Animism has a radically different relationship with deities than most religions.
Many of the living animistic traditions include tales of Gods and Goddesses, and other non-human deities that can be honoured, worked with or relied up by the practitioner.
Ancient records of animist practice show a deep reverence for a variety of spiritual beings from animals to volcanoes, ancestral humans to creator beings. And many modern Western animists now consider themselves pagan, centring their practice around ancestral deities from the Celtic and Norse pantheons.
But animism doesn’t require the belief in or worship of a deity; there are no rules about what or how to worship, or even that worship must be performed. There are vast numbers of animists that work with no supreme being or deity, but rather consider the spirits of the land to be equal to humans, or simply different.
The Western idea of theism and worship is deeply informed by our religious heritage, which frames all spiritual or non-human beings as ‘Gods’ (competing the with ‘one true God’ of the monotheistic faith) or their servants.
It is a strictly hierarchical view of the spiritual realm, with humans at the bottom in terms of power, value and wisdom. Worship is something that is demanded or required, and the relationship is usually formal, un-equal and placative.
But in animism, this conception of deities and worship becomes untenable; the Gods of a land or a people may or may not be pertinent to a particular animist. The deities are often approachable, fallible, flawed or uninterested. They can be equals to us, and we can relate with them as kin rather than authoritative or punitive figures.
This is a completely different view of theism, one that is more spacious and that rapidly dissolves into something incomparable to theism.
Once we apply the practical, experiential values of animism, it’s relationship to the Gods becomes even more distinct from the theistic traditions. Animists aren’t required to believe, but rather to explore; through the various tools and principles of animism, we can develop our own, uniquely individual, experiences of the spiritual world – including the deities we want to work with.
These experiences bring the deities out of the realms of story and myth, and into our lives in a concrete, helpful ways. It is in these experiences that animism is most closely aligned with the mystical traditions various religions.
While many modern people want to engage with maps of their world from a new perspective, the requirement to believe in a deity can be an enourmous hurdle for people raised in our secular, rational society.
Animism provides an approach to the spiritual and the mystical that we can engage with completely free from theistic dogma, and completely free of Gods if we want. While the Gods are the heart and fuel of theistic religions, animism values our relationships with our ancestors, land and community.
Our relationships to these sources is what creates the path and effectiveness of animist methods, leaving us free to engage with deities, or not, as we see fit.
Witchcraft is a part of my personal spiritual identity as a practitioner of Northern European animism. But is witchcraft animism?
The word witch traces back to the Old English wicce/wicca meaning wise person, magician or sorceress, and possibly futher back into Proto-Germanic and Proto-Indo_European with a relation to words meaning sacred, to divide, to divine or to wake.
In the modern world, witchcraft encompasses a vast array of practices, beliefs and traditions. Many of these have roots in ancient Northern European paths, while others are rooted in other lands and cultures. It’s relationship with animist is fluid and complex; these are areas of living experience that aren’t easily defined into tidy boxes, and they vary between people, place and time.
But for me, witchcraft is a part of animism and also a religion that grew out of animism. It’s a part of animism because much of non-religious witchcraft in the UK and other European countries is a continuation of deeply animistic folk magic, mysticism and reverance for the land and ancestors. These are practices that our ancestors have held and worked with for millenia, and while in witchcraft they take on a particular aesthetic, structure or intent, they are still deeply concerned with the relationships between people, their land and their community.
In this way witchcraft is a branch of the tree of animism, a particularly Northern European branch with rich modern resources.
But witchcraft can also be a religion, when it becomes hierarchical and organised around specific rules, such as which deities to honour and which ceremonies to practice at certain times. As we’ve talk about, animism is not a religion; and while our animistic ancestors would certainly have recognised the deities and ceremonies used in modern religious witchcraft, the highly ordered practice between separate communities would be alien to them.
And neither is all animism witchcraft; many people who practice animism use no folk magic at all. They work with angels or ancestors but no pantheistic deities or land spirits, and their ceremonies draw from completely different animistic roots and lands.
When we’re talking about deeply personal spiritual experiences and concepts like this, it’s important to remember that we can’t – and dont need to – define the experiences of others for them. While I call my spiritual practices animism, others who have the same viewpoints and methods use different words, like witchcraft. While shared language is helpful, so that we can share and learn from each other, we have to remember that these words are simply viewfinders that help us work within a vast and ambiguous field of experience.
What matters more is our own personal understanding of the terms we use and the methods we apply, and our ability to work with them is a way that’s helpful for ourselves and for others.
Magical and animistic practices that are good starting points for people of Northern European descent:
- Working with local or ancestral land spirits, for example Hawthorn, Rowan, Yew, local lakes and mountains, springs and native animals.
- Working with local or ancestral deities and spirits, such as the Celtic pantheon, Merlin, fairies and elemental beings.
- Working with local or ancestral folk magic, such as hagstones, witch bottles and charms.
- Working with your ancestors.
- Working with your kin and helping animal spirits, which could be any native species.
- Working with divination methods such as mirror gazing, inky water, tarot and runes.
- Personal work to honour the Earth and her inhabitants as a whole.
- Personal work to develop deeper empathy, connection and awareness of interdependence.
- Personal work to increase creativity and inspiration.
- Personal work to confront and integrate dark aspects of yourself and your culture.
- Personal work to heal conflicts and harm caused by your ancestors to the land, other people and yourself.
- Personal work for a better relationship with your body.
- Personal work for a better relationship with your land and environment.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but merely a place to start working with animism and magic that honours your own heritage while respecting the heritage of others enough to not occupy it.
Those of us with Northern European heritage have rich roots of animist to draw upon in our practice, and while the animism of other cultures can be beautiful and inspiring, we have to be careful not to bring materialist and collonialist attitudes to our spiritual practice.
It’s clear that all humans have animist heritage and access to magical methods, but that when we take the spiritual language and methods of cultures we don’t belong to, we rip them from their roots, damaging both our own practice and that of the people we took them from.