In the ancient world magicians would travel to Egypt, or at least claim that they had done so, in order to learn the true mysteries. Most Hellenic-Era magical papyri are mixed with invocations to ADNI, Re, Helios, Apollo and company. Scholars claim that there was an enormous amount of syncretism going on. What was really going on? Were the mages of old so interested that they would have travelled to learn Zoroaster’s mystery or gain initiation into the cult of Re or the Elenusian Mysteries? Were the mages calling upon Ablanathanalba Sohou Phrehelios and Mikal at the same time doing what most modern untrained ceremonialists do (the 777approach) or were they initiates of multiple traditions and knew what they were doing?
Naturally we cannot answer that question. My educated guess would be: "a little bit of both". If you had a Practitioner who was initiated in several systems then of course they could have valid syncretism. In other cases it was probably a misunderstanding leading to the name(s) of a god being misunderstood as a name of a force. Maybe Simon 120 A.D. thought that Ptha was the Egyptian word for "Create" and he wasn't trying to call upon two separate gods at the same time?
The names of ancient gods were often epitaphs, adjectives, synonyms and words used in everyday life as well. Fear was the feeling you got when you were scared it was the word Phobos and the name of the god, son of Ares. our fictional mage Simon 120 A.D. could also have been engaging with Syncretism version 1, 2 or 3 and 4? (explained below)
We cannot know when we study a text whether the practitioner was calling upon one god, and merely listing attributes that happened to be names of other gods as well, if they merely believed that certain gods were given different names in different cultures but were, essentially, the same deity or purposefully syncretised some of them either in nature or for their function. We do know that Rome was a big importer of foreign cults and I have a hunch that Egyptian and Arabic magic would have had the same fascinating "pull" as we westerners felt to Hindu and Buddhist and Tantra related traditions in the 20s and that seems to be the case now with Afro-Caribbean magical systems and religions, Daoism, Tai Chi and so on. Today you will get people trying to mix traditions one of the following ways:
1 Without knowing what they are doing. This is harmless enough as often there is no real magick going on and psychological self induced states are the same no matter the name.
Example: calling upon Venus and Inanna for feminine empowerment
2 Same as 1 above but with actual magick happening by accident or if practitioner taps into something with an “automatized” egregore.
Example: Using the goetia with enochian invocation and charge as per Crowley’s version. Alternatively calling Exu when you want Eshu because you think he is Legba for a rite of a mercurial nature. This can be dangerous in some cases, but is mostly just sloppy magick, or bad mojo.*
Both above approaches can at times culturally appropriate names and ideas in a manner that is just plain rude. I’m sorry, But you're not a priest of X if you don't have the temple ordination or consecration to back it up, you are merely a Devotee. nothing wrong with that. A bit of an ego bruise but more realistic, no?
Buddhist monks are ordained, protestant priests study at university and shamans serve as healers. Talking to your local genius loci does not make you into a pontifex maximus any more than catholic people are priests just because they have an altar with saints on it in their homes.
3 Doing Smart and appropriate magickal syncretism as an outsider.
Example: someone picking up the excellent book "Protocols for riding with the Lwa" and then starting to work with their ancestors as it is outlined therein, mixing this with the Greek orthodox veneration of modern canonised saints. If this approach is well researched and done with respect then you can do this even as an unbaptised heathen (*sarcasm* people J)
4 Doing smart magickal syncretism as an insider, someone who has become an initiate of the mysteries/ given licence to work with certain gods/forces/ AND learned some tech that allows you to do the same things as 4 above because you ACTUALLY understand the underlying principle.
Example: material presented in Strategic Sorcery. An initiate of the Golden Dawn tradition who is a catholic and has a tradition of ancestral shrines in their homes can easily understand the TECH behind using veve and interacting with Lwa and apply it to their relationship with the Godforms
And then of course the Ultimate Act of Syncretism
Creating a unique synthesis where the result is greater than its constituent part
Example: Mythological source I cannot find: Enlightened dude shows up in Tibet (Buddhist missionary) and converts all the evil spirits (native to local shamanistic religion) so the spirits become bodhisattvas/helpful. Synthesis: Tibetan Buddhism. I apologize for the butchered version of the story and mean no offense.
Example2: Christians mixing pre-Christian Gnostic ideas. Synthesis Christian Gnosticism
Example3: various beliefs from Africa meet in Haiti. Gods from different pantheons are mixed/divided syncretised. Synthesis: Haitian Vodoun.
It seems logical to assume that the ancients engaged in syncretism in the same ways we do today. I am of the persuasion that gods are separate entities. They are complex beings linked to a specific time and paradigm and tradition. If I wish to establish a relationship to a god I will do it on its own terms. I am not advocating reconstructionism or that once a culture is gone its gods are done, but maybe "dead" cultures still had a written language where we can get the "flavour" of the way the gods liked to be worshipped. A god that was constantly worshipped with animal sacrifice during the existence of the culture it belongs to should probably not be approached "through the medium of interpretive dance."
The same rules of syncretism mentioned above regarding gods is also valid for all techniques (tech) and aspects of tradition. As a white European I would be insane to think that following a book on Vodoun is in any way close to going to Vodoun fete every months and being raised in the context. I would be a bigger fool if I started questioning the way a Lwa is described by practitioners and I would be an idiot if I started combining the Veve of two different Lwa in a syncretic approach of Tantric Vooodoooooo (shudder).
However one could spend the time, live in Haiti for 4 months of the year and become Houngan Asogwe if the spirit moves one and still keep ones tantric practice since , lets say, one was also a Tibetan Dzogchen master. If after 10 years of perfecting these approaches one is confident that IT WOULD WORK to combine The veve and then allow possession to happen with the resulting deity and it works, well then, all the more kudos to that person! If this can then be formalised we end up with something on the level 6 of the scale. (awesome)
I believe that syncretistic approach 3-4 are preferable for normal work with 5 being the Holy Grail of Hermetic syncretism. It is for me at least. Personally I think that Syncretism is one of the Defining strengths of The hermetic approach when done on the 4th 5th and 6th levels of my proposed levels of syncretism. (hermeticism as the historical documents would allows us to think about it from Alexandrian times, not the revival of the renaissance)
The hermetic approach must, in a way, by syncretic for it to be alive.
The gods may have been used as simple names of power in some cases but my hunch is that this was in cases of level 1 and level 2 syncretism. There is a devotion present in the texts that has gone missing somewhere along the way. Maybe we need to rekindle the fire of prayer in as modern Hermeticists by injecting some original material into the fold.
Taking the tech of how to treat gods well from Vodoun and Santeria, reinserted into the various hermetic style possessions and spells calling on gods. Let’s look towards The tantric traditions for the ecstatic work. Look at how they work with the Exu and Pomba Gira entities and how this has been syncretised already by the creators of the tradition with the demons from the Grimorum Verum.
Instead of looking up 777 for correspondences for strength look at associations in the general mind and in culture, without it turning into an anything goes approach. There are rules for this. When needing calm you don’t use herbs and spices and incense that remind you of chilli. When you need to get your thumb out, you do not taking cooling baths and contemplate. Its common sense.
The ancients went to the Library of Alexandria. Today the internet is the library. We have libraries. We can buy our books. The ancients who wanted to work with Osiris went off to join his temple for a while. Today, we can read a Tantra formerly untranslated hidden away and shown to initiates only. But we still need to access the egregore the empowerment and the context needed t work it. So fly to Tibet. Find a local wandering Lama.
The ancients engaged in syncretism one way or another. They travelled and the experienced. Or at least they fantasized that they did.
We have the option to walk in their footsteps (real or imagined) so let’s do it.
* I don’t believe there is a "wrong way" of doing anything there is just the stupid way and the slightly less stupid way.