Considering the Continuum

Bacchus may be compared with other double names such as Zeus-Belos, attested in Herodotus and Philo of Byblos. Since Hadad-Baal and Bacchus-Dionysus are both fertility gods portrayed (frequently) with bull horns, syncretism between Hadad-Baal and Bacchus-Dionysos is by no means unnatural. Indeed, Julius Wellhausen seems to have viewed this syncretism as self-evident, speaking of “Baal-Dionysus” and “the Baal whom the Greeks identified with Dionysus.” Edward Lipinski believes that the Semitic god depicted as Dionysus on Sidonian coins from the Roman period is Baal: “A Baal, god of vegetation who dies and is reborn following the rhythm of the seasons and the stages of grain growing and viticulture, seems to be a better candidate for the fusion of the Greek god [ = Dionysos ] with an indigenous deity.” Seyrig conjectures that, like Bacchus, “the Baal of Bekaa was regarded as the dispenser of vintages.”

On the Rise and Fall of Canaanite Religion at Baalbek: A Tale of Five Toponyms by Richard C. Steiner

Lately, I have found myself grappling with the topic of syncretism within modern reconstructionist polytheist practices. Back in January of this year, before I started studying Levantine polytheism more seriously, I tried giving a Hebrew name to a Dionysian festival, which felt very in the spirit of “post-recon.” It was my first real attempt at integrating my Jewish identity into my existing Orphic cult practice. But once I really got into asking myself questions like – who were the polytheists of pre-exilic Israel? Who came before them, who influenced them? What ancient practices inspired my favorite Jewish holidays, like Sukkot? – I started to, without even realizing it, think of my religion as two separate things instead of one integrated thing.

I found myself automatically thinking, “these two things are not compatible.” How could they be? My recent studies and practices were focusing on the Bronze Age Canaanites, who would not have encountered the 5th century Orphic cultists, for example. And anyway, I really ought not worship Canaanite and Greek Gods together, as part of the same hearth cult, right? I started to become obsessed with figuring out how to draw lines, how to make sure things Absolutely Made Sense. I was terrified of accidentally mixing things that would never have mixed in a historical context (or so I thought), even if I cared about them. I was starting to feel frustrated and worn out, even while I was feeling excited about all the new information I was learning about the Canaanites, etc.

A recent very well written and inspiring article by my friend Marc on syncretism within Heathenry (which can apply to non-Heathen polytheistic traditions, as well) helped drag me out of the abyss of indecision and uncertainty around this topic. Marc writes:

Existing within the traditional pre-Christian religious frameworks of the European-Mediterranean basin and the Ancient Near East, syncretism can be as prominent and easily recognized as pan-regional deities such as Zeus-Ammon, Sarapis, the whole of the process of Hellenization throughout the Mediterranean, or the development of the cult of the god Mars.

Syncretism and the Formation of Contemporary Heathen Religious Identity

and, in reference to the above quote:

Again, only emphasizing this aspect of syncretism ignores the microscopic interactions of day-to-day views and enactment of religions, as syncretism can be as innocuous as that of the dedicatory altar designated RIB 1102. Found at Ebchester (Vindomora) in 1784, this piece of epigraphic evidence is particularly interesting for contemporary practitioners of Heathenry as it provides evidence of what the community could view as the actions of a predecessor to their own religious beliefs and identities.

Syncretism and the Formation of Contemporary Heathen Religious Identity

and finally:

Through local and individual interpretation, religions will naturally diverge, despite sharing the same decisive symbols which form the fundamental core of their religious expression. As Harrison puts it, “We all have some sort of religion which will differ from the religion of others, who bear the same label, and everyone’s religion is astoundingly complex.” This truth, articulated simply, is that Heathendom-as-religion will inevitably diverge based on geographically local, culturally distinct expressions, or simple day-to-day differences in the practitioners which make up the lifeblood of the living system. The growth of these different identities is ultimately the result of syncretic practices that inform their practitioner’s understanding of the religion.

Most often, individuals leverage a purity of tradition or appeal to a historicity of a previous tradition — thus, arguing against syncretic tendencies — in order to mitigate uneasy feelings of self-consciousness, or a pressing sense that the newly assembled identities are contrived. Yet the result is often far more deleterious than intended.

Syncretism and the Formation of Contemporary Heathen Religious Identity

In short: Marc’s article helped me realize that I had fallen victim to the mindset of “purity of tradition”, which is a pitfall many reconstructionist polytheists (especially new ones) run into at some point or another. I had forgotten about the fact that ancient cultures were often influenced by one another (i.e. the constant intermingling between Mediterranean / Levantine / Near Eastern cultures through trade and diplomacy and nations conquering other nations, etc), and that syncretism would have undoubtedly influenced the day to day life of a regular ancient polytheist living in an ancient Levantine big city (Ugarit? Byblos? Tyre? Jerusalem? There are many, rising and falling over many time periods, to pick from).

And then I read the paragraph I quoted above about Ba’al-Bacchus syncretism (Ba’al Hadad and Bachhus/Dionysos being the two Deities I connect with most right now) and I found myself unable to stop thinking about it. People actually worshiped a syncretic form of Ba’al-Hadad and Bacchus/Dionysos, however obscure or fleeting that may have been (in Baalbek, this one specific place). The same article goes on to point out, in regards to Baalbek:

The prominence of Baalbek as a pagan religious center in the Roman period is based on a long tradition. Baalbek witnessed both the rise of Canaanite religion in the Bronze Age and its fall in the Byzantine period, a trajectory that can be traced with the help of five Semitic toponyms…

On the Rise and Fall of Canaanite Religion at Baalbek: A Tale of Five Toponyms by Richard C. Steiner

Not to mention, on top of all of this, when I mentioned my uncertainty around combining aspects of Levantine and Hellenic polytheism to my friend Ange, she recommended I think about the reconstruction of Levantine polytheism in terms of the “continuum” of the Levantine world. For example, Ange herself is currently reconstructing Gothic Heathenry, and she explained to me that she is pulling from the entire allodium gothicorum, i.e. drawing inspiration from the entire spectrum of the history of the Goths, including the Christianized stuff, to build her own unique modern practice. This made me think about something Erik, another polytheist friend of ours, explained once: modern reconstruction of ancient religions is less about literal recreation of a past thing, and more about the evolution of a past thing into a present thing.

The people who were worshiping Ba’al-Bacchus were drawing from their entire spectrum of influence, i.e. the history of Semitic and Hellenic and Roman religion up until that point, and now I have the chance to create my own tradition drawing from the entirety of history up until my reality. Essentially, what modern reconstructionist polytheists do now is a “churning of the past soup” (Erik’s words, not mine!), and we have an opportunity to add new ingredients to that soup as we grow and evolve our religious practices. The core fundamentals of the soup are as they always have been, and then we add to it, we evolve it, we season it with what is meaningful for us.

I should add – and it should go without saying – appropriation of practices or beliefs from closed religions (not open to outsiders / non-Indigenous folks / the uninitiated / etc.) would not be viable in the context of syncretic reconstruction (nor is it ever okay, period). Nor is syncretism and “doing whatever you want because you can” the same (i.e. when there are no logical historically-informed conclusions to be drawn about the syncretism one is considering). Naturally, there is some murkiness around how ancient religions became syncretic in the first place (i.e. ancient forms of appropriation most certainly did take place), but I think it is safe to say, if I want to pull from the entire ancient Levantine continuum, it is likely okay for me to feel inspired by ancient Levantine-Greco-Roman syncretism, as a specific example. These things crossed paths over a wide range of history, and that’s enough to flavor my soup, perhaps, if both Canaanite and Dionysian cult practices are inspiring to me. Again, it really comes down to what would be meaningful for me.

And that is okay.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s