiate into the cult of Antinous and, hopefully, only the first of many women (or people in women's bodies) to hold these titles within the group -- so Ave Lupa, Luperca Secunda!

While some people wonder if the cult of a "Gay God" has any place for women within it, I see myself as living testament of that inclusivity. Antinous to me does not represent just "gayness" but affirms all forms of queerness, however that might be defined. That queerness is not strictly about gender and sexuality, although it includes it. Antinous is a liberator not just in terms of one who liberates from death but as one who liberates from all negative forms of constraint. In this he works to free us from our preconceived notions of ourselves. He liberates us from the chains of dualistic, binary thought. He liberates us from unwanted roles into which we have been pressed in the service of conformity. He liberates us from illusion and self-deception. He liberates us from fear.

When I stand before the obelisk, a citizen of Antinoopolis, I do not enter the gates specifically as a Celtic Reconstructionist. I enter as myself -- with all that means -- as Mystes and Luperca of the Cult of Antinous who also, first and foremost, honors Celtic deities. I bring my allegiances to my Celtic deities with me, but in that space and for that time, they are part of the work being done within those sacred precincts. When the Pantheon is opened in Antinoan ritual, I install my own deities to be honored as equal to all the others within that temple according to Roman tradition, just as all others present do if they so choose. In our sacred city, there are no foreign Gods, no holy strangers; all who come are given reverence and acknowledgment. 

As the old saying goes, "when in Rome, do as the Romans do." Therefore, when I am within the precincts of Antinoopolis I act as one should act within the Ekklesía's unavoidably and deliberately syncretic Greco-Roman-Egyptian framework. When I stand before my Brigid altar and light my flame, I am acting as a CR within a CR context, interacting with a specifically Celtic deity and following a specifically Celtic tradition. One does not invalidate nor compete with the other. When I go to the Shinto shrine, I am there to honor the Kami and ask for their blessings. I make the expected offerings and go through the expected motions of purification, bell-ringing, bowing, clapping, and sipping sake at the appropriate times. In this I am in no wise different from any other Shrine member, nor should I be. And in the time-honored cultural and spiritual tradition of Shinto, I follow multiple paths without feeling any particular conflict within Shinto space. I don't keep a Kamidana in my home primarily because the purity/house-cleaning requirements are rather above my current physical ability to fulfill. It is not because I would in any way feel uncomfortable with a Kamidana in my space. I also understand and respect 
Raven's lack of resonance with Shinto due to her own spiritual commitments and do not feel this is in any way a contradiction for either of us -- the Celtic deities she works with as her primary devotion are not the same as mine and they deal in different territories and energies. It is natural we would have different reactions based on these differences.

My life is larger than any one tradition, no matter how much I love and identify with that tradition. There are places that, by its inherent limitations, that tradition cannot take me. This doesn't make it a bad or inadequate tradition. It does not make me love that tradition or my deities any less. It doesn't make me any less dedicated to that tradition. My practice of multiple traditions doesn't somehow magically rob me of my knowledge, my experience, or my ability within any of those I do practice. It does not negate my history with other traditions that I no longer practice. It does not close a gate to future practice of further traditions, or worship of and work with other deities and spirits. I am a polyamorous polytheist -- I love and give my adoration to many Gods and Goddesses, to many spirits and ancestors.

And so I am a CR fili. I am a bangeilt. I am a priestess of Brigid and a flamekeeper. I am an Ekklesía Antínoou mystes and luperca. I am an initiate of Alexandrian Wicca and NECTW Witchcraft. I am a Shintoist. I am an animist. I am an astrologer and a tarot reader. I am a student of Ulchi shamanism. I am an informal devotee of Sarasvati and Hanuman and Ganesha. I am a disabled veteran. I am queer. I am a feminist. I am a peace activist. I am more than all of this.

I am human.

As Whitman said:

Do I contradict myself? 
Very well then I contradict myself, 
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)


  1. "My life is larger than any one tradition, no matter how much I love and identify with that tradition. There are places that, by its inherent limitations, that tradition cannot take me. This doesn't make it a bad or inadequate tradition. It does not make me love that tradition or my deities any less. It doesn't make me any less dedicated to that tradition. My practice of multiple traditions doesn't somehow magically rob me of my knowledge, my experience, or my ability within any of those I do practice. It does not negate my history with other traditions that I no longer practice. It does not close a gate to future practice of further traditions, or worship of and work with other deities and spirits. I am a polyamorous polytheist -- I love and give my adoration to many Gods and Goddesses, to many spirits and ancestors."

    yes. exactly. thank you. this is what i always have trouble expressing.

  2. Erynn,
    Thank you for posting this. I've often found myself having to defend my various practices to people who cannot see beyond the dualistic mind-trap of either/or when it comes to religious or spiritual matters. The funny part of it for me is that I find this sort of thinking comes so often from other pagans. From a citizen of Heliopolis to a citizen of Antinopolis, I salute you!

    Naoi Beannachtai,

  3. Thora -- So many people I know right now are struggling with trying to explain and sometimes to defend their practice of multiple traditions. I'm sad that it's an issue in our community, but I'm glad that you feel this post has helped in clarifying that expression for you.

    Eremon -- Thank you. It often surprises me, as well, that it's mostly other Pagans who have issues with this. You'd think if we consider ourselves polytheists, there could be more room for actual polytheistic practices. I do think some of it comes from being either (at least in my case) in North America, where everything seems to ossify, or from the all-too-common reconstructionist ideal of cultural purity that then excludes anything that isn't strictly a part of the singular culture upon which that reconstruction focuses.

    Yet, at the same time, most reconstructionists are pulling from multiple cultures and time periods within a larger cultural complex. It would be incredibly difficult to reconstruct a strictly Gaulish practice with no reference to insular Celtic materials, for instance. And none of the insular materials are from the same time-frame that the Gaulish materials are from. This only makes things more disparate and multicultural.

    We need to be more open and more accepting, while still being true to the cultures that we love and the deities we worship. It can be a very hard balance for folks who came out of a monotheistic cultural upbringing. We carry so much of that baggage with us when we come to Pagan paths.

  4. This is beautifully written, Erynn.

    Speaking from my polytheist perspective, I would not consider participating in another religious system, while elsewhere maintaining another primary system, to be syncretic at all. Syncretism is about reconciling different beliefs and melding them. One does not have to do that to participate in several different cults. Even if the world views adopted in rituals of that cult are different.

    To make a very blatant example out of what I'm saying: In my cult to Brigantia, she is my Queen. Such is our relationship. That does not mean that, when I'm not in ritual, I have a problem with the fact that Silvia of Sweden holds that title over me and replaces Brigantia in that relationship. Some will scoff at this example: "Of course not, that's religious life and that's secular life," but that's exactly the point.

    Many things can be true at once, even of one person. You just have to become fluent in a foreign language to learn that. I enter a different frame of mind and a different culture and react completely differently when I speak English than when I speak Swedish. I don't have to consolidate the two.

  5. Thank you Emma -- Those are good examples. I do see myself as a syncretist; the Pantheon practice in Antinoan ritual is one example of that. But I agree absolutely that just because a person practices more than one religion, it doesn't make them automatically either a syncretist or eclectic in the sense it's most often used in the Pagan community.

    Glad to see you here and thanks for stopping by!

  6. eventually, i think, the pagan/polytheist community will lose the necessity for belief in favor of the necessity for practice. this is one of the biggest weaknesses currently afflicting our community (or communities, depending on how you want to look at it), that people must express polytheist religion through a "world-view". i think that ritual and cultus should be designed from that perspective (and let me note that this is a critical factor for those who wish to avoid mere eclecticism - syncretism, which is not the same thing as eclecticism, is about incorporating ritual and cultus from elsewhere into the local world-view*), but that those who undertake such rituals needn't adhere to any particular belief system.

    enforced belief systems are a product, after all, of colonizing religions such as Christianity and Islam (though, let me be clear, such enforcement and colonization is not essential to either of those religions). it is precisely for post-colonizing religions that pagan/polytheists are looking. let us, then, drop the requirement that everyone else think like we do.

    *one could argue that "eclecticism", then, is a process of syncretism into a modern Western world-view. there is probably some merit to this, but my impression is that eclecticism is generally much less rigorous than this would imply. in any case, my own interests lie in minority culture preservation in addition to post-monotheist religion.

  7. Faoladh -- I agree pretty much with what you've said here. Would have responded sooner, but I'm not getting notification of all responses to my posts, unfortunately.

    I do think that praxis is ultimately far more important than belief. Certainly I think that belief does have a function but, in the end analysis, what we do is more important than what goes on in our heads. And I think it's extremely important that we, as a local group, develop practices that we can share together.

    Cultural preservation is an important thing, as is language preservation. I wish I had more language competence in Gaelic (any type of Gaelic) than I do, but I scrabble and do my best.

    Time will tell how successful we are.

  8. Erynn,

    Thank you for this post. I found myself practicing a little bit of blogomancy in response to some emotional and mental wrestling I am going through regarding cultural appropriation and modern paganism...

    Your post has helped me sort out some of my questions. Thank you!


  9. Pax -- I'm so glad that my words have been able to help you do some useful sorting. Thank you very much. This is one of the reasons I post publicly. Every now and then, somebody stumbles on my work and finds it of some use and that makes me feel wonderful.