On the Importance of Syncretism

One of the main differences between orthodoxy and eclecticism in religion is the willingness to incorporate other belief systems into a spiritual practice. While orthodoxy emphasizes purity of dogma and rigidity in structure, in more mystical or folkish religions there is more of a tendency to acknowledge similarities with the religions of other peoples and adapting to changes brought about by migration and trade. While there is nothing wrong with a more defined and specific approach per se, it does limit one’s perception and the failure to give value to the insights of others may hinder understanding of one’s own belief system. A more syncretic approach is becoming necessary in response to globalization and the erosion of traditional religion in the West. While Christianity has largely lost relevance among Westerners at the same time as the expansion of Islam in our lands, it makes sense to proudly defend our traditions from all throughout our history, not just those from the time before Christianity.

Though we carry the torch that has been passed down to us from our ancestors within our genetics and our culture, and in many ways we embody our ancestors, we are not living under the same conditions as they did. This means that our forebears had more access to their own local traditions in the form of skills passed down through generations, as well as folk-binding ceremonies such as the ceilidh (an event traditionally hosted by the local storyteller, now more centred around Highland dancing). However, many of us today have lost touch with our roots in the whirling confusion that is living in a Modern multicultural society, and so we need to be less picky about what can be used to further the spiritual well-being of our folk.

As opposed to the Judeo-Christian Europe of the Middle Ages (where the Church engaged in pogroms against ‘heretical’ sects, who were usually practising some form of Gnostic Christianity), the pagan Europeans had a much more relaxed attitude towards the cults of other peoples. While the adoption of Celtic, Teutonic and various other European pantheons by the Romans helped to strengthen their state religion, it also led to the eventual decline of paganism in the Roman Empire. As Asian and African cults (such as those of the goddesses Cybele and Isis) were also incorporated into Roman religion, they undermined the patriarchal vigour of the Greco-Roman belief systems and allowed for Judeo-Christianity to take over the empire. And this is where the danger of syncretism lies; in order for this method to work, a belief system must be compatible with another in a way that there is no contradiction due to a common spiritual understanding.

More often than not, this is only possible with other spiritual teachings that derive from the same racial root as the one you may wish to supplement. It is no good trying to adapt the beliefs of foreign races into one’s own religion, as the cultural assumptions will differ and lead to a misunderstanding of symbolic meanings. For example, the wolf or dog is considered a noble (if not somewhat dangerous) animal in Aryan and Turkic cultures, and is the guardian animal for many tribes among these two races. However, in Semitic cultures, the dog is seen in the same light as the jackal, a lowly creature who is shunned and considered unclean. Attempting to reconcile such contradictory symbolism will only lead to confusion about the role of parables and symbols in religion, leading to its eventual abandonment.

However, it is now the case that many of our native European customs are so intertwined not only with each other, but also with Christianity, that it is necessary to admit to what works and what doesn’t with regards to carrying tradition. During the Dark Ages, Gnostic Christianity successfully merged with Celtic paganism in order to compose what has become known as ‘Celtic Christianity’. In many cases, the folklore and mythology from Medieval Ireland and Wales are so heavily shaped by this post-Roman culture that it is now difficult to separate the two, making the attempt to reconstruct a ‘pure’ form of Celtic paganism fruitless. Even with regards to Anglo-Saxon paganism, we only have fragmentary evidence for their specific spiritual practices, and most of this comes from after their conversion to Catholicism. In this way, the poetry of Anglo-Saxon England is no less ‘authentic’ despite the Christian overtones, because the original tradition is preserved underneath the symbolism reflecting that time period. It is only because of the preservation of Norse mythology in Iceland that we know more about Teutonic paganism than its Celtic counterpart, although even the works of Snorri Sturluson (the Icelandic priest responsible for preserving the Eddas and Egil’s saga) are written from a Christian perspective.

Nowhere is the need for a combination of cultural motifs in contemporary paganism more apparent than here in Scotland, where it is difficult to ignore either our Celtic or Teutonic heritage. The British peoples are known to be mongrels, yet we still preserve a specific blend of traditions that is unique to both us and the Irish. Specifically, they do well to compliment each other as embodying the masculine and feminine (or patriarchal and matriarchal) forms of religion, with the Teutonic tradition as the former and Celtic culture as the latter. The head of the Teutonic pantheon is Allfather Wotan, who values the manly pursuits of warfare and rune magic, in addition to encouraging exploration and adventure.

While Wotan’s Celtic cognate, Lugh, is also the chief deity in Irish mythology, there is a strong emphasis on the cult of Danu (‘Mother Earth’ equivalent to Nerthuz) and more focus is placed on trade and shamanistic ‘woman’s magic’. Together, their worship forms the basis of the solar and lunar festivals; Yule, Ostara, Litha and Winter Finding (marking the solstices and equinoxes) among the agricultural Teutons, and Samhain, Imbolc, Beltane and Lughnasadh in the Gaelic pastoral tradition, marking the beginning of each new season. It is for this reason that I consider Wotanism and all other folkish forms of paganism as the European variant of Aryan religion. We do not need to have our religion specific to one ethnic group or another, as long as the mixture is between cultures with a shared origin so that each can represent two sides of the same coin. While the main source of pagan lore comes from Norse mythology, there is also much to be learned from the cultures of all Aryan peoples, from Ireland to India and from Russia to Spain.

Having said that, care must be used when dealing with the religions of Iranian and Indian cultures. Though the peoples of Central and Southern Asia share much in common genetically and culturally with Europeans, they have also been affected by the presence of indigenous non-Aryans (such as the Dravidians of India) and by incursions from peoples like the Arabs and Turks. This means that while the esoteric meanings of Zoroastrianism or Hinduism can be adapted and applied to European paganism, the more exoteric cultural aspects (such as traditional cuisine or music) may be more alien and inappropriate for blending with our own culture (for example, the presence of figs and dates in Middle-Eastern folklore, whose symbolic meaning is difficult to apply in temperate Europe where they don’t grow).

An example of a successful cross-cultural interpretation is with the story of Wotan and Gunnlod. Wotan wished to drink the sacred Odrerir (‘mead of poetry’) held by the giant, Kvasir. To achieve this, Wotan slept with his daughter Gunnlod for three nights, each night turning into a snake and slithering up the mountain to drink the mead. On the third night he was caught by Kvasir and had to turn into an eagle to escape back to Asgard. This symbology can be interpreted as a metaphor for the practice of Kundalini yoga, with the mountain representing the body and Wotan as a serpent representing the astral ‘snake’ (Shakti in Hinduism) that travels up the spine. The drinking of Odrerir and changing into an eagle is representative of the ecstatic state achieved by channelling this power, and this is a feature of Wotan’s quest for wisdom which serves as an example for his followers.

As a reflection of my mixed ethnic heritage, I choose to outwardly revere the gods of the Teutonic pantheon, while at the same time studying Druidism and other forms of Celtic and Aryan mysticism. This feels like a natural state and it is similarly the case for many of us in Britain. While there is a stronger Teutonic presence in somewhere like England, and in turn a stronger Celtic influence in a place like Ireland, the aspect of this mixture is what gives us our own unique sense of identity. It is obvious that most will swing more one way or the other, but the dual nature of each aspect is always present, and has been for millennia.

While the Nordic character of the East coast has been shaped by the first inhabitants who crossed the lost land of Doggerland in the North Sea, down to the Aryans and later Anglo-Saxons and Norsemen, the West has been more thoroughly colonized by folk from lands facing the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. It is because of this that it is necessary to draw from a larger pool of culture, as the demise of Western civilization has stripped our heritage down to its roots, and it is more pragmatic at this time to revive our local customs in addition to taking inspiration from religions far and wide. Our blood and spirit runs much deeper than nation or language, as the source has and will remain for as long as we remain.

Wulf Willelmson

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