Functional Syncretism

Blending of different beliefs – inspiration, appropriation, exploitation, recreation?

First, a bit about Stories

I love stories. Not like. Not enjoy. Love love love them beyond all measure. A well told story, of course, even a goodly told one. Give me more, More MORE!!! I hope that’s clear. I’ve listened, read, watched any manner of performances, from various traditions, in translation, in their original language (foreign to me), and have come to appreciate them all, as much as I was able to penetrate it. After all this, there are two in which I do better: dancing and writing.

Recently, a number of Mouthpieces for the Flabby Devil made light of cultural appropriation while standing in the middle of continent-wide living example of it. This has brought the issue back to public discourse, which is great, except I don’t know how much the public debate has done to change anyone’s original opinion.

Back in the 1990s, I was touring the then Museum of Civilization, viewing Haida carvings, masks, boxes, canoes when the tour guide first introduced me to the idea of a potlach. He mentioned a previous tour where he had a Haida man in the tour, and when he saw a particular mask, it inspired him to tell a story he knew about it. The guide then explained that the story was sacred, and the storyteller had to give someone permission to retell it. This lesson stuck with me. There are stories that are mine to tell, and there are those that aren’t. I do my best not to speak for other people, other than as advocate.

I had studied literature, and by far my favourite course was 20th Century British Fiction, in particular the postmodern and metafictional elements. Postmodernism has received more criticism than praise as far as any references to it persist at all, but it was an essential step. What I found most interesting were the challenges to convention.  In Flann O’Brien’s At Swim-Two-Birds he has three openings (why just one?), the characters drug the author (why do they have to be true to type?), etc. BS Johnson used the physical book, scattering words around the page like scattered thoughts, cutting holes between pages as a sort of physical foreshadowing, or maybe a metaphor for quantum entanglement. Either way. It was eye opening. So many creative approaches to the simple idea of writing a story. Mark Danielewski is the current champion in this regard.

When I read Tomson Highway, Thomas King, Eden Robinson, and a number of other Indigenous authors, I marvelled at how people from what had been an oral culture had so mastered the novel form. My personal favourite (it changes daily) is Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King. If I could write a fraction as well as him, I’d be blessed.

I don’t consider any single one of those to be appropriation. It would be an example of syncretism, a blending together of different beliefs. I think it usual points to religion, but I think it can be broadened to include any belief system. The novel came to popularity in Europe, travelled to Turtle Island where the traditional myths found their way into the traditional novel, and now something wonderful has resulted. I couldn’t say exactly what it is, other than a powerful story, powerfully told.

That’s my background disclaimer.

the Inspiration

I’ve got my own Medicine Wheel, which I didn’t so much develop as discover. I can explain the process I went through, which illustrates what I mean by syncretism. I trust that it’s a given that I wish to treat all of these traditions respectfully.


Ensou of Zen

The open circle. Think of this as the shape in which we gather as groups. The opening keeps our thoughts on those unable to attend, and allows others to join, provided room is made to keep the circle open. It’s is more flexible, expansive, and inclusive than the closed circle, as a symbol.


the Taijitu of taoism

A simple image that informs a sophisticated belief in the way to live within natural rhythms. The two elements, yin and Yang are complements, which is a quality that can not be overstated. They two represent idealized extremes (pure light, pure dark) between which their interplay is where we experience life (shadows, colours, pigments, arts, etc.).


Anishnaabeg Medicine Wheel

Cultures all across the world have symbol systems founded on the four cardinal directions (N, E, S, W), some include the centre, up and down as well. It’s a foundation on which understanding of oneself, one’s relationship to family, community, and the greater world.


Jewish Tree of Life

A search for the Tree of Life brought this to my attention (as well as Black Elk’s Vision). This structure is deeply sophisticated and complex, such that I gave up after butting up against how much there was to learn. The spheres and paths incorporate a rich belief system, but also the letters of the Hebrew language. There is a further belief that there are four of these, overlapping one over the other. The one symbol I took from the original was the central one. called תפארת, Tiferet (Spirituality, Balance, Integration, Beauty, Miracles, Compassion).


Circle of Days from Science

The 365 days of the year, shaded to represent the change in position of the Sun in the Sky throughout the year.

Syncretic Symbol

So with the above ideas, they came together somewhere in my subconscious and came out all done. Here’s part of the process. I was pondering on the Tree of Life above, considering Tefiret as the centre, and the four overlapping Trees. How would that look if it were radial, instead of hierarchical? How would that work?


First, I took the central point and the structure above it, and changed the paths. At this point, this has nothing to do with the Kabbalah, and it begins to take on different significance.


Here are the four structures, arranged like the four directions. Then overlap the central spirals.


Add some colour for the four directions and the taijitu.


The colours are:
blue = North, green = East, yellow = South, red = West,
white = up, black = down

What about the Days and the Open Circle?

I decided on the 13 month model for a calendar, but it revealed so many more symmetries than I could have imagined. The essential bit is that 13 months works out to 364 days the 1 other day isn’t part of any month (but it is a weekday, because I have no more say over weekdays than I do over the Kabbalah)

364 days of the Year, divided into Quarters. Solstices top and bottom, Equinoxes left and right (not exactly, but they’re close enough for the moment). Each quarter is 91 days long, which works out to 13 weeks.


364 days of the Year, where the lines above point to the days that fall at the middle of each quarter (Feb 5, May 7, Aug 6, Nov 5). The Wheel of the Year made these same observations. It also divides the Year into four periods with interesting qualities. From Nov 5 to Feb 5, the days are noticeably darker for longer, and the rate of change in daylight slows down to imperceptible around the Solstice. Then, Feb 5 to May 7, the rate of change accelerates to a maximum through the Equinox, then it slows. May 7 to Aug 6 is the bright season, where the rate of change slows to an equivalent as the period of darkness. Aug 6 to Nov 5, the days shorten, the rate of change accelerates through the Equinox, and the on into the darkness.

This is the essence of almost every story. Along with the same pattern visible in the waxing and waning of the moon, as well as the spinning of our globe.

wheel of the year

The Syncretic Wheel of the Year

the Calendar and the Thing


So here are the 364 days of the year arranged as 13 months. This is a chronological arrangement. Someone suggested I put the central month in the centre of the circle.


Notice anything familiar?


One Last Thing

Remember those 4 days midway through each quarter (Feb 5, May 7, Aug 6, Nov 5)? If we remove those the same way we removed Dec 21 for the New Year, it gives us 360 days.


Several calendars use 360 days, but the 5 are kept to the end of the Year. In this case, there’s the New Year (Dec 21) and the four midway days that are skipped. This gives us a huge number of factors by which to divide the days. There are cultures that use 3, 4, 5 day weeks, not just the 7 weekdays. These are critical to their market and trading, and sadly our diversity of calendars is dying out along with our diversity of everything else.

This calendar can be made of 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15, 18, 20 day weeks. The full possible measures look like this:


So that’s where we are. The First Day of any new year is the first day of every measure of time observed throughout the year. I suggest instead of beginning with the scientific bang, we begin with the musical ॐ


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s