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Syncretism

SYNCRETISM.

Syncretismthe process whereby two or more independent cultural systems, or elements thereof, conjoin to form a new and distinct systemis among the most important factors in the evolution of culture in general, but especially in the history of religion. Indeed, all of the so-called world religions, that is, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism, are to a fair extent syncretistic. But the process occurs whenever previously independent belief systems come into sustained contact, no matter what their respective levels of sophistication may be. This article briefly surveys examples of syncretism drawn from several traditions, including the aforementioned world religions and Japanese Shinto, as well as three syncretistic belief systems that emerged as a result of Western colonial expansion, slavery, and/or proselytizing: Santeria, Voodoo (or Vodou), and the Ghost Dance, which twice swept across large areas of Native North America in the late nineteenth century.

Syncretism in the World Religions

Of all the world religions, Christianity is probably the most syncretistic. Although rooted in Judaism, Christianity quickly came to absorb elements of Zoroastrianism (the ancient dualistic religion of Iran), some important features of pharaonic Egyptian religion, the religions of ancient Mesopotamia, and a number of Greco-Roman cults, which were themselves highly syncretistic. The Zoroastrian impact, which was already present in postexilic Judaism, was profound indeed. The prime example here is the intense Christian (and late Judaic) emphasis on a constant struggle between good and evil, which was the essence of the religion found by the Iranian prophet Zoroaster (or Zarathrustra, c. 630550 b.c.e.). The fully evolved figure of Satan is a classic example of syncretism: a fusion of the Hebrew concept of Lucifer, the "fallen angel," and the Zoroastrian figure Angra Mainyu (Ahriman), who is the evil opponent of Ahura Mazda (Ormazd), the "wise lord" and the embodiment of light, truth, and goodness. Moreover, the late Zoroastrian texts tell of a final conflict between Ahura Mazda and Angra Mainyu, during which a messiah-like figure will appear and lead the forces of Good. This, of course, is dramatically reflected in a number of Judeo-Christian apocalyptic texts, from the Book of Daniel to the Book of Revelation. The important thing here is that neither Angra Mainyu nor Lucifer is identical to Satan. Rather, the Judeo-Christian figure is a syncretism of the two otherwise distinct evil entities.

Precursors to the importance of the resurrection of Jesus for Christianity were the resurrected Egyptian god Osiris, as well as the Mesopotamian deity Dummuzi, who was rescued from the land of the dead by his divine lover Inanna. The Egyptian cult of the goddess Isis, sister-wife of Osiris and mother of the god Horus, who, together with Astarte and other Near Eastern goddesses, influenced the rise of the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary. The Isis cult also affected Christian ritual. The sistrum, a tinkling rattle that was shaken during ceremonies honoring the goddess, is the source of the bell that is rung several points in a Roman Catholic mass.

Several Greco-Roman religious cults also impacted the new religion. For example, the dove, a widespread symbol of the goddess Aphrodite and her Roman counterpart, Venus, became a symbol of the Holy Ghost, and the god Apollo was sometimes equated with Christ.

Islam also drew extensively on older religions, including Christianity and Zoroastrianism, especially after the Muslim conquest of Iran in 641 c.e. The chief Muslim demon, Iblis, is markedly similar to Angra Mainyu, and Islam also holds that there will be a final, Armageddon-like battle between the forces of good and evil.

Classical and modern Hinduism can be characterized as a grand syncretism between the indigenous Dravidian belief systems of northern India, as reflected in the artifacts of the Indus Valley civilization, and those carried into India in the middle of the second millennium b.c.e. by the Aryans, whose beliefs were a variant of those carried by Indo-European speakers across Eurasia from India to Western Europe. One of the best examples is the major Hindu god Shiva, the third member of the trinity that includes Brahma and Vishnu. Shiva is often called "the Lord of Beasts," and an Indus Valley stamp seal found at Mohenjo Daro dating from about 1800 b.c.e. shows a god seated in the lotus position and surrounded by animals. This figure's connection with the later iconography of Shiva is clear, and thus strongly suggests that the god in question reflects a syncretism of the ancient Dravidian and Aryan religions. Even the fully evolved Hindu caste system involves an amalgamation of the Aryan tripartite social class system, which they shared with other ancient Indo-European-speaking communities, and the indigenous emphasis on occupation groups, which is clearly evident in the physical layout of the chief Indus Valley cities: Mohenjo Daro and Harappa.

Buddhism too has evolved its fair share of syncretistic beliefs and practices, especially as it spread to countries outside of India. In what is now northwest Pakistan (ancient Gandhara), where the Mahayana, or bodhisattva-centered, evangelical form of Buddhism crystallized in the centuries immediately preceding the beginning of the Common Era, the religion's iconography (sacred images) was heavily influenced by Greek artistic ideals, as the region in question was conquered by Alexander the Great in 326 b.c.e. These Hellenized images of the Buddha and other sacred figures were later carried into China, beginning in the first century c.e., where they blended with the indigenous artistic tradition. Moreover, by the time Buddhism arrived in Korea and Japan in the late fifth to mid-sixth centuries c.e. it had heavily syncretized with Confucianism, a development that is clearly exemplified in Shōtoku Taishi's (574622 c.e.) famous "Seventeen-Article Constitution" (604 c.e.), which seamlessly blended the idea of filial piety and the other primary Confucian relationships with the Buddhist concept of dharma, which is itself deeply rooted in the Hindu tradition.

Syncretism in Japanese Shinto

Shinto, the indigenous belief system of Japan, has coexisted with Buddhism for the past fifteen hundred years (the traditional date of the first appearance of Buddhism is 552 c.e., when the ruler of the Korean kingdom of Paekche sent a contingent of priests to the court of the Yamato emperor as a goodwill gesture), and Shōtoku Taishi's constitution is by no means the only example of syncretism between the two faiths. The form of Buddhism (Mahayana) that penetrated East Asia places great emphasis on bodhisattvas, or "enlightened," Buddha-like deities that intercede with the divine on behalf of human beings. Many of these figures were syncretized with the myriad Shinto kami, or deities. A good example is Hachiman, who became a Shinto war god, but whose origin, as Byron Earhart (p. 44) points out, "may be Chinese, Buddhist, or both."

Indeed, Shinto and Buddhism have become so intertwined in Japan that it is sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other begins. Most large Buddhist temples play host to one or more Shinto shrines, and, like Hachiman, Shinto kami are often conceived as guardians of the enshrined bosatsu (bodhisattva). Moreover, the latter are often worshiped in the same fashion as the kami, that is, he or she will be asked for the same sort of favors: good health, success in business or in passing examinations, and the like. Many Japanese assert that they "live" as Shintoists, but "die" as Buddhists, and this underscores a major distinction between the two faiths: the former emphasizes this world, while the latter tends to focus on the afterlife. But for practical purposes Shinto and Buddhism are, with a few exceptions, what amounts to a single faith in Japan, a complex syncretism that meets the religious needs of most Japanese.

Santeria and Voodoo

Yet another important example of syncretism can be found in the Caribbean. As a result of the slave trade, a host of West African religious beliefs were transplanted to Cuba, Haiti, and other Caribbean islands, as well as to Brazil, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There, they intermingled with the Roman Catholicism of the slave masters and plantation owners. The result was a set of syncretistic religions, the most important of which are Santeria and Voodoo (or Vodou).

Santeria took shape primarily in Cuba and reflects for the most part the beliefs of the Yoruba people, who live in what is now Nigeria. The focus of the Yoruba (and other West African belief systems) is upon a pantheon of deities called orishas. However, in Santeria, these figures are often identifiedthat is, syncretizedwith Catholic saints. A good example is Changó, a male god of thunder, lightning, and fire, who is nevertheless identified with St. Barbara, a devout young woman who lived in the fourth century c.e. and who was beheaded by her father for refusing to give up her Christian faith and marry according to his wishes. At the moment of her beheading her father was struck by lightning, and this gave rise to a legend that St. Barbara had power over lightning bolts. Although Changó is a masculine orisha, the similarities between this legend and the Yoruba traditions about him led to the syncretism in question.

Haitian Voodoo (more properly Vodou or Vodun) is similar to Santeria in a great many ways, both in its African heritage and when it comes to syncretism. Here, the West African deities, primarily from Benin and Dahomey, are called loa and are also usually identified with Roman Catholic saints. For example, the serpent loa, Damballah, is often identified with St. Patrick, drawing on the legend that the latter drove the snakes out of Ireland. Houngan, or Voodoo priests, have long since adopted elements of Roman Catholicism in Voodoo rituals, including the use of candles, bells, crosses, the practices of baptism, and making the sign of the cross. These Christian elements are intertwined with such African religious practices as drumming, dancing, ancestor worship, and spirit possession.

The Ghost Dance

The final example of syncretism involves what anthropologists call a "nativistic movement," that is, a religious reaction to the appearance of a more powerful and hegemonic culture. Although such movements have occurred in areas as diverse as Siberia and Melanesia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the most intensely studied nativistic movement is the Ghost Dance, which began in northern Nevada among the Paiutes in 1870. In that year, a shaman named Tavibo had a vision in which he learned that if his people danced in a certain fashion, their ancestors, or "ghosts," would return, and the white men would be swallowed up by a great earthquake. Soon other tribes heard of this dance, and by 1871 it had spread widely among Native American tribes in the Great Basin and parts of California. However, the ghosts never materialized, and the religious fervor soon died down.

A generation later, Tavibo's possible descendant, another Paiute shaman named Wovoka (c. 18561932), revived the dance, but this time it was heavily syncretistic. As a youth Wovoka spent several years working for a white family that was extremely religious and gave him the name "Jack Wilson." In 1889, during a severe illness, Wilson had a vision in which God told him that not only would his ancestors return, but that a Native American incarnation of Jesus would return to help them, and that the whites, who were the spawn of Satan, would be swallowed by the earthquake that failed to occur in 1870. By the middle of 1890 the second Ghost Dance had spread widely east of the Rocky Mountains and eventually included among its converts the famous Sioux shaman Sitting Bull. However, on December 29, 1890, the Ghost Dance movement also led to one of the great tragedies in Native American history: the Wounded Knee massacre on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, in which several hundred peopleincluding women, children, and elderly menwere killed simply because they refused to stop performing the Ghost Dance. Afterward, belief in the power of the dance diminished rapidly.

In sum, these are but a few examples of syncretism, a process that has played an enormous role in human religious history, from antiquity to modern times and in almost every corner of the globe.

See also Communication of Ideas ; Diffusion, Cultural ; Religion .

bibliography

Brown, Karen McCarthy. "Voodoo." In Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, edited by Arthur C. Lehmann and James E. Myers. Mountain View, Calif: Mayfield, 1993.

Dauphin, C. "From Apollo and Aesclepius to Christ: Pilgrimage and Healing at the Temple and Episcopal Basilica at Dor." Liber Anuus 49 (1999): 397430.

Earhart, H. Byron. Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth, 1982.

González-Wippler, Migene. Santeria: African Magic in Latin America. New York: Anchor Books, 1975.

Grant, Frederick C. Hellenistic Religion: The Age of Syncretism. New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953.

Kamstra, Jacques H. Encounter or Syncretism: The Initial Growth of Japanese Buddhism. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1967.

La Barre, Weston. The Ghost Dance: The Origins of Religion. New York: Dell, 1972. See especially chapter 7.

Littleton, C. Scott. Shinto: Origins, Rituals, Festivals, Spirits, Sacred Places. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. The Riddle of Resurrection: "Dying and Rising Gods" in the Ancient Near East. Stockholm, Sweden: Almqvist and Wiksell, 2001.

Organ, Troy Wilson. Hinduism: Its Historical Development. Woodbury, N.Y.: Barron's Educational Series, 1974.

Wheeler, Sir Mortimer. Civilizations of the Indus Valley and Beyond. London: Thames and Hudson, 1966.

Will, R. E. Isis in the Ancient World. Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1971.

C. Scott Littleton

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Syncretism

Syncretism (Gk., explained by Plutarch with reference to the Cretans who, while habitually at odds with each other, closed ranks in the face of a common enemy). The amalgamation of religious beliefs and practices in such a way that the original features of the religions in question become obscured. The word has thus taken on a pejorative sense, derived from H. Usener who translated it (1898) as religionsmischerei, not so much a mixing as a confusing. The term is now usually used of those who are accused of abandoning a historic faith and practice in pursuit of some ecumenical religion which transcends the boundaries of existing religions. Despite this dismissive sense, all religions are syncretistic in the sense of absorbing and incorporating elements of other religions and cultures as they encounter them.

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"Syncretism." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of World Religions. . Encyclopedia.com. 22 Aug. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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syncretism

syn·cre·tism / ˈsingkrəˌtizəm/ • n. 1. the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought. 2. Linguistics the merging of different inflectional varieties of a word during the development of a language. DERIVATIVES: syn·cret·ic / singˈkretik/ adj. syn·cre·tist n. & adj. syn·cre·tis·tic / ˌsingkrəˈtistik/ adj.

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syncretism

syncretism In a religious context, syncretism refers to the worship of one god using the form or tradition of another god. Thus, for example, the Hebrew prophets constantly condemned the tendency to revert to worshipping Yahweh using forms associated with local ‘baalim’ or deities.

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syncretism

syncretism union of opposite tenets, etc. XVII; (philol.) merging of cases XX. — Gr. sugkrētismós, f. sugkrētízein.

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