World History Connected Home    
 
 
Home List journal issues Table of contents
Printer-friendly format  Article citation        
   

Syncretism

David Lindenfeld

Louisiana State University

 
    Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th edition, 1999) defines syncretism as "the combination of different forms of belief or practice." As such, its application to world history is virtually limitless. However, it is not very helpful as an analytical tool, since it stands to reason that any two groups that encounter each other will experience some kind of combination of old and new customs. The American Heritage Dictionary (4th edition, 2000) gets closer to the actual range of the term's usage when it defines syncretism as "reconciliation or fusion of differing systems of belief, as in philosophy or religion, especially when success is partial or the result is heterogeneous." This still leaves open, however, an enormous range of possibilities. These combinations may superficially resemble one other but still be quite different in terms of their meanings for the people who engage in them. My own view is that syncretism is an umbrella-like term, covering a wide variety of strategies and processes by which cultures with differing beliefs and practices adapt to one another. Indeed, I call my own research project, which is a comparative study of differing indigenous encounters with Christian missionaries since 1800, "Beyond Conversion and Syncretism."1 This does not mean, however, that the term has no use in the classroom, as I will attempt to show. 1
    The word itself has a fascinating if rocky history. It supposedly originated with a practice of the Cretans, as explained by Plutarch (45-125 ce) in his moral teachings on brotherly love:

When differences arise among brothers: we must be careful especially . . . to associate familiarly with our brothers' friends, but avoid and shun all intimacy with their enemies, imitating at this point . . . the practice of Cretans, who, though they often quarreled and warred against each other, made up their differences and united when outside enemies attacked; and this it was which they called "syncretism."2

2
    The term was revived in the Renaissance, when scholars like Erasmus used it to identify the classical admixtures in Christian theology. At this time it still retained its positive connotation. This changed dramatically, however, with the Reformation, when such admixtures came to be viewed as signs of religious impurity. This negative view continued in the Protestant missionary literature through the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth.3 It is alive and well today in some Christian circles, as a cursory search of the Internet will reveal. Meanwhile, however, the advent of anthropology shifted the connotation once again from negative to positive, as it came to be associated with cultural and linguistic mixture in general (and probably at some level with the United States' self-image as a melting pot).4 This opened the floodgates to a huge variety of uses, making the term more or less interchangeable with "acculturation," "hybridization," "creolization," "bricolage," etc. Once again, this raises problems of precision: in each case, questions remain to be answered as to how such mixings occur, whether they vary in time and place, whether they are intentional or unintentional, etc. In the interest of manageability, many scholars—though by no means all—prefer to restrict "syncretism" to religious interactions.
3

Syncretism from Above and Below
 
    As a starting point, I find it useful to distinguish between "syncretism from above" and "syncretism from below."5 The former refers to conscious decisions of religious authorities to incorporate native elements in their attempt to bring new adherents into the fold. One example would be the policies of the Franciscan missionaries in sixteenth-century Mexico, who not only learned the Nahuatl language of the Aztecs, but deliberately imitated the style of Nahuatl religious writings in their sermons. In addition, they built churches on sites of former Aztec temples, which then continued to serve as places of pilgrimage. One such site later became associated with the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, although its actual existence is doubtful.6 4
    Syncretism from above may also be said to characterize the policies of the Roman Catholic Church since the Second Vatican Council. The pronouncements of Pope John Paul II are quite striking in this respect. Addressing a Native American audience in Phoenix, Arizona in 1987, he said:
The early encounter between your traditional cultures and the European way of life was a harsh and painful reality for your peoples . . . I encourage you, as Native people . . . to preserve and keep alive your cultures, your languages, the values and customs which have served you well in the past and which provide a solid foundation for the future . . . These things benefit not only yourselves but the entire human family. This sharing of cultural riches must include the Church native cultures are called to participate in and enhance.7
5
    This has led, for example, to the deliberate incorporation of Native American motifs in church architecture, such as a church in the shape of a tipi on Manitoulin Island, Ontario—though it is worth adding that such efforts were not always to the liking of the parishioners, who sometimes felt uncomfortable with the mixture of styles.8 It is also important to note that such syncretisms are as a rule tightly controlled: it is the church which decides what elements to incorporate and which to leave out. 6
    Syncretism from below refers to ways in which people incorporate elements from other religions more or less spontaneously, whether consciously or not. Typically this occurs when a less powerful group encounters the religion of a more powerful group; syncretism thus becomes a means of adaptation and self-preservation. The religions of the African slaves in the new world yield a host of examples, such as Candomblé in Brazil, Vodoun in Haiti, and Santería in Cuba, which I will discuss here.9 7
    Many of the Africans who came to Cuba as slaves from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries were of Yoruba origin, i.e. the people of what is today southwestern Nigeria. They brought with them an elaborate pantheon of deities and mythologies to go with them—not to mention practices of divination, worship, and spirit possession. These deities were called orisha, who served as intermediaries between the people and the supreme God Olodumare, who was considered remote and beyond worship directly. Once in Cuba, these Africans were baptized as Roman Catholics, as required by Spanish law. The slaves found in the veneration of Catholic saints a bridge between the Christianity they obligingly practiced on Sunday mornings and the Yoruba rites they practiced on Sunday evenings or whenever their free time allowed. They devised a set of correspondences between the two sets of intermediaries. True, their enslavement necessitated certain adjustments, such as moving their orisha feast days to coincide with Catholic ones. But what is remarkable is the extent to which this Santería did not become Catholic. The African-derived religion retained its integrity. The corresponding saints are there almost as an afterthought: the reasons for their inclusion have less to do with their significance within Catholicism than with their association to a significant Yoruba belief or myth. For example, Ogun, a great warrior, symbolizing force and energy, is also the god of iron, patron of blacksmiths. His Catholic counterpart is no less than St. Peter, whose only resemblance to Ogun is that he holds the metal keys to the kingdom of heaven. Another popular orisha is Ogun's brother Shango, god of thunder and lightning, described in one source as "a womanizer, pugnacious, hard-drinking, brave, fearless, adventurous, given to defiance and challenges, proud of his manly attractions and very conscious of his strength and virile beauty."10 As a saint, however, he androgynously becomes St. Barbara, whose father was struck dead by lightning after beheading her for becoming a Christian. 8

The Pitfalls of Syncretism
 
    Such examples should alert us to the distortions that are likely to arise when we employ the notion of syncretism. One of these is to confuse what appears to be a syncretic combination to an American or European observer with a very different meaning it has for the non-Westerner who actually practices it. A good example would be the West African Aladura (praying) churches which arose among the Yoruba in Nigeria between the First and Second World Wars.11 These were years marked by a number of traumatic events, such as the great influenza epidemic of 1918, an outbreak of bubonic plague in 1925, and the Great Depression of the 1930s, not to mention rapid urbanization and concomitant social change. In these circumstances there arose a number of Christian charismatic prophetic leaders, promising healing and overcoming of adversity through prayer. They attracted masses of followers away from the mainstream Christian churches. Faith healing involved a rejection of Western medicine, which might appear as a return to traditional ways; but the Aladuras equally rejected the healing rituals of the orishas and urged their followers to burn any signs of such idolatry. If they emphasized certain aspects of worship such as dream interpretation and visions which might appear to be more African than Christian, they could respond by pointing to numerous passages in the Old Testament which sanctioned such practices. An authority on the Aladura, J.D.Y. Peel, rejects the label of syncretism as applied to them. At the same time, Peel points to another phenomenon that occurred at the same time which can be regarded as syncretic (though not as widespread as the Aladuras): the so-called Ethiopian churches, which preached that each culture had its own tools to reach the kingdom of God, and that African Christians should not reject the intermediaries of their traditional religion as a means to this end.12 This illustrates an important point about religious cross-cultural relationships in general, namely that any one society will adopt a number of different adaptive strategies in varying degrees, which involve different types of combinations, a fact which renders a single label such as syncretism all the more misleading. 9
    The spectacle of the Aladuras throwing their old fetishes, charms, and statues into the flames brings to mind another pitfall of syncretism: the fact that novel religious combinations may sometimes work not to bring two religions together, but to drive them apart, by sweeping away large portions of preexisting beliefs and practices on either side. A good example is the great Taiping Rebellion in China (1851-1864).13 This is a movement that may legitimately be called syncretistic, at least superficially. Its originator, Hong Xiuquan, had studied the Confucian classics for some twenty years in preparation for the civil service examinations, which he failed four times. In 1837, after one of these failures, he experienced an extended vision of being in heaven facing a heavenly father who ordered him to return to earth to slay the evil demons there. Much of the imagery in this vision, as he later recounted it, is comprehensible in terms of the Chinese classics and folk culture with which Hong was familiar. In 1843, however, he read a Christian missionary tract which convinced him that the heavenly father of his vision was Jehovah, and that he himself was Christ's younger brother. The Taiping ideology which developed thereafter was based on a very rudimentary understanding of Christianity, which Hong had only studied for about a month; thus many elements of Christian teaching were left out, such as the idea of Christ as redeemer of sins.14 There was more of an emphasis on the Old Testament, such as the moral teachings of the Ten Commandments, which Hong found consonant with the basics of Confucian morality. But the injunctions to have no other gods before Jehovah and to make no graven images unleashed an anti-idolatry campaign that accompanied the Taipings wherever they conquered. One of Hong's first acts upon assuming his new calling was to smash the tablets to Confucius in the school where he taught (a gesture to be imitated, incidentally, forty years later by a youthful admirer of Hong who would go on to become China's most famous Christian, Sun Yat-Sen).15 Later the Taipings also destroyed images and temples to local divinities throughout the area they occupied, including Buddhist and Taoist shrines.  10
    The exclusionary character of the movement, I suspect, had much to do with its eventual failure: a set of Confucian practices minus Confucius himself was unacceptable to the gentry and bureaucracy and mobilized support for the Qing dynasty that would otherwise have been lacking. And a Christianity with more than one begotten son of God was equally repulsive to the British and French, who sided with the Qing against the Taiping. Nevertheless, the family resemblances between the Taiping and other militant religious movements of reform—Weber likened it to Cromwell's model army—is unmistakable. The emphasis on purity, asceticism, and concentration of spirituality in a few powerful religious symbols all point, however, to a mindset that is just the opposite of what we usually associate with syncretism.16 11
    A further pitfall of syncretism is that the name is sometimes used to refer to a widespread type of cross-religious adaptation that is in fact just the opposite of mixing and merging: the simultaneous but separate practice of two religions. This is sometimes called "mosaic syncretism," but the term "dual religious participation," coined by the anthropologist William K. Powers, is probably less confusing.17 12
    Powers is a student of the Lakota Sioux Indians, a nation which illustrates well the varieties of adaptive strategies that can be tried when a culture and its religion are under deadly attack, as was the case with the North American Plains Indians in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. One of these strategies, as is well known, was the Ghost Dance movement of the late 1880s. Performing the dance, so the participants believed, would bring back the buffalo and the plentiful life which the whites had taken away. It is sometimes labeled syncretic because of some elements of Christian imagery that entered into the Ghost Dance belief. The prophet Wovoka of the Paiutes in Nevada, whose vision was the source of the movement, had been exposed to Christianity when he worked for an American rancher. Some, although not all, accounts portrayed him as Christ returned (despite Wovoka's own disclaimers to this effect).18 13
    The label is misleading, however, in that the dance itself was Indian in inspiration and form. The fact that it was adopted by the Sioux clearly had less to do with the Christian elements than with the fact that their own major annual ritual, the Sun Dance, had been banned since 1883, and that poverty and desperation, due to crop failures, epidemics, and a cut in rations all reached a crisis point in 1890.19 The movement helped precipitate the tragic massacre at Wounded Knee, extinguishing the hopes that the Ghost Dance had raised. At the same time, many Lakota were turning to Christianity as brought by missionaries, so that by the mid-twentieth century virtually all could claim affiliation with one church or another.20 Powers emphasizes the various material and social advantages that church membership brought with it: the church could be a source of needed food and clothing, it helped to preserve the language and clan structure, and it provided opportunities for intertribal meetings in the form of annual religious convocations which could draw as many as 10,000 participants.21 These convocations obviously also served as surrogates for the banned Sun Dance ceremonies. There is abundant evidence that many Sioux did not merely participate as a matter of lip service, but took Christianity to heart. Yet, at the same time, they continued to perform their own religious ceremonies away from the eyes of the missionaries. Even when the attitudes towards traditional ceremonies became more tolerant in the 1960s and 70s, the dual pattern continued. Thus, according to Marla Powers (William's wife and fellow anthropologist) writing in 1986, the Oglala Sioux observe christenings, marriages, and the Christian religious holidays, but may also visit a medicine man for help in curing an affliction.22 Of course, there are overtly syncretic combinations among the Lakota as well, such as the so-called peyote cult, more properly known as the Native American Church, which originated in the Southwest. But according to Marla Powers, it probably embraced fewer than 5% of the Oglala Lakota.23 There are also examples of post-Vatican II syncretism from above: The Jesuit priest and anthropologist Paul Steinmetz not only introduced the Sioux sacred pipe into the mass, but also obtained a papal blessing for the Native American Church in 1975.24 14
    The practice of dual religious participation is quite widespread in many cultures, and is found in other cases we have discussed, such as Santería. Peel also finds it among the Yoruba in Nigeria, not so much among the Aladuras as among those who attend the missionary churches.25 I suspect that future research will reveal many more cases. It is also clear that peoples who practice dual participation do not necessarily see it as inconsistent or incoherent. Rather they embrace a belief in convergence of religious traditions: that different spirits and traditions are simply different manifestations of a single universal God. This may be said to be one final distinct strategy that falls under the syncretist umbrella. Different spirits do not need to be fused or merged to be acknowledged as emanations of a single Supreme Being.26 15

Uses in the Classroom
 
    Despite all the qualifications mentioned above, I shamelessly use the term syncretism in my college-level freshman survey course of world history since 1500, where religious interactions are thrown in together with all the political, economic, social, and ecological material that is to be covered. I also, however, have an upper-level undergraduate seminar on indigenous encounters with missionary Christianity, wherein I seek to attune students to the different strategies and processes outlined above. I believe this could also be done in a thematic unit at the secondary level. There is a wealth of material beyond what was discussed here: the ancient Mediterranean world is full of borrowings and mergings; Hinduism may also be viewed in this light; and there is material on Buddhist-Shinto syncretism in Japan.27 This is an area in which much exciting research remains to be done. 16

 

Biographical Note: David Lindenfeld is Professor of History at Louisiana State University. Trained as a European historian with specialty in intellectual history, he has been teaching modern world history since 1998 at the freshman level and has since added undergraduate and graduate seminars. He is engaged in a comparative study of varying indigenous encounters and responses to missionary Christianity in the modern era, a project he regards as a collaborative effort.


 

1 See David Lindenfeld, "Indigenous Encounters with Christian Missionaries in China and West Africa, 1800-1920: A Comparative Study," Journal of World History 16 no. 3 (2005), 327-69.

2 Plutarch, Moralia, trans. W.C. Helmbold 14 vols. (London: William Heinemann, 1939), vol. 6, 313.

3 For a review of this literature, see Carl Starkloff, A Theology of the In-Between: the Value of Syncretic Process (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2002), Appendix 1.

4 Rosalind Shaw and Charles Stewart, "Introduction: Problematizing Syncretism," in Charles Stewart and Rosalind Shaw, eds., Syncretism/Anti-Syncretism. The Politics of Religious Synthesis (London: Routledge, 1994), 5-6.

5 Shaw and Stewart, "Problematizing Syncretism," 21-22. They emphasize that these are not mutually exclusive categories.

6 Charles E. Dibble, "The Nahuatlization of Christianity," in Munro S. Edmonson, ed. Sixteenth-Century Mexico. The Work of Sahag¤n, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974), 227; Louise M. Burkhart, "The Cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Mexico," in Gary H. Gossen, ed., South and Meso-American Spirituality (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1993), 207-09.

7 Quoted in Theresa S. Smith, "The Church of the Immaculate Conception. Inculturation and Identity among the Anishnaabeg of Manitoulin Island," in Lee Irwin, ed., Native American Spirituality. A Critical Reader (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 146.

8 Smith, "Church of the Immaculate Conception," 153.

9 On the following, see Joseph M. Murphy, Santería. An African Religion in Cuba (Boston: Beacon Press, 1988).

10 Miguel Barnet, Afro-Cuban Religions, trans. Christine Renata Ayorinde (Princeton: Markus Wiener, 2001), 47.

11 On the following, see J.D.Y. Peel, Aladura: A Religious Movement among the Yoruba (London: Oxford University Press, 1968), and "Syncretism and Religious Change," Comparative Studies in Society and History, 10, no. 2 (January 1968), 121-41.

12 Peel, "Syncretism," 134-9.

13 On the Taiping see Jonathan Spence, God's Chinese Son (New York: Norton, 1996); Vincent Shih, The Taiping Ideology (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1967).

14 Thus Shih's detailed discussion of the sources of Taiping ideology devotes seventeen pages to Christianity and 107 pages to the Chinese classics!

15 Harold Z. Schiffrin, Sun Yat-sen and the Origins of the Chinese Revolution (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968), 15.

16 See Walter E.A. van Beek, ed. The Quest for Purity. Dynamics of Puritan Movements (Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 1988). The collection includes studies of Calvin's Geneva, the New England Puritans, the Wahhabi movement, the Fulani Jihad, the Iranian Revolution, as well as the Taiping and Communism.

17 On mosaic syncretism, see Murphy, Santería, 121. On dual religious participation, see William K. Powers, Beyond the Vision. Essays on American Indian Culture (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 95-101. See also Raymond J. DeMallie and Douglas R. Parks, "Introduction," in DeMallie and Parks, eds., Sioux Indian Religion. Tradition and Innovation (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1987), 14.

18 James Mooney, The Ghost-Dance Religion and the Sioux Outbreak of 1890 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965), 15, 40.

19The family resemblances between the Ghost Dance and the other Native American prophetic dance movements is brought out by Gloria A. Young, "Intertribal Religious Movements," in William C. Sturtevant, ed., Handbook of North American Indians, 17 vols. (Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1978—), vol. 13, pt. 2, 996-1010.

20 Gordon Macgregor, Warriors without Weapons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1946), 93.

21 Mary E. Cochran, Dakota Cross-Bearer. The Life and World of a Native American Bishop (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000), 19.

22 Marla N. Powers, Oglala Women. Myth, Ritual, and Reality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), 185-88. The Oglala are a branch of the Lakota, concentrated at Pine Ridge Reservation in southwestern South Dakota.

23 Marla Powers, Oglala Women, 89. See also Emerson Spider, Sr. "The Native American Church of Jesus Christ", in DeMallie and Parks, Sioux Indian Religion, 189-209.

24 Paul B. Steinmetz, S.J. Pipe, Bible and Peyote Among the Oglala Lakota (Dissertation, University of Stockholm, 1980), 37-8, 87-8. William Powers, in Beyond the Vision, 99, disputes the term "syncretism" as applied here; he sees it rather as a strategy by the Catholic Church to gain new converts.

25 Murphy, Santería, 121-2; Peel, "Syncretism and Religious Change," 129.

26 Murphy, Santería, 123-4; Peel, "Syncretism and Religious Change," 137; Marla Powers, Oglala Women, 191.

27 For further references in these areas, see C. Scott Littleton, "Syncretism," in New Dictionary of the History of Ideas, ed. Maryanne Cline Horowitz, 6 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2005), vol. 5, 2288-90. The entry by Carsten Colpe in the Encyclopedia of Religion, ed. Mircea Eliade, 14 vols. (New York: Macmillan, 1987), 14: 218-27 is translated from the German and more difficult to follow, although valuable particularly for ancient history. The bibliography refers mostly to works in German or French.

 

 
Home | List Journal Issues | Table of Contents
© 2008 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
Content in World History Connected is intended for personal, noncommercial use only. You may not reproduce, publish, distribute, transmit, participate in the transfer or sale of, modify, create derivative works from, display, or in any way exploit the World History Connected database in whole or in part without the written permission of the copyright holder.


Terms and Conditions of Use