Dissecting Syncretism

Frater Vameri



Image from: https://www.orthocuban.com/2014/02/inculturation-or-syncretism-it-is-hard-to-know-part-03/


The Vodou finds in syncretism one of its many components. Not only Vodou , however. Umbanda and Candomblé also find part of their formations in syncretism. However, there is a movement that dismisses syncretism. The basic claim is that any syncretism would be a mere " whitening " device . Is syncretism just a cover? A survival strategy?


Bastide reminds us that Brazilian Catholicism was extremely guided by the cult of saints. Now, both in Brazil and in São Domingos, Rome was a very distant concept. Literally. Thus, colonies, in general, were fertile ground for the emergence of Catholicisms with many doses of popularity. Therefore, the first thing that needs to be understood when talking about syncretism in Vodou and Candomblé, for example, is that Brazilian Catholicism and also Haitian were very specific and far from what was preached "on paper".


It is true that the enslaved were forced to swallow Catholicism down their throats and that they often had to celebrate holy days. It is also true that they used saints to represent their orishas and their lwas . The point is that it was not just that. Either it was born more complex or it naturally became. Remember that africans, in general, came from plural worldviews. That is, they functioned within a world in which there was a multitude of spirits. In this context, Saint George, Jesus and the Virgin Mary were just OTHER spirits that inhabited the world and to which they could appeal.


Therefore, we realize that rejecting the universe of saints and Catholic figures seems to be nothing more than a contemporary and anachronistic reading. We need to remember that the Kingdom of Kongo already in 1491 begins its Christianization. Now, before Cabral arrived in Brazil, before Columbus arrived in America. It is clear that catholicism in Kongo, which came primarily from Portugal, was highly syncretic. Thus, it is necessary to rethink syncretism as a phenomenon that will happen only in the new world from the perspective of religions of african descent. After all, many africans have already arrived in the new world with close contact with syncretic Catholicism. And when I say many, many even. The enslaved in Kongo were the majority in many places, such as in Saint Domingue and came in significant numbers to Brazil and the United States.


The enslaved, in Brazil, in Haiti, in Georgia , was involved in an undertaking to rebuild their African faith. That is the general idea they tell us. However, we need to consider this truth more carefully. For example, a certain farm was mostly run by Dahomean slaves . If a group of Bantus arrived there , they would probably be absorbed into the group and adapt to established customs. This does not exclude possible innovations brought about by these Bantus , however. Hence we see that reconstructing the African faith in America in a pure way is an impossible task. America was not Africa and the people who were here now were not in the same condition as they were in Africa.


Let us think, however, that it would have been natural for a fusion of African faiths to occur, without interference from Catholicism. We would be disregarding a considerable portion of Africans, as we have already discussed and making a mistake. In addition, we would be admitting that the world populated by the most diverse spirits of Africans received only other African spirits, which besides not making sense, is not true, as the case of Kongo shows.


So, let's try to look at the Holy syncretized with Lwa in another way. First of all, let's not underestimate anyone. It is evident that Africans knew how to differentiate things and knew that the saint was not his spirit. The saint was, in fact, another spirit, but for various reasons he also ended up representing a certain African spirit (Verger will argue that this occurs because of the iconography of the saints and elements that resemble the spirits). Thus, we can see syncretism as the same road that is paved by two different stones - a Catholic and an African. In the end, the road is the same, but where African stone is missing, Catholic stone is used to build it. In other words, the saint and the spirit work in the same way. Therefore, in the impossibility of using a representation of a spirit, you use something that is close to its nature.


Of course there have been cases in which African origami and spirits have become truly inseparable from the saints over time. Not to mention the cases in which Catholic saints were added, such as Klemezin of Vodou which is Saint Clare.


Syncretism, then, cannot be a mere disguise. It is not, because anyone who prayed to an Image of Saint George crying out for Ogum knew well that Saint George was not Ogum, but he understood that through Saint George, he could reach Ogum. It was an expansion of the invisible universe. It was the use of the oppressor's spirituality against himself. In the end, New World religions were formed in the midst of this mix. They are not purely African religions. Never went. To want them to be is to erase your story.


Or are we so naive as to believe that a slave needed an image of a saint to pray to an Lwa ? We agree that this does not make any sense. If purely African religiosity were to be maintained, then the whole Catholic part would be a mere disguise as they claim and would have been discarded soon. It happens that since it is much more complex than that and because it involves, in fact, a joining and not an overlap , we still have the syncretism present today.


I find it very legitimate who wants an authentic African religious experience. For that, the solution is to go to Africa. Before I am accused of wanting to erase the contribution of blacks to the religions of the new world, it remains to be said that I have never hinted at such a thing. The African contribution must always be exalted and remembered! Realize that one thing has nothing to do with the other.

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