Thursday, March 24, 2011

getting my Irish on, again

One last Irish post. In previous years, my Cultural Anthropology class was covering the topic of religion around St. Patrick's day. There is a traditional prayer attributed to St. Patrick (called St. Patrick's breastplate, or the Lorica, or the deer prayer) that is a wonderful example of syncretism. The prayer is in the form of a traditional druidic incantation for protection, but with overt Christian symbolism. The modern versions are translations, obviously, but they include clear references to pagan magic, and the invocation (literally) of God as a protector: "I bind unto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity, by invocation of the same, the Three in One, the One in Three."

In fact, the legend of the prayer is that St. Patrick used it to turn himself and his companions into deer, so they would not be killed by the druids who were seeking them out. Honestly, men who become deer through invocation of the power of the moon, stars, sun, ocean, and rocks? How much more pagan can you get? Except it's not.

I like to use this example of syncretism, because textbook examples often portray this process as something "primitive". Students get the idea that somehow only very ignorant or religiously backward people engage in syncretism. (Yes, I know, the very idea is non-anthropological, but not all students recognize that.) This example from the early church resonates more with students, and makes it clear that this is a wide-spread phenomenon.

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