Religion, properly understood, has much more to do with play than with work. It also has much more to do with dancing than with walking (and even less to do with marching or standing in line), more to do with songs than with speeches, more to do with poetry than with prose.
And religion also has far more to do with ambiguity than with certainty, and with liminality than with boundaries. Although, if you think about it, there would be no liminality without boundaries. Or even if you don't.
Which brings me to today's question: what will archaeologists think five thousand years from now when and if they dig up Lady GaGa Prayer Candles (just announced today as part of the Lady Gaga Alejandro Digital Bundle)??
And what will they think if they ever dig up my house and find an assortment of Hindu and Buddhist religious items along with Celtic, Greek, and Roman idols, Santeria candles, drums, rattles, masks, feathers, Tarot cards, Runes, and empty bottles of Golden Monkey Beer?
But seriously. To the modern mind, the issue of religious syncretism is framed with reference to concepts of religious "purity" versus religious "mixing", whether such terms are explicitly used or not. But the idea of "pure" versus "mixed" (or "degenerate" or even "polluted") religion is an invention, or, more accurately, a fantasy, of the monotheists. You see, there are no "pure" religions, and this is true of Christianity, Islam and Judaism just as it is true of all other religions.
If (1) syncretism refers to a state of "impurity" and, (2) no currently or previously existing religions are or have ever been "pure", then (3) syncretism is a general feature of Religion itself, rather than something, by it's mere presence or absence, distinguishing a class of non-syncretic religions from a class of syncretic religions. But while all religions may be syncretic, not all syncretisms are created equal.
The publisher's blurb for Eric Maroney's 2006 book Religious Syncretism characterizes syncretism as "the opposite" of fundamentalism. In the opening chapter of that book, Maroney defines syncretism as follows: "Syncretism occurs when one religion adopts, absorbs or otherwise accepts elements of another religion." To this definition Maroney adds an important qualification: "the categories we use to separate religions are not as fixed as they appear."
Maroney also highlights the stark contrast between how syncretism is viewed by monotheistic religions, that is, with hostility ("often" as "the sworn enemy"), versus how syncretism is viewed by the rest of humanity's religions: "other religious traditions often openly adopt the practices, customs, styles of worship and the deities of other religions." Maroney also correctly points out that despite this difference in attitude, monotheistic religions nevertheless also engage in syncretism, although they have "infrequently acknowledged" it. [All these quotes are from page 6 of Maroney's book.]
Maroney has the distinct advantage of not being a professional academic, and, therefore, enjoying the freedom to speak plainly. If you prefer a jargon enriched version of someone saying essentially the same thing, you might try Anita Maria Leopold's General Introduction to Syncretism in Religion: A Reader (2004), edited by her and Jeppe Sinding Jensen. Despite the more obtuse academese, Leopold's treatment of the complexities and obscurities of syncretism is quite good.
Which brings us to the first of two longish excerpts. This one is an oldie but goodie from Ramsay MacMullen's Paganism in the Roman Empire (1983). I think it is fair to say that professor MacMullen "makes few concessions to the reader", as the old saying goes. Therefore I will take the liberty of outlining his main points immediately below his own words:
1. MacMullen begins with a reference to Plutarch's famous essay "On Isis and Osiris", which is in the form of a letter to Clea: "herself a priestess at Olympia [and] also an initiate in the rites of Osiris."Plutarch's friend Clea, herself a priestess at Olympia, was also initiate in the rites of Osiris. She, then, could hardly have objected to the accommodation of a second loyalty; no more the priestess of the Sun at Philippi, initiate into the mysteries of Cybele and of Dionysus. A cult association of Hercules set up a dedication to its own God in the temple of Jupiter Dolichenus in Rome, and "the votaries of Sarapis," another guild, built a meeting room for Isis and Cybele in Rome's port. Examples abound of ministrants of one sort or another erecting an altar or a plaque or themselves signing some honorific inscription, in worship of a God other than the one they served. The practice can be observed without distinction of honorand, whether Roman, traditional Greek, Oriental, or Celtic; without distinction of area; and only circumscribed in time, perhaps. It may be that such actions are more often attested in the period after A.D. 150 than before. But even that is not sure.
These apparent betrayals of one's God were of course no only open, else never known to the present; they were divinely authorized. "By the interpretation of the rites of Sol," a worshiper honors Liber and Libera. Obviously the priest himself had overseen whatever was done; or a village honors "Zeus Galactinos according to Apollo's command"; a "priest of Sol invictus saw to the dedication of holy Silvanus, from a vision"; and so on, by a direct order from Hercules or Men or Apollo. It can only have been priests who guided these acts, seeing in them no betrayal at all. No one but priests can have permitted the placing in the temple of Dolichenus, in Rome, a relief that shows the God sitting next to his consort and holding busts of Sarapis and Isis: he had welcomed his friends from Egypt into his house. Priests directed that the feasts of Iarhibol and Aglibol in Palmyra should fall on the same day. The accommodation, fraternal welcome, courteous referral, or punctilious deference shown in one or another part of the surviving testimony seems to an unbeliever merely the interaction of worshipers and priests. But the worshipers and priests naturally saw it as the reflection here below of relations existing in the world above. Tolerance in paganism operated at both levels, until Christianity introduced its own ideas. Only then, from Constantine on, were Gods to be found at war with other Gods.
[Ramsay MacMullen, Paganism in the Roman Empire, p. 93]
2. In the remainder of the first paragraph, MacMullen goes on to produce a long list of other examples of persons or groups dedicated to one deity who also demonstrate some form of piety toward another deity.
3. MacMullen then points out that "these apparent betrayals of one's God" were all done openly and without any apparent embarrassment or anticipation of disapproval from others.
4. MacMullen makes the above point even more pointed by specifically pointing out that cult officials not only knew of, but approved and even participated in "these apparent betrayals of one's God." And to drive the point home even further, MacMullen states that, as a matter of fact, it must be the case that in all of these acts, the religious officials in question saw in them "no betrayal at all."
5. The participation of priestesses and priests not only demonstrates that these acts were officially approved, but that they were "divinely authorized," at least in the eyes of the pious at that time and place.
6. As far as the ancient world is concerned, therefore, "tolerance in Paganism operated at both levels," that is both on earth, where the acts are performed, and "in the world above," where the acts are not merely authorized, but where their "reflection" is found in the harmonious relations among the Gods in Heaven.
7. At this point MacMullen does a little plain speaking of his own: religious tolerance, both above and below, ruled the day "until Christianity introduced it's own ideas. Only then, from Constantine on, were Gods to be found at war with other Gods."
And now here is the second excerpt, from which the title of this post on syncretism has been lifted. It is from Robert G. Hoyland's 2001 (Routledge) Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam (here is a BMCR review of the book).
In monotheism the sacred is concentrated in one omnipotent and omniscient entity, whereas in polytheism it is diffused over a wide range of beings, places, objects, practices and human personnel. In reality there is both seepage in most monotheisms, with saints and shrines and the like tending to proliferate, and some telescoping on the part of many polytheisms, with one God often being preferred over the others. But the difference between the two is real and substantial.
Firstly, in pre-modern societies that had not secularised public life and relegated religion to the private domain, monotheism is by nature intolerant and intransigent. For there to be only one true God all the other must be impotent frauds, and those who worship them are not just in error, but damned, and should be fought or at the very least shunned. If you believe in many Gods however, there is no reason to be hostile to Gods not your own, nor any bar to paying them and their faithful your respects. "When you enter a village, swear by its Gods" as the old Arabian proverb goes.
Second, the words of a unique omnipotent God must needs be the absolute Truth, in the light of which its recipients should therefore regulate their lives and interpret their world. Polytheism, on the other hand, is neither so unitary nor so coherent. It is rather a variegated worldview, one capable of eliciting a rich and subtle range of meanings from a multi-faceted reality, one desirous of understanding and influencing the many and varied ways the natural world impinges upon us . . . .
[T]he sophisticated civilization of south Arabia had the most developed pantheon in Arabia with the names of over one hundred deities featuring in the surviving inscriptions, though many of these probably represent different aspects of manifestations of the same God. 'Athtar almost always occupies first place in lists and his cult was spread throughout the region. Moreover, in one text we find a worshipper thanking another God for "interceding on his behalf with 'Athtar", confirming that he enjoyed a certain primacy . . . .
The patron diety (shym) of a people was of more immediate significance in south Arabia than the remoter figure of 'Athtar. The four principle peoples had as their patrons Almaqah (Sabeans), Wadd (Minaeans), 'Amm (Qatabanians) and Sayin (Hadramites), and each people was collectively termed the "children" of their respective patron deity. The last would be characterised as the "lord" of the shrine that served as the cultic centre for his people (e.g. "Almaqah lord of Awwam", the principle temple in Marib) . . . .
In less complex societies than south Arabia the pantheon might be much smaller and the patron deity might assume a particularly prominent place. Thus the inhabitants of the fertile oasis of Dedan turned to Dhu Ghaba, "the master of the grove", for their needs and rarely to any other. The Minaean God Wadd appears in a few inscriptions, but these are presumably attributable to the Minaean colony that ran trade operations in the oasis. Then there is Kutba (or Aktab), God of writing, who is probably related to a Babylonian scribal deity, perhaps brought to northwest Arabia by the Babylonian monarch Nabonidus. But other Gods are mentioned no more than once or twice, probably invoked by travellers passing through rather than native worshippers.
The Nabataeans were similarly loyal to Dushara, "the master of the Shara", the mountain range encompassing their capital Petra, and "the God of our lord ... the king of the Nabataeans". At Petra itself the only very popular deity was al-'Uzza, "the mighty Goddess", who is celebrated both in texts and and in artistic representations. However the Nabataeans were rulers of a kingdom, and in the territories they controlled many other deities were worshipped, such as Hubal and Manat in Hijaz, and Allat in the Hawran and the Syrian desert.
Moreover, as international merchants, they were exposed to many foreign influences, and it is not therefore surprising top find that the cult of the Egyptian Goddess Isis was widespread in Nabataea . . . .
Palmyra was a special case, for it possessed a very cosmopolitan population, many members of which had brought their Gods with them, and by virtue of its location had long been exposed to a number of different cultures, which had left their mark on its religious life. Hence a great diversity of deities jostle for position in the city's epigraphic record. The best documented cult, since AD 32 at least, was that of the divine triad Bel, Yahribol and Aglibol. Bel emerged as a supreme God, while Yahribol, an ancestral deity of the oasis, and Aglibol, a deity of a north Syrian immigrant community, became his acolytes. However, Bel continued to associate with other divinities, such as the sun God Shamash and in particular his female partner Herta. We also hear of the ancient Canannite/Phoenician deity Ba'alshamin, the Arab Goddess Allat, the Mesopotamian deity Nergal and so on.[Robert G. Hoyland, Arabia and the Arabs, pp. 139-142]