Roman-Celtic Religious Fusion

Key word: Syncretism

For those who need summarising, this week’s main article is about the cultural blend in religious worship between the Roman god Mercury and the Celtic goddess Rosmerta in which the two deities are connected in a sort of union in a probable marriage like quality. This of course is nothing new in the Western sphere of the Empire where colonial expansion meant a shift in the power of discourse led by the new Roman rulers that undermined practices viewed as ‘barbaric’ or otherwise ‘non-Roman’ in nature.  In order for local worship and/or traditional living practices to survive in an increasing ‘Romanising’ world, an opt-in approach was adopted so that pre-Roman cultural norms and social structures may survive by flexing core designs to fit a model that is Roman but still has local traditions at heart. (Webster. 1997: 325-326)

A good example the author pointed to is the Aztec, through a process of  mestizaje (mixing) indigenous customs blended with Catholicism. Using Christian iconography, the worship of  the virgin Guadalupe (with reference to Tonantzin, the central mother deity of the Aztec world) was preserved by adapting to doctrines of the Marian cult. (Webster. 1997: 327)

Some might see this as a deep penetration of native structural beliefs and consequently as a loss in authenticity with respect. However, while certain elements may change over time  (this happens weather or not a supposed dominant colonial power is present) the core principles do preserve and continue on, albeit in a malleable format. thus, it should not be viewed as a conquest but a form of resistance.   Instead of submitting to a new form of cultural constructs, people take those new elements given to them and re-transform them as their own. Since pre-Christian religious worship and ritual-like activities in the Roman state were diverse and flexible, it was subsequently much easier for local deities to run with Roman parallels (Webster. 1997: 328) like Jupiter and Zeus. As a matter of fact, many Romans would transfer from worshipping one deity to another when one needed leverage.

Since this article runs in the fashion of cultural anthropology, I thought it would be fitting  to add a documentary about cricket in the Trobriand islands of Papua New Guinea. In this documentary there is a depiction of a similar situation happening in post-colonial environments where the islanders of the Trobriand continue to resist against the British system which has tried to undermine local traditions and values in an attempt to reinforce European ones through legal systems and religious conversion. The goal of the colonial administration was to halt subsequent fighting among different kin groups and their respective villages. The wars fought were minor and usually limited the violence through ritualisation  of the battles. In the end, bloodshed did cease, but not in the manner the British colonials had intended. The Trobrianders managed to re-empower their long standing cultural heritage.   part 1  part 2   part 3

Webster, Jane. 1997. Necessary Comparisons: A Post-Colonial Approach to Religious Syncretism in the Roman Provinces World Archaeology , 28. 3: 324-338

TC1, TC2, TC3. Youtube. March 2009. web.  November 4th 2013.

One thought on “Roman-Celtic Religious Fusion

  1. In regards to your post and the Webster article as a whole, I find that the syncretism in the Romano-Celtic religion can merely categorized into being viewed as solely as a by-product of conquest or as a form of cultural resistance. Much like the main theme of the article suggests, the syncretism present within the Romano-Celtic religion could only be the result of a compromise or partnership between the two cultures in order to serve their own purposes. For the Romans, their imperial expansion into Europe was driven primarily by their desire to expand the empire’s territory and to harvest its precious resources, whether they be goods or new soldiers to feed there ever growing army as well as showcasing their strength to other world powers. However, in order to gain and maintain that access to that territory’s resources, the Romans could not solely rely on military force, they needed to incorporate the newly conquered people into the empire. As a means to incorporate the Celtic natives into the empire, the Romans opted for the adoption of Celtic elements into their own religion, thus signifying the union between the two cultures which was showcased by the union between Mercury and Rosmerta. If the Romans refused to be flexible in their religion, regardless of which culture, they could potentially risk losing their newly conquered territories either through a violent rebellions or another power winning over the people by allowing them to keep their religion. Either hypothetical case could symbolically weaken Rome’s position as a world power. That being said, I do not believe that this would be a quick transition and I do believe that were likely conflicts over this incorporation. For the Celtic natives, the flexible nature of the Roman religion was ultimately advantageous for them because the incorporation of their beliefs into the Roman religion effectively resulted in the preservation of their culture; in the form of ritual, deities or iconography; even if it was slightly diluted. Though the Celtic natives were incorporating more Roman figures into their religion, they could present them in their own Celtic style rather than using the Roman style. The Celtic cooperation with the Roman Empire also meant that they maintain some political or religious autonomy from the empire, as the provinces did not necessarily need to follow the exact practices of Rome.

    Overall, I agree with your point though I believe that the conquest of Celtic natives and the resistance/accommodation of their religion should always be seen as intrinsically linked in the formation of the Romano-Celtic religion, regardless of how smoothly the transition was. Also, I found those Trobrianders very interesting and interestingly enough the notion of syncretism could be applied to Augustus and his propaganda with the formation of the imperial cult in Rome.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *