I throw around the word “syncretism” a lot, but it doesn’t exactly fit perfectly what I do.
So I suppose I should try to describe what I do better.
First of all, I like holy images. They remind me to orient myself toward the world around me as a neighbor, they remind me to look for and honor the Holy Powers in my life. The attention I pay those images, the offerings I make – the incense and candles I burn, the drink I pour out and the food I offer, the prayers I say there – all empower those images to be better and better focal points of my devotion.
I particularly like holy images with faces. I’ve seen beautiful altars and shrines made of stones, or beads, or leaves and branches or pieces of antler, but the idols that suit me best are just that. I like the psychospiritual gymnastics of using the image of a particular human or animal face to reach toward something wholly Other.
But such images don’t necessarily exist. For a “well known” deity, who’s a major player in the myths-as-written there might be a statue or two floating around in the pagan and new-age world, but for a deity only remembered in their name – regardless of how widespread their ancient cult may have been, regardless of the depth of feeling a few modern pagans feel for them – there may be nothing accessible.
I learned this trick from African Diaspora traditions – the trick is to use someone else’s images.
Now, don’t steal images, borrow them from secure and open traditions. My favorite sources are Catholicism’s images, Tibetan Buddhism’s images, and the film and tv images that populate all of our unconscious minds.
I hope you’re blessed with a Latin American grocery store, because novena candles are the best (and most affordable) images to try this with. Look at all the images of the saints and angels on those candles, and try just for a moment to forget that Christianity exists. Don’t look at the names, don’t even look at the genders.
Who is that broad-faced woman with thick hair, destroying a tower with storm and lightning? Why, it must be Thrym’s Bride, Thor! (Santa Barbara)
Who is that richly dressed man standing on an ocean island and commanding the winds? Njord the Ship-King of course. (San Cypriano)
I’m not saying, of course, that Thor and Santa Barbara (or Tyr and Manjushri, Sigyn and Saint Claire or Sitatapatra, or Hela and Santa Muerte, or whoever) are the same, just that they have similar enough symbolic “hooks” that you can look at an image of one and see the other.
Syncretism, when I do it, is not blending deities or considering them the same, or “multiple facets of the same Reality”, but simply using images intended for one purpose for another purpose.
Flat symbolism isn’t the only way that this syncretism works – personal symbolism, and personal aesthetics play a part too. There’s a woodblock image of an adi-buddha at my work, white, with His hands in teaching mudra, which I know I could easily use as an image of Mani, but none of the other woodblock prints seem quite as suitable. It’s something about the face. (I should just buy it already)
My most well-loved shrines begin to look like 3-D collages. Njord’s space has a candle of San Cypriano, a resin Moshe (in Whose lap I’ve placed a fishing weight and the battleship from Monopoly) as well as a small blue lucky Hotei, holding a gold ingot which really really looks like a boat. There’s a brass sailing ship, a print of a replica stave church, a dish of coins and cobalt blue beads of recycled glass and red-dyed bone. None of those images are Njord, of course (one image alone, carved and named with intention, wouldn’t be Njord either) but they give an impression, they elucidate aspects; they are hooks to hang my mind on.
I don’t worry about the theology. I’m a pagan, I deal in actions and outcomes. If someone wants to consider the deity I’m praying to an emanation of the Enlightened Being Tara, or a facet of the Godhead which is One, or one face and name of the Great Goddess Eris, or generated by the energy of my belief, or a fantasy created by my psyche, they are welcome to, and I’ll keep doing like I do.
[edited to repair the doubledoubling]