Everything You Need to Know About Animism

Everything You Need to Know About Animism

“There is no environment ‘out there’ separate from us. The environment is embedded in us. We are as much a part of our surroundings as as the trees and birds and fish, the sky, water and rocks.” ~ David Suzuki

What is Animism?

The Latin animus means “the rational soul, intelligence, consciousness, and mental powers” and the feminine anima means “soul, living being, mind, and breath”. If you collect all the words for soul from all the languages around the world, almost all of their roots simply mean “breath”, insinuating that the soul and spirits in general are invisible and intangible. In the 1670s, the term anima mundi, meaning “soul of the world”, was used to describe the teachings of ancient Greek philosophers Pythagoras and Plato who believed the world and the universe itself was infused with an animate soul. In 1866, English anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Taylor popularized the already existing term animism from the Latin anima combined with the suffix -ism (attached to words associated with practices, beliefs, doctrines, worship, etc).  He defined animism as the “theory of the universal animation of nature.” Animism became the go-to term for anthropologists to describe and define the beliefs of non-Christian and prehistoric indigenous peoples.

Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit and a consciousness, a soul, from the tiniest microorganism on earth to the great planets in the heavens to the whole of the universe itself. Animistic faiths usually contain a belief in rebirth & reincarnation either as another human, or an animal, tree, or star. Anything or one can be an ancestor and in a way this is true as even scientists will tell you every single thing in the universe is created from the same space dust — all matter gets recycled and reused. Spirits of place (genus loci) are thought to be either the actual soul of the land or a soul who has come to reside in a hill, stream, or grove as its guardian and benefactor.  Animism is usually viewed as more primitive with polytheism being seen as more advanced (think Stone Age vs. the Roman Empire), but as many modern religious scholars have discovered there is more natural harmony and more earthly wisdom within animism than almost any world religion.

You can try to have one without the other, however, in most cultures the two go hand in hand. The Norse had their pantheon of deities as well as strong beliefs in nature spirits, ancestors, elves, giants, and trolls. The ancient Greeks had a strong underlying current of animism from personifying everything in existence as a spirit or deity and worshipping spirits of springs, rivers, hills, and forests at the same level of devotion if not moreso than their pantheon of deities with sacrifices, offerings and festivals. Anthropologists call these divisions the “low cult” (animism) and the “high cult” (polytheism), but in truth they were not divided at all. You’d be hard pressed to find a pre-Christian religion without a fully integrated combination of deities, fairy-like beings, and an ancestor cult. You’d also find it hard to find a major world religion today without traces of animism still clinging to it. Animism was never wiped out or replaced, it has been here the whole time within the persisting belief in fairies and the otherworld, the Catholic worship of saints, the reverence and superstition surrounding trees, and our cultural folk songs and folk tales. The initial instinct of early folklorists and modern Pagans was to label it all as Paganism, but it was the survival of animism all along.

The synonym for animism we’ve been looking for within the Pagan worldview is the fairy-faith and the explanation for the fairy-faith the academic world has been seeking can be found in the animistic cults of ancestor worship and nature spirit worship throughout the world and human history.

If a religion has an ancestor cult within it or a belief in fairy-like beings, it’s a strong sign it evolved from an earlier animistic version of itself. Gods are often apotheosized celestial bodies, land spirits, animal spirits, forces of nature, and ancestors (kings, heroes, healers, and miracle workers). Deities are not separate from animism, they are born from it. The documented remnants of the fairy-faith in Ireland, Scotland, England, and Europe reveal the presence of ancient-rooted animism which was still practiced after the conversion to Christianity as is evidenced by all the many laws forbidding any practices or rites involving fairies, land spirits, and the worship of sacred stones, water, and trees. Animism is still very prevalent in African, South American, and Asiatic belief systems and folk religions today. For example, Buddhists worship the Buddha and the many bodhisattvas alongside a strong familial ancestor cult. Though the population of those practicing the recognized animistic Ainu religion is very small today, the Japanese still heavily practice Shintoism and have a seemingly irremovable belief in the yokai, or supernatural spirits, demons, and ghosts. Find an indigenous tribe in South America or Africa not yet converted to Christianity and they may not have heard of the term animism, but you can be sure their spiritual practices are intrinsically animistic with an ancestor cult.

“No religion lies in utter isolation from the rest, and the thoughts and principles of modern Christianity are attached to intellectual clues which run back through far pre-Christian ages to the very origin of human civilization, perhaps even human existence.”

E.B. Taylor, Primitive Culture

Animism is not a separate faith standing on its own, it is not a capitalized “Tradition” as defined within the Pagan and witchcraft communities, and it is not a clearly defined spiritual path. Instead, animism is the seed of all religion and infiltrates all religions even in present day. Animism doesn’t exist outside of individual practice and the collective beliefs and practices of an indigenous community. Trying to define it and grasp it in a physical form (like the big name religions or smaller pagan traditions), is like trying to catch moonlight with your bare hands. I will try the best I can to attempt it, but it will only ever be my own definition, experience, and research. Animism will always shape-shift person to person, tribe to tribe, region to region.

Animism is a philosophy backed up by practice, it is a way of life and a way of thought. Animism is your personal relationship with nature and with the inhuman spirits who inhabit and compose nature. It is a relationship of respect and value for all things and all beings, visible and invisible. All life is sacred and sentient, even those outside of your current definition of life and even those regarded as malevolent. Within a balanced ecosystem, all life serves a purpose– even those who may seem like the villain at first glance. Animism is the hands-on spirit work of building an awareness of and relationship with the spirits of plants, trees, fungi, animals, insects, waters, forests, mountains, plains, deserts, elemental forces, and the spirits of the dead buried under your feet. When you live within nature you realize you are a part of it, not separate from it. It becomes important to know as much about your surroundings as possible because your survival depends on your knowledge of and respectful treatment of the land, plants, and animals around you.

The Beliefs of Animism

Within the philosophy of animism there is no distinction between magic and mundane– all is magical and all is mundane simultaneously. Consider this for a minute: every act is an act of magic. Animism lacks pretentiousness and superfluousness – if an action or item serves no real purpose then it is disregarded. In my opinion, based in research and experience, this is why the same set of rituals are found in animistic practice throughout the world. Animism is made up of shared beliefs, but moreso it is a series of practices and rituals based on these beliefs.

Common beliefs found within animism include fetishism, totemism, the belief in the soul (or multi-faceted soul) and life force, the belief in the existence of noncorporeal or supernatural spirits who can affect human lives, the belief in a spirit realm or multiple other worlds, the reverence and worship of the dead, the existence and practice of ‘witchcraft’ or ‘sorcery’ (magic used by the layperson to gain influence over or protection from spirits), and the existence of some form of shaman (witch doctor, medicine man, fairy doctor, etc) with supernatural powers and the ability to travel between realms who acts as healer and mediator between humans and spirits.

Fetishism in the anthropological sense means the belief that something seemingly inanimate can be the embodiment of a powerful supernatural spirit (anything from a statue to a tree or a mountain), or that an object can be intentionally inhabited by a spirit (a fetish like a small stone, a pocket carving, a ritual tool, a skull). Some fetishes can be very personal and never shown to another person, where only the owner or family members can look upon it and seek help or powers from the spirit within it (such as root alrauns). Other fetishes belong to the community with standing stones, Slavic god-poles, and ancient Greek crossroad herms being fitting examples.

Totemism is an ancient belief and evidence for it is most easily found in cultural folk tales of creation. Totemism is the belief in an animal, tree, river, supernatural spirit, or other animate being as the original ancestor, creator god, or teacher/benefactor of a clan or tribe and used as its symbol. This belief may be most familiar within North American Native tribes who identify as various clans or houses of the raven, eagle, wolf, etc. The indigenous Ainu in Japan and Siberia were largely a bear cult. For the animistic Hmong people of China, it is an ancient warrior ancestor named Chiyou who is revered as the founder of their tribe, but their creator god Nplooj Lwg is a frog. Each tribe has its own history, stories, songs, symbolism, and physical representations of their totem (i.e. idols, masks, and ceremonial costumes). The belief in totemism is spread further than we may realize. For example, one of my familial Scottish clans once believed they were children of the Yew tree and it has been used as their totem and symbol for longer than there is written record of. You won’t find it on the coat of arms (a modern invention), but the curious belief persisted into modern day.

Shamanism is not animism. Shamanism is a practice found within cultures with animistic belief systems. Shamans are the leaders, healers, and spirit intermediaries of their animist tribe. They have supernatural abilities that allow them to work with spirits, work against spirits, heal relationships with spirits, heal physical damage or illness caused by spirits, and the ability to travel between our physical world and the dream world, the spirit world, the world of the dead and safely back again.

Ancestor worship is another universal commonality between animistic peoples and involves the belief in the existence of the soul after death which leads to an entire cult of ancestor reverence and worship within each culture. Where ancestor veneration is found, there is also a heavy importance and reverence placed on family, tribe, and elders. Ancestor worship is tenacious and survives conversion to other religions. Catholics still have an active ancestor cult through the worship of saints and the celebrations of All Saints Day and All Souls Day. Buddhism and Shintoism both have a heavy focus on ancestor reverence and Japanese and Chinese Christians still actively practice ancestor veneration and maintain family ancestor shrines. It fascinates me that animism seems to always be bedfellows with ancestor worship. It makes sense to honour the spirits of the dead when following a practice so deeply rooted in working with spirits. It isn’t even debated in indigenous cultures, the ancestor cult is simply there alongside the people’s animism. The perfect example from Europe being the fairy-faith prevalent throughout many localities which is the combined belief in inhuman nature spirits and the spirits of the dead. Where you find the fairy-faith you find animism, and where you find animism you find ancestor worship.

The Rituals of Animism

The belief in a world full of spirits within animism leads to very specific sets of rituals with similar formulas followed across cultures. There will always be cultural differences in details and etiquette, but the ritual formulas usually contain similar steps. Before anything is done within an animist community, a ceremony is performed to ask permission of a specific set of spirits and to see if the results of the action will be favourable.

Whether you want to go hunting and foraging in the forest, fishing in a river, cut down a tree, build a new house, or ask approval of the ancestors to marry, you would first perform these steps:

  • Go to where the spirit(s) live (they can’t hear you if you’re not nearby).
  • Declare your intent aloud and request permission from the ruling spirit(s) of said place.
  • Submit a suitable and respectful offering to said spirit(s) and hope it is accepted.
  • Flatter the hell out of the spirit(s) with sweet words and songs (this can be the offering).
  • Ask for a specific and realistic sign of approval (the calls of animals, rain, or perform divination).
  • If you don’t receive the sign or something goes wrong, don’t do the thing.
  • If you receive the sign and everything seems sunshine and roses, go do the thing.
  • When you return from doing the thing successfully, thank the spirit(s) and leave a bigger offering.

Another step sometimes included is to threaten the spirit(s) which is mostly unheard of in modern Pagan and magical traditions, but very common in folk religions and animistic indigenous cultures. It has to be a good threat though and you have to know which spirits you can get away with threatening and which ones it would be incredibly disrespectful to threaten. Common threats include the withholding of offerings until a petition is granted or that you will tattle on the spirit to a fearsome boogeyman or the equivalent of the spirit’s mom or boss.

Purification & Blessing

Other common ceremonies are of purification and blessing and they will often go hand in hand with the formula above. Purification of the body and soul being performed before approaching spirits so one goes to them physically and spiritually clean as a sign of respect and also to remove any negative influences that may interfere with the petitioner’s intent. A ceremony of blessing is performed before any action is taken to help influence the best possible outcome whether the action is a journey, a marriage, a new baby, building a new house, or as simple as weaving cloth, going fishing, or cooking a meal. The Carmina Gadelica, a collection of oral incantations from Scotland from the late 1800s, is full of such rites of blessing covering everything from churning butter and blessing new livestock to waking up in the morning and going to bed at night. Despite some Catholic imagery and wording, most of the incantations are sung or recited in the hope that fairies will stay away and not mess up people’s work or daily life.

Alignment

There is no real technical term for this belief and its rites. Alignment is the practice of attempting to more closely align yourself with a spirit whether it is an animal, plant, or ancestor. This can be achieved by ingesting or smoking a plant (or rubbing on a flying ointment) during ceremony to better connect to that plant or to a greater forest spirit, crafting a fetish from an animal claw or tooth to wear to imbue oneself with the powers of said animal, or even the ancient practice of cannibalizing the dead to re-absorb their soul and power into the community. Traditional indigenous ceremonies involving costumes and masks depicting sacred animals and supernatural spirits which involve dancing and mimicking the animals and spirits are also a form of alignment which a modern Wiccan would recognize as being similar in intent to drawing down the Moon.

The philosophy is simply: the closer you are to the intended spirit and the more you work with it, the more you take on attributes and powers associated with it. The more you work with the dead and are around death, the easier it will be to commune with the dead. The more you actively work with an animal spirit, the more you will take on its positive attributes and be able to call it to your aid. Alignment also shows respect as you are consciously seeking out a relationship with spirit through actions and offerings which will likely result in reciprocation from the spirit until it becomes a familiar, ally, or helper.

The Evil Eye

Rituals that involve deflecting or counteracting the evil eye also stem from animism and its belief in the existence of intentional and unintentional sorcery by both common people or supernatural means. The belief in the evil eye is found world wide and across cultures and it can be inflicted by humans, the dead, spirits, and deities. It can be an envious neighbour sending you hateful vibes over how awesome your milking cow is or a case of elfshot caused by an angry svartálfr. The belief in the evil eye can be so prevalent and strong that an entire community will base its ethics and etiquette around avoiding the evil eye by practicing humility and the deflection of praise. It was once very common in Ireland and Scotland to shout a warning and an apology simultaneously whenever emptying the dirty washing bucket or chamber pot outside so any nearby spirits had a chance to get out of the way rather than getting splashed with filth and cursing you for being disrespectful.

Protection

It is not a common belief of animistic peoples that spirits are generally benevolent and mean us well, it is in fact the opposite. Spirits are to be appeased to prevent harm, spirits are to be kept at a safe distance, and spirits are to be protected against by any means necessary. Spirits are considered benevolent, malevolent, chaotic, or neutral with the benevolent being the rarest and usually birthed from beneficial long-term relationships between humans and spirits. The pervasiveness and endless variety of protective charms and talismans found throughout time and different cultures demonstrates how much emphasis humankind has put on the need to be protected from harm, illness, spirits, demons, ghosts, and fairies.

Protection can be in the form of a ceremony or in the form of a consecrated talisman one is meant to wear or hang in one’s home. It is painting your face white before travelling to the underworld, wrapping yourself in an animal hide before visiting the spirit world, wearing a mask or making loud, offensive noises to scare away evil spirits, the burning of bonfires on dark liminal nights, the creation of spirit traps, the burning of special herbs, or the wearing of multi-coloured clothing or mirrored clothing to deflect spirits. Animistic rites of protection can be anything from a holy person blessing someone with powers of protection in a ceremony, a talisman being crafted and consecrated to protect a person, a family or a home, to an entire community dressing up as demons and processing through the town to scare away spirits and monsters for the coming year (yes, the seasonal Krampus parades in Europe!).

A big part of protection is prevention. Animistic cultures tend to try to keep spirits away from human homes, human settlements, agricultural areas, livestock, holy places, and roads and paths. Protections are put up to keep spirits out, spirits are verbally told they are not welcome, and more respectfully, places are designated for unwanted spirits to have for themselves and have offerings left to appease them (much like how outdwellers are treated in modern Druidry). I think we can all learn about having firm boundaries from animistic practices. You don’t invite the dark fairy to Sleeping Beauty’s baby blessing, but you better make sure to send her a nice gift basket for your rudeness! Only the spirits that you trust and are known to mean you well are invited into one’s home and to a community’s ceremonies. These welcome spirits are usually restricted to the family or tribe’s totems and ancestors and even then they have very specific names they are called by to make sure the right spirits show up an no harm is caused and specific etiquette is followed so these spirits feel respected and willing to be present and bestow blessings to the people.

Comparing Animism Within Paganism & Mainstream Cultures

“Animism is a monist metaphysical stance, based upon the idea that mind and matter are not distinct and separate substances but an integrated reality, rooted in nature.”

Emma Restall Orr

Is animism Paganism? Considering that members of the Pagan community can barely agree on a definition of Pagan/ism for themselves this is not a simple question to tackle. So, instead of looking at the Pagan definition of Pagan, let’s look at the world’s definition of Pagan, which, across most dictionaries and encyclopedias, is “a follower or community practicing a polytheistic religion”. Under this definition, no, animism is not synonymous with Paganism because animism is not polytheism. It does, however, include the belief in many worlds and many spirits, but not necessarily the prescribed worship of them. Sometimes the spirits may be organized into categories (such as water, earth, sky, as well as mundane and supernatural spirits), but there are no set pantheons as a Pagan would recognize. Every cult of animism is different as one tribe would most highly revere the bear as it’s main “deity” and another may most intensely focus their beliefs and rituals around one type of tree. In all honesty, a lot of traditional animistic practices involve avoiding and appeasing spirits rather than seeking them out or worshipping them. Animism is more about respect for spirits and the appeasement of spirits to prevent harm or their involvement in human affairs.

The better questions to ask are: “does Paganism stem from animism?” and “does Paganism contain elements of animism?”. The answer is yes to both. The issue we come across in attempting to cross-compare religions with animism is that most cultures in history who practiced animism had no name for it and no definition for it. It is simply the original and enduring spirituality of humankind. It’s something you do, not something you write down. Despite how ancient its beliefs and practices are, animism is a modern term derived from Latin and coming from academia. People within the Pagan and witchcraft communities have only recently started to adopt it and discuss it. Sometimes it takes us a while to find the right word to describe what we believe and do. The traditional witches and new agers all swarmed to shamanism before many figured out that it’s a hard and not so common thing to be a shaman and what they were actually doing was animism. Many contemporary or ‘core’ shamans use the term shamanism as well when many of them really mean animism. Animism is an ideal word. It is an inoffensive term, it isn’t appropriated from another culture, it doesn’t have specific dogma behind it, and anyone can use it whether they are Buddhist, Christian, Heathen, Shintoist, Wiccan, or even atheist.

Animism is not a religion. Animism is the primal foundation of all religion.

Why is there no set definition of animism in the Pagan community and why does animism feel like a newcomer when, in fact, it contains the most ancient spiritual beliefs of humankind? Because animism is not a religion and does not sit at the same table as the big theisms of monotheism, polytheism, panentheism and their kin. There are no holy books, no churches, no doctrines or dogma, and only a handful of books and articles directed to would-be practitioners coming only from a subculture niche-market within the Pagan community. The entire bulk of information on animistic belief comes from the academic study of indigenous cultures (anthropology, archaeology, ethnology, and ethnobotany), academic studies of plants and animals (botany and zoology), and mainstream culture. A good chunk of these studies pre-2000 comes from the outdated boy’s club of anthropology who did not paint indigenous cultures in a flattering light, often drawing the conclusion that animism is for the primitive, savage, less intelligent, and less knowledgeable people. They were so very wrong and animism is currently undergoing a massive mainstream resurgence with the potential to render eco-centered NeoPaganism obsolete. Modern science it leading us as a whole back to animism. The irony is perfectly glorious.

It is the tendency of the Pagan community to denigrate the mainstream and separate themselves from it. We should stop doing that. We are a part of the whole too. Whether you like it or not, you are part of the mainstream (the dictionary definition, not the negative Urban Dictionary definition). Animism is currently taking a much bigger foothold in the mind of the ordinary person than it ever has to Pagans. Somewhere along the line, Pagans became sidetracked and self-absorbed with the aesthetic trappings of our community and its practices and forgot about why we ended up in Paganism in the first place. Wasn’t it to find an alternative spiritual belief? One that honours the earth, nature, and our connection to spirit? When did the eco-centredness of the Paganism of the 60s and 70s dissipate? Probably at the same time the mainstream became tired with hearing the same messages about saving the earth over and over again in media and film. Why does every day Joe and every non-Pagan herbalist I’ve ever met have a better grasp of animism than the Pagan community (many of whom are unconsciously animists)? Well, when did we stop looking up from our own fantasy world to see what was going on around us? Animistic belief and philosophy is currently being fed through mainstream media to every Dick and Jane. It’s time for us to pay attention too. Animism is here, spilling over and soaking into everything and everyone like the massive spring floods inundating my county right now.

It is a good thing. This could be so important to our survival and the preservation of the earth! It’s time to stop looking solely within our tiny niche subculture and step out to look at the big picture. Never forget history is being made as we live and breathe. The changes in spiritual movements and philosophical beliefs happening right now will affect our long-term future. This is potentially a very big deal.

Animism in the Media

If you don’t believe that animism is becoming household philosophy and infiltrating mass media with absolutely no direct relation to the Pagan movement, let’s take a brief look at the news shall we? This is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg when it comes to animism in the news. Seriously, I can’t even count how many articles I found on the sentience and intelligence of plants, trees, fungi, insects, and animals, the belief in spirits, as well as the practice of ancestor worship.

BBC News: Do we underestimate the power of plants and trees?

“We are convinced that plants are cognitive and intelligent, so we use techniques and methods normally used to study cognitive animals.”

Business Insider: Researchers Have Found Plants Know They Are Being Eaten

“A new study from the University of Missouri shows plants can sense when they are being eaten and send out defense mechanisms to try to stop it from happening.”

Orion Magazine: The Axis and the Sycamore

“This is what we do, we humans. We came down from the trees and now we destroy them. The older I get, the harder it is to take this; the harder it is even to look at it. It is long overdue that we start the restitution.”

Psychology Today: Are Plants Entering the Realm of the Sentient?

“When plants seem to be behaving like animals, we must reconsider whether intelligence truly is an exclusively animal trait.”

Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies: Are Trees Sentient Beings?

“Peter Wohlleben argues that to save the world’s forests we must first recognize that trees are ‘wonderful beings’ with innate adaptability, intelligence, and the capacity to communicate with — and heal — other trees.”

New York Magazine: Our Behavior Toward Animals Hasn’t Caught Up to the Science

“Not only must we seriously address sources of human-induced suffering, but we must also work to create a world in which animals are free to live their own lives and make their own choices. After all, humans aren’t the only intelligent beings on Earth.”

Quartz: People who talk to pets, plants, and cars are actually totally normal according to science

“For centuries, our willingness to recognize minds in nonhumans has been seen as a kind of stupidity, a childlike tendency toward anthropomorphism and superstition that educated and clear-thinking adults have outgrown. I think this view is both mistaken and unfortunate. Recognizing the mind of another human being involves the same psychological processes as recognizing a mind in other animals, a god, or even a gadget. It is a reflection of our brain’s greatest ability rather than a sign of our stupidity.”

Quartz: Insects may be able to feel fear, anger, and empathy after all

“To be strictly honest, we still can’t say to what degree insects experience emotions yet, although these early experiments are certainly setting the foundations for a future where we recognize that all animals have emotions of some sort.”

The Independent: Fish are sentient animals who form friendships and experience positive emotions

“What this study shows is certainly they change the way they perceive their environment when others are present, which suggests they might be cognitively more complex than we originally thought. Maybe because of that people will become more aware of their needs and welfare issues. I think if it helps, it’s great.”

Huffington Post: Law of Mother Earth: A Vision from Bolivia

“Mother Earth has the following rights: to life, to the diversity of life, to water, to clean air, to equilibrium, to restoration, and to pollution-free living. And it further outlines the obligations of the State and the people to these principles and rights as a binding societal duty.”

Mother Nature Network: Can human rights save Mother Nature?

“Our current legal system is anthropocentric, extremely human-centered, believing that all of nature exists purely to serve human needs. Contrast this with a holistic framework of law that puts our existence on this planet within its ecological context. Ecosystems and other species would have legal personality, like corporations, with the right to exist, to thrive, to regenerate, and to play their role in the web of life.”

The Guardian: Now rivers have the same legal status as humans, we must uphold their rights

“What does it mean for a river to have the rights of a person? If the most fundamental human right is the right to life, does it mean the river should be able to flow free, unfettered by obstructions such as dams? Does the right extend to all creatures in the river system?”

Time Magazine: Tribes appease spirits after tourists strip naked on Malaysia’s sacred mountain

“Did a group of foreigners who took their clothes off at the summit of Malaysia’s Mount Kinabalu cause an earthquake? It’s up to the spirits to decide, according to the Lotud tribe of Sabah state.”

Resonate: Why Thailand Shrines Offer Strawberry Fanta to Ghosts

“The dark spirits won’t go so far as to kill you but if Thai people have accidents, people say it’s because they didn’t give offerings to the spirits. You don’t take care of them? They won’t take care of you. You’ll start arguing with your family. Stuff will go missing. You’ll fall ill…”

Sixth Tone: Why Bans on Paper Money Will Anger China’s Ghosts

“Several provinces have proposed eliminating the practice of burning paper money during ancestor worship. Some local governments have even banned its burning and manufacture outright, while also taking steps to discourage feudal superstitions such as burning paper idols made to resemble people, horses, or cattle. This is a foolish move, in my opinion, as it strikes a heavy blow to the roots of deep-seated traditional belief systems.”

Morocco World News: Timeless Belief in Saints and Spirits in Morocco

“Despite Morocco’s increasing modernization and industrialization, saints are still celebrated, and spirits continue to be an influence in everyday cultural practices. The Moroccan people continue to celebrate saints and spirits by preserving holy places, holding festivals, and observing practices to avoid the wrath of spirits.”

BBC Magazine: Living with the Dead

“To outsiders, the idea of keeping a dead man’s body on show at home feels quite alien. Yet for more than a million people from this part of the world – the Toraja region of Sulawesi in eastern Indonesia – it’s a tradition dating back centuries. Here, animist beliefs blur the line between this world and the next, making the dead very much present in the world of the living.”

Animism in Mainstream Publishing

Now let’s take a look at some mainstream and best-selling books with heavy themes of animism and its role in anthropology and ecology. The titles may not always include the term animism, but the contents are specifically animistic. I left out non-Pagan books on ancestor worship as that would require a whole post on its own just to list them! I also left out academic anthropology books as again that would require it’s own reading list.

Academic

Animals

Okay, there were a lot more than this, but let’s keep it to these three well-recommended ones.

Plants, Trees & Fungi

Animism, Rewilding & Ecology

Animism in Pagan Publishing

Lastly, let’s take a look at books published by the Pagan community intended to focus on animism:

Glennie Kindred (who I love) almost gets us there, almost. There are also the works of Lupa Greenwolf, a main proponent and organizer of the Otherkin movement which she’s since distanced herself from (think Pagan furries but with dragons and fairies too). She mainly focuses on writing about totemism and animal familiars.

I’ve obviously left out the truly terrible books on communing with angels, fairies, and nature spirits (I just couldn’t give them free advertising). Notice only one of these books actually has “animism” in the title… well, subtitle. If you want more than that, then you have to get into fairy territory which can get very woo woo and away from the reality of animism very fast if you aren’t careful. Or, you need to look at books written by the druidic and contemporary shamanic communities — which again do not directly mention or describe animism, but do talk about working with nature and spirits in a very animistic way. I didn’t have much luck finding serious Pagan books on the actual practice of ancestor veneration, but instead have found a lot of goth-esque books on necromancy, sigh. You guys are stuck with The Pagan Book of Living & Dying for now.

Pretty sad when you compare the list of mainstream books to Pagan ones, hey?  It’s like the Pagan community dances around animism because many of us have never heard the term and none of us are exactly sure what it even is or if we’re doing it… If I had a dollar for every time I’ve had to define animism to a member of the Pagan, witchcraft, and shamanic communities, I would be significantly richer. It’s just another “ism” under the umbrella of Paganism, isn’t it? It’s just another word for shamanism, isn’t it? Alas, no. It is the “ism” all religions were birthed from. We Pagans have a tendency to label anything with magical potency that is outside of the Judeo-Christian realm as “pagan” whether it is or not. It’s just not the right term though, especially coming from academic or mainstream standpoints.

It’s time to open ourselves up to the fact that a lot of spiritual practitioners we really want to define as pagan aren’t actually pagan, don’t want to be ‘capital P’ Pagans, don’t want or need to be considered under the umbrella term of Paganism, and don’t want to be a part of the modern Pagan community (this includes many cultural traditions such as rootwork and Vodou along with non-Pagan polytheistic religions like Hinduism). More and more people want their spirituality without the velvet robes, festival garb, mystical accessories, foreign lexicons, magical names, and woo-woo-ness in general. Animism is the simple path away from this to a place of common ground. It requires nothing but yourself and what already exists in a traditional culture, in nature, and in the ethereal realms.

Animism doesn’t require proselytization, it appeals to a mass audience without lifting a finger or even being directly named.

Once upon a time I introduced a group of my friends from the Pagan/Wiccan community to local shamanic community who were very animistic in nature and, lo and behold, many of them converted within a year with more following in consecutive years. Why? They had never known those alternate beliefs and practices were even an option. No one had told them, they didn’t come across other options from their teachers and elders, and none of the Pagan literature really talked about alternatives. The living practice of animism filled a void they didn’t even know existed in their Pagan practice. Some members of the local Pagan community were not happy. In trying to build a bridge between the two communities I had lessened their numbers. We can too often be crabs in the bucket desperately trying to pull each other back in, but instead we should let people be free to open their minds to new ways of thought and different ways of defining their spirituality and how it relates to the everyday world. Stop trying to collect every spiritual belief under the umbrella of Paganism to increase our numbers and fall into the trap of validating that ours is the one true way. Allow a massive diversity to flourish. Beauty is found in diversity. Maybe it’s time to apply some principles of permaculture to our views of spiritual beliefs and see faiths as ecosystems with each one playing an important role to a community and the whole of humanity.

Let’s have another example. Remember that time I was forcibly removed as keynote speaker for a polytheism conference because I said I was an animist in a podcast interview… even though beforehand I had told the conference board members (who requested me to be the speaker in the first place) that I was not a polytheist but an animist just like my website said and “were they sure they wanted me to be the keynote?” There was no opportunity for me to speak for myself, I was simply informed I was removed and didn’t get a chance to explain that one could believe in the existence of deities without feeling the need to worship them and, alternately, one could be an animist and work with deity simultaneously. It was a fun PR disaster and a learning opportunity.

Animism and polytheism are seldom found separated in history. Our lack of understanding and ability to define animism and its relation to polytheism is going to continually get us into trouble. We are already at the point where the ‘layperson’ gets it and we don’t. It is time to educate ourselves and each other to prevent future misunderstandings and to prevent us from getting left behind in animism’s wake across the world.

On that note, here is my personal Pagan-friendly recommended reading list in alphabetical order by title. As always, I also encourage you to seek out books on the animism and fairy and folk tales of your own cultural heritage too. Go forth, read, and share!

The Animism Reader

Related Articles by Sarah Anne Lawless

Join the discussion 23 Comments

  • nofixedstars says:

    lovely, just lovely. i’m perfectly happy with the title of animist, or an untitled practice of it.

  • Chad Rush-Willingham says:

    Sarah this was so helpful. Your site in general has been such a great help for this fledgling Trad Witch and I never could grasp Animism fully until now

  • Slayr says:

    I agree with everything you said except that Animism is not a religion. It is as you stated the original belief system that all other religions formed from. When one doesn’t subscribe to any other religion but practice the very essence of Animism, then Animism is the religion. There are so many forms of Animism It is impossible to say that they are all purely Animism. They are more like different denominations of the purest form. Animism is also the mother of Paganism. I see your point with that also but by definition Animism is not an Abrahamic religion and was practiced by the “country dwellers” which made it a Pagan practice. So when Animism is practiced as a religion unto itself it does become defined as a Pagan religion. The term “cult” is one we battle. When people see the word cult it has such negative connotations that people are instantly turned away from it.
    I don’t mean to nitpick the article. It was a very good read. Thank you in fact because there are far too few people who are able to explain it as well as you just did. Aside from what i said above, i thought it was spot on.
    Thank you again.

    • Sarah says:

      You do mean to nitpick and I do mean to disagree with your conclusions and respectfully nitpick back. I think you are confusing religion and theism. Monotheism is not a religion, polytheism is not a religion, pantheism is not a religion, paganism is not a religion, and animism is not a religion. They are instead descriptors for religions with fully integrated beliefs and doctrines. For example, Asatru and Wicca are recognized religions under the banners of paganism and polytheism, Christianity and Islam are monotheisitic religions, and the folk beliefs of the Ainu and Hmong peoples are animistic religions.

      Now I’m going to quote the article back to you: “We Pagans have a tendency to label anything with magical potency that is outside of the Judeo-Christian realm as ‘pagan’ whether it is or not. It’s just not the right term though, especially coming from academic or mainstream standpoints.”

      It is my opinion that perhaps we shouldn’t have adopted the derogatory Catholic-originated term “pagan” in the first place to describe ourselves and that maybe we’ve been using the wrong word all along. In the Latin with proper context, pagan/paganus means “worshipper of false gods” and “not of Christ”. I personally don’t want to be defined by what I am not. Maybe when we’ve been saying “all the things are paganism” we’ve really meant “all these things are animism”. Every pagan and witch I’ve ever met tried the search for the “one true path” in hopes of finding a real connection to something ancient that isn’t a lie. Animism’s just been sitting there waiting for us to stumble into it in the dark.

      Dictionary.com‘s definition of Neopagan as “a member of a religious, spiritual, or cultural community based on the worship of nature or the earth” could potentially be switched out for “animist”. This doesn’t lead me to the conclusion that animism is paganism, but that perhaps, again, we’ve simply been using the wrong nomenclature all this time to describe out community, our religions, our traditions, and their connection to history and anthropology. We are creatures of habit though, so instead of different terminology being adopted I see a new community being formed, unattached to Paganism, and more and more people doing a slow fade away from Paganism in the coming decades.

  • Erin Payne says:

    I realise now I have been and am an Animist. I am also very drawn to Wicca & Witchcraft. I doñt know a lot about the latter hv only bn reading more about these two lately. I’ve always thought that Wiches of old would never have had the time for really elaborate rituals as they went about their daily lives & struggle to survive. Simple ways to honour the spirits or I’ve really more felt vibrational forces would hv bn employed. Practical Magic? Thank you so much. I’m about to meet up with some practising Pagans. Will follow the path I believe is right for me. No long training etc… Nature is a great teacher….

  • Colleen says:

    Amazing article on animism! Thank you!
    I immediately went to my book shelves and pulled some books I would love to hear your thoughts on.
    – “Thinking Like a Mountain – Towards a Council of All Beings” by John Seed, Joanna Macy, At Fleming and Arne Naess
    – “Gaia’s Hidden Life : The Unseen Intelligence of Nature” by Shirley Nicholson & Brenda Rosen
    – “Nature As Teacher and Healer” and “Sacred Places” by James Swan
    – “The Universe Story ” and “The Universe is a Green Dragon” by Brian Swimme with Thomas Berry
    – “Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth ” by John Michael Greer
    – The Secret Teachings of Plants”, Sacred Plant Medicine” and ” Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm” by Stephen Harris Buchner
    – “The Rebirth of Nature” and “The Presence of the Past” by Rupert Sheldrake
    – “The Web of Life” by Fritjof Capra

    These are some of the books which have shaped my thoughts or supported my feeling about animism.

    • Sarah says:

      I haven’t heard of most of these and will have to check out reviews and add some to my wanted book list. I really like Stephen Harrod Buhner. I’d love to see him give a talk in person someday…

  • Amanda Healy says:

    Thank you for this, I soaked up every word, it was perfect timing as I have been wrestling with the term shaman for some time and have avoided using this label though I have undergone quite a bit of study and ‘training’ My practice is animalistic of course it is not even a practice it is just how I am within this world. Sometimes you go around in a big loop just to get back to where you were!

  • Dver says:

    Great article and great list of resources. You said “I didn’t have much luck finding serious Pagan books on the actual practice of ancestor veneration”, so I thought you should be aware of “Honoring the Ancestors” by Galina Krasskova. I’d also add “Fairycraft” by Morgan Daimler to your book list, which is an actually decent book on fairy lore and practice written by a polytheist, for polytheists, but with lots of real knowledge of history and folklore.

    • Sarah says:

      I came across Krasskova’s book but the reviews were 50/50 for and against. Nice to hear you backing it up – will give it a chance!

      • Dver says:

        Krasskova is a controversial figure so there are always people denouncing whatever she does, whether or not they’ve even read it. I don’t think her Ancestors book is really that provocative or anything, it’s pretty solid basic information on starting an ancestor cultus.

  • Caroline says:

    Simply marvelous article. May I also point out that there are liberal- and mystically-oriented Christians who are moving away from the human-centric, anti-nature elements of traditional Christianity and into an ecstatic and inclusive view of Divine consciousness in everything and everyone. The late Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is a good example. We can ally with these people to work toward earth justice, even if our beliefs and practices diverge; we do no one any favors by assuming they are woven from the same cloth as fundamentalists. I am sure we can also find such companions in other monotheistic religions as well.

  • Dee says:

    Sarah, I have been following your blogs and stories for the past two years now and I can honestly say, every article I read is like a homecoming for me. This article in particular is a treat as I have been spending more time with trees and preparing for my exams in order to be certified and licensed as a TCM herbalist. I learn so much about respect and reverance of the earth and all its gifts from you. Blessings!

  • James Wilson says:

    Wonderful article. I think John Sayles’ movie The Secret of Roan Inish is a great film with animism at it’s core.

  • Reba says:

    Thank you. I enjoyed this and agree.

  • Ossian MacUrcrin says:

    Great article Sarah!

    My first introduction to Animism,(though of course I didn’t realise it at the time!), was around 1993/94, when a friend of mine lent me a copy of ” The Way of Wyrd” by Brian Bates.

    To someone who had up until that point loosely identified as Pagan, it had a fairly profound effect.
    I was never really the sort to join covens or any other formalised Pagan groups or gatherings as I found them just as hierarchical as the Catholic church that I’d been brought up in.
    Mind you, living in Scotland, it had always struck me that due to the proliferation of holy wells dedicated to the virgin Mary and Brìghdè/St Brìde, that the Catholic faith in Ireland and Highland Scotland was in some respects, a veneer of Christianity overlaid on an Indigenous animistic/ Faerie faith…..( I’m not saying that definitively, but simply the way it struck me as a callow youth! )

    Anyways, having eschewed the formal Pagan paths, I more or less just used to wander around in woodlands, occasionally swim in lochs and rivers, but I always found myself saying things like; “Spirits of this place. I come here in peace and mean you no ill or mischief and ask that none be done to me in return”
    I would then leave a little offering of whatever I happened to have on me, whether it was a coin, or a wee bit of whisky which I used to always carry with me in a small hip flask specifically for that purpose,or even just a little bit of my own spittle,on the end of my fingertips, which I’d mix into the dirt or the river/burn/loch in a sort of acknowledgement that I was part of the natural world and was showing this by sharing part of my life force in the form of my spittle to show this.
    It was, if you like, my own sort of rough, home-spun animism, before I realised,( ohhh…..at least 18 months ago 😉 ) that’s what in fact I was practicing all along….Duh!

    I suppose some will think it a wee bit dangerous to go dispensing life force in the form of spittle, to what could be malignant spirits of place…. But, I’m still alive and in rude health at 50 years old and have only endured the same vicissitudes of life that most other folk have to deal with at some point…….. I’d imagine that the aforementioned spirits are, at best, indifferent to me.
    Och, anyways, I’ve fairly rambled on, but really I just wanted to say thanks again for all the thought provoking articles.

    Beannachd Leibh

    Ossian

  • Kim says:

    Thank you, thank you, thank you I knew there was a reason that I keep coming back to your page. When I first started out on this journey I was drawn to Wicca but found that it just didn’t sit right with me. There was a lot of rituals and posturing but I didn’t find the development of a relationship to my patch of Earth in these practices. I then wondered into Paganism but found the same sort of thinking I was looking for something that acknowledged the sanctity,sacredness and consciousness found in the world all around me. You put into words what I have been trying to get people that I talk with to understand. That all is conscious and sacred, the seen and unseen, everything is alive in one form or another. Please continue to contribute to the understanding of what is on this Earth and is needed at this time. Thank you again.

    Kim

  • Don says:

    A very good article. Some of us Pagans have always been animists as well as deists, but we’re still struggling to rebuild lost knowledge and in trying to create a workable path, we often have a tendency to focus on deity without paying enough attention to all the other spirits and energies that are part of our world.

    One author who’s quite consciously both a Pagan and an animist is Danu Forest.

  • Jeff says:

    Hello, Sarah (and others who may read this),

    A friend found this article and, knowing that I’ve declared myself an animist, forwarded it on to me. Very well done! While I might quibble with this or that statement, most of that is actually quite beyond what you were obviously intending with this article. I’m glad to see that I’m not the only person who has been struggling to find a spiritual identity…Finally realized about three years ago (after I discovered Graham Harvey’s work and a number of other more-modern-than-the-middle-20th-century writers) that I could legitimately use the term animism to cover my beliefs and practices. Your suggested readings list will keep me busy for quite some time.

    Thanks again, and I hope to hear the stories of others of how they came to animism, what their experiences have been, etc.

    May your way be fair,

    Jeff

  • Sarah says:

    Beautiful article! Thank you for all you do <3

  • elisa says:

    OMG! You know I used your statement about writing this article and posting it as motivation for me to finish a task I said yes to, when i meant ehhh i don’t really think this is right, but I don’t want to pay prices kind of way. This article is SUCH a blessing. I have been asking and asking for a word to describe me. It seems people demand explanations and rationalizations from me, in a way that I’m not seeing in others. I’m working on looking at the request and blinking without snapping…does it SEEM like i need your approval/permission. :)

    Witches say I am not a witch. Druids say I’m a witch. I say I just know what I know and i bump into things in the practices of others that ARE what I do by nature, so I read those. Maybe I like belonging, maybe I like having a label that is correct, maybe I like not being alone. Not sure yet, not sure if it’s even what matters to me (even though part of my brain screams YES IT IS, while another part shouts NO it is NOT)

    Animism works and I am SOOOOO grateful to you for being the voice that took away my shame. I consider I ought to have been able myself, however, I also know that many times I need to get over myself and ask for help. So if I choose to announce myself, when people ask what I am or what i do, does one say I am an animist? Or, I practice animism. or both one being the descriptor and one the verb?

    I have been searching for the blame at the removal or retreat of some of my ‘gifts’ and reading this article all of them popped back nudge nudge and I am now free of some of my old ideas. I just have to show up :)

    Hope baby and momma are doing well! I want to call him Maydon :) I also wish to give him the gift of a crabapple tree.

    Best regards and Many Blessings!
    elisa

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