An exploration of Animism and how I came see it as a potentially valid knowledge system
In this chapter I discuss my ‘discovery’ of animism and why it became a central theme in my thinking. I also explore the meaning of animism in its original conception and consider what it means to discover that its essential elements are present in the major metaphysical and esoteric systems of advanced cultures, including the contemporary Western mystical and esoteric traditions.
The ‘discovery’ of animism
In the late 1980s I eschewed my involvement in practice-based occult knowledge systems, recognising that I lacked the intellectual discipline and learning to satisfy my need to develop a coherent and comprehensible narrative. I spent the near next decade pursuing a wider line of inquiry. In 2002, while reading Johnson’s A History of Christianity (1976) I found his discussion on the Catholic church’s passion for relics struck a chord with me. I was familiar, from my readings in anthropology, with the importance of power objects amongst traditional cultures, and I was familiar with the role of sacred objects in ritual and magical practice. The discussion on relics was new to me and rather than laughing at the practice of the veneration of relics from the comfortable standpoint of a rational educated modern person looking back over the follies of history, I found myself strangely touched and moved. It was an epiphany from a most unexpected quarter. I had had my own moment of dealing with strangely almost sacred ‘relics’ that still resonated strongly.
In 1996 I disposed of many personal and household items in a local tip as I prepared to relocate to England. This was a surprisingly emotional experience as even otherwise insignificant objects excited strong memories and feelings. I was surprised at the wrenching emotions I experienced as I discarded things that had been part of my life for many years, and that now had become impedimenta. I kept a small selection of significant objects that later were arrayed in my flat in Dover as essential and powerful links to the life I had left behind.
One day, as I sat in the flat I suddenly realised that I had created a protective circle around me, and that it had similar elements to magical rituals of protection. I had adorned the walls with images of my life in Australia and had arrayed my objects and images around the lounge room so as to create a complete encirclement that defined my ‘place’ as separate from the world beyond it. These objects and images were both personal and, in a sense, archetypal or emblematic. I had created a distinct ‘other place’ that had meaning, power and protection for me. It was a sacred place in which I could evoke memories and associations that empowered me, gave me meaning and identity. It was a refuge and a sanctuary.
Aside from photographs I had stones I had gathered on my journeys, a bush potpourri, a didgeridoo, a carved tree root from a creek bed near Broken Hill that had a distinct phallic shape to it and an array of personal memorabilia, all of which defined a distinctly Australian story. As well, I had treasured occult images and objects that included a small-scale replica of a hawk representing the Egyptian god Horus, a startlingly life-like rubber snake, an array of crystals and an ornate chalice.
Outside, in the other world of England, my story meant nothing. The things that gave me identity and significance were meaningless, or, at best, curiosities. I was beginning to understand the immigrant experience – of being a stranger in a strange land, but more importantly I was starting to comprehend the power of objects and images as vital carriers of meaning in ways that I had never before thought possible. This experience made me more attentive to the role and importance of objects as sources of meaning, memory, comfort and emotional strength. They also seemed to have ‘power’, that is, a reservoir of psychic potency, and a wellspring that tapped into distant places or realities remote in time and space. In a sense, they manifested ‘otherworldly’potencies that could be called upon for strength and meaning in the present time.
Reading Johnson’s (1976) observations on holy relics triggered in me a sudden insight that here was a common human practice that embraced secular and sacred functions, and that provided a source of powerful meaning and symbolic importance. Context may have differed in the instances that came to mind, but the essence of the practice seemed to remain consistent. Whether the object was infused with an indwelling spirit, sacred power or association, or memory, there seemed to be a fundamental similarity -as something that could convey strength or meaning.
Over the years of my inquiry I had encountered the idea of animism, usually in the context of the descriptor “animistic” as a general idea, but having presumed its meaning, at the most basic popular level, I had not investigated further. It was not until I had proposed this research project and commenced my research reading did the idea that animism might have a larger and more significant meaning begin to form. This was in itself an accident. I had been leafing through Funk & Wagnell’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend and glanced across the page at ‘animism’ to read; “The belief in souls; the attributes of spirits or personality to physical objects or phenomena…” (Leach, 1975 p. 62). It was a starting point that emerged, ineluctably, as a compelling central theme for my subsequent thinking. It was unexpected, and forced a complete rethink of the original project.
Here I became aware of an apparent paradox that reinforced my perception that operating within an ontological and epistemological system of specialist language and privileged knowledge inhibited understanding. The more I thought about them, the core animistic ideas not only crossed the secular/sacred boundaries but inhabited thought systems that appeared to be remote from the popular sense of animism as a primitive knowledge system.
I understood immediately what I was reading, because here was precisely what formed the core ideas in the Western mystery tradition, in Kabbalah, in Hermeticism, in Wicca and shamanism. If animism were the primitive system as was generally believed to be, what were its core ideas doing infusing these other sophisticated knowledge systems? Why were these ideas seeping into and through purely secular ideas? How could something I had dismissed in passing as no longer valid suddenly surge up as a central theme in my thought?
As I inquired further it also seemed that knowledge systems acknowledged as being essentially animistic also incorporated many elements of my own involuntary experiences. Rationally it seemed as if I could link animism as a primitive system to later more sophisticated mystical and magical systems, including those accepted and practised in contemporary Western culture by people who could not, by any means be considered ‘primitive’, and to my own experiences.
Something was not right. If animism were the primitive system of thought from which we had evolved into rational conscious humans, then elements of the system should not be present in such abundance in contemporary mystical and magical practice. Neither should I be able to perceive a clear link throughout Christian thought nor in modern secular life.
At this stage I decided I had to revise my research project and find a way of incorporating this new information. Surprisingly this proved to be immensely difficult. Initially I was swamped with so many implications and avenues of inquiry that the project quickly lost its shape and the original research question became buried under a multitude of competing questions.
Having arrived at Animism so unexpectedly, I realised that it was now necessary to re-examine the concept. It seemed to be deeply associated with both my experiences and my learning and training in magic.
It seemed possible that I might have to interrogate the most ancient and ‘primitive’ form of human religious knowledge (Guthrie 1995, Charlton 2002) in order to gain an understanding of what had been happening to me. Although, by now, I had accumulated many explanations that cast some light upon past experiences, I had not yet resolved them into a coherent articulation of systemic thought.
I had to refine my research questions to include secondary questions that could guide me towards answering the main thesis questions. One such question was: “What role did the essential ideas of animism play in my experiences and my subsequent training and practise in ritual magic? How did this apparently primitive system fit within my evolving explanatory narrative? Did it have something important to say?
Towards a definition of animism
I have come to see in animism a most useful overarching intellectual framework, though somewhat maligned by ideological, political and cultural forces. It is therefore relevant to return to the original term and consider its meaning.
The development of the term ‘animism’ is attributed to the English scholar E. B. Tylor (1871) in his theory on the origins of religion in the latter part of the nineteenth century. However, Stringer (1999), writing in the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, argues that Tylor would have preferred to use the term ‘spiritualism’ but decided against doing so because of its employment by others in a context with which he had little sympathy. Stringer notes that, “Tylor comments that Animism is not a new technical term” and a footnote explains that “the term has been especially used to denote the doctrine of Stahl. The Animism of Stahl is a revival and development in modern scientific shape of the classic theory identifying vital principle and soul’ (1871: I, 384-5)” (1999 p. 451).
The word animism itself derives from the Latin, animus/anima (soul or mind), but the deeper roots may be traced to the Greek anemos, meaning wind, and the Sanskrit aniti (he breathes). Soul is the animating principle of the world, the breath (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animism). The Greek philosophers (especially Thales) are the source by which the idea of animism has entered Western thought, to be eventually employed by Tylor, but its thought foundations are more ancient and near universal.
Tylor proposed that the earliest form of religion was a belief in ghosts and spirits, but he did this in the context of arguing that there was “a strict, scientific analogy between primitive man and the child and its mentality” (Bolle, 1987 p. 297). He saw this fundamental belief as the minimum necessary definition upon which religion might evolve.
Stringer’s reading of Tylor leads him quickly to observe, “Much to my surprise, I found myself reading a very sensitive, sophisticated, intellectually complex text written by a scholar whose ideas seemed to bear very little relation to my popular conception of his writing.” .1999 p.1 He goes on to make an important observation, in that, “My own particular interest relates to Tylor’s theories of religion, in particular his emphasis on ‘Animism’. I was not convinced that this concept could be dismissed quite as readily as many subsequent writers have suggested” (p. 1) Subsequent commentary on Tylor’s work seems critical, but this may reflect as much a vigorous interest in the subject matter as Stringer’s suggested misinterpretation and even carelessness.
Tylor’s presumption that early humans and contemporary indigenous people represented the child-like state of human consciousness at the commencement of the evolutionary journey towards modern consciousness could mean that the beliefs in spirits and ghosts were considered to be erroneous. Bolle (1999) says of Tylor that although he:
…wished to show that primitive religion was rational, that it arose from unmistakable observations, nevertheless he judged these observations to be inadequate of themselves. Although logical deductions were drawn from these observations, he believed these deductions were faulty. And although the “savages” managed to construct a natural philosophy, as a philosophy it remained crude. Tylor thus stressed the rational element in primitive religion and at the same time referred to that religion as “this farrago of nonsense. (p.298)
But Stringer (1999) argues that Tylor, contrary to critical commentary, was not trying to find the ‘origin’ of religion. He had a stronger interest in “why so many people around the world appear to believe in things which do not make immediate rational sense to the Victorian scientific mind” (p. 1). Tylor considered animism “a ‘primitive philosophy’, a prerequisite for religion, and not as a religion in itself” (p. 1).
Rational speculation and theorising of the time, sought to interpret what was observed within the boundaries of a culture that steeped in the Christian tradition and that had energetically engaged with Darwin’s radical theory. Animism could not be embraced by Victorian Christianity, which invalidated any spiritual tradition that did not conform to its claim of sole franchise on divine revelation. Neither could it be embraced in other than Tylor’s terms – as a primitive state of awareness out of which humanity had since evolved: at least to those members of humanity who saw themselves as representing the present apex of development. Tylor’s position that the precepts of animism arosefrom valid and rational, but inadequate, observations, resulting in erroneous interpretations about how the world worked, reflected his time and circumstance. “Tylor was a Quaker, and in the spirit of his age he associated the evolution of man with the natural process of growth and with a general increase in human understanding and responsibility” (Bolle, 1987, p. 297)
The popular broad definitions of animism, discussed below, essentially express it in terms of the presence of animating spirits in objects and the landscape, and probably do not do justice to Tylor’s ideas. He is surprisingly close to later more sympathetic ideas in thinking that “…for the primitive, the dream-world would not be less real than the waking state” (Bolle, 1987 p. 298). Bolle argues that Tylor developed a coherent “theory of the soul” which was, in Tylor’s words, “one principle part of a system of religious philosophy which unites, in an unbroken line of mental connexion, the savage fetish worshipper and the civilized Christian” (1987 p. 298). To Tylor, “In general, developments taking place on the “lower level of mythic religion” are confirmed in higher, more intellectual traditions, such as those of Greece and China, and are finally reinforced by the spread of Christianity” (1987 p. 298). To Tylor it was natural that there should be a progression through varying levels of complexity and sophistication of religious ideation that culminated in the monotheism of Christianity.
In the early stages of the last century two writers sought to embrace Tylor ‘s work and honour animism as a valued legacy in human evolution. Clodd (1905) argued that “Animists, in germ, were our pre-human ancestors; animists, to the core, we remain. (p. 97) and “…that what is called Animism remains the distinctive feature of the highest religions” (p. 96). Gilmore (1919) took a distinctly Christian perspective, asserting that animism had bestowed three legacies upon his culture. The first was “the precious discovery of the existence of soul in man …. The supreme expression of that value was given by Jesus of Nazareth”(p. 119). The second was “the continued life of the soul beyond the grave” and the third was “the belief in superhuman powers” (p. 120).
Gilmore considers these legacies “three great conceptions” for which the race “has to thank the stage of culture we have been studying” (p. 121). Neither Clodd nor Gilmore make any pretence to match Tylor’s scientific perspective. Both strive to accommodate the ‘primitive’ as a foundation from which subsequent religious thought has evolved, giving, in Gilmore’s case, its highest expression in Christianity. Clodd saw animism as a persistent “distinctive feature of the highest religions”. Beyond the concerns about how animism might fit within the scientific conception of human evolution Clodd and Gilmore represent an early effort to honour a legacy otherwise rendered problematic and invalid by the dominant scientific, cultural and religious certainties of the age.
The works of Clodd and Gilmore thus resonate with me, despite their now outmoded forms of expression, because they express the open-mindedness of religious thinkers striving to honour and accommodate what is elsewhere, in the same age, dismissed or diminished. Here I detect genuine efforts to acknowledge animism as an enduring and valued foundation to religious thought, and hence to philosophic and even scientific thought. As Stringer demonstrates in his re-consideration of Tylor there is a risk of ethnocentricity and historical hubris in dismissing earlier thinkers because we fail to mine beneath the seemingly offensive and grating idiom to the rich vein of thought.
Contemporary definitions of animism follow a common thread: that all things are possessed of an individual spirit or soul. In the natural world landforms or places, streams or ponds had a resident spirit. Small objects such as tools or amulets also have their indwelling sprit. Bates (2003) says that “For the Saxons the natural environment was imbued with invisible spirits, a parallel universe of sacred power.” (p. 71). The Funk and Wagnell’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore Mythology and Legend provides an insightful example of a definition of animism as: “The belief in souls; the attribution of spirit or personality to physical objects or phenomena; specifically the religious philosophy found universally in mankind which peoples the physical universe with spirits found in animals, plants, stones, weapons, meteorological events etc.” (p. 62). This same essential description is repeated in the on-line Wikipedia: “Animism is a belief system that does not accept the separation of body and soul, of spirit from matter. As such it is based upon the belief that personalized souls are found in animals, plants, and other material objects, governing, to some degree, their existence. It also assumes that this unification of matter and spirit plays a role in daily life.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animism.) These definitions embrace the essential elements of the present popular conception.
Bird-David (1999) argues that these definitions are surprising unrevised interpretations of Tylor. She says: “Amazingly, the century-‐old Tylorian concept appears in all thesediverse sources (popular and academic, general and specific) revised little if at all.” (p. S67). She argues that this sets up a vicious cycle in which reliance upon the Tylorist interpretation reinforces the derogatory view of traditional peoples who are described as animistic. As a solution, Bird-‐David offers an alternative notion: animism as a relational epistemology.
She argues that:
that hunter-‐gatherer animism constitutes a relational (not a failed) epistemology. This epistemology is about knowing the world by focusing the same to things around them, primarily on relatedness, from a related point of view. (1999 p. S69)
Bird-David goes on to expand on this, asserting that:
We do not first personify other entities and then socialize with them but personify them as, when, and because we socialize. Recognizing a “conversation” counter-‐being—which amounts to accepting it into fellowship rather than recognizing a common essence – makes that being a self in relation with ourselves. (1999 p. S78)
In essence then, what Bird-David offers by way of definition is a focus upon one aspect of animism as the central theme of attention: the sense of relationship, rather than the nature of those things that populate the relationship. She does not offer this as a final thesis, but, rather, sees thinking about animism in this way as a spur to deeper questions concerning the nature and meaning of animistic thought, including, “Surely, however, the most intriguing question is why and how the modernist project estranged itself from the tendency to animate things, if it is indeed universal.” (1999 p. S79)
The chief distinction between Tylor’s definition of animism and Bird-David’s is, perhaps, one arising from culture. Where Tylor presumed and unpinning spiritual reality in relation to which he felt able to critique beliefs, Bird-David appears to adopt the default position of the ‘objective’ researcher by making no such presumption. This observation implies no criticism either way, but it does present a fundamental problem in that neither position is free of presumption. Tylor was able to derive his interpretation of animism because he presumed an underlying spiritual reality, just as much as Bird-David develops hers from the absence of such presumption. Is a definition that lies between both positions possible?
Bird-David’s perspective is closely allied to that of Harvey (2006) who certainly developed ‘new’ animism as a distinct and popular modality. He focuses on the sense of deep relationship, arguing that:
Although there are good reasons for listening to calls for the term animism to be abandoned, there are better reasons to celebrate its reclamation and re-application. The term has been part of the battery of prejudice with which indigenous peoples have been assaulted. This being so, it is arguable that even the old negative use of the term should be kept, carefully fenced in and surrounded by warning signs… (p. 28)
Harvey goes on say that he seeks to:
…demonstrate that animism is useful as a label for some actions, relationships, understandings, rhetorics, narratives, performances, constructions, worldviews and lifeways (Harvey, 2006, p. 28)
His principle purpose is to:
…contribute to the on-going re-animation of a term and of respectful academic engagement with our living, sensuous, communal and sometimes fragile world (p. 29).
However Harvey appears also to define this ‘new’ animism in essentially humanist terms, with a focus on conduct-based ethical concerns. He asserts that:
Animist ethics, like animist spirituality, might – indeed must – engage with a wide and diverse community of persons, but its chief concern is with better ways of being human. Lessons may be learnt from observing and communicating with eagles, rivers, rocks and trees, but the most important of these lessons is not aimed at a transcendence of humanity but a fuller expression of it. Such encounters do not merely aim to produce better persons but specifically aim to produce better humans, better eagles, better rocks and so on (p. 172).
He goes on to argue that:
Animism does not provide either a spirituality or an ethic that demands transcendence…animism is more concerned with being more human and more engaged in the life of this world (and) Elders rather than children are better acquainted with ‘the way of being human’ that is animism (p. 173).
Harvey addresses one aspect of animism, the sense of deep connection with other-than-human lives and establishes a sound argument for a sense of ‘moral economy’. He asserts that “People learn to be animists” (2006 p. 175), and adds that “For humans, life is a process of becoming increasingly human, of learning what it means to be a human person, and how to best achieve and enact such lessons” (p. 175). But in arguing that a ‘chief concern’ of Animism is ‘better ways of being human’ Harvey, in my view, sets a moral character to the idea, rather than recognising Animism as a mode of interpretation arising from experience. The moral implications may be seen as a consequence of Animistic perception.
The problematic nature of the term animism is rendered more problematic in the conception of ‘new’ animism. The original meaning, and the developed meaning, while employed disrespectfully to traditional knowledge systems because of the presumption of error, at least honoured the metaphysical or ontological depths of the belief systems. Harvey’s account appears to minimise the ontological elements of animistic experience by seeking to redefine the nature of spirits and souls, as relational constructs. I find this problematic. He suggests that: “Perhaps ‘person’ is more straightforward” (p.122). He goes on to argue that:
The terms spirit and soul may be helpful, necessary even, in a discussion of animist understandings of the nature of the world and persons within it. They are part of those popular discourses that reach for an understanding of the complexities of personhood along with ‘mind’, ‘conscience’, ‘consciousness’, ‘subconsciousness’, ‘heart’, ‘affections’ and so on. It seems unlikely that ‘soul’ or ‘spirit’ will ever be defined in a fixed manner or become technical terms with unambiguous and/or fixed referents. They appear to indicate a common perception that life is more than embodiment.” (2006 p. 137)
Both soul and spirit are terms that are defined within mystical knowledge systems. Both Halevi (1974) and Knight (1965) employ distinctions that define both terms finely within the Kabbalistic knowledge system. While both terms are part of popular discourses, they remain equally part of mystical discourses and the issue of attributing precise meaning to either has more to do with whether the employers of the terms are prepared to work within a definite knowledge system or within the messier realm of popular discourse, which, of necessity, admits plural and imprecise meanings to words drawn from more defined knowledge systems. In a similar respect ‘mind’, ‘conscience’, ‘consciousness’ and ‘subconsciousness’ are equally available to precise meaning within disciplines of psychology and philosophy, even while they are freely used with less precision in popular discourse.
Harvey’s position is that “animism is not a theory that ‘everything lives’, but is concerned with particular relationships” (2006 p. 120). This seems to me to misrepresent the essential metaphysic that a spirit infused world sometimes expresses in particularised ‘persons’ (in Harvey’s sense) and these persons intersect with andinteract with the sphere of human experience, bringing consequences that need tobe managed. Whether ‘everything lives’ or not depends on how ‘lives’ is understood. Does the universe live or ‘exist’, ‘persons’ with whom a managed and sensitive relationship is either desirable or necessary.
Harvey goes on to elaborate on the nature of relationships, saying that:
Extraordinary encounters and experiences may be considered to validate intuitions, expectations and understandings about the nature of the world, but they are not sought after as the primary focus of animism. Indeed encounters with some such persons require the labour of shamans, and are generally unwelcome. Even more generally, however, animism – which embeds the living of life within a richly diverse community – certainly privileges some relationships as being more important than others. These privileged relationships are usually those of everyday life supported by the occasional extraordinary encounters… (2006 pp. 124-125)
If I were to contrast Tylor with Harvey, one the ‘inventor’ of Animism and the other whose name seems synonymous of New Animism my sympathies would lie more strongly with Tylor. Harvey’s interpretation is meritorious in that it does seek to restore some sense of animistic awareness, but, for me, at the cost of seeming to deny the validity of the visceral and energetic experiences that Tylor saw as the root the way of knowing.
I drew from Harvey not a sense of the world as a “Thou”, but a sense of the world as an “It” that should be treated as if it were a “Thou”, because it is more beneficial to do so. I do not disagree with the proposition that it is more beneficial to do so, rather with the finer argument about why it is and the substance upon which the argument is made.
I first encountered the idea of the world being seen as a ‘Thou’ in Frankfort et al (1946). Frankfort proposed that our ancestors reflexively conceived of the world in terms of thouness as opposed to itness. It seems like a sensible assertion, though Radin (1957) emphatically disagreed, asserting such was the fruit of mistaken interpretation. But Radin does not actually articulate a counter proposition. He does, however, offer some finessed subtle insights into robust and practical world views. He does not, I think, offer support to Harvey’s interpretation. I prefer Frankfort’s characterisation as a broad assertion in that if thouness and itness were the only two available options then thouness, as a primary presumption about the nature of the world, would predominate as the preferred assumption. That is, I can see that an assumption of thouness may be an innate human reflex, but it also potentially represents a smarter strategy, more than Guthrie’s percepetual strategy, embracing the conceptual. This seems like support of Harvey, but here I am linking an assertion of actuality with a recognition of strategic benefit as well. Both Guthrie and Harvey see strategic merits, but deny the underpinning reality.
Likewise my experiences have obliged me to posit something closer to Tylor’s position than to Bird- David’s. Hence I have a greater sympathy for one perspective over the other. I struggle, therefore, to see things in terms that are not either/or. From my perspective there is a certain subtle self-deception in thinking that believing there is no under-pinning spiritual reality constitutes a neutral position, rather than an asserted contrary one. It is not possible, I think, to arrive at a compromise position between either/or. However what the notion of relational epistemology does is find middle ground between animism and no animism. But this is an entirely different matter. It is a useful and valuable means of advancing inquiry because it prevents total invalidation of the idea.
I will continue to employ animism in the spirit of the Tylorist interpretation.
Ghosts and spirits – the population of an animistic awareness
Tylor had a stronger interest in ghosts of deceased humans, than spirits in nature as the “earliest phenomena that could have triggered man’s mind in the formation of religion.” He thought that the “experience of death and dying, and from dreams and dreaming” led to questions about what happens at death. “The primitive observed what happened and refused to accept death as final. Moreover, in a dream one would see the deceased alive, moving, speaking.” (Bolle 1987 p. 298) Perhaps Tylor’s chief difficulty was not in the development of theory from observation and evidence, but from the constraints of the acceptance of the proposition that Christian monotheism represented the apex of the evolution of religious ideation. This obliged Tylor to argue backwards from a known to interpret gained knowledge in conformity with a conclusion already established. Even though Bolle says that “the mass of evidence drawn from history and from among contemporary tribal traditions gave Tylor’s theory the impressive scientific persuasiveness that a more empirically inclined age desires.”(1987 p. 298) there is a presumption at the foundation, which accepts a pre-existing conclusion as valid. The theory is ultimately shaped by a foundational assumption andpreconception.
Ghosts or spirits of deceased humans do raise the subject of post-mortem persistence of some element of the human psyche and constitute an entirely different order of non-corporeal being, relative to ‘nature spirits’. The spirits of the deceased and spirits of the natural world are both non-material and both are accepted within the broad animistic system of knowledge. The subject of ghosts has been treated lightly in the contemporary West, in popular culture and among sceptics, although it has been the subject of serious but marginalised parapsychological study. The problem of compliant appearance and the lack of apparent repeatability defeats conventional scientific method, though ghost stories abound at the level of folklore and popular story telling. The questions of misapprehension and misinterpretation persist in the face of the fundamental difficulties of achieving scientifically valid data, and against the near universality of the phenomenon.
The shades of deceased humans play an important role in animistic thought, not only because ancestors are considered to be a source of guidance to the living, but also because they can be the source of trouble. Acceptance of ghosts demands acceptance of a post-mortem state in which human consciousness persists. And it can persist close to the human realm or remote from it. It is generally preferred that deceased human spirits remove themselves from close proximity to the human realm because otherwise their presence usually signals some kind of interference. It might be argued that those of our ancestors, for whom the ‘dream world’ and the waking world were equally real and equally sensed, had a rational and pragmatic reason for paying attention to sprits and ghosts.
My experiences suggest that what we have come to understand as Animism may have evolved, as an explanatory model, from an interpretation of experiences and perceptions. Tylor’s assertion that ghosts and spirits have played a powerful role in the development of religion makes sense to me. My own direct experience with spirits illustrates how necessary it is to merge the experiences into a explanatory narrative. Two in particular involved my father and my mother, separately in post-mortem events. My father died of a heart attack not quite a month after his second wife died of cancer. They were very close and while her death was anticipated, his was not. Several weeks after his funeral I was at home writing when I heard my name called. I was alone at the time and was not able to determine its source, so dismissed the first instance and went back to my work. The calling persisted and I finally had a strong sense of my father and his wife sitting above the high ceiling of the house. I asked why they were up there and he said that it was proper, because they were dead. They wanted to assure me that they had met up and were happy. They left and I had no more contact fromthem.
My mother’s situation was different. She died of colon cancer in a hospice in Hobart in early 1998. The family had gathered and we were keeping vigil. She was heavily dosed on morphine and was barely lucid. In the late afternoon of the day she died I was sitting in her room when I felt a distinct and malevolent presence and a voice saying bitterly and repeatedly “You foul bitch! you oul bitch!.” (it could have been ‘witch’ as the accent was thick) I used my past training to set up a defensive barrier around her. For the next hour or so I sat there as my sisters stayed close to my mother, evidently unaware of anything untoward. Shortly before my stepfather arrived, he had gone home to sleep awhile, the atmosphere in the room altered noticeably and a distinct thought intruded “We’ll take over from here.” There was a strong business-like manner to it, and I knew, then, that my mother would go soon. She died several hours later with my stepfather at her side.
The funeral was dominated by my step-father’s Pentecostal friends. My mother had been involved in the faith but had withdrawn some time ago, and only a few of her friends were present. After the funeral one of my sisters remarked that she had not felt mum’s presence anywhere. It really wasn’t her kind of event. It was steeped in theconventions of my step-father’s faith and was deeply unappealing. Later, at thefamily home, where I had returned alone, I felt her strongly in the garden that she had been making. I said my goodbye there.
She had died on the day before my birthday, so my birthday eve had a strange elegance of a cyclical sense of death and birth, and on the first anniversary, by which time I had removed to Lismore in northern New South Wales, she visited. It was unexpected. I was sitting on the front steps with a glass of wine engaged in a customary reflection on the year just ending for me when I had a sudden powerful sense of her presence, sitting, leaning back on a verandah post. She told me she had a birthday present and proceeded to tell me things about my childhood that had a dramatic and lasting impact on me. In neither case did I have the experience of seeing a presence externally. Rather it was a blend of a ‘mind’s eye’ perception allied with a distinct and powerful sense of presence.
By the time of these experiences I was accustomed to the notion of post-mortem persistence of the human consciousness, so I was receptive to them and somewhat attuned to the prospect of them happening, though I anticipated none of them. They were not disruptive. My mother’s visitation was a kind of formal gift giving, whereas my father’s was happy and funny. Acceptance of, and attunement to, deeper levels of perception are not confined to these kinds of experiences. Any experienced eye or ear will see and hear things in specific context that the unfamiliar senses will miss. The knowledgeable and experienced in any field will perceive what is otherwise ‘not there’, and interpret that evidence in what might otherwise be considered to be extra-sensory, even magical.
Ghosts and spirits are different. A ghost usually refers to a presence that has limited and habituated conduct within a definite spatial domain, whereas a spirit of a deceased person possesses the full spectrum of behaviours and nuances, as well as not being confined to a specific place. A ghost is thought to be the energetic residual shell of a deceased person and, as such, it suggests a different order of post-mortem existence to that inferred by the presence of the spirit of the deceased. Where a ghost may be taken to be a kind of residual energy such phenomena might not suggest the supramundane realms that are essential in considering the reality of spirits. Belief in spirits virtually forces a certain kind of acceptance of some condition or state in which human life persists, and gives rise to the necessary question of what it might be. In Tylor’s sense ghosts and spirits may well be the basis upon which religious thought evolved, for if one persists beyond physical being important questions must be asked and answers to them sought. If experience delivers the dead to the living as givers of gifts or the bringers of trouble then some way of making meaning of their persistence is necessary. The scope of ontological interpretation must be expanded to embrace even the insubstantial. Of course, for those who have no such experiences, there is no imperative to embrace the insubstantial, and it might be unsettling to expand one’s ontological frame to embrace what is not experienced.
Baldwin (1995) provides a contemporary method of engaging with deceased spirits whose adverse impact upon the living includes physical illness and behavioural aberrations. He says:
The condition of spirit possession – that is, full or partial takeover of a living human by a discarnate being – has been recognized or at least theorized in every era and every culture. In ninety per cent of societies worldwide there are records of possession-like phenomena (Foulks 1985)
Extensive contemporary clinical evidence suggests that discarnate beings, the spirits of deceased humans, can influence living people by forming a physical or mental connection or attachment, and subsequently imposing detrimental physical and/or emotional conditions and symptoms. This condition has been called the “possession state,” “possession disorder,” “spirit possession syndrome,” “spirit obsession,” or “spirit attachment.” (Hyslop 1, 1917, Wickland, 1924; 1934,Allison, 1980; Guidham, 1982; Mc All, 1982; Crabtree, (1985. Fiore, 1987). (p.12)
The same theme is taken up by Sagan (1994), who says that:
…in all traditions and folklores of the earth, one finds references to spirits and non- physical beings which can interfere with human beings. Thus Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, is divided into eight sections, one of which is entirely devoted to the study of …entities, their influence on health and sanity, and the ways one can get rid of them. If we look at traditional Chinese medicine, we find that in acupuncture, among the 361 points of the 14 main meridians, 17 have Kuei (discarnate spirit) as part of their main or secondary name.” (p. 1)
So to some contemporary practitioners who deal with the adverse effects of deceased persons upon the living, the ancient tradition of the presence of ghosts and spirits is not only an acceptable premise, but a valid element of therapeutic praxis.
The extent to which interest in these ideas has developed can be gauged by the number of websites devoted to the subject. A Google search for ‘spirit releasement’returned 30,600 possible sites – a substantial number, even if there is well-advised caution about the validity of the methods and the quality f the information.
Bates (2003) focuses on the Middle-earth belief in dragons to question how we understand, over the boundary of cultural hubris, other knowledge systems. He says:
Of course today, the notion of dragons seems a fanciful idea more appropriate tochildhood – our process of growing up requires that we gradually fetter our fantasies, and replace them with an adult perspective relentlessly based upon reality. So were the Anglo-Saxons childlike dreamers? On the contrary they hadto be intensely practical, for times were hard… So was the belief that dragons were real a sign of primitive thought? Being able to distinguish between reality and fantasy even determines today our distinction between sanity and madness. So did the people of Middle-earth live in a delusional world? (p. 79)
Bates goes on to argue that the dragon “brought insights to the people’s understanding of life’s vicissitudes” (p. 80), but does not, I think, positively resolve any question about whether dragons are real or not, rather that, as an idea or symbol, they were functional and served a purpose. In other words they were a conception or perception articulated in a particular symbolic way, expressing something that was ‘real’ in one sense, but perhaps not in another.
But the notion that ‘pagan’ knowledge systems evolve because they work and impart some kind of benefit to those who employ them is important because it asks us to accept that knowledge systems that include such as ghosts arose because ghosts were experienced in some way, and that their impact on humans was sufficiently important for the establishment of rituals and codes of conduct, including death rites. What we can infer from Bates is that a knowledge system is also contingent upon the context of perception. A culture that accepts ghosts or spirits and is attuned to their presence is more likely to encounter them than a culture that denies their existence. In effect Tylor’s critique of animism being rational yet producing nonsense is more comprehensible as a clash of contexts – the experiencer’s and the observer’s differing widely.
Thus in my case, having experiences thrust upon me forced me to seek an explanatory model that accorded with and accommodated experience. And as I moved toward a knowledge system that embraced those experiences the more what might be denied or thought strange to others became ‘normal’ to me. As the explanatory model evolved to accord with experience so, it seemed, that the experiences shifted from being strange to being unremarkable. These days, for example, a sense of spirit presence (a common enough occurrence) barely rates a mention unless there is something particular about it. Not long before writing these words I was followed into the house by a sense of presence of powerful and distinct passion. I had to consciously pause to determine whether it was distress or mischief.
Bates (2003) later observes that “Dragons may have slept ‘like the dead’ for generations, but they were hardly cold-blooded reptiles. Their internal fires flickered perpetually, ready to spit fire” (pp. 84-5). Here he, within the uncertainty of what dragons may be, accepts enough of the imagery to accord them some kind of presence beyond mere metaphor or symbol. Symbols do not sleep ‘like the dead’ or otherwise. The idea that dragons were believed in because dragons exist, or existed, is not something that a contemporary Westerner might comfortably accommodate, if for no other reason than the absence of an credible reports concerning their presence, let alone the howls of derision that might be anticipated if such an idea were to be seriously posited. But bearing in mind the Anglo-Saxon capacity to have knowledge of the ‘other world’ and to apprehend it in some fashion as it interacted with material world, we cannot be sure how they experienced the things they called dragons, nor what they were.
I had my personal accidental ‘dragon experience’ in early 1997. It was quite unexpected. I had travelled to the U.K. in early 1996 expecting to possibly relocate permanently. By March 1997 I had fairly well decided to return to Australia and travelled Ireland with the purpose of visiting my birthplace, Belfast. I was staying with my mother’s cousin in Newtonards, towards the fringe of the town, on Tullyganardy Road. One evening I wandered off up the road and sat on a pile of stones, wondering at the lack of feeling of ‘being home’. I employed a technique of projecting my consciousness into the earth, trying to sense something of the kind of vibrancy familiar to me in Australia. Unexpectedly I had a mental image of a kind of cave or nest, quite deep down, though I had no real sense of depth, in which there seemed to about four dragons sleeping. One rather languidly stirred and communicated to me the surprising, yet distinct message: “Go home. There is nothing for you here.” I was immediately shocked and wanted to withdraw quickly, but found myself forming a question about why it/they were there. I got an answer: “Our time will come again.”
This experience in Tullyganardy Road stands out as unexpected and strong. I had no sense of dragons at the time as anything with which I might engage, (then they were just an idea from fantasy) so I did not undertake the projection with anticipation of doing anything other than seeing if I could register some kind of sympathetic resonance with the land. I certainly did not go looking for dragons.
The sense of coherent energies moving through a landscape may be something like the dragons of the Anglo-Saxons, but I have no way of knowing whether that is the case. However that ability to sense coherent presences does open up the prospect of responding to apparent presences that might be non- apparent, and hence non-existent, to another who does not employ a similar kind of sensitivity.
Jones (2000), who engaged in an exhaustive study of dragons, asks:
How are peoples of diverse cultures all over the world able to express through their arts the existence of a fantastic, flying, many-toothed, reptilian monster which never existed? Additionally how are they able to relate the same fundamental story about the animal’s behaviour, strengths weaknesses, nature, breath, facial features, haunts, and proclivities? (p. 113)
He is not satisfied with conventional answers, saying:
Explanations put forth in the past have been unfocussed, as if the subject matter of the dragon made modern scholars skittish. It seems that most specialists wish to move directly to the assumption that the dragon has no physical basis in reality; that it is powerful, yes, but after all, a mere symbol and therefore by definition inherently nonexistent and empty. (p. 113)
He does not accept symbolism as the source of potent reality, nor does he accept imagination, arguing that: “The weakest of all arguments simply holds that the dragon sprang from imagination. That, of course, does not explain its universality,appearance or behaviour” (p. 115). Jones (2000) argues that the image of the dragon combines three animals, the snake, raptor and cat that were long in a predator prey relationship with our primate ancestors, and that over time humans developed a ‘dragon complex’, concluding that “… we are still ancient beings possessed of an instinct for dragons” (p. 119).
In further considering the universal shaman images of the tree of life and the three cosmic realms, Jones asserts that “ The roots of the dragon, the tree, and the three levels are all part of what has to be one of the most crucial elements in understanding how culture evolved, the arboreal experience of our most ancient ancestors” (2000, p. 133). In essence Jones is saying that the only possible explanation for the universality of dragons, something that explains the degree of uniformity of the ideation can be found in the presence of an instinct, a melded image of predators that evolved into a complex in the course of human evolution. The presence of dragons or serpents associated with the tree of life is not an archetypal symbol for any subtle reality, but a residue that goes back to our arboreal primate ancestors, for whom the tree represented a fundamental cosmology of nurture and protection from the predators below and above. Either that or the dragons are denizens of the other world, and represent in symbolic form powers and agencies that impinge upon the physical world from time to time. Jones does not consider this explanation, but he does present sufficient argument against the dragon as misperception or a purely imaginary effort to symbolise the vicissitudes of life.
The Politics of Experience
Several elements of animism – the perception of spirits and the existence of different realms to which the dead and shamanic travellers may venture constitute a recurrent phenomena that embrace not only ‘primitive’ and archaic cultures but also contemporary practitioners of mystical and magical systems. The simplest explanation, employing Ockham’s Razor, is that this wide and varied adherence arises out of common experience.
I have earlier cited Bates to argue that there is a fundamental sense of utility implicit in animistic ideation. Even Tylor, in his thinking about how archaic people confronted death, acknowledged that the development of animistic narratives at least were predicated upon an experiential ground, as well as rooted in attributes of perception.
If the idea of animism is accepted as arising from a fundamental human utility in responding to experience and perception, then we might expect that there were/are those who develop particular facility and skill in intentional experience and the formulation of specific knowledge. An examination of this knowledge of shamans and magicians can help to identify a coherent body of systematised knowledge drawn from experience and experimentation.
The role of experience, as an intentional practitioner, as opposed to being the recipient of unbidden encounters with phenomena, is less important to this inquiry. However the fact that there are communities of practice does testify to the power of the ideas associated with shamanic and magical practice.
My encounters with intentional practice left me keenly aware of the risks of self-deception, and the appeal of ideas and language whose meanings were too opaque to outsiders and not at all lucid to insiders. Experiences that occur in conformity to practice raise different types of questions; and usually not ones as extreme as those generated by wild occurrences.
Nothing in my extensive reading and practice introduced me to the idea of animism beyond an encounter with the notion in passing. Although I can now look back and see how past study and practice melds with my emerging understanding of animism, none of it was the engine of my inquiry.
Animism as a means to articulate a response to experience.
Non-conforming experiences do create an exceptional problem of validation, especially when they generate challenging epistemological issues that impact upon self-identity. I sought out possible sources of explanation and meaning for my experiences within different esoteric traditions, but I found these traditions, in my experience, were more inclined to offer protective narratives that embraced ‘experiences’ rather than providing modes of inquiry that ‘explained’ them in a contemporary context. In this respect traditions could be both a haven and cul de sac. I did not want comfort at the cost ofunderstanding.
As a European in Australia, I drew upon traditions that reflected my cultural orientation initially. I sought training in the Western mystery tradition and in Wicca. This presented important questions concerning the relationship between place and culture – what was appropriate in seeking to honour where one was, in terms of practices, symbols and the imagery and language used. What started out as a simple question about what direction one should walk within a circle escalated into a powerful and unsettling doubt about the way in which one might think about Magic, and hence one’s own sense of presence within, and relationship to the world. The traditional thing is to move ‘clockwise’, but the path of a clock’s arms reflects the passage of the sun in the northern hemisphere. In the southern hemisphere this is direction is what we call anti-clockwise. In which direction should we move in Australia? To answer this question a great deal of argument and debate ensued. We settled on anti-clockwise. But then there arose a greater question. Our seasonal celebrations were the opposite time of the year. As a culture we celebrated the spring festival of Easter in autumn and the winter festival of Christmas in summer. If place mattered, then its character and seasons had to be honoured. Symbols had to be consistent with environment. No holly or snow at Christmas. The energies that were invoked and celebrated had to be founded in reality and not tradition, and where tradition persisted it had to be deeply rooted in reality, not memory.
An opportunity to explore these questions was provided by the discarnate teacher of an English magical order, whose head visited Australia. The following is taken from my magical diary entries of February 11, 1979 (Vol 1)
S.K. (the order head) allowed us to speak with T.M., the order’s inner plane teacher. I asked about the god forms distinct to this country and with which we could expect to be working.
T.M. The nature of the god forms of this land are active and fiery – they need controlling from within yourself. Let them rise within you rather than seek them at their source. They are difficult and very ancient forms.
I asked whether there might be a name of a god that might be applicable. The response was:
T.M. Little use to you. Look for them among the ancient god names you know best. Names are of little use; it is the nature of the force and the symbol that counts.
The theme was later followed up in conversation with our own guide. Entries in my magical diary of Feb 18 1979, pages 153 & 154 pick up the topic.
A: There are many forces which are peculiar to different races. There are forces which are common to all. But they are not always equitable.
Me: Suppose the question were to lead on – why then X in Australia. Is it a question of our past?
A: X is a force with which you are familiar. You – both of you are familiar. You would not try to contact this – you could not try to contact this force via the natural god forms of this land. They are not compatible to you. But there is rather a lot of useful information available to you – if you use that particular god nature. It is a tradition with which you have had links.
I have removed a specific name from the text above, replacing it with X to conform with a tradition of confidentiality. What is suggested by these two sources is that it is not always appropriate to access indigenous traditions as a source of spiritual insight and experience, because the nature of the energy is unsuited to the psyche of the alien individual. In this case this would be an admonishment against seeking to use the Aboriginal tradition. In my case what was recommended was a Greek form. The Greek tradition is something with which I have some familiarity, if for no other reason that its central role in the evolution of Western culture, through mythology and classical literature and thought, made me a natural heir. It is safer territory for my psyche than the raw energies of the Australian landscape.
The distinction between Greek and Aboriginal culture, as perceived through the filters of contemporary Western culture are considerable. Each is a response to their presence in place and time, but in terms of the ‘civilised’ psyche one is kinder than the other because the ‘civilised’ psyche is less robustly attuned to unmediated engagement with the natural forces of the world. As a filter through which the great energies we apprehend as gods might be encountered the Greek tradition is considered an easier, safer, path for the Western psyche. It is not, however, a kinder gentler filter in the sense that it is undemanding. The energies engaged with in the mystery traditions are considered inherently dangerous. That danger increases if the individual is ill-prepared or less robust.
The idea that ‘spirit’ agencies and entities are inherently dangerous, regardless of whether they are considered malign or benign embraces not just the profoundly disrupting and unsettling experiences I encountered but also ideas about potency. We are familiar with, and accepting of, the idea that many of our technologies are powerful and potentially lethal or catastrophically harmful if carelessly engaged with or ill-used. Motor cars and chainsaws are good examples. Likewise many life experiences can leave enduring legacies of degree of harm. Injury from devices and experiences can have their origins in the actions of the subtle agencies and entities as much as benefits. I have no direct clear memories of suffering specific injuries at the hands of such influences, other than the disruptions and dramas recounted, but I have strong memories of compelling influences upon my actions that clearly demonstrate the potential for good or ill.
On the 10th of December 1977 I was invited to a party in Balmain. I was sharing a house in the Glebe at the time and the invitation came from a housemate (RB). We took a taxi, along with two friends but on the way RB discovered that he’d left the paper with the address in his room. He proposed going to the pub instead. Normally I’d have agreed because I’ve never really enjoyed parties where I know very few people, but on this occasion I was gripped with a powerful and astonishing panic. I had to get to that party even if it meant knocking on every door in Balmain. We returned and got the address. At the party location we were ushered upstairs to a room with about ten people. We sat around for a while and going to the pub looked better and better as an option. But by then RB and our friends were happily stoned and in no mood to go anywhere. I was bored and decided I’d go to the pub. I’d forgotten about the panic that had driven me earlier.
As I left to go down the stairs I encountered a kind of force field through which I could not progress. No matter how hard I tried I was not able to commence my descent. I’d experienced this several times before and knew I had no hope of getting through it. I decided there must be a reason for staying so I returned to my friends. Subsequently, under another compulsion, I engaged in some bizarre conduct (about which I still feel a surge of embarrassment) that resulted in me meeting and later marrying my present partner. In this instance in one evening three instances of intrusive influence changed the course of events. First there was the induced panic the changed the plan to abandon the party and go to the pub. Second I was prevented from leaving the party. Third I was induced to behave in an outrageous manner utterly at odds with my normal shy socially unconfident self. Without each of these interventions the meeting would not have occurred. Here, plainly, was evidence of the capacity of something to affect my conduct for good or ill.
The proposition that agencies and entities can be place specific or not, and require care in engagement through forms and manners appropriate to them and the person seeking that engagement is consistent with the values and beliefs in cultures who may be considered animistic. Likewise the idea that agencies and entities may be malign or benign or neither, but simply dangerous, in their interaction with humans is consistent with animistic thought. Similarly, whether considered to be ghosts, spirits or gods, the presence of influences playing upon human life to alter conduct, and hence fate, is accepted among animistic cultures.
Radin (1957) observes that while some traditional peoples actively seek engagement with spirits through various disciplines such as rituals and vision quests they equally are cautious, recognising that some that are called up can be dangerous, if not lethal.
The use of ‘animism’ in contemporary Western culture
Although animistic ideas are embraced in the popularity of contemporary Pagan, Wiccan and Shamanic practices the words ‘animism’ and ‘animistic’ are rarely used. But the term, and derivations of it, presently enjoy a resurgent reputation in psychological and in environmental (natural and urban) fields, as well as in arts theory and technology.
Charlton (2002) sees animism as the consequence of human consciousness being a social intelligence that sees the world as sentient, as composed of agents who have “dispositions, motivations and intentions” (p.1). He speaks of “recovered animism”, arguing that:
Animism is not a religious or philosophical doctrine, neither is it an error made by people too young or too primitive to know better – 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 (p. 2).
He suggests that there is a future for animistic consciousness, but maybe at an individual, rather than a collective level, at least in more urbanised and standardised expressions of human culture:
The most probable human future entails more complexity, more planning, more control, and more alienation. But if a shared and public animism is ruled-out, the situation for individuals is different. There may be niches for more-or-less wholly animistic individuals even in modern society, and there certainly are niches for animistic thinking within many ordinary people’s lives. The problem is that, for a modern adult, recovery of animistic thinking entails undoing the effects of an exceptionally thorough and prolonged process of socialisation that has buried animism under a vast superstructure of repressions. Modern adults cannot necessarily recover their animistic thoughts at will, even temporarily (Charlton, 2002 pp. 4-5).
Charlton thinks that animistic thinking has declined as a consequence of progressive alienation from the kinds of situations and relationships that made it a ‘natural’ aspect of human awareness. I would argue that certainly the spiritual and intellectual environment in the world into which I was born reflected a cultural movement away from animistic consciousness, at least at the level of understanding and valuing ways of knowing that did not conform to either the religious or scientific orthodoxies thatprevailed.
Thinking that employs animistic thoughts and language in response to perceptions of a growing environmental crises appears to have been gathering support for some time. In 1991 Mack argued for the need to develop, or invent, “a new psychology of our relationship to the Earth” (p. 106). He said
By and large, we in the West have rejected the language and experience of the sacred, the divine, and the animation of nature. Our psychology is predominantly a psychology of mechanisms, parts and linear relationships. We have grown suspicious of experiences, no matter how powerful, that cannot be quantified, and we distrust the language of reverence, spirit, and mystical connection, recalling perhaps with fear the superstitiousness and holy wars of earlier periods (p. 106).
Mack saw a problem because of this suspicion. The new psychology must:
…by virtue of the very nature of the task be a psychology which includes a powerful spiritual element. This will mean, for example, a reanimation of the forests and of nature, which we have so systematically and proudly denuded of their spiritual meaning (Mack, 1991 p. 106).
Elsewhere there is evidence that animism has been taken up with enthusiasm by activists and innovators concerned to reframe thinking by using the term as both an intellectual and emotive leverage to support their vision. Bioregional animism essentially ‘borrows’ animism to strengthen bioregional arguments. The Centre for Bioregional Animism (Bioregionalanimism.com) follows Harvey’s model in its definition:
It is a form of Personalism where other than human persons including the whole bioregion itself is related to and communicated with as a person, not as if it was a person but as a person. Animism does not personify other then human persons, animals forces of nature, plants, the land and sky, it gives up human dominion over the designation of who and what a person is.
In similar manner the Centre also draws in shamanism to evoke the depth of meaning and connection it sees as fundamental to its conception of bioregionalism:
Bioregional animism attempts to show us that the spirit of the shaman as well as the animist is derived from and is an expression of the bioregion, of the land itself and forms from deeply intimate relationships with the life and spirit of those around us. Bioregional animism works with a base inspiration from the work of Graham Harvey’s New Animism www.animism.org.uk/. As well as with modern concepts of bioregionalism by such authors on the subject as Kirkpatrick Sales.
Here, I think, we see echoes of Charlton’s notion of ‘recovered animism’ and Mack’s perception of the need for a new psychology that has a more spiritual voice. It is consistent with the wider popularisation of animistic ideas through shamanism, as well as responding to the relational appeal of Harvey’s work. But unlike Mack’s interest in a formal psychology, this is activism, an informal adoption and adaptation of extant ideas in order to meet an imperative to re-conceive and re-value the physical environment.
Elsewhere urban animism reflects a re-conception of the built, human mediated environment. Furney (2004) explores the proposition that while most neo-pagans are urban dwellers, their tradition and its symbols and practices are firmly rural. How does an urban pagan cope with the culturally conditioned habit of seeing the cityscape as substantially inanimate? Can the animistic sentiments of the urban pagan be transformed into a form of “urban re-enchantment”? Furney’s interviews with urban pagans suggest that many are making the change. Some are self-describing as “techno-pagans” and others are inventing new goddesses to respond to the urban environment. She cites “Asphalta (goddess of roads and those who travel them) who help drivers find a parking space and Digitalis – Goddess of computers” (p.11) as examples of such adaptation.
On a more sophisticated level, Peck (2005) writes on responses to a 1923 German Expressionist film, “Die Strasse”, noting that:
Anton Kaes goes on to develop a brief but bristling theory of the “nexus between urban modernity and the disciplining power of vision.” Protagonists as flaneurs encounter a city that offers them excitement and risk, as well as danger and defeat. What he calls “urban animism,” “the gendered gaze,” and finally “vision and power” round out a sophisticated framework for interpreting the status of seeing in the Expressionist film and beyond. (p.1)
There is no exploration of what meaning is attached to “urban animism” in this context. In an almost equally unhelpful manner Reutter (2003) comments on Ludwig (2002), referring to his “methodological gesture” he names “radical animism” to “supplement cognitive concepts such as “radical empiricism” and “radical constructivism” and to indicate the epistemological possibilities of this theory that can respond to the political, ethnic and identity concerns of multicultural theorists and generally of contemporary theorists engaged in seeking exits from Western logocentrism.” (p.436)
Greenfield (2007), recognises the technological dimensions of animism. From the website session overview notes he says:
Folklore is replete with caves that open at a spoken command, swords that can be claimed only by a single individual, mirrors that answer with killing honesty when asked to name the fairest maiden in the land, and so on. Why should anyone be surprised when we try to restage these tales, this time with our technology in the central role?
… many current models for interaction with ubiquitous information-processing systems amount to a reassertion of animism — and a reawakening of something that has lain dormant within us for much of modernity. What are the consequences of this reawakening for the designers, developers, and marketers of ubiquitous systems?
Greenfield comprehends that advanced technologies are not extensions of a linear vector of development, but a ‘return’ to something fundamental, a potent conception allied to a potent impulse. Material technology becomes the medium, effectively externalising inner domains and inner heritages.
Animism appears to serve a variety of contemporary needs, from providing a voice to articulate pressing environmental concerns for the construction of a narrative that enables a reframing of a sense of relationship with both the natural and human-made environments to articulating more complex and difficult theories on perception and relationship in the arts. Greenfield uses the term to envision existing and emerging technologies.
The idea of urban animism is, in my view, under-explored and under-utilised. Animism is not a ‘belief system’ but a way of knowing that is context sensitive. That is that the extent to which it expresses, and the manner of its expression depends upon the context of the experiencer. One whose lifeworld is in deep wilderness and for whom the natural world is the dominant domain of physical experience, through deep identity and relationship, will perceive the animistic elements of the environment. But an urban dweller, with none of that attunement of identity and sense may not at all, or very dimly, see the natural world as source of meaning or identity. Likewise a deep urban dweller will see their world as ‘alive’ with history and meaning. The sense of indwelling spirit, as in history ‘coming alive”, may be metaphorical on one level, but in the human mediated and human dominated world the source of identity, meaning and relationship will be, at its root, human.
These wider and contemporary uses of animism to articulate depths of perceptions and relational senses fit my own emerging view that animistic thought has validity in the human-mediated, the constructed and the technological domains, as much as it might be employed to express a more ‘natural’ encounter between the human and the world. The employment of ideas drawn from animism to influence environmental thinking and policy suggests an exciting evolution of our shared thinking. If it is a valid way of knowing, then animistic thought must be able to make a sophisticated contribution to the shared formation of values and knowledge.
My definition of animism
Guthrie makes an important distinction between a psychological notion of animism, the views of Tylor and those of subsequent users of the term. He argues that Tylor’s original idea of a belief in spirits has been altered by “many anthropologists and other students of religion” who “adopted his term, animism … and narrowed his meaning to a second, related sense: that form of religion that attributes a spirit to everything” (1995 p. 40).
A third variation derives from Piaget (Guthrie 1995), and is employed by developmental psychologists. In this children see things in the world as living and conscious. Piaget saw this perception as confusion (also attributed to ‘primitive’ people), but though this might be reflexive in a child, adults will intentionally and consciously elect to see the world in animistic terms.
Guthrie does not believe in spirits or ghosts. He does not fully consider animistic thought as an error, but rather a valid strategy that is, finally, rooted in error. This is Pascal’s bet, that it is better to be wrong and safe than wrong and sorry. Guthrie seeks to validate animism as a strategy while arguing that it remains without substance as an interpretation of perception. Here he essentially remains with the company of scholars who interpret other people’s experience in terms of their own knowledge rules. In essence this is ‘explaining’ a phenomenon by fitting it into an ontological frame, obliging it to conform to a convention of knowledge rules. It is how thinkers work backwards from assumptions (no ghosts or spirits and no ‘reality’ to animistic perception) to explain a phenomenon in terms of the framing assumptions.
I am one such adult who elects to see the world in substantially animistic terms. But, because I base this choice upon experience (multiple incidences) I accept Tylor’s proposition concerning ghosts and spirits. The notion that ghosts and spirits are real does not fit the knowledge rules under which Guthrie and others work. I am also inclined toward the idea of spirits in things or places, and the notion that the world is living and conscious.
I am inclined toward the idea of a spirit associated with things or places because this is what my experience tells me, and I choose to see the world as living or conscious at least in some degree because this seems to (a) be supported by experience – and hence probably true, and (b) a useful philosophical strategy that enables qualities of relational experience that are superior (functionally and sensuously) to considered alternatives. In this last respect I differ fundamentally from Harvey in his apparent willingness to disconnect the apparent benefits of the relational experience from any possible underpinning reality.
While Guthrie is content to observe that animism is alive and well and living in the western psyche as an intentional choice as well as a reflex, he does not sufficiently work with the transition from an essentially animistic view of the world to a mechanistic one. He does note the transition (1995 pp. 54-61), especially the spread of Newtonian ideas as the Industrial Revolution took hold and celebrated the machine and material science. He also notes that there is not a clearly defined and universally accepted line that divides the animate and the inanimate.
Long before machines, it is likely that the world was seen as living because that was the available frame, possibly the only one. The emergence of ‘in-animism’ has not yet finally disposed of the animate frame, but it has certainly altered the sense of relationship, affecting the moral dimension. It has also altered the attunement of the senses by offering an alternative way of perceiving the world, valuing it and relating to it. I argue that there has evolved a cultural imperative to prefer the in-animation of the world, and this may be seen, in its own right, as a perceptual and conceptual strategy that arose in consequence of the particular vector taken by human evolution via Western culture.
The issue of error, therefore, is not a base issue of is/is not, rather it is one of perception in the manner that an expert eye will see what is invisible, or apparently non-existent. Depending on whether the expertise is valued or not we may or may not validate the claimed perception and interpretation. The Western cultural imperative has not favoured the animistic ‘expertise’.
The proposition that animism has been present and prevalent for the majority of humans over most of our collective history may be true simply because the available model has been animistic, not mechanistic. Animism might, therefore, be ‘hardwired’into our psyches because generations after generations have modelled our brains that way.
Guthrie demonstrates that perceptual error occurs regularly, and we know that conceptual error is a constant companion of human awareness and consciousness. But the issue about animistic thought is not whether it is ‘right’ in terms of explanatory narratives. The whole body of non-animistic religious thought, humanist, rationalist, scientific thought is no less prone to conceptual error that becomes erroneous explanatory narratives at every level of our culture. We refine or evolve our perceptions and conceptions, but such is our passion for interpretation that novel errors seem to constantly arise. The alternative to animistic thought might be considered to be ‘in-animistic’ thought: the merits of which have yet to be, in my mind, sufficiently asserted or defended.
In certain respects I was more attuned to animistic thought than many others in my culture. I grew up in either rural settings or on the fringe of towns or suburbs with ready access to farmland or the bush. I began collecting rocks and shells in late primary school and went bushwalking from early high school days. What few memories I have of distinctly human environments were the wharves in Hobart, where I went fishing or the ruins of Port Arthur, where my family frequently visited. After high school I was bushwalking, rock climbing or camping every chance I could get. I loved wilderness and I enjoyed my solitude. I developed an acute sensitivity to the Tasmanian wilderness refined through my then passion for geology and my love of photography.
This sensitivity is an attunement to a level of immersion in place at which perception and awareness are sharply responsive to subtle presences and behaviours. In those days I had no language for it. These days I would call it animistic.
I was also cursed, or blessed, with a measure of what is popularly called psychic sensitivity, again at a time when I had no language for it. Combined, the ‘educated’ and the innate sensitivities have precipitated considerably more non-ordinary experiences than appear to be available to other people. Some came unbidden, and unwelcome. Others were sought or welcomed. I can no more explain why I have had experiences that are not common than I can explain the appearance of talents for music, art, mathematics and the like.
I can well understand the making of theories that exclude the reality of ghosts and spirits by people who do not experience them, but such theories are relevant only to that class of persons, and not to humans as a whole. One might perceive a kind of hubris of universalism that pervades Western thought. Among those for whom spiritsand ghosts are realities, and for whom the world is spirit infused and thought to bealive and conscious (along a spectrum of degrees) animism can have a distinctly definite definition. This is mine:
Animism is a term that applies to a mode of perception or experiences that affirm that ghosts and spirits are real. It is also a sense of relationship and a philosophy formulated in consequence of accepting the proposition that the world is spirit infused. It is further a discourse and a narrative form that expresses perceptions, thoughts and sentiments arising from living the acceptance of the proposition. Finally, it informs the psychological and behavioural dimensions of the lived experience. It is, in essence, the sum of consequences that arise from perceiving the world, the cosmos as a Thou.
It is, however, no less prone to error, and will make the same errors, as any other mode of perception, interpretation and explanation. And those errors can and will inhabit the narrative, known or unknown to the teller and the hearer.