Thursday, November 27, 2008

Syncretic Traditions (Happy Thanksgiving!)

Once there were some Native Americans, and they had this harvest festival. Then they made some new friends who had something to celebrate - and voilà!

The world is full of syncretic traditions. These are traditions that once belonged to separate groups that then become shared or combined. What fascinates me is the various ways in which the combinations result in the original traditions being reinterpreted and taking on different meanings.

Remember Zeus, and how he beat Kronus and then decided to share power with his brothers and sisters? Remember how many wives he had, and how jealous Hera was (even though she wasn't his first wife)? Once I heard it explained that Zeus' wives explained how the Greek pantheon took on the religions surrounding it. Female deities of conquered peoples became "wives" of Zeus, thus giving them a place in the mythology as a whole. Interesting enough that I'm tempted to go research it...

Have you ever heard that the population of Japan is about 75% Buddhist and 75% Shinto (not precise figures)? Well, Buddhism is highly syncretic, and so lots of Shinto gods have been integrated into its system; at the same time, many Japanese believe in both religions at once. The two are not mutually exclusive. Coming from the Judeo-Christian background as I do, I found this surprising and fascinating when I first learned of it.

Christianity has done some conquering in its time, and some reinterpreting. I think immediately of Halloween and the dark flavor that Christianity laid over it - but also of the timing of Christmas, which so closely matches the time of the winter solstice.

When you're doing your worldbuilding, consider the religious history of your world. If there are two or more conflicting traditions, don't make it too simple - consider how they interpret one another and where they just might overlap. Also consider that a religion that denies the validity of all others is not the only option, even in our world. You might just find a way to deepen yours in a fascinating and unexpected way.


  1. Some religions are orthodox - right beliefs - while others are orthoprax - right practices. In orthoprax religion you are justified by adherence to laws and correct performance of rituals. You burn incense to the dead emperors using the proper formula; you did not light a fire during the Sabbath. I can easily see how two sets of practices might be blended. But again, maybe not.

    In orthodox religion one is justified by what one believes. E.g., whether you believe that man has synderesis (conscience) and can therefore reach correct conclusions through right reason. So, whereas an orthoprax might refrain from eating pig meat and an orthodox refrain from meat on Fridays, the first does so because that's what we do while the second must have a reason. The first regards the pig itself as haram or ritually unclean; but the second sees no harm in the meat itself, but abstains at specific times as a remembrance.

    Meanwhile, the orthodox might worry excessively over the nature of the hypostatic union, earning puzzled looks from the orthoprax, who says, "Dude, you don't have to understand. God and the universe are beyond human understanding. Just follow the rules."

    I suspect that it is more difficult to blend two orthodoxies than to blend to orthopraxies.
    + + +
    The New Year was once celebrated on 25 March. It was fitting that the New Era begin on 25 March, and so that was chosen as the Feast of the Incarnation. Since babies are born nine months after being incarnated, 25 December became the Feast of the Nativity. That this fell close to the winter solstice was coincidental. March 25 remained the turn of "The Year of the Lord" throughout most of medieval Europe, even though the Civil Year (Year III of Henry IV) began on Jan 1. Some countries flipped the AD on 25 December, and some did so on Civil New Year. Thus it was possible to travel from year to year as you went from country to country.

  2. This is a very interesting distinction, Mike. Thank you for acquainting me with it. You're probably right about the difficulty of blending orthodoxies. I suspect this is one of those cases where previous practices are reinterpreted as evil or unclean. Thank you for pointing out the details on the scheduling of Christmas. I really appreciate it.

  3. It would be very difficult to blend Islam and Christianity, since orthodox Christianity holds Jesus to be God Incarnate and Islam denies that this is possible. There is also a problem with "God is One" versus "God is One, but also Three." I'm not saying that it can't be done, but it would be hard. A "blend" that held Christ to be God, and Mohammed as his later messenger would be a form of Christianity. One that held Christ to be a great prophet, but not the Son of God would be called Islam - since they already believe that.

    Buddhism + Islam smacks into the no idols thingie in Islam; and Buddhism + Christianity disagree on whether one should withdraw from the world or engage the world. On things like that, middle grounds are hard to imagine.

    OTOH, Zen, which is an approach, not a content, is perfectly compatible. Merton famously called himself a Zen Catholic. And Hinduism is eclectic enough to absorb everything else, although the result is called "Hinduism." :-D In Chennai there are roadside shrines to Ganesha -- and the Blessed Virgin; and Hindus will attend the Catholic Mass at the St. Thomas basilica -- and kiss the statues. (Well, kiss their fingers and touch the statues.)

  4. Actually, in Japan, some people will celebrate births in the Shinto fashion, marriages with a Christian-style ceremony, and deaths with Buddhist ceremonies. It's definitely an interesting mix of practices.

  5. Yes, practices. Easiest thing. Among the Christians, as different folk were converted, they brought their folk customs with them. The Romans used to give gifts and make merry during the Saturnalia; the Germans used to erect decorated trees on important occasions; the Irish celebrated the New Year [Samhain] at sunset on the last day of October.

    But while the practice may continue after the pagan is sprinkled, the *content* or *meaning* will be different. The decorated "Christmas tree" doesn't mean the same thing culturally as the decorated trees of the German Folk.

    Tendentious folk like to say that the Christians "stole" these practices. Doesn't seem to occur to them that the people practicing them became Christians, and so began to look at them in a different light. (Remember, practice was secondary to beliefs in Christianity.)

    Islam appears to be less tolerant of such things; but even there some practices will be described as "more Arab than muslim." But, e.g., no trace of Zoroastrian practice survived in Persian Islam, so far as I know. There is a tendency to recognize "saints" and honor their graves in Syrio-Egyptian Islam; but the Wahhabists are stamping that out. (They have even obliterated the graves of Mohammed's family in the Hijaz!)

  6. Great conversation.

    IIRC, the Persian New Year, a Zoroastrian holiday, has resisted all Islamic attempts to quash it.

    On a different note, I've read that Indonesia's Islam is about as watered-down as could be. They converted more via merchants than armies, and were quite primitive to begin with.

    A few spec-fic novels have invented truly alien religions. One of my favorites is found in Kay Kenyon's "The Braided World." Weird physiology, matching beliefs.

    PS: Juliette, are you checking this domain's email? I know you've been busy! Just wondering if you've had time to install AIM. (Ideally it takes just a few minutes.)