Our culture tends to see power as ‘power over’; the word itself has become synonymous with abusive behaviour, assholes in suits, the political system and the struggle to control our world, individually and communally.
But while all of these are related to power, they are not truly power. Power, when we actually experience it, is not about what we control or do but about what we can draw on in the situation.
In animism, we talk a lot about relationships and how important they are. Power is one area where the quality of our relationships is crucial; when our relationships to the important things are strong, we have their power within us. Our relationships to death, love, truth, magic, meaning and our land are just some of the sources of power that we can build up and be changed by in our lives.
The power of these sources depends on how we relate with them and requires that we approach them with warriorship. The more challenging a relationship is for us, the more power we can claim from it. An excellent example is death, where a healthy relationship can transform the chains and restraints we have placed upon ourselves and leave us more free than we could imagine. But we have to be willing to face our own mortality and grief and pain to be able to claim this power.
This kind of power gives us the space to experience our lives on our own terms, to be creative with the situation to find solutions, to allow unhealthy constraints and relationships to fall away. It can give us the courage to tell the truth, or to lie without care if that’s safer. It can give us the strength to accept the inevitable loss and pain of an illness, and to find connection in shared trauma. It can give us the inspiration to tell a new story, reveal an alternative approach or forget our own worries as we work on behalf of others.
Power like this is what transforms lives and turns human beings into agents of change for themselves and their communities. This is the kind of power that can be wielded by those with the least control in our society; the deep, challenging truths that we learn when we confront the taboos of our culture can free us from their bonds completely.
Animism shows us that there are different types of power that we can draw on; the inborn power of our deepest natures, the power we claim through our experiences, the power we steal from others, the power we reject when it seems too big for us, the power we are given by our land and ancestors, the power we create when we work together as a community.
Each of these powers is something we can actively relate to on our own terms.
Without animism, we’re left with only questions about power. We see people in our culture asking these questions all the time, out loud or in action. How do I reclaim the power I lost in a trauma? How do I relate to my own power without being abusive? How do I turn my mortality and sense of loss into personal power? What is my power for? How do I live with it without letting it consuming me? Why does power frighten me so much? Why do people abuse their power?
The power over others and our environment is just one way that power manifests. It’s an unhealthy expression most of the time, and our lack of understanding of power has lead to this becoming the most common use of power. The understanding of power as something that we gain when we control and manipulate stems from our disconnection, insecurity, fear and confusion.
When we’re disconnected from the relationships we’re in, with our land, body, family, culture, we start to see them as overwhelming, invisible antagonists in our lives. We feel chaotically controlled by our world, and power becomes the way we attempt to wrestle control back. When we can’t relate to the feminine, expressions of femininity can become threatening; we feel we have to control and destroy those expressions in order to be safe.
If we can’t relate to the chaos and vastness of the earth and our dependence on it, we feel threatened and need to control, tame and destroy manifestations of that chaos and natural diversity. We may not realise that this is why we’re choosing these paths, but our damaged relationships are the driving force beneath them all the same.
When we’re unable to face the unsettling nature of our existence, our mortality and pain, the absurdity of our world, our insecurity pushes us to gain power over what’s upsetting us. We become more and more determined to stop reminders of our own instability and vulnerability, including other people who remind us of them.
This insecurity in our own existence drives us into more and more extreme attempts to eradicate the source of the discomfort. If we’re uncomfortable and insecure about the possiblity of become impoverished, our ability to empathise with the poor is pushed aside in favour of attacking and hiding them as the perceived ‘source’ of our insecurity.
Power is rooted in truth; we have to be able to see and accept the reality of the situation we all find ourselves in. The vulnerability of our lives, the looming mortality and discomfort and disappointment – we all live with this, but only those who face it can claim their power. If we lie to ourselves, we can’t engage with the relationships effectively, and we can’t create change inside ourselves or outside.
Robin Hobb writes in her Farseer books about the Warriors Prayer. It’s very simple, but in order to reclaim our power, it’s a potent one. Simply by saying ‘yes’ to the world and ourselves as we are, we can begin to see all the powers of life we hold the keys to.
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.