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Everything You Need to Know About Animism

By | Animism, Ecological Consciousness, Folk Magic, Spirit Work | 23 Comments

“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

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Animism at the Dinner Table

By | Animism, Bioregionalism, Cooking | 18 Comments

Some of you may not be aware of this, but food is my first passion above herbalism and above magic. I am a mom, then a cook, then a plant lover, and then a witch. The artist is in there too, but often gets to create through food rather than illustration most of the time. My parents taught me to cook from a very young age, from the garden, from scratch, from whole foods. I cooked while I was going to school and then went to culinary school out of high school rather than university. I worked at hotels and restaurants all over the great cities of Canada: Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Victoria.

I saw the truffle seller come in the back door and peddle her fragrant wares out of a basket by candlelight in a restaurant in Montréal. I remember picking herbs fresh from the gardens of a lakeside hotel to cook dinner for a wedding in rural Ontario.  I’ve cleaned endless fir needles out of pounds upon pounds of wild harvested chanterelle muhrooms for a cafe in Victoria. I’ve felt the steam of the line kitchen, the heat of the deep fryers, and the feel of flipping a pan of perfectly browned vegetables in my hand over a gas flame. My dream at nineteen was to become like my German-Ontarian idol Michael Statlander as famous chefs Magnus Nilsson and Rene Redzepi have become in recent years but with simplicity instead of their superfluousness… and well, maybe it could still happen one day.

Further in the past there was once a little girl who had very odd parents. On the surface they appeared normal just like every other child’s parents; they dressed normally, had normal jobs, went to church, and read her bedtime stories at night. But they were… odd. You see, they talked to plants and animals as if the flora and fauna understood them and were going to answer back. Her green-thumbed mother talked to and expressed love for all the plants in her garden and they flourished for her. Her father lovingly spoke to his cows and pigs as if they were friends and fed them better than most people and they loved him back, tamely following him around like he’d walked out of a Disney movie or was some kind of animal whisperer. These odd parents would take the little girl and her sister deep into the forest of tall, moss-covered trees with a floor of ferns and teach her the names of the wild plants and the animals they were lucky and quiet enough to spot. The girl learned how to say please and thank you to all the bushes she picked and ate delicious juicy berries from and to give a friendly hello to any forest creature she met.

My kitchen table

Preparing a feast at my kitchen table for workshop attendees

These are my parents and it took me a long time to realize that they were rare people when it came to their ethics and philosophy regarding the natural world. My father loves his 83 acres of field and forest as if it were a person and he loved his livestock as much as his dogs and his children. My mother simply cannot live without her garden and being surrounded by the beautiful green of nature – the city just won’t do. It’s not that they grew up with a rural mindset. They both grew up in towns and cities, attended university, and have travelled extensively. This is the life and philosophy they have chosen to live, not one they were born into. And yet, my parents are Christians who attend church every Sunday who have never heard of animism and have never put much thought into environmentalism aside from recycling, not polluting, and generally not being a jerk to nature. Without intending to, through their own everyday actions, they had taught me ethical livestock husbandry and land stewardship.

It is my belief, that if most people quietly went on about their lives living and breathing such a philosophy every day as my parents do, no matter their religious denomination, that our severely damaged relationship with the natural world would slowly be repaired.

When the world was awash with animism, the people viewed food as sacred and precious. Nature was God and thus food was God. Little berry deities on the bush, succulent root deities in the earth, sweet deity blood as sap running from a tapped birch tree. Animals were deities too, presided over by the wild and fearsome forest gods who could curse or kill those who did not treat their realm with respect. Ancient hunters would ask permission of these wild gods before hunting their deer or boar. Ancient gatherers would ask permission before picking berries or harvesting the soft edible cambium or underbark of trees. All that is left of these beliefs and practices is folklore and prayers from both the Old and New Worlds, collected as anecdotes rather than as a body of living lore.

below: beets and carrots at a farmers’ market

foraged saskatoon berries preserved from the hot sun with sweetfern

produce

Talking to Our Food

What if we didn’t strive to be like the ancients, whose true ways are long lost and whose skills are beyond many of us at this time, but instead decided to bring the philosophy of animism to the dinner table? What would it look like? To be honest, it would look foolish to an outsider as it would involve talking to plants and animals, talking to our food sources, as if they were sentient and could understand us. Most of the old prayers collected as folklore weren’t really prayers at all, they were people talking to plants and to wild spirits. What would it sound like? Something along the lines of: “Hey there beautiful thimbleberry bush. I’m not going to harm you. I’m just going to pick some of your berries to eat. Don’t hurt me and please tell your friends good things about me. Thank you for your gift of food.” It is informal dialogue showing honesty, politeness, and respect.  Following up your words with matching actions completes the circle by practicing ethical wild harvesting or hunting and fishing methods. Somehow, saying such things aloud to a plant or a fish eventually feels less silly and more ritualistic, more necessary. It creates a connection between you and your food source – the natural world.

Mistress of the woods, Mielikki,
Forest-mother, formed in beauty,
Let thy gold flow out abundant,
Let thy silver onward wander,
For the hero that is seeking
For the wild-moose of thy kingdom;
Bring me here thy keys of silver,
From the golden girdle round thee;
Open Tapio’s rich chambers,
And unlock the forest fortress,
While I here await the booty,
While I hunt the moose of Lempo.

~ Rune XIV, The Kalevala (1849)

The Kalevala is a Finnish epic, it’s true age isn’t known as the oral lore wasn’t written down until the 1800s. Above is an example of a hunter buttering up the guardian spirit of the forest so that she will show favour to him and let him hunt her caribou successfully. Below a travelling musician kindly asks that he may walk through the forest without being harmed by the bears who dwell within it.

Otso, thou O Forest-apple,
Bear of honey-paws and fur-robes,
Learn that Wainamoinen follows,
That the singer comes to meet thee;
Hide thy claws within thy mittens,
Let thy teeth remain in darkness,
That they may not harm the minstrel,
May be powerless in battle.
Mighty Otso, much beloved,
Honey-eater of the mountains,
Settle on the rocks in slumber,
On the turf and in thy caverns;
Let the aspen wave above thee,
Let the merry birch-tree rustle
O’er thy head for thy protection.

~ Rune XLVI, The Kalevala (1849)

“O Lady Artemis, do not loosen your golden chains. See your hounds of plain or forest, white or coloured, let them not with open jaws seek out the fields of the plain, let them come empty and let them go empty. Make them run off, and let them not come to our farm, nor touch our cattle nor harm our donkeys.”

~ Latin incantation inscribed on a copper nail found in northern Europe

In a related tale from the highlands of Scotland a deer woman comes out of the forest and tells the hunters to leave a deer once a month as an offering at a cairn and when they do their hunt is successful, if they don’t leave the offering they bring home no deer. This mysterious woman’s own hunting hounds are often wolves and it is her in the Scottish tales asking the hunters to tie up their hounds (Davidson). Such themes and incantations are found across cultures and continents from the Coast Salish of the Pacific Northwest asking a Red Cedar tree permission to harvest its bark to the Amazonian Huacharia’s tea ceremony asking permission of the forest to hunt and forage to incantations from 19th century Scotland recorded in the Carmina Gadelica asking plants to lend their magical and medicinal powers to the forager. They all announce themselves and ask permission of the forest, or the individual flora and fauna who compose it, to trespass, to forage, and to hunt.

River may I cross your waters and fish them for food? Forest, trees, please reveal to me your mushrooms edible to humans and free from slugs and worms. Berries, shining jewels, may I pick you? Roots, deep medicine, may I harvest you and nourish my family with your starch? I won’t take too much, just enough for me and mine while still leaving plenty for you and yours who belong to the forest.

Lake Superior, Ontario

Lake Superior from Northern Ontario

The more you do this the more you may start to notice that the natural world responds back. Maybe the forest will reveal its best berry picking and root-digging spots to you after your good treatment of its denizens, its resources. Maybe it will get less and less hard to find deer during hunting season after you’ve consistently asked for permission from the forest. Maybe you’ll end up with more fish from the river than you’ve ever caught before after years of giving it simple offerings, asking respectfully for a good catch, and cleaning up any garbage you find. If you dwell in a more sub/urban area, maybe it will be simply that your vegetable garden flourishes as never before and your chickens lay the best eggs after being treated with love. Perhaps you’ll find an incredibly productive blackberry bush in an unexpected corner of the city away from pollution that yields its fruits to you scratch-free. Whatever they may be, the rewards for your philosophy in action will become apparent and very much real.

There are other ways we can bring animism to the dinner table. Some are simple and already practiced by many of us such as choosing sustainably or organically grown local produce from a local farmer who cares about quality and about their land. A locally grown tomato, ripened on the vine in season will always taste leagues better than a tomato grown thousands of miles away out of season, covered in chemicals to kill pests and molds, picked green, and artificially ripened. If hunting or raising livestock for your own meat isn’t an option, then try your best to purchase local, ethically raised meats and eggs. The prices in shops and city farmers’ markets are always higher, but if you drive out to the country to pick up meat and eggs yourself, you may find the pricing more digestible along with a much healthier and tastier result.

below: a wild hare

Dead wild hare

The Grey Ethics of Killing to Eat

An indigenous approach is more concerned with honouring the body of the creature by taking the most nourishment possible from it, where the modern attitude is to use only some of the creature’s body if it is convenient, sterile, and socially acceptable.”  ~ Miles Olson

I was raised on a farm and in the wilderness with hunters. When I was a little girl I saw moose butchered in garages with every part to be used; meat for eating, sinew for crafts, bones for stock, the hide for leather, the skull and antlers for decoration. The locals’ favourite part was the tongue. I helped my Tahltan neighbour carefully pick sockeye salmon out of his traditional long pole net in the Stikine River and then gut them – some for smoking and some for canning. I sat by that same river alone with a fishing rod of driftwood with a hook and salmon eggs as bait and caught salmon, knocking them out with a club, gutting them, and wrapping them in newspaper to place them in the freezer. I lived on a farm with cows, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. My parents named every livestock animal, talking to them as if they were human, and treating them well with good food, a good life, and a good death. Our love for them didn’t stop us from eating them. Through the actions of my parents I learned that as we loved and cared for our animals, they in turn cared for us by nourishing us with their fat, meat, minerals and vitamins.

“I feel a deep kinship with the animals I hunt; most hunters do. We get to know them in a far deeper way than all but a few other sorts of human: We know their personalities, their foibles, their habits. Where they like to live, what they like to eat, and what they might do in any given situation. Yet most of us take delight in being fooled when a deer or rabbit shows us some new quirk of their behavior. Hunt any animal long enough and it ceases to be the Disneyfied caricature of itself most people know and blossoms into a clever, free-thinking entity – an entity not so different from us.

My mind settled onto this seeming paradox the way a leaf settles onto the forest floor. Sitting in this meadow, in this place, as a hunter and a human animal, it felt serenely right in a way I find wildly incapable of explaining to those who have not experienced the same feeling.”  ~ Hank Shaw

I saw and lived this way of life from a young age. I saw the good, but I also saw the bad. I saw coyotes pick off livestock when drought caused them to starve. I saw hunters come from the city to kill bears for sport, taking nothing but photos and the hide and wasting the rest. I saw chickens kill their own deformed chicks. I saw cows and pigs accidentally kill their own young by crushing them. I saw pigs locked in pens to grow fat leading to health problems and atrophied limbs. I saw pregnant animals killed without a thought, the fetuses thrown onto a pile of refuse. My father used to buy animals from farmers who treated their livestock like this to give them a better life. We took in cows, pigs, and chickens. I remember one time the vet came to our farm to inspect our animals and give them shots. He refused to vaccinate them because they were so healthy, friendly, and intelligent, he didn’t want to fix something that wasn’t broken “you’ve got some healthy organic meat here, you don’t need me.”

Butchering a duck

Butchering a duck into meat, fat for rendering, and bone & organs for stock

My parents taught me to care where my food comes from and when I became a professional cook it was just as important. I learned that the meat from a pig who lived a happy life with other pigs, was fed a good and varied diet, was allowed to run around, roll, in mud, and forage, and was given a good, quick death led to amazingly tasty meat. I learned that if that same pig was locked up in a small pen alone, fed only the same commercial feed and water, was never allowed to see the light of day, and was terrified before death, resulted in disgusting inedible meat.

Studies have been done on cows that revealed a good, quick death devoid of fear resulted in good meat, whereas a frightened and panicking cow before death results in bad meat; the adrenaline and hormones released from fear poisoning the muscle. I grew up knowing there were no absolutes in the ethics of killing for food, but that it’s our individual actions and treatment of our food that really matters.

Apple whiskey roast pork

My recipe for slow roasted pork with apples, bacon, and whiskey

I learned I should not kill an animal because I can, but because I need to and that when I do kill for food it should be the easiest, most painless, and best death I can provide. It is much easier to believe that animal life is not really life equal to ours and make ourselves cold to them so we can stuff them into slaughterhouses for frightening, painful deaths so we can have convenient access to mass amounts of faceless meat in supermarkets. It is much harder to admit animals deserve fair and good treatment with respect and reverence towards their feelings and needs and spend extra money and time making sure they receive that good treatment.

It isn’t so easy to give meat a good death, even if you are a farmer. Abattoirs (or slaughterhouses) are fewer and fewer with independent butchers closing up and retiring faster than they can be replaced. Where I live in Canada meat has to be federally inspected before it can be legally sold to the public. This results in many small farmers not being able to afford to send their livestock to a federally inspected facility and it’s often the meat farmers in any rural area I’ve lived in within Canada who go out of business first. There is simply no legislation in place for small meat producers and even for small egg producers. This is one of the many reasons we need change so badly. If we change the demand for how our meat is raised and slaughtered, it is more likely to lead to the necessary change in laws so we can legally and more easily access healthy, local, whole foods.

Carrot Juice is Murder

Listen up brothers and sisters, come hear my desperate tale.
I speak of our friends of nature, trapped in the dirt like a jail.
Vegetables live in oppression, served on our tables each night.
The killing of veggies is madness, I say we take up the fight.
Salads are only for murderers, coleslaw’s a fascist regime.
Don’t think that they don’t have feelings, just ’cause a radish can’t scream.

~ The Arrogant Worms

The world is not our oyster and we need to change how we think and act when it comes to our food supply.

Many people’s solution is to become vegetarian or vegan to stop participating in the industrial machine that treats animals this way. We laud ourselves for being so ethical, but in doing so we can easily forget that plants deserve fair treatment just as much as animals do. We forget to think about the forests and wetlands destroyed so they can be replaced by fields of organic carrot and soy bean monocrops in California.

We forget to think about the environmental footprint of importing fruits, vegetables, and grains over long distances. We forget to think about if our produce has been genetically modified or altered or covered in herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides and what the health effects of such things are upon the land, its waters, the animals that live on it, the bees who pollinate it, the farmers that tend it, and our children who eat its fruits. We forget to think about if the produce was commercially grown on land raped of its nutrients and filled with fertilizers to compensate, leaching into the water supply and contaminating it for animals and humans. Yes, even organic agriculture is guilty of this.

We forget to think about if our produce was grown with long-term sustainability in mind. Farmers,  animals, and whole ecosystems are dying so we can eat organic soybeans and corn we don’t actually need. How many people have to die and how much more research has to be done before we abandon the Frankenstein that is modern commercial agriculture? Even organic agriculture is not sustainable, not the way we are currently practicing it. How many studies must be done proving plants are intelligent and can feel pain before we start to treat them better and stop splicing their genes and covering them in toxic chemicals? How long until we realize maybe we can’t always do this better than Nature naturally does?

Garden harvest

Effecting Change

The answer is simple, but hard to accomplish. As a collective we need stop buying and eating the fruits of the commercial food industry. If we don’t feed the greed machine it ceases to make a profit and therefore will eventually cease to exist as it is. Money is the only thing big agri-business understands and the only language it speaks. If we demand change and vote with our dollar, we can all make that change happen. If you want to see organic, sustainable, permaculture, and forest farming based agriculture succeed, you need to buy produce from farmers who apply its methods or do so yourself. If you want fairer treatment of livestock animals, then raise your own or purchase your meat and eggs from local farmers who treat their animals well and feed them gmo and chemical-free feed. If it’s not an option where you live, you may have to hunt, forage, garden, or become vegetarian. Don’t let a poor economy or a low income get in the way of choosing how you eat. Food is power. If we can feed ourselves we have power over our own lives.

“I realized something had to be done; I had to take action! It was clear that I was a ‘food victim’ and it was time to take back control. I discovered it’s possible when you grow your own fruit and vegetables, raise your own meat, and know what to eat from the wild. This is how I made the switch.”

~ Rohan Anderson, Whole Larder Love

I encourage ecologically friendly agricultural practices and ethical animal husbandry because I always keep in mind the darker side of rewilding the dinner table. There are simply too many of us for everyone to return to foraging and hunting as our main food source. There would be nothing left in the wild in very short order. The remaining forests would be raped and pillaged with our good intent and Nature would have nothing left to feed their own. Farming, forest farming, permaculture, land stewardship, animal husbandry, and other forms of sustainable food production should never be cast to the side, but improved upon for the benefit of all –wild and civilized.

Colony Farms Community Garden in Port Coquitlam, BC

Colony Farms organic community gardens in Port Coquitlam, BC

Maybe you’re a conservative person and don’t like to rock the boat. Maybe you don’t understand politics, don’t care about politics, or don’t have the time to spend figuring out the system so you can effect change in your own life or in the lives of others. Maybe you still feel you need to do something regardless, to get your hands dirty to make a better world. One thing we all share in common, one thing we all care about, is food. Food is where we can start a peaceful revolution forcing the corrupt system to change. If the system isn’t working, opt out. Maybe no one told you it’s a choice before, but it is. You can choose not to participate. You don’t have to be a radical hippie living on a farm or in the backwoods.

You can live in the city or a small town and still grow your own food and choose where your food comes from. There are so many resources for growing food anywhere (apartments with or without balconies, rooftops, yards, containers, empty lots, community gardens, etc) that there’s no excuse not to try. Excuses are our way of opting out and not feeling guilty about it. “I can’t do that, I don’t have enough time or money.” We make time for the things we are truly passionate about. You may have to rearrange your life and give up some things in order to achieve your own food security. I personally think it’s well worth it whether you choose to grow and harvest your own food or simply to make more careful food choices.

Blonde morel mushrooms

Eating as Animists

Does this relate to bioregional animism? Yes! What better way to reinforce your practice and beliefs as a bioregional animist than to focus your diet on wild food and food grown and harvested in a way that sustains the local ecosystem? Besides shopping at seasonal farmer’s markets, you can learn about local wild berries, nuts, fungi, roots, and greens you can forage and eat. Discover native tea and coffee substitutes. Be ethical and sustainable in your foraging and wild harvesting practices so nature can continue to renew itself each year, producing the same wild foods in the future. If you’re a hunter you can learn which animals to hunt for food and what seasons to do so in. If you’re not a hunter, many cities now have butchers devoted to wild game meat – often locally sourced. To learn all these things you can research local wilderness schools, nature field guides, or foraging guides and sign up for a hunter’s licensing course. This new-old way of thinking about food is gaining popularity making resources easier to find.

“Taking back a little bit of control where your food is produced makes life tend towards the simple side. That’s the idea anyway. Simple doesn’t mean you don’t put in effort or that you just lay back and watch things happen. Simple can sometimes mean more work, more planning, and even more thought put into your philosophy of life. The work comes in the form of getting soil under your fingernails, blood on your shirt, and beads of sweat on your forehead cooking over a hot stove.

The planning comes in the form of seasonal preparations and annual events that keep your food stores in check and your vegetable patch happy and productive. And finally, bringing it all together, is your approach to life in general. My philosophy is basic: nature rules supreme. We are only little gears that make the bigger machine do its thing. Although, fools that we are, as a species we often live as though we are the operator of the machine.”

~ Rohan Anderson, Whole Larder Love

As spiritual people who pride ourselves in being reverent of nature, we should care where our food comes from and how it is treated. We should care about plant life just as much animal life. We should care with the deepest passion from our hearts and souls. As a pure animist I see no difference between catching a salmon and killing it for food and pulling up a beet root and cooking it for dinner. No matter what, it’s a life for a life so I can eat and live. We are all eaters of spirits and those spirits deserve to be treated well. All life deserves respect and reverence. How do we show it? Show it through your food choices. Show it through growing your own food and treating your plants and your land well. Show it by giving thanks to the spirits on your plate before each meal. But most of all, show it by teaching your children to care too. If we teach our children where their food comes from and how to make good choices, the next generations will learn from our mistakes and change how things are done to the benefit of all life.

It’s not up to anyone else, it’s up to us. No one is going to do this for you. Look what has already happened when we let the government and agri-business do it for us by monetizing food; something which should be a basic human right and not something we can’t afford to farm or purchase. Take back your power as a living being on this earth and feed yourself and your family. Share the excess with your neighbour and when we all source our own food sustainably and take care of ourselves and each other, then we will have food security and a food system with an ethical philosophy. Then we can start to become part of the earth and its natural food chain once more.

RESOURCES

Blogs

Grow Forage Cook Ferment

Hunger and Thirst

Fat of the Land

Pixie’s Pocket

The Three Foragers

Wild Harvests

Websites

Forager’s Harvest – Samuel Thayer

Hunter Angler Gardener Cook

Northern Bushcraft (Canada)

Northern Farm Training Institute

Overgrow the System

Rodale Institute

Publishing

Audubon Field Guides

Chelsea Green Publishing

Lone Pine Publishing

Mother Earth News

Peterson Field Guides

Books

Adventures in Edible Plant Foraging: Finding, Identifying, Harvesting, and Preparing Native and Invasive Wild Plants by Karen Monger

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram

Foraging & Feasting: A Field Guide and Wild Food Cookbook by Dina Falconi

Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast by Hank Shaw

Sacred Food: Cooking for Spiritual Nourishment by Elisabeth Luard

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan

The Hair and the Dog – Scottish Deer Lore by Hilda Ellis Davidson and Anna Chaudhri

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan

Unlearn, Rewild: Earth skills, ideas and inspiration for the future primitive by Miles Olson

Whole Larder Love: Grow, Gather, Hunt, Cook by Rohan Anderson

 

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The Witch and the Wild

By | Animism, Ecological Consciousness, Storytelling, Witchcraft & Magic | 15 Comments

If you have not yet done so, please go and read Peter Grey’s life-altering essay “Rewilding Witchcraft” before continuing with my piece. The co-owner of Scarlet Imprint has much to say that desperately needs to be heard by the magical community. I will sit here and wait and sip my tea while you do so. Then come back and I’ll pour a mug for you and we’ll talk.

we are doomed. The earth and nature are not doomed. We are doomed, we humans. If we want to be honest with ourselves about the future of life on earth then we must be on the side of nature and not on the side of humanity. We have made the earth uninhabitable for ourselves, but nature will survive and notice our decline and demise as much as a the ocean notices one boat sinking into its depths. Green vines will swallow our cities of concrete and metal, trees will uproot parking lots and highways, animals will nest in our abandoned houses, the roofs of our temples will collapse letting in sunlight and starlight… and nature will not care, nature will not laugh, nature will not cry.

Our witchcraft, nay, our very being must become more wild, more intuitive, and more accepting of nature’s amorality and our inevitable demise if we are to make any difference at all. If we are to preserve what we’ve left behind of the earth in our destructive wake, and if we are to survive in any number as a species, we must rewild ourselves and learn how to live outside of civilization. We must lose our faiths, our religions, our meaningless attachment to nitpicketity details only we as individuals and not a whole care about. We who are importers of foreign magics and alien gods. We must become a different kind of witch. Something that needs no definitions, no boundaries, and no expectations. Something more primal and raw than our current incarnation. Something small, something just outside your door…

Local food, local beer, local products… the locavore movement invades the Pacific Northwest like an organic cotton-wearing hippie invades a farmer’s market with the best of intentions, but whose naïveté fails to see that paying more for something local will make absolutely no difference on the environment or the decline of our civilization (this is coming from someone who shops at farmer’s markets and buys local). What we need instead is local knowledge, local medicine, and local witchcraft. What do your local spirits care about you and your family’s survival? You who have never spoken to them or left them an offering? You who doesn’t know their names, powers, or dwelling places. They have no vested interest in you. They will dwell in the trees growing over our mass grave one day and not weep for us… after all, wasn’t it our ancestors who clear cut the forests that were their homes when we came to this land? Wasn’t it our ancestors who polluted their rivers and oceans and fished all their food until it couldn’t be renewed? Why would these spirits teach us their magic and medicine? One would have to put in a lot of hard work to simply get their attention, and years of it for them to start trusting and helping one local spirit worker, let alone all of us.

What did the ancient  magicians, shamans, sorcerers, and witches do to gain the favour of the spirits? The literally went wild. Off they would go into the uncivilized world of nature without any comforts, without any companions. They would learn to hunt and forage for food, how to clothe themselves only with what nature provided, how to make tools, how to follow the migrations of animals, and learn how to predict the weather and the seasons. So wild they would become that speech, manners, and morals would be forgotten. When they would return home five to ten years later, they would be unrecognizable: feral, dangerous, mad. Accounts in Ireland even speak rumours of cannibalism. It would take a long time to bring them back to civilization and they were never fully comfortable in it again, living on the outskirts of town. But their people believed their madness was worth it for the knowledge they brought back; for these wild men, these woodwoses, were now encyclopedias and intermediaries of the genius loci – the local spirits of nature. And they were invaluable to the people’s survival.

What is the ancient purpose of a witch or shaman? To be an intermediary between the spirits and humanity. To be translator, negotiator, salve, and warrior if need be. In rewilding witchcraft, this is what we must learn, this is what we must become. We must be able to commune with the spirits of nature; of animals, insects, plants, waters, forests, mountains, plains, deserts, elemental forces, and also with the dead. In order to commune with the spirits we must become them, we must live with them, we must speak to them even if they do not answer back for years whether due to our untrained ears or their chosen silence. Wherever you live, you must allow yourself to be absorbed into the very land itself, immersed in the genius loci until their secrets and wisdom pour into you. We must become village witches, regional witches, shamans who speak for the spirits where we live.

I live in the Pacific Northwest. I live between ocean and mountain. My corner of the world is full of spirits both benevolent and malevolent, great and small, named and unnamed. Some have no equal anywhere else in the world, some uncannily resemble foreign spirits or spirits found in too many cultures to count. In Russia, Old Woman is Baba Yaga. In the highlands and islands of Scotland she is the Cailleach Bheur. In the Pacific Northwest she is Asin, Monster-Woman-of-the-Woods, or Basket Woman. They are all very different, and yet they are the same. They protect the forest,  they are wild, they are the land, and though they eat people (especially children) they are also initiators of spirit workers who are brave or foolish enough to seek them out. The world of spirits is often a paradox and linear thinking is of little use. I have said it many times. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, you must go into the wild unknown over and over and over if you want to learn how to speak to spirits and learn their magics. The same goes if you live elsewhere.

Let us journey into the wild…

Hear the rain softly falling on the leaves and the louder drops rolling down the branches to drip onto the ground. Smell the air as each drop falls releasing the musky, earthy scent of centuries upon centuries of a humus composed of decaying cedar trees and plant leaves.  See the thick mosses carpeting the forest floor and the bark of wizened old hazel and maple trees. See the fungi covering dead stumps, climbing up vast tree trunks and spreading its invisible mycelium network beneath their roots. See their colours ranging from purple and pink to brightest yellow and orange, to unassuming browns and the nefarious red-capped toadstools with white spots.

Tilt your head back and look up into the canopy of trees: Cedar, Fir, Alder, Poplar, and Big Leaf Maples so tall you cannot see where their branches end. They must touch the roof of the sky itself. See in their branches the dark shapes of crows cawing their messages and prophecies in a cacophonous symphony. Be silent and you may hear the croak of a raven,the cry of an eagle, the hoot of an owl, the rustling of a black bear through the deep woods. Be still and you may see a wild hare, a white-tailed deer, or a serpent slithering back to its hole in the earth.

Climb a hill or a tree and see the vast mountain ranges around you with their summer snow-dusted peaks and you will know the world when it was young. Look below the saw-toothed mountains and you will see the raging rivers, the snaking fingers of streams and waterfalls running down mountain sides, and the outlines of inlets – waters reaching inland from the great pouring sea. Follow the rivers and inlets back to the source where all water flows: the Pacific Ocean. Here its vastness is dotted with lush green islands of solitary hills and mountains hidden by mists and fog. They are an otherworld all of their own.

What do you see in the waters between the chains of these wild hilly islands? A massive grey whale and closer still, orcas, their skin shining black and white with proud upright fins cutting through the salt water. Deeper still the ocean conceals its mysteries: giant squid that would crush your bones as easily as the frame of a wooden boat, neon jellyfish full of stings and fire, and colourful red and green salmon fattening in the sea before their homeward journeys back to the rivers of their births. You travel back to the sea shore and find it covered with barnacles, mussels, clams, crawling crabs, and the odd stranded purple starfish. On the rocks nearby you see a family of black-eyed seals sunbathing on a rock, furry body upon furry body, happy and fat after a feast of fish.

You stand on the shore and remember you drank from the mountain springs, you ate the forbidden berries bursting with tart juices, you sucked the flavour out of roots, you filled your mouth with catkins and bitter green leaves, and you stuffed the flesh of fish, hare, and bird with mushrooms and tender fir tips and roasted them over a fire on lonely hungry nights under the stars. You ate and ate until your skin turned green with leaves and moss, your blood turned to sap, flowers spilled out of your mouth, roots sprouted from the soles of your feet, fur grew down your back and feathers from your finger tips.  You are what you eat and you ate the wild — shape-shifted into it.

You look up and see you are in a sacred places where land, sea, and vast sky are all present. You have unknowingly stepped into the spirit world and into the ancient past. You touch your head and waist and find them wreathed in delicately needled hemlock branches. You touch your face and find it painted. You touch your shoulders and find them cloaked in familiar feathers. You touch your neck and find it draped in necklaces of teeth, claws, bones, and magical roots of native species.

Dig a small hole in the wet sand with your hands, feel its coolness and leave an offering; small stones and spring water from the mountains, wild flowers from a meadow, a sprig of cedar, a bundle of feathers, a perfect clam shell, and berries you foraged along your journey. You stand over your offering and drum and sing, calling the spirits and the act being an offering in and of itself. When you are spent you thank the spirits for all they have revealed to you; how the land is connected and interdependent, how powerful and important each feature, element, and creature is. Then you start the long journey home knowing you are wild again.


WANT MORE?

Apocalyptic Witchcraft by Peter Grey

Becoming Animal: An Earthly Cosmology by David Abram

Journey into Bioregional Herbalism by Kiva Rose

The Spell of the Sensuous by David Abram

Unlearn, Rewild by Miles Olson

Wild Earth, Wild Soul by Bill Pfeiffer

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The Song of the Land: Bioregional Animism

By | Animism, Ecological Consciousness | 7 Comments

Agreenmantle covers the black earth. Green of different shades and different sizes, the tiniest plant to the tallest tree. The green is full of life; flowers, berries, seeds and the animals and insects who eat them and call them home. The blue sky is filled with life, with feathered birds, winged insects, floating seeds, and invisible pollen floating in the invisible wind. The greenmantle breathes the sky in and out, the world’s largest air purifier. Beneath the greenmantle of frenzied orgiastic life lies the bones of the dead: bones of animals and humans, husks of dead insects, rotting trees from long-dead forests, and season upon season of dead plants layered into rich, fertile humus which feeds the green above.

Within this dark mass of death is the roots of the living, of trees and plants and fungi, connected like a massive nervous system forming the brain and consciousness of the land. Beneath the dead and the roots are minerals and stones. Beneath the stones are fresh waters, deep, dark and intrinsic to the health of the life far above. Snow runs down mountains, melting into streams, the streams connecting into lakes and rivers, the rivers flowing out to the sea. Everything flows together, everything is important and necessary —  creating the perfect song of the land — an ecosystem in beautiful harmony. Bioregional animism is the discovery of where humans fit into this song so the harmony continues unhindered by our untrained voices and our hands that have forgotten how to play the notes.

Defining a Bioregion

A bioregion is a landmass that has continuously similar geography, flora, fauna, and human culture, usually centered around a shared watershed. Bioregions are unique in that their boundaries are not marked by national, provincial, or state borders, but instead by the land itself, the native plants and animals, and the people who live there. A bioregion is where geography, wildlife biology, ethnobotany, and anthropology meet — where science, nature, and folklore are one. My bioregion is the Pacific Northwest, sometimes referred to as Cascadia, which can encompass Alaska, British Columbia, southern Alberta, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, northern California, Nevada, and Wyoming depending on who (or which government) you are talking to.

Bioregions can also be nested within each other and so this large expanse of land can be broken down into smaller areas of which my home turf is the “megaregion” of southern British Columbia, Washington state, and northern Oregon — essentially Vancouver, BC to Portland, OR. My home province of British Columbia is massive and contains many nested bioregions within itself: the coastal islands, the lush temperate rainforest of the coast and south, the shrub-steppe of the Okanagan Desert, the mountains, the north… I would even argue that a bioregion could be one mountain, one small island, a city, a neighbourhood, and so on. I highly recommend getting to know your local area and treating it as a distinct bioregion, even if its an urban corner of city and all you think you will find is weeds and raccoons. You never know what you will find. Maybe the land your house is on used to be a wetland or a seasonal breeding ground for crows.

Bioregionalism as Philosophy & Practice

The problem with becoming aware of a bioregion is that one also becomes aware of how much humans have damaged it, sometimes irreparably. This is often why bioregionalism is considered a movement that promotes sustainability, ecological rehabilitation, the use of local resources over imported, and the growing and eating of local foods. The goal of bioregionalism is self-sufficiency and sustainability within a bioregion – of both people and nature. Bioregionalism differs from environmentalism in that it seeks to have humans and nature living together in harmony, with humans as active stewards of nature, rather than seeing humans as harmful and needing to be removed from the equation.

Instead of protesting, you’ll often find a bioregionalist removing invasive plants from a forest, cleaning up polluted rivers and streams, teaching about edible and medicinal native plants, or working in wildlife rehabilitation. They are the ones who shop at the farmer’s market rather than the supermarket, who forage and/or garden as part of their diet, and who prefer their meat from a local farmer or to hunt it themselves.

Within bioregionalism is the belief that the most important thing to learn when you move to a new bioregion, or are born into one, is to learn everything you can about it. What plants are edible? What can be used as medicine? What is in season, where and when? What animals make good eating and where are the best seasonal hunting and fishing grounds? What natural resources are there? Where’s the best drinking water and the best agricultural land? Is there anything in the culture and folklore of the locals that can help you thrive here?

Such knowledge used to be intrinsic to basic human survival, but today you will seldom find a person in a city or town who can even list the names of five native trees. How can we be self-sufficient without knowledge of the resources around us and how to use them? How can we be good stewards of the land we live upon if we know nothing about it? How can we fix what we humans broke without first knowing what the local ecosystem looked like when healthy? Through awareness, through knowledge, through hard work, and through truly caring about the land under our feet and all who live upon, under, and above it.

Where Does Animism Fit In?

“The animistic perspective is so fundamental, mundane, everyday and taken-for-granted that most animistic indigenous people do not even have a word in their languages that corresponds to ‘animism’.” (source)

Animism is a term that belongs to anthropologists, not indigenous peoples and not modern spiritual practitioners. It is a word to describe the intangible, undefined, ancient fundamental beliefs of the human race that have existed since before we even had a word for and concept of “religion”. And yet… what other word do we have to use today that fits so perfectly without appropriating traditional terms from indigenous peoples who we do not share blood ties or cultural rites with?

Within the perspective of animism everything is sacred and alive, even the profane and the ordinary. Everything is holy. Every action is holy, no matter how seemingly mundane: gardening, berry-picking, fishing, spinning, weaving, cooking, house-cleaning… Every plant, animal, river, mountain, rock, moonrise and sunset is holy. Every living thing is a conscious spirit, a little god, with its own powers, knowledge, and purpose in the web of life. Every living thing is treated as one human should treat another; with respect, with awareness of existence and individual rights, and with honest communication. The land is asked for permission to hunt, travel, forage, or build structures and is propitiated to gain favour. The river is politely asked for its fish, the tree for its wood, the deer for its meat, the bush for its berries, the clover for its roots… and all are given thanks and offering in return.

 “For Native peoples, living in balance with particular landscapes has been the fruit of hard work as well as a product of worldview, a matter of ethical living in worlds where non human life has moral standing and disciplined attention to ritual protocol. Still, even though certain places on landscapes have been sacred in the customary sense of being wholly distinct from the profane and its activity, many places sacred to Native peoples have been sources of material as well as spiritual sustenance. As with sacred places, so too with many sacred practices of living on landscapes. In the reckoning of Native peoples, pursuits like harvesting wild rice, spearing fish or hunting certain animals can be at once religious and economic in ways that have been difficult for Western courts to acknowledge.” (source)

These beliefs are not the sole domain of Native Americans, they are cross-cultural, they are the beliefs and practices of our ancestors, of all peoples around the world. So permeated into our being they are, that they have never really left. I flip through the thick, aged pages of the Carmina Gadelica, a collection of Scottish previously undocumented oral incantations from the late 1800s, and I see supplications to plant spirits to be spoken before harvesting, blessings to be spoken to honour the new moon, songs to be sung when treating wounds, and incantations for protecting and blessing animals. I look within the beautiful prose of the Finnish Kalevala and read of a hunter asking the spirit of the forest for permission to hunt for food. I stumble across a Lithuanian prayer from the 1930s, but know its origin is much older, its words soaked in animism and tree worship:

“That I may not fell a single tree without holy need;
that I may not step on a blooming field;
that I may always plant trees.
The gods look with grace
upon those who plant trees along roads,
in homesteads, at holy places,
at crossroads, and by houses.
If you wed, plant a tree.
If a child is born, plant a tree.
If someone dies plant a tree for their soul.
At all festivals, during important events, visit trees.
Prayers will attain holiness through trees of thanks.
So may it be!”

Putting Bioregional Animism into Practice

So far bioregional animism may seem more of a practical way of life than a spiritual one, but again we must remember the line between the sacred and the mundane is invisible. Bioregional animism is not a spiritual path, it is not a denomination or a tradition, it is the way you choose to live your life every day and the conscious choice to interact ethically with nature. It is a lifetime commitment requiring every day action and practice. You will never stop learning as there is so much knowledge to attain and to put into practical use. I see this as a beautiful thing – striving for perfection and complete knowledge all the while knowing you can never achieve it.

Go Outside

It is hard to care deeply about something without any personal knowledge of it. Walking this road can start as simply as purchasing a regional field guide and going for a lot of walks with it, photographing and recording what you find. It can be as fun as taking an identification and foraging course with knowledgeable locals who will teach you ethics and proper stewardship as well to make sure you don’t damage or destroy the natural resources you’re learning to identify and use. Go camping, go travelling, go exploring, go on adventures in your bioregion. Walk the trails, canoe the lakes, explore the beach, climb the trees…

When you’re surrounded by nature, sit still, watch and listen. See the wildlife with your own eyes; the black bear snacking on huckleberries high in the mountains or fishing for salmon along a coastal river flowing into the Pacific Ocean. See, smell, touch and taste nature; eat a juicy golden salmonberry in early spring, munch on tasty spruce tips, dig up wild onions, and forage for salty mussels along the sea shore when the tide goes out.

Research

When submersing yourself into such wildness, do not forget about the human element as well. What happened to the land when it was colonized? Was it clear cut, mined, and stripped of all resources without regard? Has the land healed or is it still raw and angry like an open wound? What peoples lived in the bioregion before it was colonized? What happened to them? Are they still there? How angry are they? How assimilated are they? How much of their traditional knowledge have they maintained? Are there any records of their animal and plant folklore, medicinal preparations, uses of natural resources, or seasonal migratory habits? What were their rites and ceremonies regarding the land and its denizens – physical and supernatural? What spirits did they believe in? How did they communicate with them and what offerings were given?

Do not attempt to follow and steal their culture as you will fail and offend. A classically trained French chef doesn’t take the wild foods of the Pacific Northwest and try to cook as the Natives once did, but instead he will use those local ingredients and the knowledge of how they were once prepared to cook in the style he was trained in, creating something new. Using this example, focus on the relevant lore that can help you be more respectful to the land spirits, the genius loci, of the bioregion where you live without trying to copy the “religion” of its indigenous people. Were lakes asked permission before one slipped a boat in the waters to cross them or fish them? Which plants or trees were considered the most powerful, were treated with the most respect and awe, and whose harvesting for food, medicine, or magic was the most highly ritualized? Which spirits were believed to be friendly and which were dangerous and to be avoided? What spirits were asked for permission before hunting or foraging? What offerings were considered perfect, acceptable, or paltry? What offerings were considered offensive and should be avoided?

Learning such things can help you to avoid pissing off powerful spirits of plants, animals, ancestors, land features, and the region itself. It is a common belief in many animistic cultures that offending a spirit can lead to being cursed with illness, bad luck, loss, haunting, and other unpleasant things with the worst usually being death. The ancient Greeks believed that if you cut down trees without permission or regard, the dryads would curse you with never-ending hunger – a curse of insatiability leading to obesity.

Get Your Hands Dirty

A wise man once told me that knowledge is attaining information, but wisdom is knowing how to apply it. Wisdom will only come with rolling up your sleeves and diving in. This is the part where you forage plants for food, medicine or magic, take them home, process and preserve them, and then turn your harvest into usable finished products. Talk to animals, plants, trees, rocks, streams, rivers, lakes, and the land as if they can hear you and will respond. If you cultivate a relationship with them over a long period of time, eventually they may react to you. Don’t expect them to speak English or even words, instead try to learn their own tongues. What does a happy and friendly tree look and act like as opposed to an unhappy hostile one? Learn how to appease unhappy spirits with proper offerings. They may still hate other people, but they will warm up to you and then you can put in a good word for others.

“O most powerful spirit
of the bush with the fragrant leaves
we are here again to seek wisdom.
Give us tranquility and guidance
to understand the mysteries of the forest,
the knowledge of our ancestors.”

— Invocation of Manuel Córdova-Rios, 1979

Look, listen, feel. What is the land trying to tell you? Is it thirsty and unhappy, is it drenched and fertile? Did frost come too late in the spring and kill all the flowers resulting in a fruitless year? If you pay attention to your surroundings day to day, week to week, month to month, season to season, eventually you will flow harmoniously with the nature around you. You will simply “know” things without having to look in a book or perform a Google search. You’ll have become familiar with your bioregion, it’s changes, seasons, wildlife migrations, and weather patters and in turn, it will come to know you. Maybe it will speak to you in dreams showing you that poplar buds are ready to collect now, the first nettles are popping up from the thawing earth, or  where a tree fell so you can harvest the wood and bark. Perhaps the animals will come to you in your dreams too and teach you their wisdom, sharing their power and their medicine.

In Conclusion

The philosophy and practices of bioregional animism are a step towards healing the relationship between humans and nature. We must become healers and start the hard work of relearning the song of the land under our feet so we can play our part in harmony instead of harm. We have been ignorant, careless, and disrespectful for a long time and now it is our duty to repair the damage and teach our children the error of our ways and how to undo what we have done. If we don’t take action ourselves and we don’t teach our children how to heal the land, there will be nothing left for the future generations of humans and there will be nothing “natural” left of nature. It is time for us to sing new songs and tell new stories, to write ourselves into the future as wise stewards and healers of the land. Where will you begin?

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Feeding Spirits and Bones

By | Animism, Festivals & Sabbats, Witchcraft & Magic | 9 Comments

Witch's Altar

They slept in total darkness for a month, carefully wrapped in soft cloths and furs, hidden away in a box. Quiet and patient spirits inhabiting skulls, bones, feathers, teeth, claws, horns, antlers, stones, fetiches, and a witch’s tools. Then one day light flooded in and gentle hands descended to remove them one by one, laying them out first on a blanket and then arranging the spirits on top of a antique dresser nicknamed “the beast”; a massive, solid wooden creature with hidden drawers, ancient keyholes, and intricate barley twists. Skulls grinned, feathers ruffled, and blessed water shone blue through a holey stone and a silver ring – all on a softly spotted tawny deer hide layered with the fur of a black wolf.

Holy Water

Witch's Altar

Old Man and Old Woman settled their ancient bones back into the remnants of creatures native to their wild domain, no doubt having missed their shrine and the once regular offerings to be found there. The Moon’s candle was restored to its place above breasts and belly carved from stone, surrounded by offerings. She eats beeswax greedily like blood offerings, leaving nothing behind. A candle lit to welcome the spirits back with sweetest incense burned and fresh water poured to sate their hunger. The spirits sigh happily, the new house sighs like a person with a once empty belly filled. Even breathing feels easier now with the altar and all its spirits in their proper place of reverence.

It feels good, so good to have a place to leave offerings again and to have a piece of the wild in my new home now that I live in the city with the forest much further away. At least here I will be able to have a garden, growing poisons, medicines, and foods once more. I still have seeds from the henbane plants I grew two years ago and we will soon transplant some of the Poisoner’s monkshood roots he’d been growing for five years at his old house.

Witch's Altar

Witch's Altar

Many people have asked me how my magical practice has changed since becoming pregnant. This question confused me at first because I didn’t understand why it should be expected to change… and it hasn’t. Sure, I can’t use my flying ointments for a couple years until I finish breastfeeding, but I can still make my tested and true recipes using practical precautions. I can’t share alcoholic libations with my spirits on the full and dark moons at the moment, but that just means more for them.

I’m still an animist and a folk magician with my simple devotions and rites. I still talk to plants and animals and honour the ancestors. The house still gets cleansed and blessed on full moons. I still dream true dreams. Unfamiliar spirits are still unwelcome in the house and I wear protections when venturing out to protect myself and my little one. The only real change has been temporarily shelving the more intense witchcraft practices as my energy levels are low. I’ve taken a break from hosting rites, bone collecting, and shape-shifting.

Wild mushroom

Snowdrops

Life continues on as normal; cooking, cleaning, recycling, grocery shopping, visiting with friends, hosting witches and scholars in my kitchen, crafting flying ointments, packaging orders of ointments and artwork, shipping and more shipping for Black Arts Foundry… The yellow brugmansia and purple datura continue to grow and grow, happily indoors for the winter. The sun shines bringing cold and frost. The clouds come bringing warmth and rain. Green things pop up from black earth, buds slowly form, earthworms slink out of their dark homes on wet days. Imbolc arrives, harbinger of spring to come. The dead must return into the earth for soon all living things will rule once more.

Imbolc Offerings

The fine bone china is brought out and filled with rustic buttered bread, slices of gruyère cheese drizzled with local honey, an egg, and a fragrant sliced apple. A tiny crystal glass is filled with milk for the libation. The offerings are left on the altar overnight for my spirits and the next day are buried in the garden under the yew trees to feed the physical creatures that roam these parts (mainly raccoons, crows, and rats).

Imbolc blessings to you and yours! May the dead return to the underworld without taking the souls of your loved ones, may winter’s icy grip loosen in your region, may buds grow and flowers bloom, and may you be surrounded by love and prosperity.

Slàinte!

Imbolc Offerings