An exploration of animistic ideas in the contemporary Western world
In this chapter I explore the extent to which animism is apparently present within contemporary Western culture, other than through intentional use of the term and its ideas.
I argue that animistic thought is present within Western cultural conceptions and language, but camouflaged against a secular backdrop. That is that as human context changes, so do ideas and the language used to articulate them, but this does not mean that the underlying architecture of the ideas are fundamentally altered.
Although animistic thought is not formally or widely recognised as a component of contemporary Western consciousness there many elements of popular culture that are directly animistic or contain thought elements that are linked to a wider sense of animistic ideation.
As I became more attuned to intentional animistic thinking it became easier to identify or attribute animistic ideas. Some are familiar, for example the way in which people may name boats or vehicles, or the way sport teams favour ‘totemic’ animals or mythic or heroic figures to articulate something of their team spirit. Other ideas are linked to the evolution of technologies, especially the development of more ‘animated’ devices using artificial intelligence (such as voice recognition) and automation. In the context oflife as we understand it this ‘animation’ is a faux vivification, but the developmentalpotential for more subtle interaction between device and user does, at least, enable a comfortable (or disturbing) illusion to be created. And what happens is often less about actuality than perception, in terms of how such developments are accepted as normal.
Animistic ideas are gaining niche popularity as intentional adoption at the level of interest in the spectrum of ‘Pagan’ or Neo-pagan philosophies and practices. At the same time animistic and animated toys and entertainments are a response to the increased sophistication of technologies and the lowering of cost points. But this would not be possible without market demand or at the least, responsiveness to these innovations.
In an age in which traditional religions have lost appeal, and atheism and scepticism have grown, the phenomenal popularity of the Harry Potter books and movies, along with The Lord of the Rings movies reflect a persistent interest in and acceptance of the magical and the animistic. One assessment of the top grossing movies in the USA market suggests that only 25% do not have a fantasy, science fiction or magical/animistic element. And in the top ten this drops to 10%, with The Titanic, the only non-magical movie, at number one. (http://www.imdb.com/boxoffice/alltimegross).This level of popularity such movies is consistent with advances in, especially, CGI technology, which makes it possible to create film representations of ideas otherwise confined to books and comics.
I grew up with Marvel comics, which might have extended my childhood exposure to ‘acceptable’ animistic tales, such as Mother Goose and Wind in the Willows. I was also exposed to Aesop’s fables and fairy tales, which were perfectly acceptable within a Christian household. This same household permitted stories of Christmas elves, Santa Claus and flying reindeer. In an almost schizoid manner my parents were able to, on the one hand, celebrate the animism of childhood so long as it was fantasy; and, on the other, have no tolerance for other than the Christian world-view. It seems to me now that we exercise our secret inner animism through our children, allowing ourselves to be washed over by the myriad instances of animation of normally inanimate objects and the anthropomorphic transformation of wild and domestic creatures, as well as giving them voice in their own right.
It is as if the caveat that allows and legitimises childhood fantasy acts as a permission giver to recover, as adults, that which we surrendered. Perhaps Charlton’s notion of ‘recovered animism’ begins here and continues to express through popular entertainment, but remains as entertainment.
In the late 1970s I had an experience that continues to challenge my thinking about how the brain filters experience. I was woken suddenly by PJ who urgently wanted to tell me of her out of body experience. She had been floating above the bed up neat the ceiling and had become alarmed. She told me I had spoken to her very calmly, directing her to return slowly to the bed and her physical body. I had been woken froma dream in which I was standing in a dry sparse landscape. In front of me was a multi-storey construction made entirely of scaffolding. I was directing the operator of a crane on top of the construction to lower a stretcher holding a body in a fragile state onto two semi-trailers parked side by side. Even in the dream I paused to observe how odd it was that the trucks’ suspension was surprisingly soft. I had achieved my task and the scene instantly changed to another, which had PJ on the lying on the ground when I was woken up. The bed we were sleeping on was made from two single dunlopillo mattresses.
The opportunity to match the two experiences and draw parallels between my dream and PJ’s out of body drama illustrates to me how the fantastic and absurd nature of dreams can mask a lucid experience. Dream imagery has a metaphorical function, crowding meaning from non-ordinary lucid experience into seemingly absurd or fantastic image experiences. The reasons and mechanisms that generate this odd process of translation must be left to brain science, but the business of interpreting dreams is ancient. Jung says, “Nowadays animals, dragons, and other living creatures are readily replaced in dreams by railways, locomotives, motorcycles, aeroplanes, and suchlike artificial products…”(in Sabini 2002 p. 74). It would seem that it is not so much that the symbols have enduring meaning, but that they are context related, and stripped to their barest functionality.
Gardner (1999) argues that Western folklore and fairy tale masks historic truths, and Hancock (2005) argues that the same also mask non-ordinary experiences from the invisible world. Von Franz (1995) says that fantasy and mythic imagery conceal psychological and psycho-spiritual truths, not arising beyond human consciousness. Regardless of where each is right or not, what we have is a masking of a lucid or rational ‘truth’ in fantastical imagery in dream, myth and fairy stories. It is as if the human psyche and brain combine to generate an in between realm of metaphor and illusion that separates ordinary waking consciousness from deeper lucid meaning. This raises the importance of the role of fantasy in the contemporary world, in story and in advertising. This is not so much myth but the clothing of myth, such that the fantastical speaks to us because it is so often the form and voice of myth.
Whether the content is ‘true’ is probably something purists may dispute, as contemporary stories show no loyalties to what are seen to be past pristine tales. Contemporary story telling is shamelessly eclectic, and shamelessly contemporary. Shrek is a good example. In children’s stories the talking animals, often somewhat anthropomorphic in nature, echo the shamanic tradition of tutelatory animals. These characters as well remind us of ancient traditions that speak of a ‘unitary time’ when animals and humans shared the same language (Abram 1997).
In advertising fantasy plays a powerful role. There are soft drinks and confections that are presented as possessing consciousness-altering capacities that convey magical powers to the consumer, not infrequently suggest that they are able to transport consumers to a paradise place. There are strange fantastic and animistic creatures speaking on behalf of products, even if, as in the case of Louie the Fly, it is against their best interests. Magic and animism are sufficiently recurrent as themes inproduct promotion to suggest that those who design the ads and those who pay for them tacitly agree that something resonates with the audience in a positive way.
Animism and animistic ideas seem to be inextricably bound with other notions, such as magic, supernormal powers, religious ideas and otherworldly places and supernatural entities. Animist cultures appear to include these other elements along with the purely animist notions. So the presence of the same spectrum of themes within Western popular culture, with a high level of exposure and acceptance should suggest something distinct. It has not been within the scope of this project to quantify the volume of fantastical elements spanning infant to adult life experience (toys, books, movies, Christmas related material, advertising) within contemporary Western culture, but I want to suggest that it is of sufficient volume as to be a significant indicator of something significant about our collective psyche.
It might be that the childhood animism identified by Piaget is a valid observation and that we do not grow out of it so much as sublimate it in conformity with the dominating narrative that expresses ‘civilised’ sentiments. Fraser (1994) explored cultural practices that had persisted into his time, though with diminished primacy within the life of a community. Guy Fawkes night was still celebrated in my childhood, but without any potent sense of what it meant. As children we dimly grasped the notion of the gunpowder plot but we were far more articulate about the explosive potential for mischief that lay in the ‘crackers’ we could buy. Bonfires and explosions activate primal responses, so they are likely to survive in consequence. Fraser noted an ancient communal practice of bonfire lighting reaching back to times when the animistic world-view was far more prevalent.
Modernity and even post-modernity has layered over more ancient worldviews, but it has not extinguished them, nor rendered them inconsequential. The more ancient thoughts, sentiments and reflexes may no longer be prominent as clear ideas serving to articulate and explain the human experience, but it does seem that they continue to play a vital role in releasing or processing psychic energy.
I have spent ten of the past 18 months in hospital recovering from Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a condition that confers sudden and almost total paralysis. My ability to make notes was radically impaired. Sometime during that period I heard a speaker on radio saying that our dreams make us whole. I had not much other than my dreams at that stage so the idea stuck with me. I have evolved this idea into the context ofanimism.
It may be that the innumerable ways in which the suite of animistic and related ideas seep into our cultural experience, camouflaged as innocent fantasies and the pleasant entertainments of childhood reflect a fundamental need. It may be that unless this need is permitted sufficient free expression we cannot properly experience a genuine sense of psychic wholeness. Fantasy and entertainment are the other side, the ‘yin’ to the ‘yang’ of rational awareness. So they remain within the culture as carriers of the animistic while the overt cultural narrative, blending religious, humanist and scientific discourses denies, essential its ontological validity.
In Christianity we can readily identify hell and heaven as occupying the lower and higher positions, once literally so in the popular consciousness. We can expect that the pervasive influence of Christianity upon the Western psyche will have resulted in lingering influences, even when our culture is seen as predominantly secular. We still speak of a terrible experience being ‘hellish’ and of a pleasant one as ‘heavenly’. In the criminal ‘underworld’ and the realms of ‘stardom’ we may detect classical allusions, but these images retain traction also because they speak to something innate. We talk of ‘low life’ to denote disreputable realms of behaviours, and the ‘high life’ to express rich or opulent lifestyles.
Paradisiacal elsewhereness is no longer something that is only a post mortem experience. These days it is ‘heaven on Earth’, even if only for a brief interlude. The magical luxury of a holiday in the sun carries the echoes of the ancient land beyond the horizon, but as a destination for restoration and recreation; and both these terms have connotations of rebirth and (unfortunate) return to the mundane world.
Between the criminal underworld and the privileged high life of ‘stars’ lies the middle world of the mundane life, from which one may, traditionally, escape to the upper levels through virtue and fortune, or descend beneath when neither is present. The same linear moral scheme is echoes in the traditional social classes: lower, middle and upper.
Greenfield’s thoughts concerning the animistic potential of technologies merits further exploration. I want to think about technologies in the sense of enabling the doing of things that could not otherwise be done, and those that make the doing of something easier – saving time and labour. The first time humans picked up a stone to smash a bone to get to the marrow enabled something that could otherwise not be attained by intent. The development of laser surgical techniques has made operations once too perilous to contemplate possible. But the majority of our technologies make the doing easier.
Many devices make it possible to do things that once could be only dreamt of or wished for. Other devices virtually ‘democratise’ the magical and the paranormal. The magical skills that enabled remote transfer of thoughts and sight were once attributed only to wizards, witches and shamans. Now it is possible to use mobile phone and satellite technologies to replicate these feats. There was a time when a person walking down the street animatedly engaged in conversation with no apparent companion would have been thought quite mad (or, more generously, one blessed by a spiritual gift). Now we need to confirm the absence of a Bluetooth earpiece before conferring such a diagnosis.
As well as the animation of technological devices, they are reducing in size and becoming less obtrusive, less evident. The microchip is becoming a pervasive resident in toys and domestic appliances. And as technologies advance the energies they use and the media with which they operate is moving outside the purely physical realm into the fuzzy quantum domain on the boundary of physical existence.
In a very real way technology is oriented toward serving our dreams and allowing us to more fully inhabit our imagination as much as it serves the more evident needs of maintaining and refining our physical existence.
I argue that technology is responding to our innate propensity for both animistic and magical thought. What drives now innovation (especially in computing) may be less a response to the instincts of our physicality and far more a deeper, more primal, and maybe more fundamental, imperative. Palaeoanthropologist Peter McAllister has reviewed the status of the modern male in his book, Manthropology, (Hachette 2009) and argues that, “every man in history, back to the dawn of the species, did everything better, faster, stronger and smarter than any man today.” (from publisher’s website). Technology has certainly been a significant contributor to the decline in our physical prowess, and our appetite for the nonphysical, for the imaginative and the magical, seems undiminished but perhaps more realized and realizable than ever before.
The chief point to make here is that our development of technology has not been confined to the substitution of physically demanding or onerous tasks, enhancing physical pleasures or salving psychological anxieties. I maintain it has been also employed to respond to more complex impulses, including a passion for the magical and animistic. The relatively disproportionate representation of supramundane and supranormal themes among popular movies, for example, suggests the possible presence of an element of human behaviour favouring animistic and magical thought.
I argue that technology seeks to inhabit the dream/imagination-state as a medium through which the fantastic is rendered as drama, as with the popular computer generated animations that perpetuate talking animals, for example, in films like Finding Nemo or fairy stories and folklore like Shrek, or as devices that enable quasi lucid dreaming as with virtual reality devices. Technology is not inventing new places andspaces so much as making possible mediated access to the ancient ones, albeit as counterfeit, vicarious experience.
Cyber space has become an analogue of an invisible world, and this is nowhere better demonstrated in the present development on on-line worlds such as Second Life, which boasts a population of 7,880,873 residents, of whom 1,763,640 logged in the past 60 days. Second Life provides a comprehensive economic analysis of its residents’ activities, using its own currency, which can be converted to ‘real’ tangible money. This economic activity includes selling parcels of land, of which 6,287 were available for sale. (secondlife.com accessed 8/7/07)
It is in technology that we may find the most potent expressions of the magical and the remnants of religious aspiration. Much of our technology brings attributes of the invisible realm to the physical, seeking to render unobstructed the realm that is naturally obstructed. The dream state, the invisible world, has no time or space as we know it, and no gravity. It is unobstructed. White’s (1940) now classic ‘Unobstructed Universe’ expresses the distinction between physical and non-physical time and space in five essential points:
- The essence of Time is Receptivity.
- The essence of Space is Conductivity.
- The essence of Motion is Frequency.
- The co-existent trilogy of the obstructed universe (Earth) is Time, Space andMotion.
- The co-existent trilogia of the unobstructed universe … is Receptivity, Conductivity and Frequency. (1940 p. 59)
The relationship between events/forms expresses differently relative to the medium of manifestation. The essence of White’s argument is that what we perceive as time and space, the material world, is a lower, or denser, analogue of attributes that function within the invisible world. It is these attributes that we witness most lucidly in computer generated ‘worlds’ in cyber space, where the analogue physical world displays apparent space, where none exists, though it is experienced as existing. Here also the time taken for something to happen can be diminished or expanded elastically because none of the process impediments of the ‘real’ lumpy world apply. The relationships between events remain, but they are no longer constrained to conform to material world rules. The ideal of the invisible, unimpeded world has become the ideal oftechnology.
It is perhaps paradoxical that in an age that is often asserted to be grossly materialistic, we may be witnessing a de-materialisation, as we further engage with the imaginative and magical through devices whose presence is less and less apparent. These same devices are also becoming more and more animated, in appearance at least.
The biological dimension – hard wired for the sacred?
Brain research appears to be confirming ancient knowledge, though there is still an understandable reluctance to admit that there may be another order of reality involved. Instead, it is claimed that the brain still generates the things that would otherwise appear to be ‘unreal’. In terms of scientific method this is entirely appropriate, because the invisible world does not yet routinely register on the instruments of the visible material world.
Research into ‘spiritual’ experiences and into the impact of psychoactive compounds remains at the contentious edge of scientific research. The work done is suggestive to a sympathetic inquirer that further advances will support the assumptions and assertions of ‘believers’. While this may turn out to be the case, I want to go no further than saying that the implications are favourable, and appear not to rule out spiritual interpretations. There is a concern is that reliance on science that is faithful to a conservatively methodological approach can be abused when the evidence is extrapolated to support a hypothesis long before the science is completed. At present the science suggests that anticipations of vindication might be valid, but it by no means has yet served up ‘proof positive’.
That innate human propensity for connection with the other reality that is translated as a religious impulse, or the brain being hardwired for God is now being asserted to be inherent within our biology, in the architecture and chemistry of the brain (Newberg, D’Aquili & Rause 2001; Pearce 2002; Strassman 2001). This has led to interesting speculation on the ‘survival’ values of a biologically determined instinct for the mystical, confined within the ground rules of atheistic Darwinism. Can a propensity for the metaphysical and spiritual be hardwired into the brain to serve entirely biological imperatives?
Newberg et al do see clear physiological and psychological benefits from beliefs and practices of a spiritual nature. They say:
Evidence suggests that the deepest origins of religion are based on mystical experience, and that religion persists because the wiring of the human brain continues to provide believers with a range of unitary experiences … evolution has adopted this machinery, and has favoured the religious capabilities of the brain because religious beliefs and behaviours turn out to be good for us in profound and pragmatic ways. (p. 129)
Strassman’s (2001) work on DMT, which occurs in nature as well as in humans, and to a remarkable degree, hints at the possibility that it may be more than humans who have an inbuilt supply of DMT to assist their communion with the sacred. This would be very much an animistic perspective. If we accept that plants and animals are animate conscious spirit beings with physical counterparts then we cannot rule out the role of DMT as a means of attaining ‘peak experiences’ across the board, and perhaps more than humans are biologically ‘hard-wired’ for the sacred.
Strassman says of DMT that it:
Provides, regular, repeated and reliable access to “other” channels. The other planes of existence are always there. In fact they are right here, transmitting all the time. But we cannot perceive them because we are not designed to do so; our hard wiring keeps us tuned in to Channel Normal. (pp. 315-6)
Here we have contrasting perspectives, one proposing that the brain is hard-wired to the sacred and the other that it is also hard-wired to the ‘normal’. Both see a common attainment of a unitary state, induced by a number of means, including ingestion of psychoactive substances, ritual methods and intense physical excitation.
It would not be unreasonable to expect that the physical and chemical architecture of the brain would ‘fit’ the experiences that come from the range of ‘spiritual’ experiences, nor that the reports of mystics and shamans would find confirmation through scientific investigation. But interpreting what this means remains deeply contentious. How do we define the benefits of a hard-wired propensity for the sacred in the context of a cultural ontology that has substantially dismissed the heritage of mystical and spiritual thought? Strassman’s position, like that of McKenna & McKenna (1993) is less cautious than Newberg et al, because the latter remain within the boundaries of scientific enquiry that presumes no validity to the assertions of other domains beyond the material. That there is a fit between the shamanic and mystical and the science of the brain invites the assumption of validity of knowledge systems derived from such traditions, and perhaps, as research continues the fit and validity issues will be more definitively addressed.
There is potential to explore the nature of the membrane that divides the ‘normal’ from the ‘mystical’, considering the discourses of the grand esoteric and religious systems that promote unitary consciousness as the objective of human endeavour. This might also be matched to the unitary tendencies that appear to be inherent in evolving technologies – especially the emphasis on connectedness and communication.
Campbell asserted that a certain persistent theme was common across the body of human mythology, and he called this the “monomyth. In effect this ‘monomyth’ is the final test of the persistent and pervasive presence of animism in any culture.
To Campbell the monomythic theme arises as “the one shape-shifting yet marvellously constant story that we find, together with a challengingly persistent suggestion that more remaining to be experienced than will ever be known or told.” (1993 p. 3) It operates through myth, which Campbell sees as the “living inspiration of what ever else may have appeared out of the activities of the human body and mind.” (Ibid p. 3) And Campbell is bold enough to assert that “…it would not be too much to say that myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestation.” (Ibid p. 3) But it is almost ‘too much to say‘ by virtue of saying it is not. Nevertheless Campbell framed a large question: “What is the secret of the timeless vision? From what profundity of the mind does it arrive? Why is mythology everywhere the same, beneath its varieties of costume? And what does it teach? (Ibid p. 4)
In setting out to answer these questions Campbell defines the hero as “a personage of exceptional gifts. Frequently his is honoured by his society, frequently unrecognised or distained. He and/or the world in which he finds himself suffering from a symbolic deficiency.” (Ibid p. 37). The central theme of the monomyth is a ‘journey’ that is “a magnification of the rites of passage: separation-initiation-return.” (Ibidp. 30). In effect, then, the monomyth is the making of the shamanic, the culture hero who undergo “agonising sacrificial torture, death and often dismemberment in the spirit world and subsequent reassembly and rebirth in his earthly body, now equipped with shamanic supernatural power.” (Hancock 2005 p. 271)
The reason that the monomyth and its hero have central concern to cultures is, as Eliade observes, because those who possess the ability to move between the worlds are the vital link in connecting humans on the physical side of the veil with what is beyond. The myths tell the story of the visible and invisible world intersecting and of the journeying to the invisible realms. He says, “these myths refer to a time when communication between heaven and earth was possible; in consequence of a certain event; or ritual fault, the communication was broken off; but heroes and medicine men are nevertheless able to re-establish it.” (1988 p. 133) In short, reconnection has been a pervasive human theme and objective. Regardless of the historical reality we can see that Christianity inflated the Jesus story to match the monomyth. Jesus represents the last monomythic hero who exists in a time of real mythos, regardless of the historical dimension. For Western culture, the AD dating might represent the last symbolic presence of a mythic character believed widely to have been divine. But the fundamental drive of the monomyth persists because it is essential to the human psyche. The innate spiritual impulse is towards what the hero/shaman can do. But because we cannot all be heroes and shamans, the stories that mirror the monomyth assure us that somebody can.
In the West the monomyth is alive and well, though in a somewhat materialistic or secular form. It lives on in Superman, who has superhuman powers but the flaw of susceptibility to Kryptonite. Superman is the hero of the industrial age, and there is no overt sense of the mystical in him. The hero is Luke Skywalker with the ability to draw power from ‘The Force’, and whose hand his father cut off. In a strange kind of way the hero is also Star Trek’s android, Data, who is a humanist version of the mythic hero. He possesses the superhuman powers of a robotic brain, and is flawed in the lack of ability to experience human emotions, and therefore to be fully human, In numerous other ways truncated and embellished versions of the monomyth play out in dramas on television and movie theatres. The journey may be only to defeat the ‘bad guys; and the supernatural powers are really only supernormal – to a secular sense, the supernatural has to be encoded, and may be no more than flash weapons or powers concocted in a computer. But that is enough. The good guy suffers and struggles against evil, and restores good to the world, children to their parents or freedom to the oppressed. These are costume dramas that colour the monomyth in the appropriate cloth of belief and believability of a culture and an age.
Does animism persist?
I have argued that there are fundamental continuances of the essential elements of animism in Western culture from diverse sources, historical and contemporary and that it seems as if this way of knowing seeks and finds expression as cultural contexts permit it do so. It seems to be present as an innate undercurrent permeating the superstructure of time and circumstance through available forms and avenues. It also appears to be spontaneously celebrated as a valued component of human life, especially childhood.
The celebration of the animistic stage of childhood, as described by Piaget, should, I think, give us pause. Not only are inanimate objects accorded animate attributes but ‘imaginary friends’ are present. It is difficult to imagine that there is any utility of evolutionary or survival value in such a stage without there being some deeper underpinning factor. It is adults who enable, perpetuate, develop and market the plethora of animistic childhood orientated things. Is this just an honouring of childhood or capitalisation upon it? Or could there be that in adults the animistic phase is subverted, rather than transcended and the things of childhood cannot be put away until they are honoured and integrated?
The first toy I bought my grandson was a truck, chosen for its sturdy construction and functionality. It was only later that I discovered eyes on the windscreen and mouth, of simple linear design, on the grille. The effect was that of happy endeavour. I am not sure he noticed it as he subjected the toy to his robust and ill- coordinated pleasure. Nevertheless the eyes and mouth signified something to the designer.
As I write these notes I am sitting at a footpath table outside my favourite café in Katoomba. My coffee has arrived in a blue mug with eyes, a bump for a nose and a mouth. The ‘emotion’ conveyed is that of anxious concern. The eyes are downcast, playing over the page of my notebook, and I might be induced to think the mug is gazing on my words, thinking, “What are you thinking? How could you possibly think that? Are you mad?” This is not a child’s thing, but it is playful, perhaps a comic code acknowledging some secret animistic thought, with which I am invited to engage.
This makes me wonder, also, about the names of football teams – sharks, tigers, lions, panthers, bulls, dragons, and eagles. It is as if we are responding to some innate impulse to evoke totemic animal images as emblematic of male potency. It is no less than we do in ordinary speech, invoking animal characteristics to convey particular meaning – chicken, dog, goat, ass, rat and turkey come immediately to mind. Are we acknowledging, outside the formal and rational ontological discourses, that there are some things that are meaningful and powerful and effective, that are best drawn from a now seemingly remote history of our development? Or have we not really transcended the animism of childhood or our ancient heritage? Guthrie sees similar things, adding that we name cars and planes after animals and birds. He concludes that, “Animism, then, seems intrinsic to perception.” (Ibid p. 61)
Jay Griffiths (2007) probably grasps the challenge of Charlton’s recovered animism more than most in the publication of Wild: an Elemental Journey. She confirms the apparent universality of the essential animistic precepts, struggling to endure within surviving traditional indigenous cultures in the 21st Century, against the ineluctable encroachment of Western culture, but mostly yielding and diminishing with great sadness, as if something monumental and profound is being lost.
Griffiths starkly articulates the fundamental dilemma the contemporary Western way presents to those within it, and of it, who are sensitive to the bleak dichotomy that has evolved between civilisation and nature. For though the homo-centric Western way has striven to become a full system that embraces and satisfies the need for mythos, or to eradicate it as ‘irrational’, fit only for gentle indulgence as fantasy, the boundary is porous, and yearning for the natural, the wild, the animistic has not abated.
She says of the dwellers in the Amazon “they will tell you of different ways of knowing. The Western way, they say, is merely theoretical; their own way is better, for it is both spiritual and practical, involving a constant moral dimension that includes a respect for nature”. (p. 16) It is this moral dimension, the respect for nature that lies at the centre of a culture that generates the divide between the Western way and those ways it has encircled and constricted. The animistic sense is at the root of the distinction. Griffiths says that:
Amazonian people speak of spirits everywhere in the forests. The Kukama people say there are spirits in the streams, lakes, salt licks, and in small garden plots.
One Shawi man comments, “We Shawi think that every living thing has its own spirit.” For a Shiwilu man, Fidel Lomas Chota, there is a connection between wildness and spirit; domesticated plants don’t have any spirit, but by contrast las frutas sylvestres, wild fruits, have spirits, and everything in el monte (the wild forest) has a dueño, spirit. (Ibid pp. 44-5)
The idea that spirits are absent from ‘denatured’ place is common, as Griffiths found, with the same sentiment being expressed among Papuans and among the Inuit. It is as if the natural spirits are displaced, excluded or simply depart when the moral dimension of human conduct loses connection with the natural world, even if it is the simple erection of a fence or intentional gardening. (My partner, a naturopath, prefers ‘wild crafted’ herbs as opposed to farmed ones, and similar preferences are expressed in relation to such as fish and game animals by those of discerning tastes.) The notion of a moral dimension, a sense of lawfulness is central to traditional culture, but not laws conceived by humans, rather how humans respond to the natural world. “For indigenous people, Law is the land and Nature is anything but lawless; rather there is a profound core of order within wild nature.” (Ibid p.228) Griffiths catalogues this notion of ‘natural law’, saying:
This universal law, or Way is Asha in Zoroastrian thought, Maat for the ancient Egyptians, R’ta in Vedic India, Dharma for Hindus and Buddhists, the Tao in ancient China. For the Greeks, Themis was goddess of law, the law of nature as distinct from human law (and when Themis is disregarded Nemesis brings retribution). The deep law of nature was Maligait for the Inuit, it was Wouncage, the old way, for the Oglala Lakota and the Dreaming for Aboriginal people. They are all expressions of a profound Law beneath everything, a Way of being. Wildness, nature, freedom and law are all part of this Way, not in opposition to it. Wildness – complex, free, beautiful and only apparently chaotic – is part of a larger deeper order.(Ibid p 288).
Griffiths summaries the wounding dichotomy that has emerged in Western thought. She observes that “Terms for sin and evil were taken from the natural world … Terms for sinners were also terms taken from nature … By contrast, the words for virtue do not lean to nature but to the off-ground sky.” (Ibid p. 247)
Redfield (1968) makes a related point concerning the transition from ‘primitive’ to civilised life, saying that: “The point which we are to insist … is that in the early condition of human societies, the nexus which held people to together was moral.” (Ibid p.28) and that “…every pre-civilized society of the past fifty or seventy-five millenniums had a moral order to which the technical order was subordinate.” (p.30) Redfield’s concern is that foundation of values alters as the conditions and nature of human activity changes. He observes that, “In civilization the old moral order suffers, but new states of mind are developed by which the moral order is, to some significant degree, taken in charge.” (Ibid p. 37) The new states of mind take charge of the moral order through thought and language, as well as the priorities of conduct.
Griffiths recognises the Earth – Heaven dichotomy, engraved into language and thought, conditioned by tradition that reaches back into the very foundations of Western culture. We can see the Greek influence, when rationalism established the distinction between what is valued and what is not. She says:
To the Greeks the city was a way of thinking and represented rationality. The city-state was associated with (male) reason and contrasted with (female) irrationality of the wilderness. The city, with its plumb lines and right angles, represented the straight lines of logic, not the winding ways of intuitive emotional thought.
The city represents law and order (the word police derives from Greek polis, “town”, while the “villains” dwell in lawless wild nature outside. The word villain (a Middle English variant of villein, “peasant”) once meant a rustic and the root of the word is in villa – originally the word was merely a simple description of where someone dwelled. The word gradually shifted, coming to mean criminal. (Ibid pp. 34-5)
Thought and language construct a sense of reality for those who live within a culture, and, even if the act is unconscious, and the offence unintended, the perpetuation and preservation of words perpetuates the logic of their evolution. Those ideas and words whose evolved use evokes a shifting set of values can be traced, as Griffiths demonstrates, into a hard polarity – the feminine, natural and Earthly and the masculine, rational and Heavenly.
Griffiths also recognises the central role of the scared mountain, saying that “All over the world, mountains have been considered sacred – it seems to be a human constant.” (Ibid p. 314) But not only are mountains the dwelling place of gods, the home of the spirits of the deceased, the refuges of the rebellious, the mystical and the holy, they are emblematic of the elemental, of wild nature, where Earth and Heaven come together. While Griffiths does not survey Eliade’s notion of the surrogate sacred mountain as the ziggurats and pyramids of human fiat, her central thesis makes it possible to grasp the degree to which the human-made, conceived in the linearity of geometry, and located within the city, constitutes an absolute capture and transformation of iconic image of natural spiritual energy. Here we can imagine the first fault- lines, the initial forces of separation, of the creation of the enduring dichotomy.
The classical, Taoist text, the Tao Te Ching, says “The ways of men are conditioned by those of earth. The ways of earth by those of heaven. The ways of heaven by those of the Tao, and the ways of the Tao by the Self-so.” (Waley, p 26 1997). The traditional animistic ways are emphatically Earth-centred. Griffiths observed that:
For the Amazonian people there are spirits or essences within reality, and this essence takes different forms – human, bird or animal – but since the essence is the same, the spirit in one form can transform into another form –a kind of Ovidian metamorphosis known throughout the forests, The same life force is in everything, animating you and the eagle, the glossy leaf and the kingfisher, the jaguar and me.
Creatures are gentle I’m told, everywhere I go in the Amazon: they are “people like us” with customs and homes and they are accorded gentleness for being gentle. You must address the world gently, I was told, even to the wind you should speak con cariño –with tenderness. The Harakmbut told me that all animals were people más allá – long ago – and there is a profound equality between us and them. (Ibid p. 57)
This fundamental fellow-feeling at the root of indigenous and traditional Law generates a profound response to perceptions of Western conduct. “Yuri Rytkheu comments that in many Chukchi legends, the words for “white man” and “enemy” are synonymous. The newcomers were identified “as the physical embodiment of the evil spirits, as the personification of avarice and contempt for the rules of human conduct.” (Ibid p.132). Trudgen (2000) says the Yolnu people of the Northern Territory saw Europeans as “lawless” and yet with tremendous power. And Campbell saw that heaven became the source of a new way of knowing. Heaven-centred knowledge did appear to alter the way some humans saw the Earth, seeing it no longer as a scared being or presence from which they derived the essentials for life, but as a resource to be exploited and transformed, redeemed into the model of heaven. The idea that Western ontology developed into a sub-set that is lawless in relation to the long tradition of ontologies that linked human/Earth relations in a complex and intimate way is one I think we need to consider deeply.
What Griffiths essentially demonstrates is that no matter the degree to which the animistic architecture can be found within Western culture, it is constructed on a logic that is fundamentally at odds with those who continue within, or cling to the remnants of, life ways that intimately bind human being and behaviour to the Earth. The progressive emergence of ‘Heaven’ as the source of Law seems to have had the effect of ‘cutting out the middle man’: humans, rather than deriving Law from Earth in the Taoist sense, sought to draw Law directly from heaven. The development of science, especially its evolution from the advent of quantum theory, and more so with the development of chaos, complexity and systems theories is enabling a rethink of human/Earth relations. This is also happening at a time when disastrous ecological concerns are inviting us to rethink the way we are interacting with natural systems.
The promise of Heaven seems to have played out its drama over five millennia or longer. The bubble that began as the establishment a connection between the human and the divine atop a surrogate mountain has expanded to create a human-made realm within which we are perfectly adapted as members of the Western culture. In its own way it has become a model, a mimic of a larger system, now expelled, following the principles of self-organisation.
Griffiths sees that wildness has not been banished from civilised humans, rather it has been confined and shaped. And while it seems to have been tamed, rendered docile, it does simmer, like Bates’ sleeping dragons, and shimmer with potential.
If our culture, our way of knowing, despite being a seeming bubble of ontological hubris, remains fundamentally modelled on an innate architecture, if Charlton is right (in company with Guthrie) in his assertion that “Consciousness just is animistic”, then Griffiths may offer us something that is valuable in her comment, that after the seven years journeying to experience and to write Wild, “In the end – a strangely sweet result – I came back to a wild home.” (Ibid p.3)
Of all I had read, Griffiths’ work touched me most deeply, throwing me back into memories of wild places of my childhood, and how I found a natural ‘fit’ in solitary wandering along creek beds or sea shores, often to my parents’ consternation. On my most recent birthday (Jan 22nd) I had an unexpected call from my stepfather, a man of deep Pentecostal commitment. He reminded me of something I had forgotten, of how I had numerous times ‘gone bush’ and simply had forgotten to go home. It bought back memories of how every wild place, no matter how, small, even a vacant block in our suburb, drew me. I would spend hours observing, sometimes closely, small creatures or a waterway that trickled through tangles of blackberry and weeds.
I wrote to Griffiths on 15 September 2007 to thank her for the book, saying, in part:
I don’t propose Goddess as a literal idea (not saying it isn’t either), but I do see clearly that it is a perfect archetypal metaphor that enables the creation of a coherent and workable thought/feeling model. What ‘Wild’ did for me was to give that idea the clothing of human passion, the shape formed from raw experience. It breathed life into it. Thank you. You reminded me what I had almost let become dulled – that visceral sense of being in the presence of the wild world.