Animism and the Power of Waterfalls

Animism and the Power of Waterfalls February 2, 2019

Waterfalls are places of spiritual power. On some level, most people can sense this to be true. Maybe we cannot express exactly that uplifting feeling inside. Maybe we just rush on to the next thing. But for those of us who stay and really feel, waterfalls provide not just a sense of wonder, but a way to expand our own spirits.

For the animist, given to direct perception of the spiritual world just beyond our everyday sight, waterfalls provide both personal proof and further opportunity to sense the the world of the spirit. After all, animism is not about belief so much as experience.

It is a truism of the animist world that liminality brings a glimpse of what lies beyond the everyday. This, then, would help explain why waterfalls have such awesome power.


Land of Fire and Ice

Truth be told, Iceland has become a trendy tourist destination over the past few years. Its geothermal vents and ocean currents keep it far warmer than you would think, at least along its shores.

On the 2018 spring solstice, my wife and I headed over to Iceland. After a couple of trying years, it was time for a break.(1) Now, we are not the kind of couple that sits on a beach and drinks margaritas. As soon as I was cleared to travel, it was time for a long delayed pilgrimage to the land of of fire and ice.

Plunge of Skógafoss – ©2018 Polly Peterson, used with permission

Rising out of the North Atlantic, Iceland is a volcanic island. And yet, significant portions of the landmass are covered with glaciers. Iceland is a powerful place of extremes.

And though the population is by and large Lutheran, the lack of population density outside of the capital city combines with the heavy extremes of the environment to provide a crack through to the spirit world.(2)

Fire and ice, water and land, high and low, even history and modernity all come together in this land. While I am sure the locals are all used to the thrumming power of their home and hardly think a thing of it, the shift from the blandness of suburban America to this land of extremes was as subtle as a slap in the face.



Along the southern coast of Iceland, following the ridge that separates the highlands from the coastal lowlands, you can find one unbelievable waterfall after another. The melt-water from the glacial center of the island descends from the highlands down to the fertile band along the shore.

Once upon a time the river Skóga fell directly into the ocean. Now the waterfall, Skógafoss(3), which is two hundred feel high and over sixty feet wide, feeds the lowlands. And when the sun is right, it generates powerful rainbows.

I noticed a funny thing, there. We could blame it on the madness of tourists, but I think there was more to it.

Skógafoss, a Waterfall on the Skoga River – ©2018 Polly Peterson, used with permission

For those who dare to come close to the bottom of Skógafoss, a curious thing happens. Just about every person I saw who came near to the spray lifted and extended his or her arms out to the side, making the body as large as it can be.

It was not just one person, either. As I stood and watched for at least a quarter of an hour, just about everyone who came into the direct area of the plunge pool did the same thing. And, of course, I did too. I did not mean to, but it was pure instinct and beyond my rational control


Expanding the Spirit

When a bunch of people all do the same irrational thing, it might just have some deeper meaning. All of us standing there by the plunge pool of this spectacular waterfall were doing something more than trying to look cool.

Rather, we were expanding our bodies to follow our expanding spirits. It is hard to explain, but waterfalls can act as bridges between the worlds of the physical body and the spirit.

Most of the time, people walk around with their spirits more or less tucked away. Sure, the spiritually inclined might expand them a bit more, but on a daily basis, most do not.

There are two times that we truly expand our spirits. The first is a reaction to mortal danger. The second is when we encounter spiritual forces far greater than us.


Letting Go

When we are placed in mortal danger, our spirits unwrap and open up. This is a spiritual mechanism that is similar to the biological adrenaline reaction. We reach out on all levels, as best we can, sensing for trouble and a pathway out of it.

Plunge pool of Skógafoss – ©2018 Polly Peterson, used with permission


You have probably heard about the “my life flashed before my eyes” experience that people have when facing death. This is caused by the unwrapping of the spirit.

As we go about our lives, there are many things to which we cling. Constantly, we try to force the world to be what we want it to be. But when we come face to face with an existential threat, we shed all that and prepare to act.

But all the attachments, ideas, and meanings we drop do not just disappear. Instead, they all flash through our awareness in a single rush. Letting go of everything unnecessary is what causes that momentary reverie.

This is how we experience the rallying of the spirit. Perception becomes instantly clear. We know without knowing how we know. As our awareness expands, things simply “become” what they already were.


Encountering Power

The other time our spirits expand is when we are exposed to something that is way more spiritually potent than we are. In an environment brimming with power, we absorb some of it ourselves.

Our spirits naturally seek equilibrium with our environment. But such experiences are not once-and-done. Real change in our perception of the world requires repetition and practice.

There are many ways to seek out such experiences. It could be argued that this is the whole point of religion. But for good old-fashioned, natural, non-denominational opportunities, nothing beats standing near (or even under) a waterfall.

Whereas facing our deaths can effect radical change, the technique is hardly safe. And regular exposure to powerful forces, such as deities, comes with its own risks and costs.

Compared to such practices, slow and steady exposure to natural wonder is relatively safe and effective. And if we are patient, we can experience that same “letting go” without risk to life and limb.(4)


(1) If you would like the name of my awesome travel agent, please reach out to me. My email address is on my About page.

(2) Perhaps for this reason, the country sports well over one percent what I would call Pagan religionists. While that might not sound like much, if the United States has the same level of penetration it would work out to well over five million Pagans.

I am of the opinion that Pagan populations are not a cause of spiritual “awakeness” so much as one of the symptoms of it. A land that lends itself to spiritual awareness is going to have more spiritual practitioners on the whole. Paganism is just one expression of that.

(3) -foss is the suffix in Icelandic meaning “waterfall.”

(4) This is a bit of a nuanced idea, but keep in mind that it does not matter how much spiritual power there is in an environment. What matters is the distance between states. It is the change between states that generates shifts in awareness.


About Christopher Drysdale
Christopher Drysdale is an animist, martial artist, shamanic practitioner, healer, psychopomp, and meditation teacher. He’s been pagan for more than 30 years, has a master’s degree in anthropology, and thinks making the world a better place is a pretty good idea. He makes his home in the San Francisco Bay Area. You can read more about the author here.

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