What Is Cultural Syncretism? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:03 What Is Syncretism?
  • 0:42 Syncretism in Europe
  • 1:39 Syncretism in Asia
  • 2:13 Syncretism in America
  • 4:08 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Explore the anthropological concept of cultural syncretism and test your understanding about various world cultures, the history of human interaction, and basic principles of anthropology.

What is Syncretism?

Chances are, you have experienced cultural syncretism. Have you ever eaten deep-dish pizza, opened a fortune cookie, or worn a 'Kiss Me I'm Irish' shirt on St. Patty's Day? Ever celebrated Christmas in December?

Syncretism is a combination of separate concepts into one new, unique idea. Cultural syncretism is when an aspect of two or more distinct cultures blend together to create a new custom, idea, practice, or philosophy. Cultural syncretism can occur for many reasons, from immigration to military conquest to the marriages between groups, and results in a culture finding ways to blend new customs into their own.

Syncretism in Europe

Cultural syncretism occurs all over the world, but we'll start with a few examples from Europe. Let's look at Rome, one of the greatest powers of the ancient world. In the Roman religion, one of the major gods was Jupiter, who had a big beard and threw lightning bolts. Sounds a bit like the Greek god Zeus, right? However, Roman gods had very different personalities, rituals, and relationships than Greek gods. Roman gods behaved more like Etruscan deities, but were really a mixture of several different religions in the northern Mediterranean. The Romans incorporated aspects of these other religions, but made them into something completely unique from the originals.

Additionally, the Roman language, Latin, combined Etruscan letters, the Greek alphabet, and Phoenician writing. Their architecture featured Greek columns and Etruscan arches along with Roman inventions like concrete. Rome was very syncretic, but everything they made was distinctly Roman.

Syncretism in Asia

Across Asian history, a prominent example of cultural syncretism comes from the spread of Buddhism. Buddhism, by its nature, is compatible with other religions and spiritual cosmologies. It originated around India, and when it spread to China it mixed with Confucianism and Taoism around the 6th century. This formed a new philosophy called the Three Teachings. Buddhism has syncretized with local customs across Asia including Daoism, Shinto, and Korean shamanism to create distinct local practices.

Syncretism in America

Due to the dramatic mixing of very different cultures and often violent nature of that mixing, the Americas have a great tradition of cultural syncretism. Consider the Rastafari movement from Jamaica. Rastafarianism is Christian practice that blends Ethiopian-Hebrew spirituality, 19th-century Pan African identity, Caribbean slave religions, and yes, the spiritual use of marijuana. Despite having so many influences, Rastafarianism is completely unique and cannot be labeled as truly part of any of the original sources.

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