You’ve probably heard about shamanism. I used to call what I practice shamanism, mainly because that’s what the other people doing my training called it. However, over the last few years as I’ve learned more about my path and the paths of my ancestors, I’ve realised that truthfully what I practice can’t be called ‘shamanism’ but rather animism.
Animism is found in every culture I’ve ever learned about. It’s universal, it takes many forms but has the fundamental approach of working with the invisible relationships between people and their world.
Animism works directly with our health, our communities, our art, our environment, and ties everything together in culture-specific symbolic maps that allow us to work with the world in a non-linear, non-verbal way. It allows us to deal directly with the patterns of reality, for practical purposes.
It’s also available to everyone. You don’t have to be a member of one of the rare remaining indigenous tribes to able to access animism; it’s the heritage of every human on earth, because every person has an ancestor who has practiced it and lives within a culture with animistic roots, no matter how hidden those roots seem.
It doesn’t matter what colour you are, what gender you are, what star sign you are – you can practice a form of animism that will be powerful and relevant for you. And you don’t have to go outside your own heritage and culture to find it.
But shamanism is a made up term, derived from an indigenous word that specifically describes the spiritual practices of professional animistic practitioners from a specific place, time and culture – the indigenous people of Siberia.
It’s a translation of this indigenous word into Russian, which has then been extrapolated by Western anthropologists into English in an effort to umbrella all animistic practices.
But the people who the word originally applied to had their own highly specific practices in their own animistic tradition, and were professionals in these practices who served their communities. Obviously, not everyone on earth has access to these practices, heritage or ability to serve their community with animistic practices.
It may seem like splitting hairs, but I think this is an important difference. Words are important, and when we apply inaccurate words we can cause more harm than we know.
To me, it seems that in calling all forms of animism ‘shamanism’, we’re not only muddying what the original word means to it’s original users, but also making it harder to recognise the animistic practices of our own indigenous cultures.
It’s hard to recognise that your ancestors were practicing animism when they hung hagstones or carried a medicine bundle, when your concept of animism revolves around the idea of the ‘shaman’ with a drum, doing soul retrievals.
This actually causes real-world unpleasantness – the number of times I’ve heard that ‘white people can’t practice shamanism or animism’ or ‘your spiritual practices are appropriative’. Or, on the other hand, “I need to practice these methods from another culture, because my own culture has no animistic tradition”.
These ideas stem from the misconception that people of Northern European descent have no animistic heritage; that our ancestors somehow sprung into existence as Christians, rather than being some of the first peoples to be forcibly converted and then appropriated from (where do you think “Christmas” tree’s come from!)
This isn’t to say that it’s not possible to practice an animistic tradition outside of your own heritage or culture. There are many of us from European lineages who feel so spiritually traumatised by our ancestral forced conversion to Christianity that we can’t access our own heritage, at least at first.
Recognising this and asking to be initiated through a different tradition isn’t a bad thing, by any means, so long as it’s done with respect and awareness that that’s what we’re doing, and why – and keeping in mind that simply liking the “exoticism” of another culture’s tradition isn’t a reason to practice it.
So – I call my practices animistic, rather than shamanic. I’m not a šamán of the indigenous Siberian heritage. I’m an animist of (mostly) Northern European heritage.