The Other Side of the Hedge: Animism Isn’t for Us?

The Other Side of the Hedge: Animism Isn’t for Us? September 20, 2015

The animistic worldview is the red-headed stepchild of Western pagan worldviews. It finds itself mostly ignored or taken for granted. When it’s not ignored, it doesn’t get a whole lot of respect. There are some pretty good historical reasons for this, mostly having to do with what people think animism is. Whether they’re right or not is a different matter.

In the pagan blogosphere, there are lengthy debates about soft polytheism vs. hard polytheism vs. squishy polytheism. Occasionally henotheism creeps into the discussion or monotheism is brought up as a counterpoint. And every once in a while, people will speak of being animist—usually while also holding one of the other positions as well.

In an animistic worldview, all things have spirits that indwell and animate every person or object. An animist lives in a world where people have souls, and the gods have souls, and animals have souls, and the ancestors have souls…but so do mountains, fields, buildings, cars, and computers. (Admit it, you’ve yelled at your computer, too.)

A white car with pink eyelashes over its headlamps.
This car winked at me / © Polly Peterson 2014 /

When we think about animism at all, there’s often an assumption of older and somehow purer practices. We associate animism with “the primitive.” The two ideas just seem naturally to go together. We imagine our tribal ancestors living off the land; we dream of simpler times. But one thing is for sure: we know it’s not us. The world has moved on. But has it?

Animism is a modern word. Its current anthropological meaning comes out of the 19th century and was proposed by a scientific rationalist who was looking for the origins of religion.

The Origin of the Word “Animism”

It was 1871. E. B. Tylor, one of the founders of cultural anthropology, published a book titled Primitive Culture. In this book, he proposed that religion in general, and animism and polytheism in particular, were survivals of humanity’s irrational past.

Tylor believed that early people looked out across the world and saw many things they did not understand. At its simplest, their answer was, “because spirits!” That was animism.

Sleeping Giant / © Polly Peterson 2006 /
Sleeping Giant / © Polly Peterson 2006 /

Tylor held animism to be the original religion – a belief that spirits were in, and animated, everything in the world. While he believed animism to be the oldest and most pure religious belief, he also believed that it was totally and completely wrong.

Tylor’s evolutionary theory of religion assumed that all religious beliefs are attempts to explain the world. That is, religions are primarily all explanatory models, attempting to answer questions like “Why does the sun come up?” “Why do people get sick?” “What happens when we die?”

Those who subscribe to such theories propose that religion progresses through evolutionary stages. They say that someday, all religion will be replaced by science—the perfect explanatory model according to 19th century scientists.

Now that we’ve passed out of earlier, irrational stages (Tylor argued), going back would be unthinkable. To Tylor, even typical Western religious feeling (Christianity, for those keeping score) was an irrational survival of an ancient past, and better discarded. For Paganism, the Tylor takeaway is this: most people believe that we’re all civilized and modern, so we shouldn’t have such ridiculous beliefs anymore.

Though Tylor’s theory has been critiqued and discarded by anthropologists, it continues to be the popular “scientific” approach to religion. His belief in rationality and progress, continues to be echoed to this day by many New Atheists.

Animism Is Not Primitive

Animate Jeans / © Polly Peterson 2009 /
Animate Jeans / © Polly Peterson 2009 /

Not surprisingly, the scientific definition of animism assumes that there is no spiritual reality out there to contact. The underlying assumption is that there’s no reality to it. It puts animistic belief down to an honest mistake – that “primitive man” was unable to tell dreams from everyday reality.
In the 1800s, these ideas were easily linked in the popular mind with the “primitives” of the past and the “savages” in overseas empires. Being Western (and White) was linked with progress, science, rationality, and general awesomeness. It was, after all, an age of empire.

Much to the embarrassment of positivist rationalists, magical and spiritual beliefs have not quietly gone the way of the dinosaurs. Magical thought never disappeared at all. It just got mocked in public by those in power.

The narrative we live with is that Westerners can’t be animists, or polytheists, or mages (of any their various stripes). We are forever searching for some legitimacy because we live in a culture that just doesn’t want to believe in such things.

Animistic practices are simply spiritual practices of the here and now. They are not something we need to retrieve from some distant, half-imagined past. If animism is the belief that spiritual world is the same one as the world around us, then it is a world open to us all.

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  • Sliegrom B

    I kind of feel that in general people fail to understand what Animism really is. It is often attributed as a belief that organizations of matter have a “soul” or “spirit”, but the reality is that the meaning of these words are very different in our current cultural context. First off the concept that the “soul” or “spirit” is somehow separable from the physical existence is a relatively new belief and did not exist for most primitive Animistic cultures. As such there was no “spiritual plane” or otherworldly existence, but rather the physical world that existed around them was ALL that existed and in reality Animism is about the very real and tangible interactions with that world. First off, yes they do talk about invisible “spirits” all around them, but then these same people also domesticated many different species of bacteria and fungus to make things like cheese or to ferment beer. There was a very real interaction with the invisible bacteria of the world. We know now that these spirits absolutely exist. Just in the same way the primitive Animistic used to attribute sickness to a possession of an evil spirit, but isn’t that EXACTLY what it is? When we become sick is it not equally correct to state that we have become possessed by bad bacteria or viruses and that such could easily be “spirits” by another name.

    Now consider the vast and varied microbiome which exists in the soil of the world around us. There are a multitude of invisible organisms, “spirits”, which exist around us and aid in the fertility of the land and are immensely important to our survival. Many rituals and practices of Animists in regard to fertility do in fact directly benefit these micro organisms and through them increase the fertility of the land. In essence they do rituals to appease the micororganisms which in turn make the land fertile. They just called them spirits.

    Now let’s consider a mountain. That mountain having been shoved up out of the Earth due to plate techtonics is likely to have a very different mineral composition compared to other land around it. The mineral composition of it’s soil is going to cause a differentiation in the types, variety, and success of the various micro-organisms that live in it’s soil. The mineral content will also likely give an ecological advantage to certain species over others as will the shade it provides. All these aspects give the land of that mountain certain characteristics. Perhaps to encourage the growth of certain plants you would have to do increased rituals to specific micro-organisms to encourage the soil to change it’s composition and grow your desired plants. Perhaps you need to bury your fish bones and heads as a sacrifice to the spirit of the mountain so that the mountain grew your corn. Such actions of course in reality do work and are effective, the Animist is just concerned with fostering a mutalistic relationship with the land rather than viewing it as some dead mechanistic process or some lower lifeform to be dominated and manipulated. It’s about respect for that which is needed to sustain your life.

    Then we come to ancestor worship. Remember here that there is no separation of the self into that which is physical and that which is spiritual and they are the same. This means that the worship of your ancestors on your generational land is the worship of their physical remains. This may seem odd or perverse, but here me out. What happens when you die? You are consumed by bacteria, fungi, scavengers, other decomposers and the tiny physical pieces that composed you become absorbed by the land around you and your “spirit” becomes embodied within it. Every animal, every plant, every fungus, and every insect, all life there in, will eventually embody your spirit. The energy that composed your body that is locked within the matter that is you can neither be created or destroyed and only changes it’s organization or form. When you worship your ancestors you worship the land. You might leave food out to rot because the body rots and you wish to feed the very bacteria and fungi which consumed your loved one. Ancestor worship is the respect for this cycle of life and death and the place of all living things within it.

    Animism is far more complex than it is often attributed to be. People often apply it to beliefs which are incompatible, because they do not truly understand the nature of these beliefs.