The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Syncretism is the attempt to reconcile disparate, even opposing, beliefs and to meld practices of various schools of thought. It is especially associated with the attempt to merge and analogize several originally discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of religion, and thus assert an underlying unity.

Syncretism is also common in literature, music, the representational arts and other expressions of culture. (Compare the concept of eclecticism.)


Social and political roles

Overt syncretism in folk belief is a sign of cultural acceptance of an alien or previous tradition, but the "other" cult may survive or infiltrate without authorized syncresis nevertheless. An example is the fact that some Conversos developed a sort of cult for martyrs who were victims of the Spanish Inquisition, thus incorporating elements of Catholicism while resisting it.

Some religious movements through history have embraced overt syncretism, while others have strongly rejected it as devaluing precious and genuine distinctions. The adoption of Shinto elements by Buddhism is an example of the former; post-Exile Judaism and Islamism are examples of the latter.

Syncretism tends to facilitate coexistence and constructive interaction between different cultures, a factor that has recommended it to rulers of multi-ethnic realms. Conversely the rejection of syncretism, usually in the name of "piety" and "orthodoxy", helps generate and authorize a sense of cultural unity.

Origin of the word

The word Syncretism is first attested in English in 1618 and is derived from modern Latin syncretismus, drawing on Greek συγκρητισμός (synkretismos), meaning "a union of communities".

The word occurs in Plutarch's (1st century AD) essay on "Fraternal Love" in his Moralia (2.490b). He cites the example of the Cretans who were reconciliated in their differences and came together in alliance when faced with external dangers. "And that is their so-called Syncretism." The word is a compound of syn "together" and a second element of uncertain origin. Rather than directly referring to Crete, it could be connected with kretismos "a lie", from kretizein "to lie like a Cretan", or alternatively it could be connected to kerannumi "to mix", krasis "mixture".

The Latin word, used in the modern sense, was probably coined by Erasmus in his Adagia ("Adages"), published in the winter of 1517–1518, to designate the coherence of dissenters in spite of their difference of theological opinions. In a letter to Melancthon, April 22, 1519, Erasmus specifically adduced the Cretans of Plutarch, an example of his adage "Concord is a mighty rampart."

Syncretism in Ancient Greece

Syncretism was an essential feature of Greek paganism. Hellenistic culture in the age that followed Alexander the Great was itself syncretic, essentially a blend of Persian, Anatolian, Egyptian (and eventually Etruscan-Roman) elements within a Hellenic overall formula. The Egyptian god Amun developed as the Hellenized Zeus Ammon after Alexander the Great went into the desert to seek out Amun's oracle at Siwa.

These identifications derive from the Hellenic habit of identifying gods of disparate mythologies with their own. When the proto-Greeks whose language would evolve into Greek first arrived in the Aegean and mainland Greece early in the 2nd millennium BCE, they found localized nymphs and divinities already connected with every important feature of the landscape: mountain, grove, cave and spring all had their locally-venerated deity. The countless epithets of the Olympian gods reflect this syncretic character. "Zeus Molossos", as worshiped only at Dodona, is "the god identical to Zeus as worshipped by the Molossians at Dodona." Much apparently arbitrary and trivial mythic fabling is the result of later mythographers' attempts to explain these obscure epithets.

Syncretism in Rome

The Romans, identifying themselves as common heirs to a very similar civilization, identified Greek deities with similar figures in the Etruscan-Roman tradition, though cult practices were not usually copied. (For details, see Similarities between Roman, Greek, and Etruscan mythologies.) Syncretic gods of the Hellenistic period found also wide favor in Rome: Serapis, Isis, Mithras are syncretic deities. Cybele, as she was worshiped in Rome, was essentially a syncretic goddess. The Greek god Dionysus was imported into Rome as Bacchus, and the Anatolian Sabazios was converted to the Roman Sabazius.

The correspondences varied: Jupiter is perhaps a better match for Zeus than say the rural huntress Diana is for the feared Artemis. Ares is not quite Mars. The Anatolian goddess Cybele was physically imported to Rome from her Anatolian cult center Pessinos in the original aniconic archaic stone idol; she was identified in Rome as Magna Mater and was given a matronly, iconic image that had been developed in Hellenistic Pergamum.

Likewise, when the Romans encountered Celts and Teutons, they mingled these Northern gods with their own, creating Apollo Sucellos (Apollo the Good Smiter) and Mars Thingsus (Mars of the war-assembly), among many others. In the Germania, the Roman historian Tacitus speaks of Teutonic worshippers of Hercules and Mercury; most modern scholars conclude that Hercules was likely Thor, and Mercury was Odin.

Syncretism in Christianity

Nascent Christianity appears to have incorporated many Pagan elements. Many scholars agree to this syncretism in principle, though any specific example is likely to be labeled "controversial". Open Theists (a subset of Protestant Evangelicals) assert that Christianity by the 3rd and 4th centuries had incorporated Greek Philosophy into its understanding of God.

"Syncretism" was not on the table when Christianity split into East and West rites during the Great Schism. It was invoked however with the rifts of the Protestant Reformation, with Desiderius Erasmus's readings of Plutarch. In 1615 David Pareus of Heidelberg urged Christians to a "pious syncretism" in opposing Antichrist, but few 17th century Protestants discussed the compromises that might affect a reconciliation with the Catholic Church: the Lutheran G. Calisen "Calixtus" (1586-1656) was ridiculed by Calovius (1612-1685) for his "syncretism."

The modern celebrations of Christmas (originating from Pagan Yule holidays) and Halloween are examples of relatively late Christian syncretism. Roman Catholicism in Central and South America has also integrated a number of elements derived from indigenous cultures in those areas.

Syncretism in Islam

The Druzes integrated elements of Ismaili Islam with Gnosticism and Platonism. Their practice of disguising themselves as followers of the dominant religion makes difficult to ascertain what is believed and what simulated. Several of the Jewish Messiah claimants like Jacob Frank and the donmeh ended mixing Cabalistic Judaism with Christianism and Islam. Sikhism blends Hinduism and Islam and was notably supported by the Mughal emperor Akbar, who wanted to consolidate the diverse religious communities in his empire.

Syncretism in the Caribbean

The process of syncretism in the Caribbean region is often referred to as creolization. The term creole is used to describe anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity, that was born and raised in the region. The shared histories of the Caribbean islands include long periods European Imperialism (mainly by Spain, France and Britain), the importation of African slaves (primarily from Central and Western Africa), and the domination of the sugar industry across the region. The influences of each of the above on the islands, in varying degrees were woven together producing the fabric of society that exists today in the Caribbean. The Rastafarian religion, founded in Jamaica, is highly syncretic, mixing elements from the Bible, Marcus Garvey's Back-to-Africa movement and Caribbean culture.

Syncretism in the Enlightenment

The modern, rational non-pejorative connotations began with Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie articles, Eclecticisme and Syncrétistes, Hénotiques, ou Conciliateurs. Diderot portrayed syncretism as the concordance of eclectic sources.

Modern syncretic religions

Recently developed religious systems that exhibit marked syncretism include the New World religions Candomblé, Vodun, and Santería, which analogize various Yorùbá and other African gods to the Roman Catholic pantheon of saints. Some sects of Candomblé have incorporated also Native American gods, and Umbanda combined African deities with Kardecist spiritualism. Unitarian Universalism is an example of a modern syncretic religion; it traces its roots to Universalist and Unitarian Christian congregations while at the same time freely incorporating elements from other religious and non-religious traditions. Not all syncretism is embraced: scholars of comparative religion may see syncretic elements in Bahá'í, for example, while the adherents of Bahá'í deny any syncretic influence. See Bahá'í Faith.

In Vietnam, Caodaism blends elements of Buddhism, Catholicism and Kardecism. Among new Japanese religions several syncretic religious movements such as Konkokyo, and Seicho-No-Ie have been founded starting with latter half of the 19th century up to present time.

Examples of strongly-syncretist Romantic and modern movements include mysticism, occultism, theosophy, astrology, and the New Age movement, and in the arts the eclectic aspects in postmodernism. The Rastafarian religion is also syncretic, derived from a blend of Judaic ideology and a more secular one of emancipation.

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Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13