It was not long ago (a few years perhaps) that I still clung to the term "Wicca" to describe my system of beliefs, despite the fact that there are elements of Wicca that I was never able to fully embrace. I still consider Wicca a religion filled with beauty & life-affirming values -- a piece of me is very much Wiccan at heart. However, somewhere along the way, I felt I was being dishonest when I used the term to describe my personal spiritual system. This is when I really began looking at what moves me, inspires me, causes me to reel with sublime wonderment.
It was a bit like feeling about in the dark (or freefalling in an antigravity chamber), desperately grasping at words I've never used. Then, I had this weird epiphany while exercising. (Isn't it peculiar how exercise does that?) I was thinking about a tagline for this blog, something to describe myself. I had asked myself, "What is most important about you?" The words mother, mycophile & animist bubbled to the surface of my psyche, all together, all at once, quite to my surprise. Animist? Really? I jotted it on a scrap of paper & later, despite my lack of certainty about "animist," used it as the tagline. Yet, I never once sought clarification. Intuitively, it seemed "right" & I was satisfied with that.
Despite a sizable Pagan & "occult" book collection, I still do not own a single book on animism. I also have not had any significant contact with any other animists, nor have I read much of the online literature. A handful of academic journal articles are the extent of my exposure to the subject & those were read in order to piece together the following entry.* I believe I have avoided external input for several reasons, the most important being that I have not wanted to be influenced by what other people think or say animism is, or how it should be "practiced." I do what I do because it seems right.
I was startled to find that my "innate" or "intuitive" animism corresponded very closely with the concepts & ideas discussed in the articles I read. How strange, how basic animism is... all around the world, it looks very much the same. I find this fascinating. Someday -- when I am ready -- I will collect some books & see just what animism is looking like here, there & everywhere else. Until then, I will continue this process of independent exploration, talking to myself, the fungi, the gods, the ether... anyone else who cares to listen... (& better still, respond).
* All quotes below cite the original sources, but most I encountered in journal articles available online... Just in case there is a stickler in the house.
What is animism?
What is animism?
"Everything about the (animistic) system is founded on the conviction that home is already Eden." -- Hugh Brody
This animist's view of the universe.
Derived from the Latin word anima, which means "life," "soul" or "breath," animism recognizes Spirits & a Spirit World inherent in our physical world. Animists attribute a soul to life-forms, inanimate objects & natural phenomena. To label animism as primal or primitive might be accurate to some degree, but it is also organic, intrinsic, grounded. Animism, at its most basic, is a mode of thought:
"...animism is nothing less than the fundamental mode by which human consciousness regards the world. Consciousness just is animistic. And this perspective is a consequence of human evolutionary history." 1
"...animism may be described (not defined) as the taproot which sinks deepest in racial human experience and continues its cellular and fibrous structure in the tree-trunk of modern conviction." 2
Animism does not demand complex theologies, execution of rote ceremony, or intricate cosmologies to explain the universe. It is rooted in a very basic, instinctual reverence for, understanding of & connectivity within our world. It is the process of being at home, right where we are & participating in relationships with other sentient beings that make up the Great Web that is our environment, our universe. In this form, animism can be seen as a lifestyle, way of life or, if you prefer, "lifeway":
"Animism is the attempt to live respectfully as members of the diverse community of living persons (only some of whom are human) which we call the world or cosmos." 3
Animism by nature is not a religion. However, animistic thinking & lifeways can be extended to interpret, understand & ultimately interface with that which the practitioner values as sacred. Animism, in this usage, could be defined as a spiritual practice. For the most part, this is how I employ it in my writings -- for me, thought & lifeway are inseparable from spiritual practice. Other animists will differ in their interpretation, approach, usage & that is completely natural -- animism is about relationships & relationships are very individual & very personal.
Thus far, I have found a couple of common threads in animistic spiritual practices (beyond the obvious relationship stuff); a land-based ethic, an emphasis on the value of dreams & the "performance of worshipful acts," (i.e., reverence) towards entities, animate, or inanimate. 4 It seems likely that there could be more, but given the global diversity of animistic cultures & belief systems, the task of sorting these out seems monumental.
Animistic thought has been suppressed by centuries of objectivity & rationalism, but because it is the underlying mode of human thought, it remains in the recesses of our minds & it can be reclaimed, recovered, rescued out from under the constraints of 'modern thought.'
"We were all animistic children once, and for most of human evolutionary history would have grown into animistic adults. Animism is therefore spontaneous, the 'natural' way of thinking for humans, and it requires sustained, prolonged and pervasive socialization to 'overwrite' animistic thinking with the rationalistic objectivity typical of the modern world. It is learned objectivity that creates alienation - humans are no longer embedded in a world of social relations but become estranged, adrift in a world of indifferent things." 5
I am among those humans who never had this mode spontaneous entirely quelled by objectivism. For this I am deeply grateful, but it also often causes me to feel just a little weird & ironically, a little alienated (from other humans, at least). The rewards still outweigh the disadvantages so I continue along this route, seeking more opportunities to revel in the animist experience & to recover that which I have lost.
"Opening up begins with listening. To learn to listen, however, is a long process... Once we have learned to hear, then, we can begin to understand. And only after we understand do we begin to speak, to intervene." 6
Some methods for reclaiming animism are fairly simple, others present complex logistical challenges. They all basically require some kind of active disengagement from our Western cultural & social status quo -- those systems that perpetuate rational thought.
Among the many viable approaches to reclamation are: solitude, leisure, unstructured time, direct contact with nature, disinhibition & altered states of consciousness. 7 While some of these methods are shared with Shamanic traditions, animism cannot be equated with Shamanism (I understand some animistic customs may require a Shaman, however).
I'm pretty good at disengaging. I also have the luxury of being able to do so. I guess this might be one reason (beyond the obvious) why animism works for me. The real challenge for me personally, is finding ways to knit Sciento-reverence & animistic thought together without compromising the strength, integrity or beauty of either ideological thread. There is no reason for them to exist at odds, yet we are trained to view them as mutually exclusive. It makes for a knotty task, but what a magickal web it shall weave.
"It's not about you.
It isn't without you.
There is only one world. We live in it together."
-- Graham Harvey
1 The Other Side of Eden: Hunters, Farmers, and the Shaping of the World by Hugh Brody, Faber, 2002.
2 Animism: Or, Thought Currents of Primitive Peoples by George William Gilbert, Classic Books, 2010.
3 Animism: Respecting the Living World by Graham Harvey, Columbia University Press, 2005.
4 Animism, the Seed of Religion by Edward Clodd, Bibliolife, 2010.
5, 7 Alienation, Neo-shamanism and Recovered Animism by Bruce G Charlton MD, Medical Hypotheses, 2002.
6 The Earth Path by Starhawk, Harper Collins, 2004.