Blog | Eoten
Religion is defined as “the belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” or “a particular system of faith and worship”.*
The word religion is relatively modern. It was first used by the Romans, with the meaning of an obligation or duty to the gods and the strict observance of Roman religious laws. It came to mean the life led under Christian monastic vows in Middle English, being inherited by Roman Christianity from the earlier, pagan, Roman belief system.
As we all know, Roman Christianity spread throughout Europe, decimating and appropriating indigenous European beliefs and animism, before replicating itself around the world like a virus through Roman-romanticising empire building, collonialism and economic conquest.
As such, it’s not appropriate to apply the word religion to practices and concepts outside of modern Western experience, and most certainly not appropriate to backdate it’s use into our ancient past, to the practices and spiritual experiences of our distant European ancestors.
To apply religion in this way is a function of collonialism.
The idea that we can define and restrict the language around practices, beliefs, experiences and thoughts of other peoples, other cultures – even our own ancestors. This colonial attitude stems from an arrogance and racism that believes modern Western culture is more important or better, historically, than those of other places and times.
Our ancestors didn’t share this same concept of religion, and neither do many other cultures around the world today, particularly endangered, indigenous cultures like the Aboriginals of Australia and the remaining Native American tribes. To force the spiritual and world-views of these non-Western cultures into a Western concept and language is another way that oppression is perpetuated. In a way, it is also an oppression of ourselves; an oppression that has been perpetuated for millennia, beginning initially with our own ancestors.
Animism, therefore, doesn’t fit the definition of the word religion.
Practicing animists don’t have to believe in or honour, worship or acknowledge any God or Gods; practice can be humanistic, pagan, monotheistic or change depending on the situation. Many animists the world over experience some form of great spiritual being or awareness, but just as many others do not. There are no rules in animism.
And because there are no rules, there is no overarching system of animist practice. There are no universal animist laws, practices, beliefs, authorities, sources, organisations or experiences; animism changes over time and within space, and even within an individual depending on need. This fluidity and openness means that animism cannot be called a system: “a set of principles or procedures according to which something is done; an organized scheme or method“.*
But if it’s not a religion, what is animism?
Animism is fluid, personal and contextual; it’s practice and experience is dependent on the people, time, place and intent of it’s use. It can appear similiar to Western religions, or folk magic, or philosophy, or mysticism, or art, or any number of other ways that people make sense of the world.
Where it is universal is it’s adaptability. Animism is consistently open to change and need. Like other fundamental expressions of humanity, it’s power is in it’s personal and direct usage. Animism is a fundamental facet of human nature, unlike any other, larger than any language, culture or category.
Lies, Damned Lies and Anthropology
Animism is not a religion. It has no sacred texts that all practitioners must use. It has no priesthood or hierarchy other than those local practitioners choose to work within. It has no universal rules; no god or goddess that all must worship, no form or method that must be followed, and no moral law to govern behaviour.
Animism has a set of underlying principles and a toolbox of methods, ideas and stances that can be called on, modified or bypassed depending on the situation and goal. And while it has been defined by anthropologists over the last few centuries as ‘the belief that matter has a soul’, it is a much wider worldview than this, as well as being much more than simply a belief system.
But anthropologists from the West have typically defined animism as a religion.
One that is based around the belief that inanimate matter has a soul, the belief that the universe has a soul, or the belief in ancestor worship. These definitions have created confusion and misconceptions around animism that obscure the reality.
While many forms of animism do involve beliefs around ancestors and the relationships between people and the inanimate world, these beliefs and practices are neither universal, nor required. And even when these beliefs are applicable, they are neither as simple nor as directly translatable into dominant Western concepts and language as anthropological definitions suggest.
Anthropology fails in its understanding of animism because of three factors.
The first of these is that anthropologists are always a product of their own culture and language. When one culture considers itself superior, as Western culture has for centuries, and where it is entwined with dogmatic, religious views, its language is limited by this bias and it is almost impossible for members of that culture to understand the cultures and spiritual systems of other people.
These are the encumbrances that Western anthropologists have brought to the study of animism, both the animism of other cultures and that of their own ancestors. The influence of these limitations can be seen in the language used to define animism; both the words “soul” and “worship” have a long history of religious use in the West, and are inextricable from their specifically Christian past.
Neither word can appropriately be applied to animism when speaking generally, because of the lack of any standard form of belief in animism and because of their very broad meaning in the Western culture. Coming as they do from a religious system that has perpetuated prejudice and misinformation about animist practices for thousands of years also makes their application to animism oppressive.
Animism is not a religion.
This leads us to the second factor in the failure of Western anthropology to define animism. While we tend to, as a culture, ascribe all belief and spirituality to the realm of religion, animism is far older than all organizing systems of belief. While it can be considered their root, and in many religions we can see it’s echoes, animism has totally different goals, methods and principles than any religion.
Anthropologists from mainstream Western cultures are biased to look for religions; for organized practices and consistent rules. But animism has no rules, no hierarchy and no source material. There are no proscribed beliefs everyone must adhere to, but rather principles that are applied depending on the situation.
When you look at animism expecting to see a religion, it’s easy to miss the subtle variations, mundane practices and everyday beliefs that are alien to your experience of religion, and so to discount them. It easier still to see the broad strokes of spiritual practice and thinking, and to ascribe to them a structure that meets your expectation. And it’s likely that you will make damaging assumptions about the meaning behind the practices of people you don’t understand.
Animism varies massively in it’s application.
Everything from folk magic to architecture, art to the way someone wears their hair, can be a part of it’s practice. It is more akin to a culture in itself than a religion. It cannot be defined down to such a simple concept as ancestor or nature worship.
The final factor in how animism has been misunderstood is that animism is fundamentally experiential. It is not a theory or mythology, but a system of active relationship. The views of Western anthropologists have been based largely on observation, and it is impossible to fully grasp these practices without firsthand experience of them.
For example, watching another person practicing trance or ceremony will provide you with very little understanding of the internal experience of these practices. From the outside, the person may be behaving with extraordinary energy, or be very still and silent. They may use highly symbolic, charged objects like masks and weapons, or a drum, or nothing at all. They may act out part of their experience, or be completely self contained.
But the external expressions of these practices tell you very little about how and why the person is using them, or what they gain from them. It’s very easy to dismiss these practices, or on the other hand to exoticise them, when all you have is the external form to judge by. They may all look the same, though they are highly personal, or they may look vastly different, though they share deep principles.
Studying the theory of these practices, again, can’t convey more than the basic form. Practitioners who begin working with these tools are always surprised by how vivid, profound, subtle, difficult or even empty they are – no one can know how each method will feel for them until they engage with them personally.
Direct experience of animism can transcend these barriers.
Those anthropologists who have personally engaged with animistic practices, such as Dr Alberto Villoldo and Micheal Harner have often become practitioners of animism themselves. Animism is, in fact, so deeply rooted in our species’ heritage that contact with it can transcend almost all cultural, religious and psychological barriers. It is both our past, and our unified future. The root of human connection and our one, shared heritage.
Practitioners of animism will all give you different answers of what animism is, why they practice it, and what they call it. For many, it is simply the way they live, as unthinking at breathing. For others, particularly in the West, it’s a hard won and treasured path, sometimes recognised as related to the animism of other cultures, but often not.
Anthropology has a lot to answer for.
For the last few centuries, anthropologist have been encountering the animistic concepts and practices of cultures around the world and attempting to define them for a Western audience, and they’ve largely done it badly. This has led to a very poor understanding of animism in Western culture. These misunderstandings have become so pervasive that many practitioners of animism don’t even realist that that’s what they’re practicing, instead believing that they’re practicing ‘shamanism’, energy medicine or Jungian psychology.
Folklorists, theologians, the religious establishment, psychologists and new ‘spiritual’ movements have some blame to take here as well. Through their biased understanding of the spiritual heritage of the Western peoples, they have perpetuated some of the most damaging myths about spirituality and animism, like the belief that Western people have no animist heritage or that animism is inherently a religion.
But we can reclaim animism; it’s not lost.
When we get past the myths and lies about our indigenous spiritual heritage, we find that it’s right here, waiting for us.
Foundation in Animism is a free 12 week email course aimed at introducing the essential tools and principles for authentic animism practice.
Anyone, from any background, can work through the course. Please see the contraindications page for when to avoid certain tools.
The course covers the fundamental principles of animism, as well as five tools you can begin practicing right away; sacred space, divination, crafting, ceremony and altars. At the end of the course, we discuss resistance and ideas for taking your animism practice further.
Foundation in Animism is the course for you if:
- You’ve just heard about animism and want to get a good grounding in the basic tools and ideas.
- You understand the basic tools and principles of animism but need practice applying them in your own life.
- You’re experienced at applying animism in your life, and want to deepen your understanding or get a new perspective.
By the end of Foundation in Animism you will:
- Understand what is and isn’t animism.
- Know how to engage the 5 principles of animism personally for problem solving, healing and inspiration.
- Be comfortable using sacred space to keep your practice safe and clear.
- Have experience with the fundamental tools of divination, ceremony and altars.
- Have a piece of your own craft work for your altar.
- Be full of ideas for going further and deepening your knowledge.
Add your email address below and you’ll start receiving the free course by email.
Animism is both a way of looking at life and a way of working with the world.
Animism helps us improve our creativity, family lives, love lives, work, health, emotions, environment, sense of purpose, freedom and power.
With animism in our lives, we can find the wholeness and wildness that make life joyful.
What does practicing animism mean?
It means that we can work with the circumstances of our lives through 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 and other times it looks like mysticism.
The common thread is how it allows us to directly work with everything in our lives, creating real change and understanding.
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