1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Syncretism

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SYNCRETISM (Gr. συγκρητισμός, from σύν and κεράννυμι, mingle or blend, or, according to Plutarch, from σύν and κρητίζειν, to combine against a common enemy after the manner of the cities of Crete), the act or system of blending, combining or reconciling inharmonious elements. The term is used technically in politics, as by Plutarch, of those who agree to forget dissensions and to unite in the face of common danger, as the Cretans were said to have done; in philosophy, of the efforts of Cardinal Bessarion and others in the 16th century to reconcile the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle; and in theology, of a plan to harmonize the hostile factions of the Church in the 17th century, advocated by Georg Calixtus, a Lutheran professor of theology at Helmstadt. Its most frequent use, however, is in connexion with the religious development of antiquity, when it denotes the tendency, especially prominent from the 2nd to the 4th centuries of the Christian era, to simplify and unify the various pagan religions. During this period, as a result of the intimate knowledge of the world's religions made possible by the gathering of every known cult of importance into the religious system of the Roman Empire, belief in the identity of many deities which resembled each other, and indeed in the essential identity of all, received a special impulse. Not only were various forms of the same deity, such as, for example, Jupiter Capitolinus and Jupiter Latiaris, recognized as being really the same under different aspects, but even the gods of different nations were seen to be manifestations of a single great being. Roman Jupiter, Greek Zeus, Persian Mithras and Phrygian Attis were one. The Great Mother, Isis, Ceres, Demeter, Ops, Rhea, Tellus, were the same great mother deity under different masks (see Great Mother of the Gods). Venus and Cupid, Aphrodite and Adonis, the Great Mother and Attis, Astarte and Baal, Demeter and Dionysus, Isis and Serapis, were essentially the same pair. Syncretism even went so far as to blend the deities of paganism and Christianity. Christ was compared with Attis and Mithras, Isis with the Virgin Mary, &c. Isis, perhaps more than any other deity, came to be regarded as the great maternal goddess of the universe whose essence was worshipped under many different names. This fact, with the spirit of syncretism in general, is well illustrated by Apuleius (Metamorph. xi. 2 and 5). Lucius invokes Isis: “Queen of Heaven, whether thou art the genial Ceres, the prime parent of fruits, who, joyous at the discovery of thy daughter, didst banish the savage nutriment of the ancient acorn, and, pointing out a better food, dost now till the Eleusinian soil; or whether thou art celestial Venus, who, in the first origin of things, didst associate the different sexes, through the creation of mutual love, and having propagated an eternal offspring in the human race, art now worshipped in the sea-girt shrine of Paphos; or whether thou art the sister of Phoebus, who, by relieving the pangs of women in travail by soothing remedies, hast brought into the world multitudes so innumerable, and art now venerated in the far-famed shrines of Ephesus; or whether thou art Proserpine, terrific with midnight howlings . . . by whatever name, by whatever ceremonies, and under whatever form it is lawful to invoke thee; do thou graciously, &c.” The goddess replies: “Behold me . . . I, who am Nature, the parent of all things, the mistress of all the elements, the primordial offspring of time, the supreme among divinities, the queen of departed spirits, the first of the celestials, and the uniform manifestation of the gods and goddesses; who govern by my nod the luminous heights of heaven, the salubrious breezes of the ocean, and the anguished silent realms of the shades below; whose one sole divinity the whole orb of the earth venerates under a manifold form, with different rites, and under a variety of appellations. Hence the Phrygians, that primeval race, call me Pessinuntica, the Mother of the Gods; the Aborigines of Attica, Cecropian Minerva; the Cyprians, in their sea-girt isle, Paphian Venus; the arrow-bearing Cretans, Diana Dictynna; the three-tongued Sicilians, Stygian Proserpine; and the Eleusinians, the ancient goddess Ceres. Some call me Juno, others Bellona, others Hecate, others Rhamnusia. But those who are illumined by the earliest rays of that divinity, the Sun, when he rises, the Aethopians, the Arii, and the Egyptians, so skilled in ancient learning, worshipping me with ceremonies quite appropriate, call me by my true name, Queen Isis. Behold, then, &c.” (Trans. Bonn's Lib.).

Naturally, the influence of Greek philosophy was very pronounced in the growth of syncretism. Plutarch and Maximus of Tyre affirmed that the gods of the different nations were only different aspects of the same deity, a supreme intelligence and providence which ruled the world. The Neoplatonists, however, were the first school to formulate the underlying philosophy of syncretism: “There is only one real God, the divine, and the subordinate deities are nothing else than abstractions personified, or celestial bodies with spirits; the traditional gods are only demons, that is, being intermediate between God and man . . . All, like every other created being, are emanations from the absolute God” (Jean Réville, La Religion à Rome sous les Sévères). Care must be taken, however, not to place too much emphasis upon syncretism as a conscious system. The movement which it represented was not new in the 2nd century A.D. The identification of Latin with Etruscan gods in the earliest days of Rome, and then of Greek with Italian, and finally of Oriental with the Graeco-Roman, were all alike syncretistic movements, though not all conscious and reasoned. The ideal of the common people, who were unreflecting, as well as of philosophers who reflected, was “to grasp the religious verity, one and constant, under the multiplex forms with which legend and tradition had enveloped it” (Réville). The advent of Greek philosophy only hastened the movement by conscious and systematic effort.

Syncretic, being a movement toward monotheism, was the converse of the tendency, so prominent in the early history of Rome, to increase the number of deities by worshipping the same god under special aspects according to special activities. In the hands of the Neoplatonists it was instrumental in retarding somewhat the fall of paganism for the time, but in the end contributed to the success of Christianity by familiarizing men with the belief in one supreme deity. The triumph of Christianity itself represented a result of syncretism, the Church being a blending of the beliefs and practices of both the new and old religions.

See Jean Réville, op. cit., especially pages 104-127, 159-174, 284-295. For other examples of syncretism, cf. that of Buddhism Zoroastrianism in the state religion of the Indo-Scythian kingdom of Kanishka (see Persia: Ancient History, vii.; The Parthian Empire, § 2) ; see articles on almost all the religions of the East, e.g. Mithras; Zoroaster. (G. Sn.)