On April 31, 2021, I was a guest on the Mistery’s Mystical Cupboard podcast. The discussion prompt was animism. We talked a lot about reincarnation, the differences I see between souls and spirits, souls of places like homes and objects like cell phones, enculturation and learning to dismiss animism, and the influence of both nature and nurture on who we are as people. In defining what animism is, we also ended up discussing tangential topics like ghosts and hauntings.
Early on in the video we talked about ghosts and hauntings. The first little story I relate is about an encounter I had with a ghost in a shop space a friend was renting, where I was doing sewing. This is the only encounter I have ever had with a ghost where I felt it was the best course of action to encourage the soul to move on to the afterlife, as generally I am inclined to let souls, spirits, and ghost be, to conduct whatever business they need to before moving on. Back in October of 2020 I posted the full story about my encounter with that particular soul in an article titled An Unexpected Encounter with the Dead: A Ghost Story.
I also recounted an abbreviated version of A Story of Ghost Cats, the full story of which I posted to The Balancing Path following the podcast.
I also spent some time defining some terms that I use when discussing noncorporeal entities and animism. I often mean different things by the terms “soul” and “spirit”, where spirit is an umbrella term that includes any metaphysical entities, fragments, archetypes, memories, and more, and soul is specifically a metaphysical entity that experiences embodied reincarnation.
The souls that reincarnate as different kinds of things are very different from each other. The nested and layered souls of spaces are especially different from the kinds of souls that incarnate as humans (i.e., you and me). The nature of place souls is such that if a soul of a place does not like you (or maybe if it does like you), it can affect its space in such a way as to seem like a haunting. That is, it can affect its own energy and engage in haunting-like actions to either discourage or encourage humans to exist within itself.
If you are trying to sort out whether or not a haunting is happening, there are quite a few things that need to be considered. It can be the soul that is the space, which I do not consider a haunting, but can manifest in extremely similar ways. It also might be a soul which is not the space, and yet is attached to it for some reason. It also might be an echo or a remnant of a past event that made a huge impression on the space, and so manifests as a haunting, especially if the haunting is very specific or happens only under very specific circumstances.
Souls of objects and places can and do reincarnate, as reincarnation is not strictly limited to humans, or even to animals, plants, and other organic living beings. My partner’s phone loves her. Its soul has consistently moved into each upgraded phone along with all the data. Of course, it is never exactly the same, just as we are not exactly the same in each incarnation, but it is definitely the same soul.
Animism and reincarnation are very intertwined concepts in how I experience the world and interpret the natures of souls. Lifespans for different souls can vary from minutes (some bacteria or insects) to millions (mountains and oceans) or even billions of years (stars and planets). It might seem sad that some souls are very short-lived, but we humans would not be suited to living lives that last for thousands of years, let alone millions. By the same token, those short-lived souls are suited to that existence, or they probably would not be reincarnated as such short-lived beings.
We also touched on the influence of nature and nurture on personality, and how the soul is part of our natures. This is a topic that I very much intend to write about on its own in the future.
The Question of Cultural Appropriation
Towards the end of the podcast we also discussed whether or not animism is cultural appropriation, and I had trouble finding the right words to describe exactly why animism, in and of itself, is not cultural appropriation.
That is a reasonable question to ask, since animism is widely practiced in indigenous religions, and it is believed by anthropologists to be a central component of ancient religions and spiritual practices. Shinto is the only major world religion (an established hierarchical religion practiced by millions of people) which is animistic. That means the majority of us (especially those of us of European descent) are raised in non-animistic cultures. Those individuals who are raised with animism are usually part of a marginalized and colonized culture that has retained animistic practices, or are Japanese (and probably specifically raised in Japan).
However, animism as a concept is not cultural appropriation, because it is too large and widespread, and instead of indicating a specific practice you can do, it indicates a perspective on the nature of reality that underpins a way of understanding reality. Animism is anything but unique to one culture or culture group, but instead is found around the world and throughout history. Trying to claim that animism is cultural appropriation would be exactly like trying to claim that polytheism was cultural appropriation. Just like with polytheism, there are enough similarities between different animistic traditions, paths, and religions that we can confidently call them animistic, but the specific practices on how to deal with animistically recognized souls and spirits can vary dramatically.
When you are talking about animism, you need to be careful of cultural appropriation if you are taking inspiration from a specific tradition in how to interact with souls and spirits. Generally, guidelines about how to be polite are not a problem, because we should all know how to be polite, and there are multiple ways to be polite and respectful. But, if you are wanting to cherry-pick specific rituals or practices from a specific culture or tradition, it is important to determine if doing so would be culturally insensitive or cultural appropriation.
For my part, I have learned to interact with the souls around me by paying attention to how they respond to things, and by applying general principles of consent and respect. As I had no access to teaching on animism growing up, I had to figure it out for myself. I took what inspiration I could from the world around me, but lacked any opportunity to adopt specific practices from any particular culture until after my personal animistic practices were well established.
I do want to write more about animism. I know quite a few other witches and pagans who are actively animistic, but I think all of us have a tendency to just assume others know what we mean by that. Given the prevalence of anti-animism in Western Culture, and especially the dominant monotheistic religions that preach that out of all creation only humans have souls, animism can seem incredibly counterintuitive or confusing.
Animism is one of those things that, when you fully grasp the concept, it can seem incredibly obvious, to the point that it can be difficult to convey to others who do not understand what animism means. I can say until I am blue in the face that, “animism means recognizing that souls inhabit all things that exist, be they animals, plants, objects, or places,” but what does that mean? What are the ramifications of recognizing individuality and autonomy in the things that we use and so often disregard? How can a pebble have a soul, when it cannot breath or see or even move? How do you determine when life begins and ends, and in doing so, when the soul becomes embodied or moves on to its next life?
Animism is a huge and complex topic, even when you are not diving into specific practices from a specific tradition, and it has profound ramifications for how to approach energy work, magic, and spellwork.
So, if you have any questions you would like me to write about relating to animism, please ask. I will do my best to answer them.