Oh, My Pop Culture Pantheon: Syncretism in Pop Culture

hammerofthegods-550x309We have talked before about shows like Supernatural blending religions together in a way that usually ends up being incredibly offensive to any religion that isn’t Christianity. In Supernatural, the most notable episode depicting this poor blending of religions is “Hammer of the Gods.” In this episode, all the gods from every other religion are not only shown as being less powerful than the Christian God, but also less powerful than even the Christian angels. At the end of the episode, viewers are treated to Lucifer murdering all the other gods. This blending and combining of often dissimilar beliefs into one belief is called syncretism. When shows like Supernatural attempt to blend religions together, they are attempting syncretism, though the writers don’t often do it well.

Syncretism mainly happens in three different ways. In the case of religion, it can be used to recognize your own beliefs and hold them to be true while still recognizing another person’s beliefs to be true. In the ancient world, this was shown in the way that each city and/or country believed in and worshiped its own god(s), but another country could have their own god(s). The people of each country were devoted to their own gods, but they still believed that other countries’ gods existed. It was often believed that if two countries went to war, their gods would fight each other to prove which country was more powerful. In fact, followers of ancient Judaism did not believe their God was the only god until about five hundred years before Jesus was born. This use of syncretism allowed people to keep believing in their own gods while still accepting that others may be devoted to different, but no less real, gods—though ancient people also often believed their god was better than another person’s. So although different people were allowed to believe in different gods, this was not a harmonious system as the various gods and beliefs were often in conflict with each other for supremacy.

The second form of syncretism is the fusion of religions. This is best shown in the spread of Christianity throughout Europe. Christians combined their own beliefs with the beliefs of pagans in order to make Christianity and paganism more compatible and attractive to converts, but also to eventually erase paganism. Christians put holidays like Christmas and Easter during the same times as holidays like Yule and the Spring Equinox. All Saints Day notably almost replaced All Hallows Eve (Halloween) in Europe for a time. Catholic and Orthodox saints were used to replace many pagan pantheons as well. Obviously, Christians didn’t entirely erase paganism by doing this, but after years of syncretism in certain areas, pagan beliefs began to fade away and were replaced by Christianity.

vlcsnap-2010-04-28-19h40m09s86And finally there is the syncretism that is employed by many Wiccans, Pagans, and Neo-Pagans. While some pagans are devoted to one particular pantheon, some believe that all gods and goddesses are different aspects of the God and Goddess. This is more harmonious than the first form of syncretism that I described, because it does not put all the gods in conflict with each other and allows for an easier blending of beliefs. There are also religious pluralists who believe that all religions have some element of the truth, but not the whole truth. In this way, they believe similarly that all gods reflect something of the true god(s).

So what does this have to do pop culture? Well, like in Supernatural, many TV shows, movies, books, and other forms of pop culture try to write about religion by using syncretism, but they don’t really do it right. But boy, do they try.

tumblr_m7p5jrwyRF1r1x3i2o1_500In the TV show Xena: Warrior Princess, I feel like the writers try to use the first form of syncretism that I described, but ultimately they failed. When the show begins, it largely focuses on the Greek pantheon with the occasional reference to ancient Judaism and to a pantheon in another country. But in the later episodes, Christianity begins to take over the series and from there religions get so confused that everything begins to fall apart. There is the character Eli, who seems to be part Abraham, part Moses, part Elijah, part John the Baptist, and part Jesus. Eli, originally just an illusionist in India, starts following the “God of Light”, but he is hardly just a founder or a prophet. He eventually becomes a Christ figure, well, he is Christ in all but name, but the poor use of syncretism makes everything confusing.

xenaXena herself goes from being a Greek warrior to being possessed by the spirit of Kali, both she and Gabrielle are crucified by the Romans for being followers of Eli, and she becomes pregnant with Eve, a baby girl that will bring an end to the reign of the Greek gods. When Xena’s enemy Callisto dies and goes to hell, becoming a demon who wanted to attack heaven, Xena fights her and then purifies her, which eventually leads to Callisto becoming an angel. Callisto finally acts almost as the angel Gabriel, revealing to Xena that she is going to have a daughter that heralds the end of the other gods. Xena’s daughter Eve eventually follows Eli’s way and with that, combined with her name (Eve being the first woman in the Old Testament), it seems the show begins to override all other religions in favor of Christianity.

I think the Xena writers were attempting a form of syncretism used more by ancient peoples. They were almost successful, but the major problem the show had was eventually trying to claim Christianity was the one true religion that would ultimately destroy the other ones. Obviously, people often say their religion is the one true religion, but in a TV show where viewers and characters actually witness other gods, it’s impossible to say these other religions are wrong.

Xena as Jesus, Xena as Kali, what the hell is going on!?

Xena as Jesus, Xena as Kali, what the hell is going on!?

What Xena ultimately does then is say that Christianity is better. Eli actually allows himself to be sacrificed so that the other gods won’t die. But historically, Christians tried everything from persecution to syncretism (specifically, the second form I mentioned above) to get rid of these other religions. So for Eli to die to save the other gods from dying is really romanticizing Christianity to a large degree. Eli’s death also strengthens those faithful to Eli and the gods almost all die anyway.

To me, the main problem with using syncretism in mainstream television seems to be that most writers in the west are Christian and ultimately defer to Christianity in the show. So perhaps the way to go would be to use syncretism to fuse religions together, like in the second form. But to do that, writers would have to show that these other gods never existed and other beliefs were never true.

1024px-Demon_callistoCallisto_offer_Xena_idesUsing syncretism in the way the writers of Xena: Warrior Princess did doesn’t help anyone, especially non-Christians. It essentially forces anyone who isn’t Christian to watch their religion be shown as violent and evil while the “more benevolent” Christians begin to step in and take over. There is a way to use syncretism effectively that wouldn’t offend or demean another person’s religion, but I haven’t seen it effectively used yet. I personally believe the best way to use syncretism would be to use the third form, or showing all gods and goddesses as equally true aspects of one god(s). There are some pagans who believe that a primary God and Goddess are reflected in all other gods and goddesses. Using this or another similar understanding could be a good use of syncretism in pop culture. But this would take thorough planning and research, and various gods would need to be given equal time so that it wouldn’t seem as if the writers were favoring one religion over another. Furthermore, from a writing standpoint, blending all these different religions and beliefs confuses viewers as to what the hell is going on unless the writers have a clear system of belief that can be effectively depicted for the viewer.

Perhaps before writers try to use syncretism correctly and effectively, they could first better educate themselves about these other faiths, instead of simply defaulting to their own Christian beliefs.