Cultural syncretism: what is it and how does it arise in societies?
Cultural syncretism generates societies and cultures that draw from various references and traditions.
As is evident, in humanity there is a whole variety of different cultures. Many of them end up mixing with others.
In this article we will study one of the most important mechanisms by which this mechanism can take place, which is cultural syncretism.. We will analyze how this phenomenon is generated and we will also see some examples that accurately reflect its implications.
What is cultural syncretism?
When we talk about syncretism, and more specifically about cultural syncretism, we are essentially referring to a process of mixing of cultures that can occur through hybridization or crossbreeding between two or more of them.. In other words, this phenomenon refers to the intermingling that can occur when two cultures meet, without one imposing itself on the other.
Thus, thanks to cultural syncretism, two or more cultures can give rise to a new one, which results from the product of all those that have intervened, to give rise to a set of customs, values and ways of acting and thinking that draw from different sources.. A new culture would be created thanks to the union of others that existed previously.
Cultural syncretism can affect all spheres of a society's culture. Historically it has happened and in fact it happens. Different schools of thought in a given science can influence each other or even merge and give rise to new ones. The same can occur in the field of religion, where some creeds pick up passages from other doctrines and take them as their own.
Politics does not escape this mechanism either, and two ideologies can bring their positions closer together until they merge into a new movement that did not previously exist at this level of complexity. in a new movement that did not previously exist with this level of complexity, since the result is taking elements from different sources, making a hybridization of both.
If we focus on the etymology of cultural syncretism, we discover that the word syncretism comes from Greek, being an expression of the philosopher Plutarch that referred to the union of the Cretans to face a common enemy. The term was rescued centuries later by Erasmus of Rotterdam, giving it a similar meaning.
In this case, this scholar referred to syncretism as that which united people even though they maintained differences in their religious beliefs. Erasmus included this concept, among many others, in his work Adagiaa compendium of proverbs from ancient Greece and Rome.which brings together much of the most primitive knowledge of early Europe.
From then on, the term gained greater importance, until in our era, it has adopted the meaning by which we know it today, relating it to the phenomenon of the mixture between cultures that produces an enrichment of the same, by allowing the exchange of elements between all for a common growth.
Cultural syncretism versus competition
The mechanism of cultural syncretism, as we have already seen, supposes a mechanism that at an anthropological level allows the mixture between cultural groups and therefore a greater richness of all of them. On the contrary, we can find other processes in which not all the cultures involved benefit..
The clearest one is that of intercultural competence. When two cultures compete with each other in this way, the one that is stronger, either because it belongs to a larger number of people, or because that group will use force to impose itself, or for any other reason, will prevail over the other, even causing the defeated culture to disappear.
We observe, therefore, a substantial difference, since in the case of cultural syncretism a peaceful coexistence of the two cultural groups was facilitated under terms in which everyone derived some benefit from the relationship.. However, under competition, the cultures involved will seek their supremacy in a clash that will leave only one winner.
Of course, in such a struggle between cultures, conflict can arise unilaterally, that is, by one cultural group seeking to impose itself on others, who may not wish to enter into such a conflict. Cultural syncretism represents another form of relationship between cultures, one in which both are mixed and somehow evolve, enriched by such mixture.
The encounter between two worlds
Throughout history there have been countless cases of cultural syncretism, more or less obvious, but if we want to look at one of the most important examples, we could focus on the one that happened from the year 1492, which changed the world forever, or rather, the worlds.
Because that was the year in which three ships crossed the Atlantic Ocean, with Columbus at the head of the expedition, to connect in an irremediable way the destinies of Europe and the lands that would be known since then as America, as well as the rest of the globe. The union and mixture of cultures would be constant from then on.
This is how some European and pre-Columbian cultures began to exchange elements, to mix and, in short, to crossbreed.. This process occurred with greater or lesser intensity depending on the different areas and over many years, until crystallizing in new nations that enjoy a rich cultural background, generated by two very different sources.
It is evident that not all regions experienced such cultural syncretism, but others experienced what we previously described as cultural competition, one being the one that ended up imposing itself over the other until practically reducing it completely. This could be the case of the English colonization of North America, as opposed to the Spanish and Portuguese colonization of the rest of the continent.
Of course, this is a complex subject in which there are different perspectives and which will depend very much on the concrete place where we put the magnifying glass and the determined circumstances that were given there. In any case, it serves to illustrate the properties and procedures that occur in cultural syncretism to realize the mixture between cultures and give rise to a result that did not previously exist..
Cultural syncretism and cultural appropriation
However, nowadays there are critical voices towards cultural syncretism, since some sectors equate it to another phenomenon called cultural appropriation. This expression refers to the capture by a given culture of an element belonging to another group. This act is given a negative connotation, since it is considered that this element should only be used by the culture to which it belongs.
However, the processes of cultural syncretism, like many others at the anthropological level by which cultures are born, develop, merge or disappear, are beyond such value judgments. Cultures are not hermetic, but are exposed to this type of mechanisms that in one way or another allow them to be modified or even to be substantially mixed with others. substantially with others.
This is the case of cultural syncretism. Those who criticize this phenomenon and call it cultural appropriation do so because they consider that one of these cultures is somehow plundering the other, as if it were a form of cultural colonialism, and somehow benefiting from an element that does not belong to it.
They also criticize the fact that the importance of this element is distorted or even that its origin is forgotten because the culture that has taken it over makes it its own, and the cultural group to which it belonged does not have enough strength or voice to claim it. Another criticism is the use of these cultural components to establish a series of fashions based on the exoticism of ethnicity.
As we were saying, the mechanisms of cultural change, such as syncretism, do not understand these value judgments and simply follow one another. None of the cultures that we can observe in the world today are pure, so to speak, but ratherRather, all of them, to a greater or lesser extent, are the product of an exchange, a crossbreeding, and in other words, a cultural syncretism that has given rise to the cultural groups we know today.
Therefore, although some sectors may criticize the fact that two or more cultures share elements, giving rise to new and more complex cultural groups, the fact is that this is a phenomenon that is difficult to avoid or control, since it is one of the ways in which these elements change, as we have already seen.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)