An Animist’s Take on Fiction: to view or not to view

Co. Kerry

Sermons from the Mound published a summary article last week titled, “Notes toward a Pagan Theology of Fiction” and referenced some of my own tangential thinking on ‘spirit’ communication, and how the mental images derived from fiction impact this.  Re-reading my cogitation offered an opportunity to consider whether my thinking had changed.  I found it had not.  In fact,  if anything, it had deepened.  My move three years ago to Ireland, a land I mythicized for years, dramatically shifted my spirituality.  When finally able to experientially connect with the land on a daily basis, the stories I had long read with a sense of disconnection, and almost romanticized wonder, took on an unexpected immediacy–they became embodied.  No longer was the Cailleach a symbol, or even a divine principle.  She was now the unity of all it means to live in a dark land during the howling winter.  With this in mind, I want to re-examine how I, as an animist, perceive ‘spirit’ communication and how fiction might influence this.

If you have read any of RJ Stewart’s work, you know he advises against “filling your mind” with images from popular entertainment.  His reasoning for this is two-fold, and related to an example I heard Ivo Domínguez, Jr. use at PantheaCon some years ago during a possession workshop.  In this workshop, Ivo discussed his process for god-form communication, and how he ensures he has “dialed the right number.”  To explain how god-forms might communicate with human-persons, Ivo told the story of the monkey and the talking board:

A monkey, who was willingly or unwillingly a subject in animal communication research, had been given watermelon and really liked it: in fact, he wanted more!  He communicated with his human collaborators using a board with images painted on tiles.  Having decided he wanted watermelon, but lacking an image for watermelon, he pressed “water+candy+fruit” – the closest imagery available.

Yule Revels

Ivo’s point being that spirits use the same principle when communicating with humans — they use our stored imagery.  This is why RJ recommends staying away from modern entertainment, such as TV, movies and popular fiction.  Instead, he encourages his students to read source material and folklore. He wants mythic imagery stored in the human mind to ensure more accessible and accurate faery communication.  RJ also relates this sanction to the old faery warning that the underworld acts as a mirror for our psyche–reflecting back to us what we bring in.

Mental imagery is also used in horse training, and in the experimental fields of consciousness research.  A study that came out recently, which I have misplaced the reference for (though other research can be found here), recounts how horses respond to the image held in the mind of the human trainer, i.e., if you want the horse to go toward the barn, hold the image of the barn in your mind.  Relatedly, Psychologists report accounts of humans with memories of both understanding and communicating non-verbally to those around them, during their pre-verbal developmental stage.

Straw Boys

In Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram touches on this extra-sensory way of perceiving and discusses how it is normative in pre-literate cultures.  He describes how human-persons, in those oral cultures, “come to know themselves primarily as they are reflected back by the [other-than-human persons] and the animate landscapes with which they are directly engaged.”  I suspect this extra-sensory mode of perception was once tied more closely to our primary method of communication, and still is for most life in the universe–including earth herself.   Yet, we  need not think of this experience as ‘extra.’  It is based in our neurology.  According to Merleau-Ponty, when the synaesthesia between our eyes and ears is concentrated, the visual and auditory foci are virtually indistinguishable, readying us–sensual beings that we are– to respond with our whole body to the Other.

“The animistic proclivity to perceive the angular shape of a boulder (while shadows shift across its surface) as a kind of meaningful gesture, or to enter into felt conversations with clouds and owls–all of this could be brushed aside as imaginary distortion or hallucinatory fantasy if such active participation were not the very structure of perception, if the creative interplay of the senses in the things they encounter was not our sole way of linking ourselves to those things and letting the things weave themselves into our experience.  Direct, prereflective perception is inherently synaesthetic, participatory, and animist, disclosing the things and elements that surround us not as inert objects but as expressive subjects, entities, powers, potencies.”

Forenachts : Co. Kildare

Anthropocentrism has led us toward an experience of isolation and separateness.  Cut-off from the living world around us, we turn instead to fictions and fantasies of our mind: constructs developed to mimic the native connection between one’s own flesh and the encompassing flesh of the world.

As an animist (and I only speak for myself), I do not view the land around me as filled with disembodied, non-corporeal entities–a dualism arising from the scientific world view– though, I do not discount the possibility of Mind or Life expressing itself in this way, in some alternate reality or universe.  Instead, I see the universe as FULL of living, conscious, embodied powers, some of whom may be open to, or interested in, communication.  “Helios, ‘lord of high noon,’ is not distinct from the sun (the fiery sun here a willful intelligence able even to father children).  Even ‘fair Dawn, with her spreading fingertips of rose,’ is a living power.”  Within this perspective, I see our common language–the one all life can tap into–as one of imagery and sensuality.  I leave it with you to decide, given the importance of this channel for direct and participatory experience, what constitutes ‘garbage’ –in regard to the images we fill our unconscious with– and whether ‘garbage in’ equals ‘garbage out.’

About Traci

Traci Laird is an animist living in Ireland and hails from the great state of Texas (a mythic heritage she is quite proud of!).  Her current academic pursuits are in Sociology and Psychology, and she engages a “sensuous scholarship” when seeking to understand Place.  She can also be found at Confessions of a Hedge Witch

  • http://www.facebook.com/henry.buchy Henry Buchy

    great post!

    I’m not sure I’d be so keen as RJ to swear people off of popular fiction/fantasy. I think both the study of ‘source’ material and folklore as well as modern fiction/fantasy gives a richer vocabulary for other beings and ourselves.

    if what he means by underworld is similar to the idea of a universal field of consciousness or anima mundi/soul of the world/astral manifold, then those modern works are already present within that sphere. “Imaginings” come from somewhere, and other beings don’t always ‘speak’ to only those who are students of the old tales, and so will use the images available, as Ivo, remarked.

    Though we may urge folks to learn the old tales and ‘speak’ in the old ways, might not other beings learn the ‘new tales’ to ‘speak’ to us? or is the onus of communication placed only on us?

    • Traci

      Thanks, Henry! YES, yes, yes…a thousand times, “Yes” to a modern mythology reflective of place! I am a big fan of Steven Posch’s concept of pagan naturalization, and think it’s high time we wove the stories to fit our modern landscapes. Too often we look backward, with a sense of nostalgia for something that never was, instead of engaging a ‘lived experience’–to use my friend Crow’s term from above.

      As to whether RJ views the ‘celtic’ underworld as congruent with the idea of a universal field of consciousness, I can not say. My vague memory of his teaching is that he sees the ‘faery realm’ as a distinct location, or astral manifestation, though I could be grossly mistaken. Perhaps someone with more thorough knowledge of his work will comment.

      Instead of asking whether the onus of communication is placed solely on us (which I don’t think it is), I would rather focus on whether the tale is ‘mythic’, and whether it has depth or resonance, as the richer and more connected to (dare I say it) archetypal or collective unconscious imagery, the easier the communication. There are some new tales which resonate, and linger, while other, older, tales are shallow, only ‘tickling’ my mind. What I would like to see is more discernment and embodiment. For instance, it is too easy for me to sit inside on my hiney, researching genuinely worthwhile topics on the internet, and never step outside into an embodied world. To use the language of a powerful tale as an apt metaphor:

      “And see ye not yon braid, braid road,
      That lies across the lily leven?
      That is the Path of Wickedness,
      Though some call it the Road to Heaven.”

      • http://www.facebook.com/henry.buchy Henry Buchy

        ” I would rather focus on whether the tale is ‘mythic’, and whether it has depth or resonance, as the richer and more connected to (dare I say it) archetypal or collective unconscious imagery, the easier the communication. ”
        yes agreed as I mentioned in my response to Christine’s original:
        “are they really works of total fiction? The characters may be different but the plot lines are pretty old, recurring themes. I’d agree to an extent that ‘fiction’ can be seen as modern mythos in a sense where they can convey ethical/moral principles/struggles. In that area at least Jung and Campbell got some things right. I’d say the reason some fictions ‘hook’ folks more than others is due to a closeness to ‘reality’ or ‘history’ and taps into a deeper strata. Both of what might have been and what may be. Also, lots of our present day tech was inspired by fiction. if so with physical, why not metaphysical?”
        yes, I think the burden of communication rests upon us, at least to develop the ability to be open to other methods beside verbal. To be more receptive to what you call the embodied world. From a metaphysical standpoint, it could be argued that even fantasy is embodied or can be embodied. It hinges on what you mean by embodied. One can ‘live’ a story and thus embody it. I’ve done this myself. perhaps even the escapism you mention may be an attempt to communicate, or to reach into a deeper sense than modern culture affords.

        • Traci

          “perhaps even the escapism you mention may be an attempt to communicate, or to reach into a deeper sense than modern culture affords.”

          Indeed, it is! And I do agree with you regarding the burden of communication resting with us,–as we are the only creatures who have shifted so much meaning to these little black shapes (letters)– though, I want to acknowledge how life has and does reach toward us, trying to use what’s at hand.

          I wrote briefly about escapism, as response to the alienation of modern culture, in a two-part series on Enchantment for this blog. Part of what I said was this:


          ”The end point of this way of thinking is total reification: everything is an object, alien, not-me; and I am ultimately an object too, an alienated “thing” in a world of other, equally meaningless “things.” This world is not of my own making; the cosmos care nothing for me, and I don’t really feel a sense of belonging to it. What I feel, in fact, is a sickness in the soul.

          Social scientists have a word for this sickness: disenchantment. It is cultural rationalization; a systemic devaluation of mysticism characteristic of modern society. We now firmly and unequivocally place a higher value on scientific understanding than we do on experiential knowing. I am no longer my experience; instead, I am an outside observer of it. Magic has been pulled up, by the roots, from social life.

          Disenchantment works on a macro-level, where it destroys the process of making sacred, i.e., telling sacred story, and mythologising. The chaotic social elements once sacralized to provide meaning (the old question of “why”) are now explained by mere knowledge (the “how”): a puny antidote against the monsters of the dark. Disenchantment then, is related to Durkheim’s concept of anomie: an un-mooring of the individual from the ties that bind in society.

          It arises from a modern landscape that has become a “mass administration” full of alienation. Jobs are stupefying, relationships vapid and transient, the arena of politics absurd. Ernest Gellner, the philosopher and social anthropologist, argued that disenchantment was the inevitable product of modernity, and he observed that many people could not, and still can not, stand a disenchanted world.

          What of those who can not stand a disenchanted world? Well, for many, there is a retreat into the oblivion provided by television, video games, fictionalism, virtual reality, entertainment, drugs, and consumerism. In a world where we no longer merge ecstatically with nature, we seek an artificial merger. We hunger for Enchantment, and so reach out blindly for mystery.”

          • http://www.facebook.com/henry.buchy Henry Buchy

            “well, for many, there is a retreat into the oblivion provided by television, video games, fictionalism, virtual reality, entertainment, drugs and consumerism.”
            ha, I might add ‘occultism’ to that list too,lol
            Getting back to the discussions in what spawned this I.E. The notion that use of fictionalism is a “retreat into oblivion” or less real in a spiritual context,(those are some of the arguments set forth against the use of the fictional) might we compare this to the proverbial “dark night of the soul” or the so called ‘crossing of the abyss’? and for some, this delving into fictionalism might re enchant?
            as someone with animist leanings myself ‘All is nature’, even the built, and mind born worlds.
            (also, just as an aside, the autocorrect here keeps attempting to change fictionalism to factionalism)lol

          • Traci

            haha! Perhaps the universe is trying to tell us something: fictionalism=factionalism! lol. “Nu-Who is stupid, only Classic Who is genuine!” or “You can’t be a real Tolkien fan if you like Peter Jackson’s sacrilege!” haha.

            You raise a good point, though. Sacred story does lead us down the path and toward that dread crossing…(shudder). But I don’t think it can substitue for the crossing itself; or, more in line with what I think you are saying, story can not take us across–we have to physically walk that. There is a subtle shift of mind that takes us from the ‘ordinary’ to the ‘mythic’ in the way we think of, or feel about, our lives. When we step into that mythic realm, THAT is when we are making and living magic. Yet, if it remains divorced from our lived experience, it is nothing more than ‘faery gold’ — so many leaves. Unless I awake, and see my ‘ordinary,’ work-a-day life, as mythic, I will never successfully navigate my ‘dark night of the soul.’

            Likewise, if I spend all my time wandering a world of imagination–even if that imagination if fueled by good quality story–I risk remaining in a purely mental construct. Certainly, in those cultures who remain intimately connected to the embodied world around them, the world of imagination is a different ‘beast’ altogether! But we can not compare ourselves to those cultures. We left that world view and lived experience behind long ago.

          • http://www.facebook.com/henry.buchy Henry Buchy

            “But I don’t think it can substitute for the crossing itself; or, more in line with what I think you are saying, story can not take us across–we have to physically walk that.”

            How is it physically walked?

            Is it the subtle shift of mind you speak of? If it is the subtle shift of mind which takes us from the ordinary to the ‘mythic’, that doesn’t seem so physical. it would seem that the shift is psychic and mental. and when does it happen? Might there not be a primary stage some label as escapism? And can that period precipitate the ‘subtle shift’?
            Modern paganism can be pretty much thought of as escapism as well, and I am sure there are sociologists and psychologists who do label it as such.

            I’m still on rocky ground here m’dear due to not having a clear understanding of what you mean by an embodied world. Does it include the built (urban) world?

          • Thisica

            I think so. There’s quite some emphasis here on escaping the urban environment to experience the Other. I think this is increasingly not feasible, especially for those who are poor. We have to take such issues into consideration when we admonish others to not pay attention to urban spaces, which aren’t–at least in the area where I live–completely block-to-block with buildings.

          • Traci

            Yes, I agree with Thisica. Urban environments provide as many opportunities for embodied experience as rural. To answer your question (from my post) though, an embodied world is one where the voice belongs to someone I can experience with my senses. As an example, if I am at Barton Creek pool meditating and I perceive an image, in my mind’s eye, or hear a voice, I don’t imagine Bridget (just as an example) has hopped a plane from Ireland for a quick chat, just as I don’t imagine it’s some ‘fairy’ (Being without form); rather, I will look to the tree nearest me, or the Spring herself, perhaps a large boulder, even the grass, etc. It’s late, and my wits are tired, so my response is not very supple, but I hope I am explaining my world view sufficiently to be understood. I do not look for pure energy forms as entities. Instead, I look at the world I can experience with my senses, whether that be touch (wind) or sight (the bright Stars), with the understanding that everything was built from the same material, and just as I have Mind, it does, too. In that sense, and this is referencing another one of your comments from some other post, I do not view humans as ‘special’ or possessing some pre-destined magical, powerful part in the drama of life. I see all of existence as sacred, and magical. Besides, I have no idea what gods or ideas the Stones worship, or what their world view is, but I think they are just as special and entitled to their experience as I am.

            I’d best hush, as I feel certain I am rambling!

          • Traci

            To add to this conversation, a little snippet from David Abrams on embodiment:

            http://vimeo.com/14310916

  • Crow

    What Henry said. Also:
    I think there is an issue with the ways in which many of us live our lives in relation to fiction, and for me that is not whether we watch TV or movies or read modern fiction but rather the substitution of fiction for our lived experience and the entire lack of experience that many of us have connecting with the world around us.
    While I have my own opinions as to what constitutes garbage, I am less concerned (at least at first blush) with what a person views or reads than I am with whether there is balance in that person’s life concerning direct connection with the environment and all the beings within. If one knows only the language of Doctor Who but not the language of the wind in the trees, one may miss important communications and/or the wind and trees may need to learn to speak Whovian, which may take a bit more time to parse than “candy water fruit.” The care and feeding of connection and imagination, and the intersections of the two, are of uptmost importance.

    • Traci

      So glad to hear your voice here! You and I are of the same opinion on much of this–as we have hashed it out, and ‘wallowed’ in it, many times! lol. I wholeheartedly agree that the main issue is balance, and lived experience. Often times, hearing specifics about that imbalance helps, at least for me. I also love that you wove Doctor Who in there!! Yes, filling our experience only with fiction, even if that storytelling be as rich as yours (by the way, Crow is an author. Check out her work!), takes us out of the embodied land and we are lesser for it.

      Even though I was fortunate to grow-up in the country, and have plenty of unstructured time in nature as a child, I was still influenced by modernity. The culture I was socialized into was far from holistic, and I continue the struggle of world view re-examination. Escapism, whether that be into fiction or food, is a symptom of our modern society and its crushing alienation. How we each come to terms with that, and find genuine connection–reclaiming what it means to be human–is the Great Work of our age.

      love you!

      • Crow

        “How we come to terms with (modern society and its crushing alienation) and find genuine connection — reclaiming what it means to be human — is the Great Work of our age.”
        Very well said. And, yes, sometimes we need to hear how a thing impacts us physically or psychically, and balance is sometimes too amorphous a term. How do we know appropriate, active balance when we experience it? What are the best, most honest ways to measure? Will we know what we need if we’ve never experienced it before?
        Sometimes hearing in connection with impact comes from those outside ourselves, and sometimes from our deepest selves. Spending time with and granting our best attention to our deepest selves is part and parcel of the lived experience I’m talking about. If we don’t know its voice, how will we hear it, or know to listen?
        Love you, too!

  • JasonMankey

    “Instead, he encourages his students to read source material and folklore.”

    So what did the ancients use then? Their folklore was new once too, or is everything from the past automatically legitimate while anything from the present is not? One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

    • Traci

      “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”

      How true! I can’t speak for RJ, but for myself, the concern is less with the type of fiction, or storytelling, and more with whether the story enriches or informs our “lived experience.” I worry about us becoming de-humanized by an overly intellectual, disembodied engagement with story.

      But whether the story support our embodiment or not, it does behove us to consider whether the images we feed the organism are beneficial to it. It is entirely possible to graze on ‘junk’ fiction, the same way we graze on ‘junk’ food. Both are no es bueno.

    • http://www.patheos.com/Pagan Christine Kraemer

      I think the danger is not in pop culture per se but in an exclusive diet of emotionally and intellectually stunted media. I read a great dystopian novel of consumer culture recently (_Feed_ by M.T.Anderson) that envisioned a generation of people whose imaginations, perceptions, and ability to experience complex emotions were rudimentary at best because they had no language (of either words or images) in which to structure them. The book was dystopian, but seeing an exaggerated example made me realize that I encounter lesser examples of that all the time — people who have been raised in such small intellectual and emotional boxes that they’re not even aware, now, that they could stretch their psychic limbs. It scares me.

      • Traci

        Great point, Christine! We also see the “Great Diminishing” evidenced in reduced attention spans (due to tech multi-tasking), increased anxiety and a rise in other modern stress response ailments. It is now, for the first time in our species’ history, possible to spend every waking moment in an ‘unnatural’ environment, i.e., climate controlled, light filtered boxes. The stress and alienation we feel in our modern lives drives us toward enchantment, and connection, yet we have reduced or removed the very avenues native to our species for achieving robust and holistic connection.

        Now, that rant isn’t necessarily what you are getting at. And I do agree, and advocate what I hear you saying: we need to be mindful of consuming good quality media–just like the food we put into our precious bodies. But I would also like us to consider what portion of our time is spent living an embodied life, and whether the time spent with any form of media is really soothing a void.

  • Ursa Lee

    My favorite blogger – this one is wonder-full. You put such eloquent words to my lived experience and thereby deepen it. I have no thoughts to add to the discussion here. I just want to express my gratitude.


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