Syncretism and the Formation of Contemporary Heathen Religious Identity
Posted on June 24, 2020
- Author’s Note: This is part II following the post I made a year prior. It’s long, I don’t want to wait another year to publish a part III. Thanks to my proofreaders.
Heathens who are interested in developing a realized and coherent religious practice already engage in syncretic methods of construction, largely through interpretation driven by comparative research as well as a general methodology of wider reconstructionist practices. This is a necessary aspect of Heathen theological scholarship in order to establish a healthy and viable identity which can be transmitted to and embraced by future generations of interested practitioners. In the time since Heathenry’s emergence as an identifiably new religious movement, Heathen practice and theology has always benefited from the commingling of various practices of different groups of people. These groups are broadly seen as “Germanic” and thus loosely affiliated, despite no relation to any one cultural expression. One such example is the implementation by Norse-focused Heathens of various Old English customs or concepts in order to streamline and buttress their understanding of religious practice .
Socioanthropological and historical-anthropological studies have shown that syncretism is not only a common feature within the human condition beyond simple religious constructs: it is one which is also willingly used to justify, enact, and both intentionally and organically establish a cohesive image of a group’s identity and communal history. A goal of syncretism is to ask whether parts of a specific culture or religion are borrowed and, if so, how these borrowed facets should be contextually interpreted . Challenges of identity, boundaries, and asking who comprises in-groups and out-groups are common questions which can appear in daily life, and syncretism directly interfaces and critically examines these common questions of religious and cultural existence . Further, studies from a syncretistic point of view does not lead to an abandonment of other forms of cultural observation, nor posit that one should uncritically accept or pursue the proffered practice .
Heathenry exists as a nascent religious subculture within a domineering cultural milieu which takes the form of a hegemonic overculture, purporting itself to be a multicultural society . In this context, syncretism and syncretic practices specifically enable the creation of a visible and defined religious system, and a more clearly imparted identity, which serves as a banner to which practitioners may flock. Syncretism also enables the identity of Heathenry as a practice to divorce itself from problematic ideologies, side-stepping cultural and religious essentialism through assumptions of “unsullied pristineness” and “objective realities” of a discrete unit which would insist on the purity and priority of their own voice, a common feature among the study of developing and emerging cultures .
Despite providing an immense contribution to the Heathen revivalist movement through extensive scholarship, academia traps itself by reducing both culture and religion to a dichotomous relationship, pitting them as binary constructs which then address syncretism independently of its historical contexts . It is common to encounter the view that syncretism is an expression of “adaptive growth” within the context of a single culture. Yet, the opposite exists in discussion of “religion”, where syncretism is portrayed and typified as a fundamentally impure, intrusive, and tainted influence .
This is further compounded by academia’s enthusiasm for deconstructing various cultural and religious traditions – especially those which have been identified as “syncretic” – which echos colonial attitudes and produces yet one more brand of intellectual imperialism, ignoring the realities of the subjective, experiential, and phenomenological representations of those traditions as they manifested and were nativised in-context. This results in throwing context out the window in favor of a “religion” which is decidedly Western, ethnocentrically biased, and thoroughly influenced by perceptions of Christianity as the exemplar — and deterministic outcome — of all religious expression .
New religious movements share attempts at the identification of core, constituent parts of their identities which may not be extant, or of a similar priority, in older traditions. In like kind, NRMs utilize practical and theoretical applications to explore these facets of self. The identification of religious mores, how one can bound and set their religion apart from other groups, self-determination descriptions, and more have become foci within the discussion of syncretic processes among both NRMs and their religious ethnographers .
The quest of contemporary Heathen religions to define their own religious identity faces numerous external challenges. “Heathenry”, as a collective religion, exists not only beneath the cultural milieu of an opposing hegemonic, monotheist, cultural identity, but is also identified through a detached academic lens focusing on deconstruction. It must also compete with and position itself against ethnonationalist sentiment and racialist separatism which would take the notion of purity of an idealized non-Christian, non-Jewish, non-foreign identity and force it onto the religious concept as a whole, as a rallying cry for racialist nationalism. A simple survey of the labels shows how ill-fitting they are even at their simplest.
Modern dictionaries will define “Heathen” and “Heathenry” in one of two ways: either through a Christo-centric religious terminology — that is, defining a person as being ‘Non-Christian’, with the implications of uncivilized status — or simply as someone who adheres to “Germanic neopaganism” . Both definitions are unsatisfactory for the self-identification of practice due to their broad scope as well as their attachment of Heathenry-as-religious-culture to either Christian themes of religiosity or a veneer of “Germanic culturalism”.
Dispensing with the burdens of Christianity, the generic description of Heathenry as “Germanic neopaganism” does not distinguish the disparate religious paradigms which exist under the “pagan umbrella”. Through this description, practitioners of such religious traditions as Norse Wicca, Saxon Witchcraft (formerly Seax-Wica), or Nordic-focused groups associated with Ár nDraíocht Féin (ADF) would be “Heathen”, despite maintaining their own religious paradigms, definitions, and identities which many self-identifying Heathens do not share .
Thus, Heathnery-as-religion collectively has problems with definition, particularly because such labels are relativized. A casual observer may wonder why the notion of labels is so important. The symbolism and representation of identity embodied by a label assists in navigating the complexities of social organizations, and provides a transmittable group cohesion . The history of ideas is complex, and labels are fluid and mixed. Without the process of critically questioning self-identity, and without the developments which are afforded by syncretic theory, contemporary Heathenry as a religious identity is bereft of agent self-determination.
In order to begin to differentiate an identity among the various Heathen religions , reconstructionist methodology is employed in order to utilize contemporaneous facets of other “neighboring” religions through the use of complementary research. This deliberate reconstruction is often identified by observers as the most distinctive aspect of Heathenry as a religious identity . This is not undertaken to merge Heathenry into an eclectic morass of “best” practices under the purview of the individual but, rather, to take the viewpoints put forth by the juxtaposed tradition(s) so as to better articulate a workable and contemporary ‘Heathen’ religious system. The fundamentals of religious engagement, that is, the role and expression of ritual, or prayer, of the very nature of cosmological understanding, is left to contemporary practitioners to innovate what can be broadly described as ‘religion’, due to a lack of attested and historic representation.
As a primarily empirically-driven religion, Heathenry’s methods of inquiry are informed by the Historical Sciences. There are two considerations regarding this reliance. The first is that developments in scholasticism are of limited use in the contextualization of thought or action within the minds of the people being studied . Reconstructions can vary from privileging textual sources in the absence of in situ material evidence to resorting to mere speculation when presented with incomplete material evidence and little or no complementary textual evidence. Ideally, one strives to incorporate both types of evidence to achieve a holistic view of a given practice one wishes to reconstruct. None, however, can truly impart the knowledge of an individual’s engagement within their time and circumstances; we are presented only with a fragmentary view. An ancient Hellenic philosopher imparts their particular worldview, to be sure, yet it is reflective of a particular class of people and not the fullest extent of society or the vagaries of religious expressions of the time. The particular spirit behind this text or that artifact cannot be meaningfully reconstructed by a Modern individual, being so far removed from the particular conditions and considerations of any given Pre-Modern society.
Various Heathen religions, once differentiated by now-lost religio-cultural boundaries, possess very little in the way of textual evidence. Even the broadly shared common ‘Germanic mythology’ (typified by Eddic Lore) is recorded through a Christian paradigm, to say nothing about the individual vagaries which ultimately inform local belief. This leads into the second consideration of reliance on the ideas of academia – the mutability of the idea. Cultural representations, syncretism among them, are the product of input processed by the human mind, each with a separate lived experience .
Individual ideas form the genesis of syncretic thought, from the exposure of new concepts through the progression of reconciliation with currently held beliefs. These concepts are then argued communally, through the agency of the individual, through ritualized or interpersonal action, or with interacting in the local and regional landscape . The person – the individual in their myriad of social and religious capacities – are engaged in these social worlds through a bonding of shared identity. The argument that syncretism occurs only on the macro-scale of human interaction ignores the micro- and localized phenomenological contexts which form the foundation of communal alterations and interpretations of tradition, effectively erasing the day-to-day business and basis of practitioners who live and breathe the culture. The difficulty in observing the process of syncretism does not deny the ubiquity of its role in the human condition, nor does it negate its importance.
Existing within the traditional pre-Christian religious frameworks of the European-Mediterranean basin and the Ancient Near East  syncretism can be as prominent and easily recognized as pan-regional deities such as Zeus-Ammon, Sarapis, the whole of the process of Hellenization throughout the Mediterranean, or the development of the cult of the god Mars .
Again, only emphasizing this aspect of syncretism ignores the microscopic interactions of day-to-day views and enactment of religions, as syncretism can be as innocuous as that of the dedicatory altar designated RIB 1102. Found at Ebchester (Vindomora) in 1784, this piece of epigraphic evidence is particularly interesting for contemporary practitioners of Heathenry as it provides evidence of what the community could view as the actions of a predecessor to their own religious beliefs and identities.
Inscribed upon the buff sandstone votive are the words “Deo | Verno|stono | Cocidi| o Viri[l]is | Ger(manus) v(otum) s(olvit) l(ibens) ❦ ”, “To the god Vernostonus Cocidius, Virilis, a German, willingly fulfilled his vow.” This inscription provides an example of the fluidity of religious engagement, a tangible remnant of syncretic ritualized actions and intents, whereby a Germanic tribesperson of no known historic importance engages in ritualistic cult to a Celtic deity, within the cultural and religious milieu of the wider Latin-speaking world. In this way we can see the translation of these concepts into a “third language” of religion, paraphrasing de Vries, one which was at once understandable, approachable, and of importance to even a single individual yet capable of coexistence with the original expression .
In the context of revivifying the essence of these polytheistic beliefs within religions such as modern Heathenry, syncretism can be approached as David Frankfurter does, treating it not as a “weaving together of two theological systems or institutions” but as “an assemblage of symbols and discourses [..] to articulate a new religious ideology.” . Unlike assimilation (influence), fusion (intertextuality), or other modes of eclecticism, syncretism’s most important goal is to articulate through its own paradigmatic frame of reference these concepts into a workable worldview. This takes the origin material and enunciates it for another audience, transforming it from what it once was .
This enunciation manifests as a process of bricolage in order to create a religious identity, the use of readily available elements of religions encouraged a proliferation of varieties and re-creations of local cults, utilizing an ever diversified vocabulary . In an increasingly connected world, local peoples historically reshaped their cults and mythologies, expanding their growing vocabulary of religious terms in order to find a “best fit” in the dialogue between mundane and divine interaction .
Stepping back from the individual to the immediate local worlds, being argued once more from the position of the individual-as-local-community-member, where interpretations of adoption and adaptation of new and foreign deity concepts and cults, there are diverse experiences of local cults depending on the status and context where they are found, which above all differentiates them from associated supralocal entities or religious edifices. Increasing interaction of varying peoples has historically increased the religious diversity, and the individual had a much wider choice for both public and private devotions . The use of media, theonyms and epithets, physical religious tools, etc., all aided in the creation of new deity-concepts which were previously unknown, yet no less valid than what had come before. It is through these processes that local identities are preserved under an external occupying force, while at the same time productively establishing relationship bonds which enabled the continuance of such practices .
Traditional cultural studies focus on a dichotomous interaction between forces and external powers, emphasizing one-way impacts and autonomous works, essentially culminating in a singular path of influence, which ignores the complexity of religious, social, and cultural creation . Syncretic studies which can be applied within Heathenry highlight capacities of minor actors within the wider religious picture, and how contemporary practitioners can combine or rework new ideas and methods in order to develop increasingly complex schools of thought and traditions of religious practice. Given the decentralized nature of modern religious development in Heathenry as a new religious movement, it would be less effective to focus on a one-way give-and-take in order to enshrine the makings of a specific identity.
What is historically classified as “syncretism” in the late antique and migration-era periods has been argued to represent not a new mode of thought, but the ancient, original, ideas of popular religion. These ideas, suppressed in popular discourse on the subject by veneers of classicism and misrepresentation of indigenous religion, were deep-seated enough to rise to the surface, becoming apparent when the layers of whitewashing are stripped away through closer contextual engagements . Heathenry as a modern revival of the religious identity of the pre-Christian Germanic tribes peoples, fits neatly into the paradigm established by the greater antique world, one of interconnectedness where religious mixing was the rule and not, as portrayed by dogmatic religious or academic institutions, an exception.
In engaging with syncretism in a positive and productive manner, Heathenry can develop an expansive and flexible religious language which gives an understanding to vastly different messages, preserving individual differences while allowing for a series of religious traditions to engage in expression. Unlike wider hegemonic forces, such as Westernization or mono-religious secularism, this process of syncretism, historically exemplified by such processes as Hellenism, allows the inner workings of each distinct Heathen religious practice to be visible with its own identity . Thus a grounding of one’s identity — both individual and collective — can be understood in diverse ways, through the application of what can be considered religio-spiritual creativity .
There exists an inherent tension within Heathenry between the needs of innovating a modern practice and the connection of those practices to ancient traditions and the historicity behind them . The ability to have contemporary identities emerge is gifted through creative re-elaboration of the traditions on which they are based. It paradoxically unites conservative and innovative impulses, through translation and syncretism, utilizing this intrinsic creativity afforded by the present informational give-and-take .
Impermeable religious categories are an extension of a Western Christian tradition which seeks to promote hegemony and diminish the uniqueness, diversity, and importance of other competing concepts. Recognizing this opens an expansive frontier of performative differences available to Heathenry. Contemporary Heathen practice, positioned within a globalized world, finds itself in a parallel situation to the historic experiences faced by local religions in the Western Roman period, whereby a society focusing on high levels of individualization (when compared to what came before) allowed for a greater flexibility of personal interpretation on a wider religious expression .
Cross-fertilization of cultures provides a creative process; this is as true of the time of the Principate of the Roman-era to the aptly named Information Age of the present . In engaging with the material in this way, by focusing on the individual social agents of religion from a “bottom-up” approach and shifting emphasis away from the predominate centers of geopolitical power, we employ a more holistic understanding through globalist studies, in contrast to narrow discourses focusing on imperialism or colonialism.
Through local and individual interpretation, religions will naturally diverge, despite sharing the same decisive symbols which form the fundamental core of their religious expression. As Harrison puts it, “We all have some sort of religion which will differ from the religion of others, who bear the same label, and everyone’s religion is astoundingly complex.”  This truth, articulated simply, is that Heathendom-as-religion will inevitably diverge based on geographically local, culturally distinct expressions, or simple day-to-day differences in the practitioners which make up the lifeblood of the living system. The growth of these different identities is ultimately the result of syncretic practices that inform their practitioner’s understanding of the religion.
Most often, individuals leverage a purity of tradition or appeal to a historicity of a previous tradition — thus, arguing against syncretic tendencies — in order to mitigate uneasy feelings of self-consciousness, or a pressing sense that the newly assembled identities are contrived . Yet the result is often far more deleterious than intended.
Positioning that individuals lack agency in affecting or imparting their experiences on a cultural system not only echos antiquated views of unchanged continuity of cultures and traditions, it exhibits a form of deprecating nihilism as to one’s position within that human community. Downplaying their contribution to local and regional neighborhoods in favor of a fanciful, non-existent purity of tradition, is an unjust assumption which diminishes the effects an individual may have, ultimately manifesting in erasure along class or social lines. The idea of a pure religion, of a pure culture, in the West has its roots in the Protestant experience, whereby attempts to “syncretize” the churches in the Reformation were accused of nefarious ends. It has consistency with romanticist and scientific racialist influences of the 19th century, positioning an anachronistic ethnocentrism into the development of an anti-Enlightenment nationalism .
When we speak of syncretism within Heathenry we should remember that the understanding of syncretic processes is not uniform. The grounding of one’s collective identity, or interpretation of material, can be understood in equally diverse, equally valid ways . Attempting to enforce purity standards within a religious system as Heathenry, which has as its core fundamental history a myriad of vagaries of valid interpretations, presents a disingenuity of the history of these groups and those that would follow them.
Purity standards are enforced as measures of ideological control on the system of religion and culture, which coalesces power over that system in the hands of an elite that acts against opening the many contributors responsible for any collective identity . Boundedness, continuity, and homogeneity are not objective aspects of social life, but often metaphors used to create an entitivity of a system, and in the discussion of some kind of social or religious absolute Truth, syncretic practices are seen as corruption .
As religious experiences, like all lived experiences, are subjective it is entirely wrong to maintain that syncretic developments are an exercise in conscious eclecticism . The acknowledgements by syncretism of the permeability and fluidity of social life is diametrically opposed to the homogeneity preferred by those who would argue for strict, arbitrary, ideological purity standards.
Ultimately, with syncretism and Heathenry, we should be left with a quote by William Harrison:
“The reality then is that syncretism is a common process that touches every religion. It is so truly universal that we often do not recognize its presence. However, syncretism is a good thing and a necessary survival skill, for both individual persons and for whole religions.” 
 C.F., utilization of Beowulf, following in the comparative steps of scholars like Richard North and Paul Bauschatz.
 Stewart, Charles. “Syncretism as a Dimension of National Discourse in Modern Greece”, in Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis, eds. Charles Stewart and Rosalind Shaw. Routledge: New York, 2005, pg 120.
 Harrison, William H. In Praise of Mixed Religion: The Syncretism Solution in a Multifaith World. McGill-Queen’s University Press: Montreal, 2014, pg. 33.
 Lambropoulos, Vassilis. “Syncretism as Mixture and as Method”, in Journal of Modern Greek Studies, Vol 19. 2001. Pg. 233.
 If defined as a cultural system, see also: Clifford Geertz, “Religion as a Cultural system”.
 Koepping, Klaus-Peter. “Manipulated Identities: Syncretism and Uniequeness of Tradition in Modern, Japanese Discourse”, in Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis, eds. Charles Stewart and Rosalind Shaw. Routledge: New York, 2005, pg 157.
 Richard, H.L. “Religious Syncretism as a Syncretistic Concept”, International Journal of Frontier Missiology, 31:4 Winter 2014, pg. 213.
 Stewart, Charles & Rosalind Shaw in Lambropoulos. pg 232.
 Greenfield, Sidney M and A.F. Droogers. Reinventing Religious Syncretism and Transformation in Africa and the Americas. Rowman & Littlefield, 2001. pg. 25
 Wiktionary contributors, “Heathenry,” Wiktionary, The Free Dictionary, https://en.wiktionary.org/w/index.php?title=Heathenry&oldid=54427301
 For this, see D.J. Conway’s “Norse Magic”, Ed Fitch’s “Rites of Odin”, and Raymond Buckland’s “Saxon Witchcraft” for typical approaches to Germanic-based Wiccan traditions. There is sizable overlap in reconstructionist methodologies between Heathenry and ADF , which muddles this example. However, while there are self-identified Heathen members of ADF, the organization largely identifies its members as ‘Druids’, first and foremost, regardless of their pan-Indo-European group makeup.
 Harrison, pg. 167.
 That is, those developing through the revivification of linguistic and group incidences, eg., “Anglo-Saxon”, “Norse”, “Frankish”, etc. Heathenries.
 Harvey, Graham, “Inventing Paganism”, in The Invention of Sacred Traditions: Sacred Creativity, eds. Stefania Palmisano and Nicola Pannofino, Palgrave Macmillan: Cham. Pg. 283.
 Harrison, pg. 166.
 Martin, Luther H. “Syncretism, Historicism, and Cognition: A Response to Michael Pye.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion Vol. 8 (1996) pg. 220.
 Frankfurter, David. Christianizing Egypt: Syncretism and Local Worlds in Late Antiquity. Princeton University Press: Princeton, 2018, pg. 24.
 I utilize this designation of geographic cultural continuity as the foundation for what we can determine to be modern contemporary paganism, see Michael York’s Pagan Theology and Jordan Paper’s The Deities are Many for further clarifications.
 Warrior, Valerie. Roman Religion, Cambridge University Press: New York, 2006, pg. 11.
 RIB 1102. Altar dedicated to Vernostonus Cocidius, Roman Inscriptions of Britian, Page generated: 2020-06-08 02:23:39, Https://romaninscriptionsofbritain.org/inscriptions/1102
 Lambek, Michael. “Provincializing God? Provocations from an Anthropology of Religion”, in Religion: Beyond a Concept ed, Hent de Vries, Fordham University, 2008, pg. 146.
 Frankfurter, pg. 16.
 Leopold, Anita. “The Architecture of Syncretism” in Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, Vol. 27, No. 3, Retrofitting Syncretism? (Fall, 2011), pg. 417.
 Haeussler, Ralph. “Interpretatio Indigena. Re-Inventing Local Cults in a Global World” in Mediterraneo Antico, XV, 1-2, 2012, pp 143-174. Pg. 146.
 Haeussler, “Interpretatio”, pg. 171.
 Haeussler, “Interpretatio”, pg 146.
 Roymans, Nico. “Hercules and the Construction of a Batavian Identity in the context of the Roman empire” in Ethnic Constructs in Antiquity: The Role of Power and Tradition, eds. Ton Derks & Nico Roymans, Amsterdam University Press, 2009, pg 223.
 Lambropoulos, pg. 232.
 Barb, A.A in Kadmus. True to the Earth: Pagan Political Theology, Gods And Radicals Press: Olympia, Washington, 2018, pg. 83.
 Assmann, Jan. “Translating Gods: Religion as a Factor of Cultural (Un)Translatability”, in Religion: Beyond a Concept ed, Hent de Vries, Fordham University, 2008, pg 149.
 Roussou, Eugenia. “The Syncretic Religious Landscape of Contemporary Greece and Portugal: A Comparative Approach on Creativity Through Spiritual Synthesis”, in Invention of Tradition and Syncretism in Contemporary Religions: Sacred Creativity, eds Palmisano & Pannofino, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017 pg 161.
 As discussed by scholars such as Catherine Tully in “Researching the Past is a Foreign Country” and Mathias Nordvig in “Paganism Past and Ideas of Authenticity”.
 Palmisano, Stefania and Nicola Pannofino. “Conclusion”, in ‘Invention of Tradition and Syncretism in Contemporary Religions: Sacred Creativity’. eds, Palmisano & Pannofino, Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, pg. 224.
 Haeussler, pg. 172.
 Haeussler, pg. 173.
 Harrison, pg. 233.
 Grimes, Ronald L. Deeply Into The Bone: Re-Inventing the Rites of Passage, University of California Press, 200, pg. 209.
 Stewart, pg. 123.
 Stewart, pg. 164.
 Guss, David M. “Syncretic Inventions: ‘Idianness’ and the Day of the Monkey” in Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism: The Politics of Religious Synthesis, eds. Charles Stewart and Rosalind Shaw. Routledge: New York, 2005, pg 137.
 Handler, Richard. Nationalism and the Politics of Culture in Quebec, Madison: WI University of Wisconsin Press, 1988, pg. 8.
 Ringgren, Helmer. “The Problems of Syncretism”. Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis 30 (January 1, 1969), pg.
 Harrison, pg 16-17.