Animism for Modern Pagans
“Animistic salvation is utilitarian, selfish, human-directed, and of this world. An animist is chiefly concerned with self. He seeks power to fulfil his own earthly needs. The basic tenet of animism is the manipulation of spiritual powers for one's own benefit”.
That was a quote I came across a few years ago on the Christian website of a fellow describing himself as an evangelical missionary. Despite being a reasonably tolerant pagan who feels that people should be free to believe what they choose, I have to say that there is nothing in that quote, apart from animism focussing on this world, which bears even a passing resemblance to the truth. Sadly, some Christians unashamedly make factually wrong assertions against other belief systems. But even earnest seekers after truth with an enquiring mind often struggle to grasp the concept of animism.
A major difficulty tends to arise because we don’t really have the language to make complete sense of the concept of animism. Most people, of course, are aware that animism is associated with tribal cultures and therefore assume, understandably so, that animists in the modern world have to abandon the culture in which they belong and live like tribespeople of bygone times. Not only would that be totally impractical; it would be phoney, unnecessary, and also patronising to indigenous cultures the world over.
What in fact is Animism, you might ask? The term “animism” is really an invention of 19th century anthropologists to describe tribal cultures. That is important to understand, because the irony is that the tribal cultures the anthropologists set out to study didn’t actually describe themselves as animists at all, any more than Classical pagan cultures had a concept of “other religions”. The old Irish joke: “Are you a Catholic Hindu or a Protestant Hindu?” springs to mind. But even if tribal cultures had any knowledge of Catholics, Protestants, or Hindus, it is a joke that would be met with blank stares of incomprehension because the concept of “other religions” is a legacy of Monotheism. Pagan cultures just had similar sorts of gods to other pagan cultures, but with different names. The term animism, therefore, was basically a catchall term in an attempt to describe the beliefs of traditional tribal cultures in general.
If you look up any standard definition of the word “animism” you will find that animism is said to be the belief that all things possess their own soul or spirit. That also includes what we in the modern Western world refer to as inanimate objects, such as stones, trees, plants, and even abstract features like the wind and thunderstorms, and so on. But even that explanation is rather misleading within the context of modern animism, which should become clearer as we go on.
First of all, a brief historical background would be useful. Back in the early part of the 18th century, a German scientist called Georg Ernst Stahl coined the word Animismus, which simply meant that all animal life had an immaterial soul. About a hundred years later the anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor adopted the word “animism”, although some claim that Tylor actually coined the term. But whatever the case, the term “animism” appears in his most well-known book, Primitive Culture.
Now the main problem with trying to get a handle on the real nature of animism, however it was understood, is the fact that Edward Tylor was a white, middle-class Victorian academic from an English Quaker background who set out to study tribal cultures. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with any of those aforementioned attributes. The problem lay in the fact that Tylor was a product of his time and consequently had a rather condescending attitude toward all tribal cultures. That was not a good premise upon which to start.
Like all Colonial types of his day Edward Tylor took the view that tribal people were primitive savages and that their worldview was simply childish and underdeveloped. According to Tylor, the more scientifically advanced a culture the less would members of such a culture believe in animism. In fact, the standard assumption among the intelligentsia of the time was that animism was the earliest form of religious belief and that all other religious ideas were developed later. To the horror of modern animists, it was believed in Tylor’s time that polytheism was an evolutionary improvement on animism, the latter considered to be the most primitive form of superstitious nonsense. Eventually polytheism in turn was superseded by monotheism. As one would expect from Western academics steeped in Christian culture, monotheism was believed to be the most advanced religious belief of them all.
In all fairness to Tylor, he was more sceptical than other social academics and eventually came to the conclusion that monotheism was no less superstitious than what he considered animism to be; he simply regarded monotheism as a more sophisticated form of superstition. Nonetheless, even today most individuals born and bred into Western culture seldom question if monotheism is valid or not. The Western mindset does tend to think in Monotheistic terms in the same way that Capitalists think in terms of profit. In fact, one often hears some pagans say something like: “all gods are one god,” or “all goddesses are one goddess” and wonder if these pagans are actually subscribing to a sort of latter-day monotheism.
Whatever one’s position on the matter, a strong case can be made in support of the argument that monotheism is actually the most primitive expression of religious belief. For example, the concept of a solitary and Supreme Being said to exist outside of the Natural World has, in the view of many, actually impacted on the values of our society, resulting in deference to hierarchy, for good or ill. There are undoubtedly grounds for suspicion that monotheism was first invented to enable a charismatic self-appointed leader to gain absolute control over the tribe, and later over wider society. Even in our own country today, there are some politicians and Establishment figures that give a distinct impression, by token of their social status, that they were ordained to rule over us. They don’t tend to announce publicly that God has appointed them leaders, but the idea of the Divine Right of Kings often seems to pervade our society and culture.
Another distinguishing negative feature underpinning monotheism is that sky gods – or even a solitary, Supreme Sky God – are entirely incompatible with an Earth-based religion. The idea that our focus should be on the stars and a sky god rather than the sacred ground beneath our feet is not an easy one for the Western mind to question. A rhyme I was taught as a child should make it clearer: “Two men look through prison bars; one sees mud, the other sees stars”. The message here is meant to be obvious. The prisoner who looks to the sky is presumed to be more positive and optimistic, whereas the other prisoner is a sad victim of pessimistic despair. We are told that we should all aspire to be like the stargazing prisoner. But what if the prisoner gazing at the mud is an animist. He might indeed observe the first sign of approaching spring in the shape of snowdrops pushing their way through the mud – a feature that would entirely be missed by the stargazing prisoner. Again, we see how the concept of a Sky Divinity shapes and influences our perception of the world.
In addition to that, humans tend to respect things that seem much bigger and loftier than they are. Size is important to humans after all, which is why even some traditional tribal cultures displayed a tendency to see the world in such a way. Emma Restall Orr, the well-known Druid lady wrote a book a few years ago called “The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature”. In the book she mentions a tribesman who was asked if a desert has a spirit. He replied by saying that the desert certainly has a spirit. When then asked if a grain of sand also has a spirit, he replied that it does not. The same distinction he also applied between a river and a droplet of water.
The interesting feature here is the assumption that small and apparently insignificant things aren’t supposedly worthy of having spirits. But what would the same tribesman make of the strange world that exists in quantum reality? If he could look deeply into the quantum realms the way a physicist does, he might have to think again. I have long been intrigued by the hypothetical sci-fi notion that if you could travel far beyond the universe and look back at it from a great distance, it would probably look as insignificant as a grain of sand in the Sahara Desert. “Hmm…definitely no spirit there,” the tribesman would probably say.
It is almost certain, of course, that there are not any light waves beyond the universe to transmit such an image, but the important point being emphasised here is that scale or size is actually determined by human perception. Anyone who has climbed a mountain will have experienced its grandeur; a mountain does seem to possess a spirit. But if you viewed the Alps or the Himalayas from space, they would not look so grand, and yet nothing would have changed about those mountains – except our perception of them, that is all. The poet William Blake highlighted the paradox here when he wrote:
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour”
That in a nutshell is the essence of animism. In the December 2015 edition of New Scientist Richard Mabey précised his then recently published book entitled “The Cabaret of Plants: Botany and the Imagination”. The article went on to say that modern science and environmentalism too often reduce plants to the status of utilitarian and decorative objects. Richard Mabey bemoaned the fact that Wordsworth’s “host of golden daffodils has been re-branded as natural capital”. He also went on to say: “Plants are not passive spectators on the planet. They have more to say than we know. Research is revealing that they have unexpected superpowers and covert means of communication … such powers raise the ancient conundrum of whether plants can be said to possess intelligence”. The author pointed out, however, that what is really emerging from the science is complex and proactive sensor systems, rather than an innate desire to chat with Prince Charles.
Richard Mabey is a scientist; as far as I am aware, he does not have an animistic view of the world. However, what he says is actually animism in a nutshell. It is also important to point out that, contrary to popular notions, animists do not anthropomorphise the Natural World. They do not feel a need to dress up animals in human clothing, like Beatrix Potter creations. A stone remains a stone; a tree remains a tree; they are not token human beings. But they do have their own awareness. Does this mean, therefore, that so-called inanimate objects, like grains of sand and water droplets and so on, possess souls or spirits? How can a rock or a pebble, you might be wondering, possess a soul?
The problem here is with the word “possess”, which implies separation. For example, we might possess a pair of shoes, which are of course physically distinct from us; they are not part of our bodies. But creating an ultimate distinction between spirit and matter conjures up images of little ghosts, rather like Caspar, fluttering around everything. This simplistic interpretation is one reason why Victorian anthropology refused to take animism seriously, and why rational individuals still do not take it seriously today. The whole idea, we are told, is clearly childish superstition.
Again, we can see from this that our perception of matter and spirit as somehow being fundamentally different in nature creates a major problem. It is a legacy that the Western world has partly inherited from Monotheism, Neo-Platonism and the Dualism of Rene Descartes. The truth, however, is quite different. The animal, vegetable and mineral kingdoms do not possess souls; they generate soul by virtue of their existence. Soul is simply energy. It has to be said, however, that the term energy within this context is not equated to the term “energy” as understood by physics. Sceptics persistently assume that the use of the term “energy” in esotericism equates to the scientific definition of energy, which is not the case at all. Energy, as understood by science, can be contained, measured, and harnessed. “Soul Energy” is rooted in archetypal and metaphoric understanding.
It is important, also, to point out that there is nothing supernatural about “soul”; soul is a product of the Natural World. When scientists look at quantum reality what they perceive is in a constant state of activity and flux. Nothing is inanimate. We simply assume some things to be inanimate based on the limits of human perception. Different types of plants, for example, have their own specific energy identity, depending on how the plant has evolved to survive in the world. The same can be said for trees and everything else within Nature.
But what can we say about viruses? Are viruses inanimate? Scientific opinions differ on whether viruses are actually a form of life – but not life, as we know it, Jim. Viruses are 10 to 100 times smaller than bacteria, but a virus is a very infectious agent that replicates inside the living cells of other organisms. In other words, viruses require a living host - like a plant or animal - to multiply. Bacteria, on the other hand, can grow on non-living surfaces. But unlike bacteria, certain viruses have the potential to wipe out the entire human race.
That kind of power is awesome. From an animist perspective, it seems to me that viruses do indeed generate a form of soul energy whether they are alive or not in a conventional sense. As to humans, when you or I came into the world we weren’t supplied with a ready- made personality or given a soul. Like viruses, what we had was potential, and we developed that partly by the influence of our genes, our cultural influences, and many other factors. Buddhists and believers in reincarnation would also add karma to the equation.
Musicians, too, often speak of soul. One can perform music that sounds lifeless, or one can play music with soul. The difference is apparent even to a non-musician who cannot tell the difference between a crotchet and a quaver. The presence of soul can be felt by anyone who is prepared to listen and pay attention. Go into a forest and sit under a tree for a while. If you cannot feel the energy, or soul, of the tree, then you are not paying enough attention.
A few years ago, I came across a comment on an Internet forum discussing guitars where someone had said that it takes ten years for a guitar to realise that it is no longer a tree. The point being made is that the wood from the tree has been reborn as something else entirely: in this case, a guitar. To put it another way, a metamorphosis has taken place. The wood that once was a living tree has died, but that wood has now taken on a new life and is generating a different kind of soul energy. As the wood seasons and matures the tone of the guitar improves, making it more soulful. In addition to that, the soul of the guitar player interacts in a synergy-like manner with the soul of the instrument to generate even more soul.
All things that exist generate soul energies. But because humans have evolved as a self-focussed and self-interested species, we are not easily given to perceiving the energy generated by trees, rocks, pebbles and other so-called inanimate objects. We simply assume they are static. But the fact is that so-called inanimate objects are simply operating on a different waveband to humans. Animism shows us that there are many other aspects of reality normally denied to the limits of our five senses.
For many individuals this can be a Eureka moment, as it was for me. Suddenly the penny drops and we realise that all of Nature is alive; alive in its own special and individualistic way, which means that the whole of Nature is sacred. Sadly humans, however, have become increasingly exploitative of natural resources and the majority of humans seem to have little or no respect for other life forms, be they animal, vegetable or mineral, and even other human beings. If there is any hope of survival for humanity into the future, then it is my own personal conviction that we need an animistic approach more than ever to awaken us from our folly. That is why I am proud to call myself an animist.