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

Traditionalism and Reconstructionism

To begin explaining the difference between these two approaches within modern paganism, I wish to share my own personal experience which led to my current understanding of Wotanism and of modern paganism in general. I have always had an interest in the occult as well as history and philosophy, but it was only as a teenager that I began to search for my own spiritual path. I trawled through various belief systems that interested me (Wicca, Norse paganism, Satanism etc.) before settling on an entirely atheistic and fatalistic perspective which was rooted in a materialist understanding of the world that came from my adherence to Marxism. It was only after going through the worst year of my life that I began to lose faith in such a hopeless and destructive way of thinking and once again became interested in something that appealed to my own tastes from a cultural perspective. Listening to a lot of pagan black metal music, I started to wonder about the pagan past of my own country, and looked to history to discover what was most relevant for my time and place. The part of Scotland that I live in was inhabited by the Picts in Pre-Christian times, and it was my research about this people in particular that informed my understanding of paganism (with an emphasis on the Brittonic tradition). My interest continued through to university (which provided much more free time for study than high school) and I learned more and more about the period preceding the Picts’ conversion to Christianity, namely the Late Iron Age and Post-Roman Scotland. It was what we know about this period in history that shaped my religious and spiritual beliefs and was the period I wanted to recapture through re-enactment.

However, I began to discover that it was a tricky business to try and retrace the steps of my Pictish ancestors. This mainly has to do with the lack of historical and archaeological information regarding the Picts and how they actually lived. While Germanic lore is fragmentary at best, Celtic mythology is very disconnected in time from the period that I was most interested in. Most of the tales that we know today were not written down until the Late Middle Ages (13th and 14th Centuries) and survive in heavily Christianized forms. This is especially true for Welsh mythology (as there is evidence that some parts of Irish mythology were written down as early as the 8th Century), and so what we know of the Brittonic tradition is noticeably lacking in authentic pagan lore. As for the Picts, no records of mythology or Pre-Christian beliefs survive, except from the very biased and fanciful descriptions by Christian missionaries, such as Adomnán (Ath-ov-nawn) of Iona. This is also where I encountered another problem with being focused on ‘Pictish Reconstructionism’, which was the fact that, as a nation, we retain almost no linguistic and cultural continuity with the Picts. The Picts were closely related to the Britons of Southern Scotland, and it appears that they also spoke a Brittonic language. This means that though they shared many aspects of Brittonic culture, they were considered a distinct ethnic group and likely had their own version of now lost lore. It is not that the Christian Picts were illiterate, their monks were probably also producing as much literature as their contemporaries in England and Ireland. However, it is very likely that all such evidence has been lost or destroyed following the campaigns of Edward I of England and the Protestant Reformation in particular, where monasteries were looted and burned in an effort to undermine their religious authority.

Aside from the loss of almost all literary records of their language (we know that they probably spoke a Brittonic language because of place-names and the names of Pictish kings written in Gaelic records), Pictish became extinct in the centuries following the ascension of the Gaelic aristocracy in Scotland. After the defeat of the high kings of Fortriu (Moray and Ross) by the Vikings, the Pictish kingdoms became dominated by the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riada (which was previously tributary to the kings of Fortriu). The new mormaers intermingled with the Pictish commoners and their language probably replaced Pictish alongside the cultural interactions following Christianization. As the missionaries who converted the Picts were Gaelic, it is likely that it was an important ecclesiastical language alongside Latin (most Ogham stone inscriptions from Scotland are written in Old Irish). And so, Pictish came to be replaced by Gaelic (and was also replaced by Old Norse in the Isles) and does not survive, although modern Scottish Gaelic does retain some features from Pictish that make it distinct from Irish and Manx. Now, even Gaelic is no longer spoken in most of Scotland, as the Lowlanders came to speak Scots (a language descended from Northumbrian Old English) and following the Highland Clearances and dissemination of British mass media, the vast majority of our countrymen speak English as their first language.

And so, it is clear what is problematic when it comes to ‘Celtic Reconstructionism’, which is that you cannot authentically reconstruct traditions in a culture that no longer has a linguistic connection to their pagan forebears. There are those that consider themselves ‘Gaelic Traditionalists’ who claim that they practice the most authentic expression of Gaelic culture, as they are native Gaelic-speakers and usually live in areas where Gaelic is still spoken, such as the Western Isles. One criticism levelled against traditionalists is that they are usually Catholic and therefore do not represent the most accurate practices of the Ancient Celts. However, this is where traditionalism differs from reconstructionism; it is the acknowledgement that the past has gone and that we can never return to Pre-Christian times. ‘Paganism’ is not about recreating the past of our folk, but rather creating a future for our folk. The syncretic mixture between Gaelic culture and Catholicism is a memory of more ancient traditions, but retains the innovations from under the influence of the Church.This reflects the methods used by the Catholic Church to convert people, as they preferred to simply modify existing pagan shrines and customs within a Christian context rather than through forceful conversion that was carried out by the Romans (and later the Franks) on the Continent. This innovation was, in fact, a result of the efforts attributed to Saint Patrick and his disciples; so Catholicism would not have reached the Picts and many other peoples around the world if not for this change of tactic on the part of Irish missionaries, which was subsequently adopted by the Catholic Church at large (such ideas included the concept of Purgatory, which was based on the Celtic belief in reincarnation).

This is typical of Catholic countries around the world, where ancient traditions survive in the veneer of Christianity. This syncretic path is the most authentic traditional expression of the cultures that have been converted to Catholicism, as they retain much of the pagan traditions from their past and continue to practice them today in that form. However, I was raised a nominal Protestant, and such is not the case when it comes to the cultures of Protestant countries. The Reformation was a largely left-brained (skeptical) reaction against the centralized hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and so religion to those who became Protestant was secularized. Rationalism and reductionism are the result of Protestant thinking, and so such cultures are largely devoid of tradition and have become some of the most materialistic in the world. This is largely because, in attempting to throw off the yoke of popery, we cast away what was left of our ancient customs and were left with a hollow, Germanic version of Judaism (which is only tolerable to us in the present because it is so superfluous as a part of our daily lives). However, because of the promotion of liberalism and critical thinking in Protestant lands, we are able to use what was saved from ancient times (such as the Icelandic Eddas and Sagas) and work with existing traditions to perfect our own path. The ways of our ancestors are so irrelevant to most people that they can be practised without fear. It is typical of our secular society that we would try to ‘recreate’ the past because we see it as separate from our own, as their philosophies were not based in liberalism or egalitarianism, and so they cannot truly be practised by those in a Modern mindset. The reason that I began to feel a loss of purpose with reconstructionism was that there was a sense of distance between myself and my ancestors, and I realized that I could not live and breathe as a ‘real’ pagan if I did not carry on their traditions for the sake of my descendants.

Our heritage is not something that we should simply stroll out once in a while as an accessory to our involvement in Modern society, it is a living and continuous flow of energy from our ancestors that works through us for the sake of our peoples’ survival. The interactions with each other and with our native land are what bring forth our customs and traditions. The cycle of the year and the flora and fauna of our environment are the basis of our lore, and it is to ensure the prosperity of our kind that we remember our ancient traditions in order to understand our place in the world and our unique relationship with Nature. We have lost our roots, and so we have been left to fall as a race. However, what has not been destroyed is again being found, as we now have access to more information than ever that can help us rediscover our relationship with the Earth. It is also important to be true to your own heritage and to be honest about who you are. Language is one of the most fundamental connections to our culture that we have, and the acknowledgement of our ancestors’ ethnicities should be a part of one’s self-perception. My own Germanic heritage has led me down the path of Wotanism, though some of my countrymen may prefer the Gaelic Traditionalist or Druidic traditions. Both of these contain more integration with Christianity, though many of our modern, Protestant customs still retain the bare framework of our ancient traditions that can be charged with new spiritual energy from our own personal practice and knowledge of lore.

The old divide between Catholic and Protestant has tended to run along the cultural differences between Celtic and Germanic folk in Western Europe (although the Isle of Lewis, where Gaelic is most heavily spoken, is traditionally Presbyterian, possibly due to their Norse ancestry). However, both of our cultures have been paralyzed by secularism, and even these distinctions are beginning to pass into the morass of multiculturalism. I feel rather estranged from ‘Scottish Nationalism’ because of the strong emphasis on our Gaelic heritage (which I appreciate but it is something which I consider only one part of my heritage), though I can understand those who view ‘British Nationalism’ with suspicion because of its emphasis on the dominant, Germanic culture of our Isles if they feel more inclined towards Catholicism or Druidism. Both paths are meant to exist side-by-side, their engagement does not need to express itself through either religious sectarianism, or by being partitioned into the ‘right-wing/left-wing’ dichotomy politically. It does not matter which one is more prevalent or ‘politically convenient’, what matters is that they form masculine and feminine counterparts intended to guide our folk depending on their personal inclinations (Celtic tradition emphasizes the role of the Goddess, while the Germanic is more of a path to God). Much of this discord is expressed by the friction between many modern men and women, through the disregarding of both divine masculinity and divine femininity. Peoples are not one unified mass, they consist of distinct parts which in turn are parts of the larger human species. When we attempt to reconstruct paganism, we are simply imitating a previous incarnation of our folk. However, when we attempt to recognise our present day plight and the need for spiritual fulfilment, we must learn from all that has happened since the rule of Christianity and its replacement by secularism, and move forward in continuing our traditions through cultural memory and awareness of our ethnic identity.

Wulf Willelmson