Syncretism is defined as any attempt to reconcile disparate—and sometimes opposite—beliefs and practices. It represents a blending of schools of thought and is often associated with establishing analogies between two or more discrete or formerly separate traditions. Most academic studies of syncretism focus on the blending of religion and myths from various cultures. Viewed positively, syncretism seeks underlying unity in what appears to be multiplicity and diversity. It is common in language, literature, music, the arts, technology, politics, social organization and kinship, and economics. Anthropologist Jonathan Friedman has also suggested that the term syncretism may be useful in the study of social organizations, material culture, and processes of localization and globalization. Viewed negatively, syncretism is a contentious concept and has undergone many transformations. Among some religious leaders, for example, the term syncretism often implies impurity or contamination. Disagreements center on the word itself and on the history of its applications.
Contemporary celebrations of Christmas, Easter, and Halloween offer examples of syncretism in practice. Syncretism is not a new phenomenon. The ancient Romans adopted pagan Yule traditions that eventually made it into Christmas celebrations (Christmas trees, Yule logs, and the like), and Roman Catholics in Central and South America integrated elements from indigenous Latin American and North American religious traditions.
The Ancient Greek prefix “syn” means “with” and the word “krasis” means “mixture.” Thus, the term “synkrasis” meant “a mixture or compound.” The Greek words GvyKprjTiapdC, (synkretismos) and avyKpririCstv (synkretizen) do not appear in classical literature until the time of Plutarch (AD 45-125). Plutarch used a political meaning of the term in an essay titled “On Brotherly Love” (Peri Philadelphias), which appeared as a chapter in his Moralia. In searching for the origin of the word “syncretism,” Plutarch claimed to have found an example of syncretism in the Cretans, who reconciled their differences and came together in an alliance whenever they were faced with an external threat. He labeled this coming together as “their so-called ‘syncretism’.” For Plutarch, syncretism was not only a testament to political expediency but also fostered peace and brotherly love. Greek culture was a mixture of Persian, Anatolian, Egyptian, and later Etruscan-Roman elements into an overall Hellenic framework.
Throughout the 19th century, overt syncretism in folk beliefs was seen as a strong indication of the cultural acceptance of alien or earlier traditions. By the end of the 19th century, however, identities were no longer predicated on the existence of continuous and immutable cultures, and the concept of syncretism came to the forefront largely because it blurred local distinctions—a characteristic that made it useful for the rulers of multicultural nation-states. At the same time, the rejection of syncretism or “anti-syncretism” in the name of purity or orthodoxy helped to legitimize a desire for cultural unity.
Among American anthropologists, the term syncretism is most closely associated with Melville J. Herskovits, who is best known for his research on the survival of African cultural traits among blacks in the Americas. Herskovits advocated an appreciation of what he called “syncretized Africanisms” and focused on various types of “acculturation” in order to address more general issues of culture contact. Syncretism is apparent in New World religions such as Brazilian Candomble, Haitian vodun, and Cuban Santeria. These religions analogized various Yoruba and other African gods and selected Roman Catholic saints. Perhaps the most syncretized New World religion is Brazilian Umbanda, combining African deities, French spiritualism (Kardecismo), local aboriginal spirits, African and Hindu deities, and North American aboriginal leaders.
In The African Religions of Brazil, Roger Bastide attempted to account for syncretism by stressing historical processes like conquest and migration. He traced the various ways in which African, European, and aboriginal religions have come together in what he termed an “interpenetration” of civilizations. Rather than offering a psychological explanation, Bastide focused on groups of people who were differentiated by sex, social class, and age. By contrast, Stephen D. Glazier’s research on the Spiritual Baptists in Trinidad focused on individual Baptist leaders and their practice of borrowing rituals from a variety of religious traditions but keeping these borrowed rituals separate in time and space. According to Glazier, one outcome of this process is a religion that is marked not so much by syncretism as by a dynamic juxtaposition.
Studies of syncretism in South Africa have focused on African Independent Churches (AICs). Anthropologist J. Y. D. Peel cogently argued that syncretism was not central to AICs because these churches represented reinterpretations of Christianity but never encouraged a mixture of Christianity and tribal elements.
In general, anthropologists have regarded the term “syncretism” favorably. Yet Stewart and Shaw report a growing uneasiness with the term among anthropologists who have been influenced by postmodernism. A major contribution of anthropologists has been to demonstrate that syncretism is not inevitable. It is possible, for example, for two groups to live in close proximity and largely ignore each other. For this reason, anthropologists find it both necessary and informative to examine syncretism with respect to relations of power. In Syncretism and the Commerce of Symbols, Goren Aijmer dramatically shifted the focus of research by asking, “Under what specific conditions do people in any one group pay attention to the cultural symbols of another group?” Aijmer concluded that syncretism is most intense whenever the inequality between cultures has been the most pronounced. Equally important, war, conquest, colonialism, trade, migration, and intermarriage bring syncretism to the forefront. Race, gender, age, and social class are also factors. He suggested that scholars must examine the relationships between global and localized syncretism. Are two or more religions influencing one another equally or is one dominating the rest? How does syncretism relate to issues of entrepreneurship and to theories of modernization?
It should be emphasized that authenticity and originality are not always dependent on the alleged purity and uniqueness of religions and that many so-called “original” religions are the result of a unique syncretism that has not occurred elsewhere. Researchers need to become sensitive to the ways in which people negotiate and redefine the boundaries of their ideas and practices. Shaw and Stewart underscore the need to examine problems of agency, especially when agency is ascribed to religious traditions without reference to religious specialists.
At times, syncretism is seemingly intentional, while at other times it is largely unintentional. There are always unexpected consequences. It is imperative for scholars to chart the increasingly complex interconnections between syncretism, social change, and resistance. Stewart and Shaw concluded their study of syncretism by suggesting that the term be recast as “the politics of religious synthesis.” A major focus, they postulated, should be on “anti-syncretism” and the antagonisms shown by agents who are largely concerned with the defense of religious boundaries.
- Greenfield, S., & Droogers, A. (Eds.). (2001). Reinventing religions: Syncretism and transformation in Africa and the Americas. New York: Rowman and Littlefield.
- Lawson, E. T. (2003). Agency and religious agency in cognitive perspective. In S. D. Glazier & C. A. Flowerday (Eds.), Selected readings in the anthropology of religion: Theoretical and methodological essays (pp. 99-106). Westport, CT: Praeger.