Syncretism—the process whereby two or more independent cultural systems, or elements thereof, conjoin to form a new and distinct system—is 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. 630–550 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 (574–622 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 identified—that is, syncretized—with 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. 1856–1932), 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 people—including women, children, and elderly men—were 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 .
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): 397–430.
Earhart, H. Byron. Japanese Religion: Unity and Diversity. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth, 1982.
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.
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.
C. Scott Littleton
Syncretism refers to the mixture of religious ideas or practices from diverse sources. The earliest use of the term is in the Moralia of Plutarch, who spoke of the alliances that brought fractious Cretans together (syn-Kretoi) against a common enemy. This togetherness among things that have not been, and perhaps should not be, together gives the term its energy and openness to controversy. Syncretism in religion implies crossed doctrinal, liturgical, and institutional borders.
Writers committed to religious institutions have generally been hostile to unauthorized blending of religious symbols and have seen syncretism as a challenge to the integrity of religious traditions. The word became fixed as a term of disparagement in seventeenth-century Europe, when those opposed to movements of theological reconciliation among Protestant denominations and Roman Catholicism referred to unacceptable compromises as "syncretism." Today writers seeking respectful interreligious dialogue still may see the blurring of religious borders as "the threat of syncretism." (Wiggins 1996:64).
Theologians and missionaries have long used the term to deprecate new religious movements and folk religious initiatives as inauthentic or impure. Here the label of syncretism acts as a normative judgment that rests on notions of the superiority of an essential religious tradition and the need to protect it from dilution and adulteration. Contemporary practitioners of new alternative, or minority religions often resent the condescension connoted by the label of syncretism with its implications of confusion and inferiority.
The controversy surrounding the label of syncretism reveals a number of psychological, social, and cultural dynamics that illuminate how religions develop. By focusing on the arrangement of disparate elements in religious symbolism, the observer may see how social and personal religious experience is organized in a concrete historical situation. In particular the idea of syncretism illuminates the location and importance of borders in the construction of identity in religious communities and individuals.
The social dynamics behind the idea of syncretism reveal contestation about boundaries and power. Syncretism may be seen to originate "from above" or "from below," particularly in situations of religious mission, where issues of translation are paramount (Sanneh 1989). Elites seeking to "inculturate" Christianity among Native Americans or Buddhism among white Coloradans may self-consciously adapt ideas and practices in order to make them more readily understood and acceptable to the indigenous populations. Often this missionary quest to build local theologies still seeks to restrict access and religious expression within institutional boundaries. On the other hand syncretism may also arise "from below," in the ways that the missionized construct new meanings from the symbols that arise from different social contexts. Thus the Catholic saints take on new significance among practitioners of santería and the Christian cross speaks at several levels to members of the Native American Church. This phenomenon of reinterpretation was highlighted by American anthropologist Melville Herskovits as a two-way process of cultural interaction, in which familiar symbols take on new meanings and new symbols can be reinterpreted in the light of familiar associations. (Herskovits 1948: 553; also Apter 1991). In this way syncretism is the way that people can live in different semiotic worlds, allowing both their blending as well as their juxtaposition.
Syncretism can thus be seen as an adaptive strategy on the part of many different individuals and social groups to both cross and maintain boundaries. Syncretism may be the self-conscious attempt to integrate experience as seen in the rise of such traditions as Sikhism or Baha'i. Or it may be an accommodation to power as well as a critique of it, a kind of "cultural judo" in the words of Jamaican-American historian of religion Leonard Barrett. Here the folk on the margins of power accept the symbols of the elite only to subvert them with additional, unauthorized, and often ironic meanings.
It may be that the term "syncretism" is indelibly tainted with the politics of claims to and resistance against cultural hegemony. Several contemporary scholars have suggested abandoning the term, either because of its pejorative connotation, or because it is a universal process in the history of all religions, or because the precise boundaries of traditions simply cannot be determined. (Baird 1971; Ringgen 1966). Scholars have put forth alternative terms using words or phrases such as "combinatory" "mixing and matching," or even "religion à la carte"—all intended to highlight the processes of religious formation and boundary definitions.
Whether or not the term itself proves to be viable, the type of religious creativity that syncretism attempts to describe is real, important, and relevant to American religious life at the beginning of the new millennium. With the growth of global communications and travel, Americans are experiencing unprecedented cross-cultural contact and exchange. Identities are being simultaneously globalized and localized as individuals and groups struggle to connect to, and separate themselves from, a new world order. Parents of interfaith marriages are raising children simultaneously in two or more traditions. Individuals and groups are organizing their religious lives by freely blending and juxtaposing religious symbols from African, Asian, European, Native American, and even extraterrestrial sources. Individuals are claiming to be Buddhist Jews and Hindu Africans are forming voodoo ashrams. The rise of American Neopaganism, the growth of traditions such as Wicca, and the cluster of beliefs and practices associated with New Age spirituality attest to the fluency with which Americans are constructing new symbolic worlds. In the analysis of these traditions, the issues addressed by the term "syncretism" yield significant insights into the integration of experience by individuals and the construction of boundaries by groups.
Apter, Andrew. "Herskovits's Heritage: Rethinking Syncretism in the African Diaspora," Diaspora, vol. 1, no. 3, 1991.
Baird, Robert D. Category Formation in the History ofReligions, 1971.
Barrett, Leonard E. Soul Force: African Heritage in Afro-American Religion, 1974.
Droogers André. "Syncretism: the Problem of Definition, the Definition of the Problem," In Dialogueand Syncretism, An Interdisciplinary Approach, edited by Jerald Gort, et al., 1989.
Herskovits, Melville J. Man and His Works, 1948.
Ringgen, Helmer. "The Problems of Syncretism." In Syncretism, edited by Sven S. Hartman, 1966.
Sanneh, Lamin. Translating the Message: The MissionaryImpact on Culture, 1989.
Schreiter, Robert J. Constructing Local Theologies, 1985.
Stewart, Charles, and Rosalind Shaw, editors. Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis, 1994.
Wiggins, James. In Praise of Religious Diversity, 1996.
Joseph M. Murphy
Syncretism, a process of assimilating different religious beliefs into a system different from its component parts. Strictly, this process does not include the retention of old beliefs or forms under a veneer of new ones, especially if the latter are imposed by force or represent merely the adoption of certain alien rituals. More widely, however, the term is used to signify the borrowing of beliefs and ritual of one religious system by another. In this latter sense, syncretism is as old as religion itself. Syncretic elements appear in the Bible, derived from Canaanite, Babylonian, and Greek sources. Almost from its origins, Christianity has incorporated features of other religions. The first part of the Roman Catholic Mass is based on the first-century Jewish synagogue service. Pagan feasts were freely borrowed, such as that of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), a Syrian solar god whose anniversary on 25 December, at the winter solstice, gives the date of modern Christmas, or the pagan seasonal celebrations that became the Ember Days. The bold experiment of the Jesuits in sixteenth-century China in adapting Catholicism to native customs and rites was eventually condemned by the papacy because it seemed to involve genuine syncretism.
Though Spanish Catholicism of the sixteenth century was often a folk religion mingled with superstition, the process of syncretism with pre-Christian elements had been so thorough that it is difficult to separate these syncretic elements from orthodox Catholicism. The syncretic process is seen more easily in the religion of the conversos (Jewish converts to Catholicism), who often retained Judaic practices that still can be found in New Mexico among present-day descendants of conversos who moved north from New Spain in the colonial period.
In pre-Conquest America, religious syncretism seems to have been common. The Mexica (Aztecs) commonly adopted the gods of conquered or tributary peoples, thus adding greatly to the complexity of their myths and deities. The southward movement of Mexican, or Toltec, influences from the central plateau had a strong impact on Maya religion of the post-Classical Period. Prominent among these was the acceptance of Quetzalcoatl under the name Kukulcan and the increased emphasis on human sacrifice. Because of the lack of clear evidence, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions about pre-Conquest syncretism in Latin America.
The open-minded attitude of the Mexicas found difficulty with the exclusive demands of the Christian God preached by the early Spanish friars. There seems, however, to have been little active resistance, in part because of the wholesale disappearance of the native priesthood and temples during and after the Spanish Conquest. In the sixteenth century, cases were reported of relapses into idolatry and even of secret human sacrifice. More common were passive/aggressive techniques that involved external compliance without substantially altering the pre-Conquest religious viewpoint. In seventeenth-century Peru the church launched a major campaign against residual idolatry and syncretism.
Late twentieth-century research emphasized the subtle role played by the translation of religious concepts from one language to another. Europeans and Native Americans were separated by a vast cognitive and psychological gap. Basic Christian concepts, such as the afterlife as reward or punishment, hell, personal sin, and redemption, did not exist in the pre-Conquest New World. Translating these concepts and making them intelligible and acceptable to the Indians was one of the most daunting challenges faced by the early missionaries. The translation of western European religious terms into the native languages added nuances and were received by the Indians in terms of their own religious mentality and worldview. In Mexico this process has been called the "nahuatilization" of Christianity. The assertion that the early friars deliberately substituted Christian devotions or saints for pre-Conquest deities lacks any firm evidence. Most missionary friars were strongly opposed to any form of syncretism, which they regarded as neo- or crypto-idolatry.
The retention of native beliefs or their mingling with Christianity seems to have been strongest among Native Americans in those areas that were farthest from Spanish influence or those who held most tenaciously to traditional ways. The Mayas, in a special way, were resistant to change. In 1585, Pedro de Feria, the bishop of Chiapas, complained that Christianity was only a veneer among the Maya Indians of his diocese. The same thing was encountered among the Yaqui of northern Mexico, the Hopis of Arizona, and among the various Maya groups of Guatemala. In South America the old ways were reinforced by geographical isolation.
In the twentieth century some missionaries grew more tolerant and even accepting of syncretism, which they used as a missionary tool. The mingling of Christian and pre-Christian elements is regarded as inevitable and not subject to immediate change.
The term "syncretism" has become somewhat contested, and fallen into some disuse and is often replaced with terms such as "religious hybridity" and "religious creolization."
Charles Gibson, The Aztecs Under Spanish Rule (1964).
Charles E. Dibble, "The Nahuatilization of Christianity," in Sixteenth Century Mexico: The Work of Sahagún, edited by Munro S. Edmonson (1974), pp. 225-233.
Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, 3 vols. (1978–1985).
John M. Ingham, Mary, Michael, and Lucifer: Folk Catholicism in Central Mexico (1986).
Muriel Thayer Painter, With Good Heart: Yaqui Beliefs and Ceremonies in Pascua Village, edited by Edward H. Spicer and Wilma Kaemlein (1986).
Louise Burkhart, The Slippery Earth: Nahua-Christian Moral Dialogue in Sixteenth-Century Mexico (1989).
Greenfield, Sidney M., and A. F. Droogers, eds. Reinventing Religions: Syncretism and Transformation in Africa and the Americas. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2001.
Lockhart, James. The Nahuas after the Conquest: A Social and Cultural History of the Indians of Central Mexico, Sixteenth through Eighteenth Centuries. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1992.
Marzal, Manuel M. The Indian Face of God in Latin America. Trans. Penelope R. Hall. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996.
Mills, Kenneth. Idolatry and Its Enemies: Colonial Andean Religion and Extirpation, 1640–1750. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997.
Pereira, José Carlos. Sincretismo religioso & ritos sacrificiais: Influências das religiões afro no catolicismo popular Brasileiro. São Paulo: Zouk, 2004.
Rostworowski de Diez Canseco, María. Pachacamac y el señor de los milagros: Una trayectoria milenaria. Lima: Instituto de Estudios Peruanos, 1992.
Stafford Poole C.M.
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.