Search This Blog

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Animism and Neopaganism

  I am an animist. This is not an uncommon statement in modern paganism (including reconstructionism) but like so many other things it is far more complex than it may appear. What I mean when I say animist, and how that worldview shapes my life, may be very different indeed from what others mean when they use the term, because in modern pagan usage it is a somewhat nebulous and often poorly implemented idea. Part of this, I think, is rooted in a poor understanding of the original term, and part in people trying to graft what can be a very foreign idea onto the worldview they were raised with.
   So what is animism? Well, to start the term itself originated in anthropology in the 19th century as a way to categorize the beliefs of indigenous peoples. It is based in the Latin word "anima" which means spirit or soul. In effect animism is the belief that animals (including people), plants, natural objects and phenomena, and sometimes man-made objects have a spirit. An animistic world view can be found in all cultures at varying points and psychologist Jean Paiget theorized that animism is the natural state of belief in children. Unlike pantheism, which sees all existence as having a unified spirit, animism sees each spirit as unique; my soul is not the same soul as yours, nor is one oak the same spirit as another oak. Another thing that makes animism different from some other viewpoints is that to an animist all spirits are generally equal in significance (not, however, in Power) so that a human spirit is no more or less important in the universe than a Maple, or a squirrel, or a river. Animism does not see humans as superior or inherently more worthy than anything else. This does not mean that to an individual human or group of humans that their lives mean less but rather that they do not interact with the world with the idea that they are privileged, rather the spirits around them must be treated with respect in order for the humans themselves to succeed.
    When I say I am an animist I mean that I perceive the world as being populated by spirits, in the sense described above. Material existence cannot be separated from spirit, because spirit is an integral part of all things and is manifest in the individual spirits that inhabit the world. My cats have spirits, just as I and my family do. The oaks, maples, aspen, and cedars in my yard have souls, as does the swamp behind my house. I also believe my car has a spirit as well, so I suppose I am a modern animist. Animism also shapes my belief that spirits are eternal, and so just because something has died doesn't mean it's spirit is destroyed (and Irish paganism shapes my belief in reincarnation, or "spirit recycling"). I believe it is important to live in right relation with the spirits we share the world with, just as much as we should live in right relation with our human neighbors and coworkers (and for much the same reason). This can be done by showing respect and gratitude, taking only what we need, and using everything we take. It also means that I look at the world around me as full of living spirits that are just as important as I am. I have a certain horror at the wanton, purposeless, destruction and death that is so common in a world that will clear an area of land to sell and then let it all sit and rot waiting for a non-existent buyer, or pollute and poison an area for expediency.
     Now to be a bit critical. When I hear other neopagans talking about being animists I tend to see some common flaws in the way it is being approached. Some people who use the term animist actually mean pantheist, that is they believe that there is one, unified, spirit in all things not individual spirits in all things. There is nothing wrong with pantheism, and in fact you can be both a pantheist and an animist, but confusing the two terms shows a basic lack of understanding of what animism is. Other people take animism to a personalized extreme, where instead of understanding that humans are no better or worse than other spirits they elevate all spirits to the privileged status humans tend to accord themselves in non-animist views. Not only is this perspective difficult to really apply to everything but it also makes life a guilt ridden experience, when you are seeing every rock, tree, and animal as having the right to life, liberty, and happiness that you see for yourself. Animism respects all spirits, but also contains the inherent understanding that all spirits have a place in the natural order which means some are used as firewood, building materials, or food - with appreciation for the use they offer to support other life. It is offensive to waste and to take for granted what others give for us to live, but the use itself is not offensive. Life is predicated on death, in a perpetual cycle; an animist understands and honors this, and our own place within it. In contrast others take what I might call a selective animism approach where they say they are animists but only credit certain things with spirits, generally based on their own fondness for the animal/plant/object in question or desire to avoid guilt about using others. And of course, as with all things, there are those who give the idea lip service and nothing more.
    I think neopaganism - indeed all religions - would benefit greatly from an animistic viewpoint. Animism in many ways gives us the best understanding of the true beauty and value of life - all life - and teaches us to honor what we need to live. It takes nothing for granted, but appreciates the cooperation needed between all things for life to continue. Animism avoids the dichotomous thinking that says a thing is either good or bad, or the view that all is good; it teaches us that there are good spirits and bad spirits, yes, but also that most spirits are simply spirits that will respond based on how they are treated. And most importantly animism disabuses us of the idea that we are privileged or special; whether we like it or not we are as valuable as everything else in the grand scheme of life.

15 comments:

  1. I really like this post -- I just happened to discover it by accident, shared by a friend on Facebook. I consider myself a rationalist and a scientist -- I don't believe in "spirit" or "soul" in any literal sense -- but I think that if you used the word "mind" or "intelligence' instead of spirit, what you're describing is not a lot different from how I experience the world.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I too discovered this article via a FB friend and I love it. You explain animism — the core of my world view — cogently, precisely and far better than I ever could. Thank you! —Rachel

    ReplyDelete
  3. This is a useful discussion, I think. Thank you for providing this perspective.

    I'm interested in the fact that you attribute a spirit to the marsh as a whole - by extension, I assume that each plant is also possessed of a spirit, and it is, in some ways, the collection of those spirits that makes the spirit of the marsh. This is in much the same way that, for instance, a religious group has a spirit that is composed of the individual spirits of the people who are a part of the group. One could concpetually extend this idea "upward" or "downward" (in terms of complexity) almost without limit, so that the individual organs of a living being have spirits, and the individual cells of each organ, and the organelles and such of each cell, and the molecules of each organelle, and the atoms of each molecule, and so on. Meanwhile, the whole marsh has a spirit, and so does the local landscape, the watershed, the region, the continent, the world, the solar system, the local spiral arm, the galaxy, the local galactic group, and so on, all the way up to the whole universe having a conceptual spirit. In addition, there are parallel ways of conceptualizing those spirits, so that one spirit could be the spirit of storms, while another is the spirit of wind. There is a crossover between the two spirits, but they are not the same spirit. Similarly, two different spirits can exist related to the same, or largely the same, physical phenomenon or non-physical concept, but which have different story-patterns associated with them, and that makes them different spirits as well.

    Of course, as a polytheist (I don't think that there are significant differences between "polytheist" and "animist" in practice; even though the Victorians hypothesized a form of polytheism which was not also animist, such a thing does not seem to have ever existed in reality), I don't see any point to trying to gain the attention of the spirit of the whole universe, as its concerns are on a scale at which we humans are imperceptible motes living on motes orbiting motes. There are spirits at a much more reasonable scale, while still being greater than us. We call those "gods".

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree. I do enjoy thinking about it sometimes, about how far up or down the concept can go, but in practice I focus on the spirits that I interact with, depend on, or need to appease.

      Delete
    2. It's true! Practice is the more important matter, but it is interesting, and occasionally helpful, to consider the underpinnings as well.

      Delete
  4. Are you sure that your version shared here is the only viewpoint considered properly animist? I ask because I have heard of another, years ago (and so cannot recall where now, unfortunately), which spoke of spirits in all, yes, but that in species of trees, plants, and animals it was more of a shared spirit among all of that species, like a group mind, rather than differentiated, as with people, and perhaps more evolved animals. I had considered that an animist perspective as well; would you?

    Like Chris, I tend to think of polytheism as naturally including animism, or more broadly, that the creideamh sí is both polytheistic and animistic in nature, as are most other indigenous traditions. I tend to find it more useful to discuss the nature of the -traditions- with these terms rather than the nature of personal beliefs or orientations, as I feel that is where the muddling you mentioned can happen, when people choose to use words they way they'd like to, and so personalize them, which can have the effect of obscuring their meanings.

    Also, while I find animist worldviews helpful in holding to right relationships with the land and its spirits, I don't find it necessary, as some of my atheist friends' ecological attitudes have shown me.

    Very interesting article, and a subject that I think too often gets left out of the discussions of the nature of our traditions and how we relate with and express them today. Thanks for sharing.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The viewpoint I share is the practical illustration of the anthropological term. There are other variations, of course, such as Totemism, which are similar but considered distinct. I have no problem, myself, with including larger concepts of spirit - such as the spirit of the eagle - in with animism since that idea doesn't preclude or exclude the view that each eagle also has its own distinct spirit. Rather like Jung's idea of the collective human unconscious doesn't negate individual human personalities. But if the idea is put forth excluding the animistic view, for example saying that there is an ultimate spirit of eagle that we can connect to but that each individual bird has no spirit of its own, just a small piece of the whole, then I would say that is more pantheistic thananimistic.

      Delete
    2. Doesn't the pantheistic view hold more to the idea that there is just -one- great overall spiritual essence shared by -all- beings, rather than differentiating it among species? I'm not seeing anything in the definition and application of the term animism which would negate the idea I've presented, or turn it into pantheism rather than animism. The definitions I'm reading do talk about indwelling spirits, but doesn't specify that this inherently means every specific object has its own specific spirit. It isn't given that clearly, like a 'hard animism.' It is also understood that this practice was found among a wide spectrum of cultural beliefs, and each culture likely applied it culturally specific ways which might not be shared by all tribal peoples everywhere. I don't think it is a term so easily nailed down.

      Delete
    3. There are a wide range of views yes, I can only go by my own understanding of it. This is pretty inline with my own view - http://anthro.palomar.edu/religion/rel_2.htm but of course there are other views as well. I just tend to see the wider all-eagles-are-one-spirit as tending towards pantheism, but you might be right that its still a type of animism. I've never, personally, seen animism that didn't have that personal aspect but that doesn't preclude it, I suppose.

      Delete
    4. Thanks for the link. The definition given there actually indicated both varieties of animism in its definition, which I found interesting.

      In this concise set of definitions neither version is specified over the other:
      http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/animism

      This brief definition here speaks more to behavior and relationships with such spirits rather than to the nature of those spirits themselves: http://www.animism.org.uk/

      This longer piece mostly references the idea of indwelling souls and sharing space with them, but does not directly touch on or insist that those souls are individual or collective, although the material could be interpreted either way, or both ways:
      http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Animism

      Whereas in that site's piece on pantheism, it is defined as "the religious and philosophical view that everything in existence is of an all-encompassing immanent God, or that the universe, or nature, and God are equivalent (i.e., that "all is God")." This speaks to -everything- carrying and sharing the same soul/life force/divinity, or at least all living things; it might not be extended to rocks or other man-made, inanimate objects.

      That's what I've found, anyway.

      Delete
    5. It's easy to understand why pantheism and animism can be confused, and why they also sometimes overlap in an individual's beliefs. I tend, personally, to see the wider types of animism as being closer to totemism when they aren't bordering on pantheism, but that's just my opinion. From a strictly anthropological viewpoint animism itself is a broad term created to describe a wide array of similar beliefs. I can only discuss my own perception of it but your points are valid.

      Delete
    6. oh, totemism -http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Totemism

      Delete
    7. Thanks! I hadn't read that entry yet. Each one widens the greater picture in which these things are contextual and referential. All very interesting! :)

      Delete