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TMaroney: Syncretism and Magick

To: alt.magick.tyagi,alt.magick,talk.religion.misc,alt.pagan.magick,alt.pagan,talk.philosophy.misc,alt.mythology
From: (nagasiva)
Subject: TMaroney: Syncretism and Magick
Date: 18 Jun 1997 12:51:21 -0700

[all from Maroney ]

The issues raised here concerning inappropriate syncretism, such as using 
Hebrew names of power together with Egyptian deity, are not new. The 
Graeco-Roman mysteries and their offshoots in Neo-Platonism were highly 
syncretistic; their practices of assimilation have been largely 
responsible for the disrepute in which syncretism is held today in the 
academic community. The academic response, however, is starting to become 
less dogmatic, or at least more readily challenged, as in Kingsley's 
recent book on Empedocles(1), or the concerns raised by Robert F. Campany 
in his comparison of the ancient Chinese sage Xunzi with the pre-modern 
mythic theorist Durkheim(2).

The new postmodern critique, reflexively including scholarship itself 
among its subjects, notes that it is just as much an error to hold 
religious practitioners to the criteria of postmodern scholarship and 
derogate their efforts for their inevitable failure to meet irrelevant 
criteria, as it is to dismiss the efforts of traditional commentators to 
understand their own ritual and mythic practices as being not really a 
kind of thinking and observation at all. Both these naive critiques of 
traditional religious philosophy depend on arrogant assumptions about the 
unique superiority of current scholarly methods and viewpoints.

In syncretism as practiced either by Neo-Platonists or modern occultists 
we find practices which seem on the surface as if they should be taken as 
literal statements about an underlying substrate of symbolic commonality. 
That is, the connection between, say, Osiris and Tiphareth is not 
presented by the syncretiser as a new creative assertion, but as a 
longstanding fact which has always been true, even if it was not well 
known. Many syncretisers claim that the fact was always known by a secret 
group of initiates who have only now cleared this truth for public 
release(3). Judged as comparative religion or textual analysis this sort 
of assertion is defective. It is therefore tempting to dismiss syncretism 
as a failed attempt at amateur scholarship.

If we look at what these commentators are trying to accmplish in context, 
however, we wind up with a rather different model. Although a claim of 
traditionalism is made, what is actually happening is that new myths are 
being created, as well as new ritual practices based on those myths. 
Specifically, the myth of syncretists is that all known myths are only 
differentiations of a single unifying primordial myth, sometimes called 
the Secret Doctrine. This type of universalist myth can be found not only 
in occult and Neo-Platonic sources, but in Freemasonry, Baha'i, 
pre-modern comparativism, popular Roman attitudes towards foreign gods, 
and so forth. The myth that Osiris is an expression of Tiphareth deserves 
the same deference that the observer gives to any other myth, and its 
faux historical content is no more a matter for concern than, say, the 
fact that Pandora was not really the first woman. These are the terms on 
which syncretistic statements need to be engaged: as expressions of the 
myth of a common system constantly active and unified behind the 
appearance of diversity in myth and ritual.

(There is a risk of condescension in this reinterpretation. Writers like 
Blavatsky and Crowley really believe that they are contributing to 
comparative religion, and letting them off the critical hook by 
transposing their writing to a new domain -- that of myth-making -- 
derogates their own account of their intent. However, the fact is that 
when judged by standards in fields like anthropology, religious studies, 
or even philosophy, their work fails to make much of a contribution: this 
critique is inevitable. We can take them at their face value, and so be 
forced to dismiss their work completely because it does not play well in 
the scholarly arena, or we can try to recognize that there is a 
difference in intention between their work and scholarly work, and so 
recognize its value with respect to its actual set of intentions and 
assumptions. The latter is consderably less hostile and dismissive, 
although either interpretation would be rejected by the writers 

For instance, while a set of tables of correspondence is useless for the 
scholar, for the ritualist it serves as a new kind of myth from which 
ritual practices may be generated. It masquerades as the key of all 
religions, but it is not that -- it is a kind of divination table, based 
on a set of freshly-minted mythic "facts" about the relations between 
traditional symbols. It is above all a practical tool, and judging it as 
if it were a dissertation in religious studies would miss the point, even 
though its creators might like it to be judged that way.

An objection to syncretism that has been raised here is that it leads to 
awkward and inelegant combinations of elements that are actually 
irreconcilable. Again the strongest example given has been the 
combination of divine names from the devoutly anti-Egyptian Hebrew 
tradition with the names and images of Egyptian deities from the 
19th-century Egyptology craze. While this criticism may be valid on a 
literary level -- a great deal of freshly-rolled myth is poorly crafted 
-- it is inevitable that in a system based on a myth of universalism, 
disparate symbols will be deliberately juxtaposed. This illustrates the 
basic premise of the myth, that all the appearances of diversity in 
religious symbolism are only illusionary, and that on an inner level 
accessible to adepts, the symbols are all instantiations of an abstract 
unifying supermyth.

These juxtapositions of opposed symbols are not simply ignorant or 
careless. They represent a deliberate flouting of exclusionary taboos. 
The symbolic universalist knows full well that it is offensive to an 
ordinary Christian to say that an aspect of Jehovah is virtually 
synonymous with a Greek god, an astrological sign, and an Arabic demon, 
and so he or she chooses to be offensive to express a protest against 
these differentiations. A system that did not contain these "erroneous" 
juxtapositions would be a system that did not express the universalist 

Any mythic system based on protest creates conflicts with those who are 
dedicated to the targets of protest. A devout Jew, steeped in an idea of 
sacralization which is rooted in the overthrow of Egyptian polytheism by 
Hebrew monotheism, must find it grotesque and absurd to combine the two 
traditions. To the Jew, universalism is erroroneous in its leveling, 
while to the universalist, traditional Judaism is erroneous in its 
parochialism. It is not the work of the scholar to resolve such disputes, 
because they are not disputes on a scholarly plane -- they derive from 
the social and emotional factors by which people accept certain myths and 
reject others. The scholar is treading on very dangerous ground in making 
normative statements about mythic acceptance and rejection and must 
ordinarily be content with simple observation(4). At the same time, it is 
possible to contribute descriptively in explaining in what ways the 
criticisms that each side aims at the other fail to accurately engage the 
other's intent and assumptions.


(1) Peter Kingsley, "Ancient Philosophy, Mystery, and Magic: Empedocles 
and Pythagorean Tradition" (Oxford University Press, 1995).
(2) In Ronald L. Grimes (ed.), "Readings in Ritual Studies" (Upper Saddle 
River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996), pp. 86-103.
(3) One can find claims of this sort in occult writers such as Blavatsky, 
Mathers, and Crowley.
(4) For some important considerations in normative discourse on ritual 
and myth, see Ronald L. Grimes, "Ritual Criticism" (Columbia: University 
of South Carolina Press, 1990).

Tim Maroney

>Tim, this interests me. Are you saying that the establishment of a new
>associative context is primarily a creative exercise, in that the
>correlations established(although patently not arbitrary) are to a certain
>extent the results of the ingenuity of the correlator?

Yes, but I would emphasize the arbitrary nature of the relationships. 
Major gods like Apollo have so many attributes that they could be 
correlated at some small remove to almost anything. The selection of some 
particular attribute (such as music, inducement of visionary experience, 
solar illumination, the progression of the seasons, theft, stateliness, 
cattle herding, or whatever) as the primary attribute by which Apollo is 
connected to the universalist table of correpondences is an arbitrary 
choice by the syncretistic practitioner. Through a set of arbitrary 
choices of this kind, each of which reduces a complex symbol to a simple 
cipher, a new universalist myth consisting of a set of relationships is 
created. Crowley's 777 is an example of such a myth.

>The post-Joycean
>concept of lexi-links and the Dalinian concept of "delirium of
>interpretation" spring to mind.

You'll have to bring me up to speed on those ideas. Literary and art 
criticism are not fields that I have studied in any depth.

>If so, to what extent would you regard the
>ingenuity of the magician as capable of manipulating pre-existing mythic
>symbolism and inserting it in a new interpretative context? Are you arguing
>against 'fixity' and in favour of 'fluidity' of interpretation?

Hmm. Well, I'm trying not to argue too much in favor of or against 
anything; my hesitancy in expressing normative judgments here results 
from my past practice of criticizing syncretists as if they were writing 
dissertations in religious studies -- there is a moralism to this kind of 
critique and it prevented me from understanding the actual practice of 
syncretism until my mind was changed by Campany.

Rather than arguing against fixity and for fluidity, I am noting a 
practice of fluid interpretation and its conflict with a practice of 
fixity, but declining to try to settle their dispute. I would say that 
the interpretations employed by modern magicians are highly fluid and 
that their assertions of traditional symbolic continuity (or fixity) are 
ritual statements serving to express the universalist myth, rather than 
defensible literal descriptions of their practice. The Apollo on row 6 of 
777 is not the traditional Apollo to whom temples were built in Greece 
and Rome, and his reduction to a cabalistic cipher would probably be 
offensive to someone whose spirituality revolved around a traditional 
concept of Apollo. I do not mean this as either an endorsement or a 
criticism of such expressions of the universalist myth or of traditional 

Tim Maroney

>I think it interesting that both Joyce and Dali were obsessed with
>establishing correlations between apparently disparate phenomena. In
>"Finnegans Wake", Joyce via the dream of the central character suggests
>that the unconscious mind is capable of establishing a complex series of
>correspondences amongst phenomena, that to the conscious mind appear
>arbitrarily related. For instance, phonetic resemblance provides such a
>linkage in Joyce's work, irrespective of any etymological correlation.
>Dali's "paranoiac-critical method" is similar in that Dali deliberately
>sought to induce in himself a state of 'psychosis' in order to perceive
>hitherto unsuspected correlations between (consciously?) unrelated objects.
>So for Dali, Vermeer's "The Lacemaker" is morphologically a rhinoceros horn
>because he perceives the same underlying geometrical structure in the two
>apparently unrelated objects.

Here it seems we do have creative acts similar to the creation of tables 
of correspondence and other symbolic diagrams. The difference would 
appear to be that both Joyce and Dali acknowledged the creativity of the 
act, while occultists insist they are discovering pre-existent facts 
about the supermyth. Nonetheless, they may all be playing in the same 
ballpark. I could only speculate as to the underlying psychology of these 
correlational practices, though obviously there is a good deal of overlap 
with connectionism.


Tim Maroney

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