Practical Animism

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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.

5 thoughts on “Practical Animism

  1. What a wonderful, important post.
    Is all too easy to play lip-service to animism and an entirely different thing to love it and change your life around the awareness of it.
    Something to express more I think.
    ❤️Belle

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for your writing – it’s always thoughtful, lucid and lyrical.

    I’ve struggled with the idea of pure animism i.e. that literally *everything* is infused with spirit – even a plastic bag. Trees and rivers – I can respond to that; a can of Coke – less so.

    Like lots of folk, I’ve tried to seek out an historical native British / English animism and inevitably ended up investigating pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon belief. However, I don’t think there’s enough evidence to argue it *is* animistic. Instead, it seems to bear many parallels with Shinto – which is a kind of ‘limited animism’ i.e. only certain objects – not all – are infused with spirit.

    Shinto is biased towards ‘ensouled’ nature – lakes, rocks, trees and plants, animals. Natural shrines / sacred places proliferate, and there’s a focus on ancestor worship.

    Likewise, early AS beliefs seemed to involve nature-veneration; various early penitentials and the Laws of Cnut specifically prohibit the worship of water, wells, stones or trees. And even after the Norman invasion, the incomers were amazed at the number of places still revered as sacred; every village seemed to have its own own holy place or sacred shrine. Sarah Semple argues that early AS also appropriated and venerated burials mounds as the homes of ancestors.

    So this kind of ‘limited’ or ‘natural’ animism makes sense to me (rationally, intuitively, practically.) But I guess ultimately it doesn’t really matter. What’s important is just an acknowledgement that non-human things are ensouled and sacred, and respond to magical acts…

    What do you think?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful and engaging response.

      I think at the core of your question, you’re assuming that the Anglo Saxons only believed the natural forces and places they worshiped had spirits. Worship of some spirits does not exclude belief in others.

      Spiritual belief systems can, and usually do, exist on multiple levels. Shinto is not just an animist faith, it is a polytheist system, and includes ancestor worship. A ‘kami’ is not the only type of spirit recognised in traditional Japanese belief, it is simply one that is particularly honored.

      Expansive animism, not the worship of all things – but the acknowledgement of them as people, is deeply rooted in traditional Japanese culture. This respect is extended to ‘man-made’ objects as well. The service of ‘hari-kuyo’ is held for broken or used needles, the same for dolls is ‘ningyo-kuyo.’ There is an old belief in ‘tsukumogami’- tools that have been in service for 100 years, and have gained a conscious spirit. If you’re interested in modern Japanese animism, Marie Kondo’s extremely popular book on cleaning actually contains a lot of practical animism, such as how to treat your socks respectfully.

      The objectification of the natural, and ‘man-made’ world, is a symptom of a long western inheritance from Greek philosophy and Judeo-Christian theology. If you’re interested in how we came to think this way, I highly recommend Matthew Hall’s ‘Plants as Persons’ (which you can read here: http://www.staff.amu.edu.pl/~ewa/Hall,%20Plants%20as%20Persons.pdf) It is focused on the objectification of plants, but is relevant to the decline of animism in general.

      Hall talks about the guilt of violence to plants. If we believe plants are not ‘persons’ but ‘objects’ we are free to use them without acknowledging their suffering. I believe the same can be applied to your examples, the plastic bag and the coke can. Any ecologically conscious modern human will feel a certain guilt for the violence done to create these objects, that can get in the way of our ability to respect them. There’s also a great disassociation from their production that makes it difficult for us to acknowledge them in say, the way you might a handmade bowl or spoon.

      So yes, it’s easier for most of us to recognise a living or natural being as a person, but that is to do with our own perceptual bias.

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  3. Hi. Thanks so much for the reply and the recommendations for reading material.

    I guess my comments about mass-produced objects are really a consequence of personal experience (which may differ from yours, so apologies in advance.) In the same way that belief-systems are multi-tiered, so – I think – are ‘things’. A can of Coke certainly exists, inasmuch as I can sense it; it has mass and form and density, and science tells me it’s made of atoms; it is ‘of the earth’ in the sense that it is manufactured from materials with an earthly origin. As a result it may possess some kind of anima, or spirit, or connectedness, or a striving towards its Platonic form, or something else. But does it have emotions, a will, a consciousness, drives and desires etc?

    This implies it is somehow ensouled; that communication and negotiation are possible; that it has intelligence. I do think that any object can become ‘ensouled’ i.e. the vessel for a creature of spirit, whether a tree or a stone or a house or a Coke can or a 100-year-old tool. This is a function of intent / will: either the intent of a knowledgeable practitioner or the spirit-being itself, or the subtle but directed intent of many other ensouled beings over time – which is perhaps how a much-loved 100-year-old tool can acquire a conscious spirit (you could draw parallels between these ensouled objects and Shinto’s eight million kami.) But IMO the object is not otherwise inherently in possession of the attributes of a conscious being.

    Personal experience suggests that natural objects are much more likely to be ensouled than mass-produced objects. Why? Who knows – maybe spirit-beings prefer them. Maybe it’s because a tree is longer-lived than a Coke can (average lifespan: probably a couple of years max.) That’s not to say you or I couldn’t bind a spirit-being to a Coke can if we really wanted to, but it probably wouldn’t be much fun for the spirit.

    Trying not to be too much of a pedant, I also have a problem with calling a non-human thing a ‘person’. It smacks of anthropomorphism (like someone calling their dog ‘little man’ etc.) The whole thrill and challenge in communicating with a non-human entity / individual is that it is often utterly alien, exotic, terrifying, irrational – but not a ‘person’.

    I’m aware that pretty much everything I’ve written is subjective opinion. So forgive my personal prejudices and thanks for indulging me. I look forward to your future posts!

    Like

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