Animism is a natural human impulse, as odd as that might seem in the context of greater Western culture. If you have ever cussed out an electronic device or a curb you tripped over, thanked your car for making it there in time, or mourned the loss of a beloved item, you engaged with those things in an animistic way. Animism means understanding that everything has a soul, from you and me to every animal, plant, object, and place. It is a cosmological perspective on the nature of reality that is compatible with most cultures, traditions, and paths, and an important feature of the philosophies and cosmologies of a great many religions, both historic and modern.
Fully embracing animism is a path to greater understanding of the spirits that exist around us, finding magic and wonder in urban zones, engaging compassionately with the world, and appreciating ourselves as one component of a much larger interconnected web of reality. It can also impact how we approach our sacred objects and magical tools, and even the act of working magic itself.
Since I mention animism rather frequently in different articles, I figured it was about time I specifically wrote a bit about animism itself.
The term “animism” was first coined by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor in his work Primitive Culture (1871). He derived the term from the Latin root word “anima,” which means air (element), breath, life, spirit, soul, inner vitality, and wind/breeze. He used it to describe commonalities of “primitive” cultures and spiritualities which had previously not been defined under a single term.
Animism means to view every person, animals, plant, object, and place as possessing a unique soul. Most animists are also polytheistic, believing in the multitudes of unique and independent deities and spirits which do not necessarily have a physical form on this plane of existence. Animism places us as individuals within a massive, interconnected world that is absolutely brimming with independent entities who are just as deserving of respect as we are, but can possess wildly different natures that are often difficult for us humans to fully comprehend.
The Difference Between Anthropomorphization and Animism
We do often attribute human-like characteristics to the souls and beings which also inhabit the world, so anthropomorphization happens often when you are animistic, but the two are separate concepts.
Anthropomorphizing means to apply human traits to something which does not actually have those human traits. Animism means to acknowledge the non-human souls within the world around us. For example, the design of Potato Head toys is an anthropomorphization of potatoes, but the toys themselves usually carry the soul of a toy.
Animistic humans tend to anthropomorphize the beings they encounter for two main reasons that I have observed. First, we are human, and so we filter everything through our humanness. We can try to separate ourselves from that, but ultimately we cannot be completely objective of things outside of our own experiences. That means that in order to understand what we perceive and experience, we filter it through our personal experiences and current understanding. On the very rare occasions when an experience is completely outside of current personal understanding, it tends to be very profound and often disorienting.
Second, we often do have things in common with the other beings which also inhabit the world, especially when you get to know them on an animistic level. No, they are not exactly the same as us, but I find it to be a joy to explore a foundation of our common ground and expand out into appreciation of our differences.
Animism is a Very Human Cosmological Perspective
We humans are naturally social creatures, who empathize with the people, places, and things we value. This has led countless religions and traditions from around the world and throughout history to include animistic perspective in their cosmologies and practices. A huge portion of indigenous religions include animism as part of their belief systems, as does Shinto, and it is believed by anthropologists that a majority of ancient spiritualities dating back to the paleolithic were also animistic in nature. Many modern pagan and pagan-adjacent religions and traditions, especially polytheistic traditions, include animism or animistic elements, even when they are not explicitly defined as such.
As such, animism does not in and of itself denote any particular religion, spirituality, or practice. It is a way to view the nature of the world around us, and so remnants of animistic thought can usually be found in modern cultures and religions, even those which specifically deny animism.
In modern American culture, we can find remnants of animism in books like The Velveteen Rabbit, just about every film ever made by Dream Works, and throughout the furry community. In fact, I would go so far as to say that when we are small children, we naturally engage with the things in our environment, and especially our toys, in animistic ways. We often give them names, include them in our games as friends, and even talk to them in ways that imply we receive answers our parents cannot hear. As we get older, most of us are enculturated to ignore those animistic impulses, and divorce ourselves from the idea that we could have so much fundamentally in common with the objects and places around us.
Approaching Animism with Baby Steps
For some of us, an animistic perspective is perfectly natural, and denying it seems contrary to experience. For other people, it can be overwhelming to try and recognize the thousands, millions, and billions of souls that we come in contact with every day. It can be overwhelming to sort out how to respect those spirits while still living in a very modern, very disposable world that often moves at a frantic pace.
The good news is, you do not have to engage with every spirit around you, and you definitely do not have to open yourself to them. It can be enough to simply acknowledge that they exist, and continue with your life, enriched for the knowledge that there is so much more out there should you wish to investigate it further.
What I Mean by “Spirit” and “Soul”
I often use the terms “spirit” and “soul” interchangeably, but when I get particular, “spirit” is a term which refers to any distinct metaphysical entity. I will use this word as an umbrella term to encompass both embodied and unembodied entities, but usually I am referring to noncorporeal or unembodied entities when I say “spirit”. “Spirit” can also mean powerful archetypes that lack individual personality, or perceptible fragments or remnants of souls which are no longer truly present.
When I say “soul”, I am usually referring to a spirit which has a distinctly individual personality, is capable of self-awareness, and autonomous in nature. It may be currently embodied in a living creature, object, or place, or it may be between incarnations.
The natures of souls that inhabit different things can be wildly different. Usually, the souls of humans and other animals, plants, and objects are very coherent and independent. They reside in the body of the living being or the object, and when that corporeal form dies or is destroyed, the soul typically moves on to the afterlife or next life. Since these souls are the most similar to our own natures, they are often the easiest for us to perceive, comprehend, and interact with.
Souls of Place
Souls of place are very different. They tend to be nested, with multitudes of overlapping and interconnected aspects and distinct souls. A room may or may not have a fully developed soul, but it is likely to at least be a unique aspect of the soul of the building that contains it. That building is within the soul of the neighborhood, within the soul of the city or greater area, within the county or district, within the state or province, within the country and continent and planet and solar system and galaxy and galactic cluster….
A special secluded spot at a turn of a river can have a powerful and individual soul, within the souls of the overall river and the local ecological system (desert, forest, hill, mountain, etc.). That is nested within the larger geographical area, watershed, tectonic plate, planet, and so on.
This is similar to how red, blue, and green are all identifiable colors within a rainbow of refracted light. They all came from the same light source, and are still a part of it, and yet can be seen independently as well.
Souls of place are capable of having lifespans that are incomprehensibly massive to short-incarnation beings like us humans. Sometimes they “die” when their place of being is utterly and suddenly destroyed, but they are resilient to death the way a human soul usually experiences it. Instead, they will often transmute into a different way of being that is compatible with the changes in the environment, not unlike how we transmute into being a new person with each incarnation. Even with human structures like buildings, if it is rebuilt the same soul will usually continue to inhabit the location, especially if a great deal of energy has been invested in its existence and purpose.
If I ever have the opportunity to travel to Japan, I look forward to visiting the Kansai International Airport, for I am curious if the souls of the two mountains that were leveled to build it died, moved to the new island, or stayed put and adapted to no longer being mountains.
Perceiving Multitudes of Souls
The easiest way to confirm animism is to experience it. Odds are, if you are reading this article you have at least a little experience with perceiving and manipulating metaphysical energies. Such skills are essential in order to affirm animism through personal gnosis.
The goal here is to observe, not to manipulate, so consent is no more required than when you are out in public and looking around at what exists in the area around you. Staring is sometimes a little rude, but also not going to hurt anyone. I have been stared at a lot in my life, and just about everyone does it when they notice something they do not expect or fully understand. If you look at someone or something that takes offense to being looked at, apologize, make an offering if appropriate, and leave them alone.
- Go to where you can physically observe the physical form or location of the soul you wish to observe.
- If appropriate, physically touch it or be within its space (hug a tree!).
- Enter a meditative or trance state by whatever method you prefer.
- Greet the soul warmly, same as someone new that you are meeting, and give an offering if appropriate. Usually this is as simple as sending your good will, but this will vary depending upon who you are greeting, and your personal practice.
- Observe what is there within the physical form or location. Look for the spark that is their uniquely beautiful soul.
- Take note of anything you notice about that soul, just as you would note physical details about a new person you were meeting. Do not try to anticipate or force answers, but instead calmly observe.
- Is the soul closely confined to the physical form or location? Or is it more diffuse?
- Does it overlap with other souls or have multiple observable aspects or parts?
- Does it seem to be awake and aware, or dormant and passively existing?
- Do you perceive gender(s)?
- Do you perceive elemental affinities?
- If you see energies, what do you see? Do you see particular colors, movements, brightness, and density?
- If you feel energies, what do you feel? Does it feel warm or cold? Is it dense or ephemeral? Does it vibrate, feel light, or feel heavy and solid?
- Do you perceive the soul filtered through other senses: smell, taste, and sound? What qualities do those perceptions have?
- What do you perceive that defies sensory description?
- Is there anything else you notice?
- If you feel drawn to engage in a conversation with the soul, I encourage you to do so. You can learn far more by asking questions and having a conversation than by just looking. Besides, just staring after someone says “hello” is unbelievably rude.
I recommend writing down these experiences so you can look back on them. This will allow you to reverify if you find yourself having doubts, and can help you to see how your understanding of other souls has increased over time.
The easiest souls to observe are the closest to our own in nature, which are other animals. I find it likely that some souls are capable of being incarnated as multiple kinds of animals, but I am also certain that the personal nature of some souls lends them to incarnation solely as one kind of animal. Since most animals experience fundamental emotions and embodied sensations in similar ways, that makes it easier to connect with and observe animal souls.
After that, the next easiest are plants and insects. They are fellow embodied living beings which experience incarnation, but the nature of who and what they are is often very foreign from the nature of human beings. Still, we evolved together on this planet, our histories are often closely intertwined, and we depend upon each other as parts of profoundly complex natural and cultivated systems. Depending upon your personal affinities and experiences, different plants or insects may be easier or harder to observe and connect with.
From there, move on to beloved or consecrated objects made by human hands. These items exist because of and for humans, so they are closely adjacent and connected to us. Their purposes of existence are known to us intellectually, and the symbology we associate with them is often part of their nature and can be looked up if not already known.
I recommend beloved or consecrated objects because they will have the brightest and most visible souls. They are likely to be self-aware and already have a positive relationship with you, so most will be happy to help you explore your perceptions of other souls.
Electronic devices and vehicles are also good objects to work with, because we invest so much time and energy in them, and they are usually very important in our lives. Over time, they have a tendency to develop personalities, and some of us even give them unique names.
From there, mundane objects can help to illuminate the difference between awake and self-aware object souls, and dormant object souls. If you have a set of glasses that you really like, but you tend to only use one or two that sit on the front of the shelf, the more-used glasses may have more energy and awareness than the less-used glasses. A disposable fork is going to have a very different energy from the flatware you’ve had for decades, even though the natures of their souls are similar.
Sets of objects can help to explore the nature of layered souls. Say for example that you have a special set of dishes that only comes out once or twice a year for special feasts. It was created as a unit, and is treated and used as a unit, so the whole set is likely to have a soul, which is what you are most likely to perceive when interacting with any of the dishes. If you look past the soul of the set, you can find the aspect of that soul that resides within particular types of dishes. The purpose of a gravy boat is fundamentally different from a salad plate, yet they work together towards the overall purpose of the dish set, not unlike your hand and your ear are distinct parts of your whole body.
If the set has been imbued with enough use and energy, those individual dishes (or types of dishes within the set) may develop nested souls that exist as a layer within the soul of the entire set. If the salad plates were to be permanently separated from the serving platter, the souls of those smaller parts would continue independently.
Most of us will have encountered some places that just feel good, where we are at peace or comfortable or safe. Those places will be the easiest to connect with, because you already have a subconscious connection to the place. Other good places to start with are the ones you live in or visit frequently, like your home or workplace.
Be sure to greet the place soul as your very first action. Place souls truly appreciate that kind of consideration, especially if you are going to be interacting with them on a metaphysical level.
When you can, take the time to gently observe the changes in the place souls you see as you go about your day. Look for the layers of overlapping souls and distinct pockets with more awareness. In a city, this can take the form of observing the different neighborhoods, streets, spaces in front of shops or homes, parks, etc. In the countryside, this is the pockets of homes, different properties, geographical features like hills, valleys, creeks, boulders, trees, fields, roads and paths, etc.
Observe how human-made barriers and divisions create areas that are inhabited with different souls, but the soul of the overarching geography is still present and influential.
Awake and Self-Aware, or Dormant Souls
Not all souls are awake and self-aware like we are. Some passively exist, subtly present, but with no real autonomy. Most of the objects we create and use every day are like this. My couch is not self-aware, nor my computer bag, and yet both do have souls residing within them that I can see if I look closely.
Some objects will have awake souls naturally. If you have ever run into an object and found it particularly compelling for no apparent reason, it is likely that soul was awake. Other times, souls can wake over time through the investment of energy, like a beloved toy, trinket, phone, or heirloom.
Some souls will wake when you specifically observe them, like a person who cannot sleep if someone is looking at them. If this happens when you are observing a soul, say hello and apologize, just like you would if you accidentally woke a sleeping human. If they want to converse, welcome them. If they are cranky about being awake, apologize and leave them be.
It is also possible to deliberately wake up dormant souls. I recommend only doing this with items that you love and work with closely, because ideally you will want to have a mutually beneficial and reciprocal relationship. Since objects are essentially at our mercy, I hope that you would not want to wake its soul just to treat it callously. I have a habit of waking vehicles and electronics (I have not yet had one say “No” and go back to being dormant), and deliberately avoid doing it with disposable objects. Most of the time I do not specifically worry about whether object souls are awake or dormant, as that is really their own business.
Depending upon how you consecrate and use your magical tools and items, they may or may not be awake. Some methods of consecration specifically keep the soul asleep and uninvolved so that the tool is available to be solely manipulated by the human user. For my part, I see the nature of the soul of the item as a valuable addition to the power of the object, and its individual nature is part of what determines its suitability in my practice. I enjoy my partnerships and reciprocally beneficial relationships.
Consent and Offerings in Animism
If you are involved in an animistic religion or tradition, it will likely have guidelines and rituals for how to interact with the souls we find in the world around us. If you are not, then it is important to figure out methods of interacting with them that are respectful and mutually beneficial, just like interacting with other humans.
I always start with my very human ideas of what is polite. You do not have to say hello to every stranger you pass, but you do greet people you directly interact with or who you know personally. Of course, what “greet” means is going to vary depending upon you and the specific soul you want to greet, but follow your heart with good intention and other souls will feel that. The vast majority will not get hung up on following a very specific set of steps, because at the end of the day the meaning is more important than how you got there. You are much more likely to upset a soul by following set steps with an insincere heart, than by stumbling through with clumsy good will.
If you are altering an object or harvesting a plant, it usually makes sense to ask for permission first. A sketchbook may exist specifically to be sketched in, but you can add magic and wonder if you approach it as a collaboration between yourself and your art materials. After all, your final product would not exist as such without the materials that go into it. Does that clay want to be a plate or a cup or a vase? Does that branch want to become a wand or a staff, or would it rather be left alone to the elements? Does that home want you to come live there so it can give you shelter?
The way most traditions conduct offerings is very animistic in nature. Witches and pagans of all kinds regularly talk about giving offerings to not only deities, but to other things like plants, gardens, seasons, animals, forests, celestial bodies, etc. When you allow animism to guide your offerings, it makes the question of what to give very straightforward. Instead of wondering what offering will be magically potent, you offer what the soul in question would find most beneficial. Does an object need mending, or just some gratitude, energy, and acknowledgement? What does your plant or garden need to thrive? Would picking up some trash help that place?
Compassion and Empathy
As humans, we have a natural tendency to empathize with anything we care about. Even without animism we can be compassionate to lost animals, broken objects, and abandoned places. With animism, we can truly embrace their validity and existence within the world, not as things to take up space until humans make something to suit ourselves, or as things to be used up and callously discarded, but as unique beings that are worthy of respect and consideration.
Cleaning Out the Cupboard on Wed, March 31, 2021
If you want to ask questions or listen to me ramble about animism, I will be appearing on the video podcast Cleaning Out the Cupboard, on Wednesday, March 31, 2021, at 5:20pm PDT. The live broadcast will be happening on Facebook, and the video will be posted to YouTube after. I will edit this article with a link to the video after it has been posted.