Syncretism (/ˈsɪŋkrətɪzəm/) is the combining of different
beliefs, while blending practices of various schools of thought.
Syncretism involves the merging or assimilation of several originally
discrete traditions, especially in the theology and mythology of
religion, thus asserting an underlying unity and allowing for an
inclusive approach to other faiths.
Syncretism also occurs commonly in
expressions of arts and culture (known as eclecticism) as well as
politics (syncretic politics).
2 Social and political roles
3 Religious syncretism
4 Cultures and societies
4.1 During the Enlightenment
5 See also
7 Further reading
The English word is first attested in the early 17th century, from
Modern Latin syncretismus, drawing on Greek συγκρητισμός
(synkretismos), supposedly meaning "Cretan federation", but this is a
spurious etymology from the naive idea in Plutarch's 1st-century AD
essay on "Fraternal Love (Peri Philadelphias)" in his collection
Moralia (2.490b). He cites the example of the Cretans, who compromised
and reconciled their differences and came together in alliance when
faced with external dangers. "And that is their so-called Syncretism
[Union of Cretans]". More likely as an etymology is sun- ("with") plus
kerannumi ("mix") and its related noun, "krasis," "mixture."
Erasmus probably coined the modern usage of the Latin word in his
Adagia ("Adages"), published in the winter of 1517–1518, to
designate the coherence of dissenters in spite of their differences in
theological opinions. In a letter to
Melanchthon of April 22, 1519,
Erasmus specifically adduced the Cretans of
Plutarch as an example of
his adage "Concord is a mighty rampart".
Social and political roles
The use of elephant-shaped column brackets at the
Lahore Fort in
Pakistan reflects Hindu influences on the syncretic architectural
style of the Muslim Emperor Akbar.
Overt syncretism in folk belief may show cultural acceptance of an
alien or previous tradition, but the "other" cult may survive or
infiltrate without authorized syncresis nevertheless. For example,
some Conversos developed a sort of cult for martyr-victims of the
Spanish Inquisition, thus incorporating elements of
Some religious movements have embraced overt syncretism, such as the
case of melding Shintō beliefs into Buddhism or the amalgamation of
Germanic and Celtic pagan views into Christianity during its spread
into Gaul, the British Isles, Germany, and Scandinavia. Indian
influences are seen in the practice of Shi'i
Islam in Trinidad. Others
have strongly rejected it as devaluing and compromising precious and
genuine distinctions; examples of this include post-Exile Second
Temple Judaism, Islam, and most of Protestant Christianity.[further
explanation needed]
Syncretism tends to facilitate coexistence and unity between otherwise
different cultures and worldviews (intercultural competence), a factor
that has recommended it to rulers of multi-ethnic realms. Conversely,
the rejection of syncretism, usually in the name of "piety" and
"orthodoxy", may help to generate, bolster or authenticate a sense of
uncompromised cultural unity in a well-defined minority or majority.
Main article: Religious syncretism
Further information: Hellenistic religion, Hellenistic Judaism,
Christian influences in Islam, and Iranian religions § Medieval
Further information: New religious movements
Religious syncretism exhibits blending of two or more religious belief
systems into a new system, or the incorporation into a religious
tradition of beliefs from unrelated traditions. This can occur for
many reasons, and the latter scenario happens quite commonly in areas
where multiple religious traditions exist in proximity and function
actively in the culture, or when a culture is conquered, and the
conquerors bring their religious beliefs with them, but do not succeed
in entirely eradicating the old beliefs or, especially, practices.
Religions may have syncretic elements to their beliefs or history, but
adherents of so-labeled systems often frown on applying the label,
especially adherents who belong to "revealed" religious systems, such
as the Abrahamic religions, or any system that exhibits an exclusivist
approach. Such adherents sometimes see syncretism as a betrayal of
their pure truth. By this reasoning, adding an incompatible belief
corrupts the original religion, rendering it no longer true. Indeed,
critics of a specific syncretistic trend may sometimes use the word
"syncretism" as a disparaging epithet, as a charge implying that those
who seek to incorporate a new view, belief, or practice into a
religious system actually distort the original faith. Non-exclusivist
systems of belief, on the other hand, may feel quite free to
incorporate other traditions into their own. Others state that the
term syncretism is an elusive one, and can be applied to refer to
substitution or modification of the central elements of a dominant
religion by beliefs or practices introduced from somewhere else. The
consequence under this definition, according to Keith Ferdinando, is a
fatal compromise of the dominant religion's integrity.
In modern secular society, religious innovators sometimes create new
religions syncretically as a mechanism to reduce inter-religious
tension and enmity, often with the effect of offending the original
religions in question. Such religions, however, do maintain some
appeal to a less exclusivist audience.
Cultures and societies
Main article: Moral syncretism
According to some authors, "
Syncretism is often used to describe the
product of the large-scale imposition of one alien culture, religion,
or body of practices over another that is already present." Others
such as Jerry Bentley, however, have argued that syncretism has also
helped to create cultural compromise. It provides an opportunity to
bring beliefs, values, and customs from one cultural tradition into
contact with, and to engage different cultural traditions. Such a
migration of ideas is generally successful only when there is a
resonance between both traditions. While, as Bentley has argued, there
are numerous cases where expansive traditions have won popular support
in foreign lands, this is not always so.
During the Enlightenment
The modern, rational non-pejorative connotations of syncretism date
from Denis Diderot's
Encyclopédie articles: Eclecticisme and
Syncrétistes, Hénotiques, ou Conciliateurs. Diderot portrayed
syncretism as the concordance of eclectic sources.
Oxford English Dictionary
Oxford English Dictionary first attests the word syncretism in
English in 1618.
^ Ferdinando, K. (1995). "Sickness and
Syncretism in the African
Context" (PDF). In Antony Billington; Tony Lane; Max Turner. Mission
and Meaning: Essays Presented to Peter Cotterell. Paternoster Press.
^ Peter J. Claus and Margaret A. Mills, South Asian Folklore: An
Encyclopedia: (Garland Publishing, Inc., 2003).
^ Jerry Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and
Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press,
Look up syncretism in Wiktionary, the free dictionary.
"Syncretism". Encyclopædia Britannica. 26 (11th ed.).
Assmann, Jan (1997). Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in
Western Monotheism. Harvard University Press.
Assmann, Jan (2008). "Translating Gods:
Religion as a Factor of
Cultural (Un)Translatability". In de Vries, Hent. Religion: Beyond a
Concept. Fordham University Press. ISBN 9780823227242.
Cotter, John (1990). The New Age and Syncretism, in the World and in
the Church. Long Prairie, Minn.: Neumann Press. 38 p. N.B.: The
approach to the issue is from a conservative Roman Catholic position.
Pakkanen, Petra (1996). Interpreting Early Hellenistic Religion: A
Study Based on the Mystery Cult of Demeter and the Cult of Isis.
Foundation of the Finnish Institute at Athens.
Smith, Mark S. (2010) . God in Translation: Deities in
Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Eerdmans.