Animism can be very hard to define. The term is used by anthropologists and historians, theologists and philosophers – not to mention animists themselves.
It’s linked with witchcraft, energy healing, mysticism, the new age, shamanism and spirituality. But animism isn’t any of these things, and it isn’t defined by anthropologists or philosophers or academics either.
It’s a spiritual tradition that has no set rules, no authorities, and no essential practices. It’s guidelines are instinct, intuition and practicality. It’s foundation is the direct relationship we all have with the world.
What is animism?
Animism is the fundamental spiritual position of humanity. It’s found in every culture throughout history, and expressed in a hundred thousand ways depending on the era, culture, gender, environment and religion of the people expressing it.
Animism is a way of directly & personally relating to everything that exists. *
Beyond a limited interpretation of animism
Animism is often defined as the belief that animals and objects have a ‘soul’, or that the universe is ‘animated’ by a ‘supernatural being’. However, both of these definitions are derived from Western religious interpretations of traditional animistic practices. They assume a shared understanding of the words ‘soul’, ‘animation’ and ‘supernatural being’.
While many animists do identify with these ideas, many others do not. Our modern concepts of ‘souls’ and the ‘supernatural’ are very different from the understanding of our animism-practicing ancestors, or practitioners from non-Western cultures.
We simply can’t import generic terms from one spiritual approach, such as Christianity or Hinduism, and expect them to apply to a completely different spiritual approach, such as the vast diversity of animistic tradition.
How do people ‘do’ animism?
Animism encompasses the use of trance states to access different realms of reality. It encompasses the use of symbolism, ritual and ceremony to affect relationships between people and their world.
It encompasses the expression of wonder and uncertainty and meaning that’s found in art, music, dance, story. It encompasses the untaught way that small children explore their power and their place in the world through play.
It means that we can work with the circumstances of our lives. It includes ceremony, art in all forms, thinking expansively, being in nature, honouring our ancestors, working with spirits, divination and working directly with energy.
Practicing animism is different for everyone and is often shaped by our cultural heritage. Sometimes, it simply looks like folk magic, other times it might look like mysticism.
It’s all about relationships…
To practice animism, we engage with the world in a practical, experimental way.
We learn that our experience is bounded by the relationships we have with our homes, our friends, the bird in the tree over our studio, our food, our bodies, our pasts. We are bound by these relationships because we can never step outside of them.
…and it’s always practical.
Animism helps us improve our:
- family lives
- love lives
- sense of purpose
- freedom and power
When we practice animism, we learn that the words ‘soul’ & ‘spirit’ ares only signposts to a meaning that we can’t ever grasp intellectually, but that we can work with and experience in a myriad of ways.
And we see that through working with these relationships, we can make our world better in concrete, truly useful ways.
*the caveat being, that this is my take on animism and other equally valid perspectives exist out there! My position is always evolving as my experiences unfold, another great thing about animism.