Syncretism is an esoteric concept. Sometimes, for one reason or another, one spirit may assume the identity of another spirit (in spiritual parlance: wear its mask). That spirit may answer to the other spirit’s name or use its iconography. For example, if you go to a botanica and ask to buy a statue of the West African deity Babalu Ayé, you will likely be given a statue labeled Saint Lazarus. No mistake has been made. The image of the Roman Catholic saint is used to represent Babalu Ayé, who may also answer to the name Saint Lazarus. They are syncretized.

Syncretism tends to be the fruit of desperation. Babalu Ayé’s syncretism to the beggar saint began when Africans, kidnapped during the slave trade and brought to labor in the Western Hemisphere, were forbidden to venerate their own deities. Of course, when do you need your deities most but during a cataclysmic disaster? On one hand, enslaved Africans could not afford to abandon their spirits; on the other, they could not afford to openly break these rules, as punishmentwas devastatingly severe. What do you do in this situation? Throughout history, people’s response to similar circumstances has been syncretism: secretly venerating one spirit while openly professing veneration of another.

Enslaved Africans were generally not taught to read, write, or given sophisticated Christian conversion instruction. They were, however, given Christian imagery to venerate. People for whom an image is very familiar may assume that everyone sees what they see, but in fact different people may look at the same image but not see the same thing. Roman Catholic Saint Patrick is inevitably portrayed with at least one snake. When devotees of the serpent-deity Damballah saw images of Saint Patrick, what impressed them was the snake. Unfamiliar with the legend, they did not automatically assume that the saint was banishing the pictured snake; instead a venerable, dignified man was depicted with a snake, together, in company. Damballah became syncretized to Saint Patrick.

Syncretism provides safety and discretion. In late nineteenth-century Cuba, authorities arrested a devotee of the orisha Shango, charging him with sorcery. He defended himself saying that his home altar was, in fact, dedicated to Saint Barbara, to whom Shango is syncretized, thus he was not a witch but a devoted Christian.

Two people may look at an image of a beautiful woman dressed in blue and disagree: one sees the Christian Mary, while the other recognizes the same image as the Vodou lwa Ezili Freda Dahomey. If they bring over a third person to look at the same image and decide between them, that person may see the Yoruba orisha Yemaya. Similarly, someone viewing a statue of a mother with babe in arms carved from black wood will recognize the Egyptian goddess Isis and her son, baby Horus. Someone else sees that same statue and recognizes Mary and baby Jesus. Yet another person will recognize the Vodou matriarch, Ezili Dantor, with her daughter, Anaïs.