In my last essay on working with the land I discussed the importance of access and solitude to establishing a relationship with your locality. In the next part of this series I want to look at a few simple practices you can begin once you have this sort of access. But first I’d like to examine the concepts behind them a little more closely, particularly that of ‘practical’ animism.
Animism is a popular topic at the moment, at the innovative edge of the academy and in the occult world. It’s also getting attention at the more radical end of herbalism. I am very pleased to see books coming out like Nathaniel Hughes’ Weeds in the Heart, which approach plant medicine from an animist perspective. I believe this interest is driven by a move away from materialism and a growing awareness of ecology and eco-criticism. In the occult world, it is also a feature of increased syncretism and sharing between different esoteric traditions, especially those outside of Western Europe which have retained more of their spirit-work elements.
But the problem with the term animism is its novelty. It was coined by 19th century anthropologists and originally applied, derisively, to the beliefs of tribal cultures. Edward Burnett Taylor defined animism in 1871 as the ‘theory of the universal animation of nature,’ from Latin anima ‘life, breath, soul.’ This is still a useful definition for us, although it is important to keep in mind that Taylor saw animism as the most ‘primitive’ form of religion and a state of great ignorance, as opposed to scientific materialism. Animism has been applied as an umbrella term to a diverse range of beliefs, belonging to peoples who may or may not accept this definition.
I want to leave aside the issue of animism in anthropology and related disciplines for now, and discuss two expressions of animism you’re likely to encounter in contemporary Western counter-culture. You could call these ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ animism, in the way reconstructionists frequently differentiate ‘soft polytheism’ from ‘hard polytheism.’ But I find this division problematic and inherently judgmental. Instead, I’m going to use the terms theoretical and practical animism.
If contemporary Western animism accepts the central tenet that ‘all of nature is animated’, then two questions immediately arise: what are the metaphysics of this ‘animation’? – and – how do we respond to an animate universe? The first is a fascinating topic of discussion, involving various esoteric and philosophical theories of the soul, spirit, life-force-energy and the boundaries of individuality. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know the answer, although I have a few ideas and am always keen to engage with the question. Theoretical animists are those willing to accept the idea of an animate universe in theory. I’ve spoken with many people somewhere on the spectrum of theoretical animism, and not all have been pagans or occultists. It is a philosophy that appeals to members of many faiths, and of none.
However, it is the second question that is vital to my interests – how do we respond to an animate universe? If you’re born into a culture where animism is the dominant world-view, you’re likely to find this easier. For those of us brought up to believe that ‘animate’ only applies to moving organisms or, at a stretch, those with biological life signs, it will always be a challenge. Accepting that challenge means placing yourself at odds with the rest of your culture. The good news is that you don’t need to define the metaphysics of animist belief to enjoy practical animism, and yes, I mean enjoy. Practical animism can be full of wonder, connection, community and the sort of magic that makes your heart sing. It can also be terrifying, especially if your relationship with the non-human lacks respect.
Practical animism means living in a the world that is not divided between ‘people’ and ‘things.’ If everything is animate, then humans and animals are not exceptional. If a river or a car or a pebble is a person, in the same way your brother or mother is, how does that change the way you live? It should revolutionise it. If you truly acknowledge this world-view, then everything you do becomes part of a relationship. You take your place in a wider society of beings beyond your species. You become at once less exceptional and more connected.
How do we move from theoretical to practical animism? First, we have to decide what sort of relationship we want to have with non-humans. Just like our human interactions, these will be complex. Do we want to develop relationships in which we have power or in which we share mutual respect and co-operation? Can we conceive of a world in which our species is not at the top of the hierarchy of being? Do we even get to decide how these interactions will develop if the other party is uninterested or antipathetic to us?
To begin to with, we need to learn from others. Contemporary cultures with a living animist tradition and those of pre-modern Europe. Imagine, for example, that you are attending a formal event – a wedding or a dinner party, in which you are completely unfamiliar with the forms and manners expected of you as a participant. You do not wish to make a fool of yourself, or offend your hosts – so you watch carefully, listen and observe. If the person next to you knows how to behave, then you follow their example. This is not cultural appropriation – it’s simply learning from those with a better understanding of how to act in an animate world.
The second guide we have, inferior to the first, is our intuition. It is inferior only because it is subject to our own ego-desires and wishful imagination. If we are not careful, we can fool ourselves. The intuition is the only sense we all have that recognises the spirit-world. When we come to a place where we are not welcome, it will fill us with dread. When we are being watched, we will feel that presence. Learning to listen to our intuition is a survival skill, as much as a means of communication. With intuition we can learn how to practice animism directly from the non-human parties we seek to engage with.
Finally, I will add that even though I extol the virtues of direct, solitary engagement with the land – you do not need to have such access to practice animism. The animate universe does not begin where human civilization ends. The chair you are sitting on and the room you are in are just as alive and spirit-haunted as the wildest forest grove. Begin to recognise this and work with your household and urban spirits, and you will be in a good place to engage with those who inhabit wilder spaces.
Theoretical animism is not a weaker form of practical animism, it is a step towards it. We have to rearrange our minds before we can change our relationship with the non-human. However, accepting that the world is animate and treating it as inanimate will not make you any friends beyond the human. The practical animist does not just believe that the mountain is alive, they bow to it.