The New Age is “an eclectic group of cultural attitudes … that are adapted from those of a variety of ancient and modern cultures, that emphasize beliefs outside the mainstream“.*
It is rooted in the Western counter-culture movement of the 1960s, and began as a search for alternative approaches to spirituality and health. As such, it shares some features of animism and is often confused with animism by both animist practitioners and followers of the New Age.
The New Age has no universal rules, hierarchy or source texts, just like animism. It also recognises the value of nature and intuition, and it can’t be defined as a religion, philosophy or life style, again like animism.
But animism is not the New Age.
Animism is ancient and inherent to humanity. We know that our most ancient ancestors behaved in ways that we now call animistic, and that children will create animist practices of their own volition when given space to do so.
Whereas the New Age is modern, only a few decades old, and derived from Western European rejection of monotheistic laws and mores; not so much reclaimed as created.
Animism is practical and experiential.
It’s focus is on finding the methods and ideas that help in a specific situation, rather than on following a particular belief. It embraces experiences, even when they challenge previous ideas, and is therefore flexible.
The New Age is focused on belief or aesthetic over practicality, as can be seen in the anti-vaccine movement and the proliferation of New Age marketing. It also often requires ongoing access to teachers, equipment and events in order to engage with it’s practices, in contrast to animism which can be practiced in isolation without external teaching or certification.
And animism belongs to everyone, regardless of ancestry.
The New Age has been commodified into an exclusive product for a select few. Participation in the New Age movement is highly segregated by class, language and race, because of it’s roots within collonialism, racism, appropriation, capitalism and the romanticisation of non-Western cultures.
Animism, on the other hand, is far older than collonialism; and it requires that we examine our prejudices in order to be effective. It is available to all people, without needing them to appropriate from other cultures, because it’s ancient enough that everyone has their own, local heritage of animism. And because of how personal and inherent animism is, it has so far escaped commodification.
In a way, the New Age is a modern, Western approximation of animism.
Born of a yearning for spiritual sovereignty, nature and freedom, it speaks of our need for the methods and maps that help us navigate the web of our relationships. But animism goes far deeper, and is much more accessible, than the New Age movement. When we reclaim animism for ourselves, we can step beyond the need for it’s facsimile.
Animism is as diverse as it is potent.
There are no laws, rules or dogma that apply across animism, and there are no universal texts, beliefs, teachers or teachings in animism. All animist practitioners are different, and see their practice differently.
Saying this, it can be difficult for beginners and newcomers to get a grip on how to begin an animist practice. To be able to understand animism,we have to do it rather than read about it, but this is hard when we don’t really understand how it works or why.
The following principles are the foundations of animist practice, found in animism throughout the world, no matter the languages and or form. When we approach animism for the first time, these principles give us a solid base from which to have our own experiences and come to our own understanding.
Workability means that the universe is workable; we aren’t merely passive objects in our lives, but active participants. We can change things, direct ourselves, make decisions, break and destroy, create and maintain.
It doesn’t mean that we can force our lives into the exact shape that we wish, or change the people around us, or change the way nature works. But it does mean that we can work in partnership with our relationships to people, objects and that fabric of reality.
Relationship means recognising that we are always in relationship with everything in our lives, and that these relationships are crucially important. We are not islands; we exist in an infinite web of connection, movement, pattern, energy, emotion, causality.
In animism, these relationships are the means through which we work with the world. Almost all animist practices work through these relationships; enhancing, deepening, pruning, rooting, nourishing, taking space from or cutting them off.
Warriorship is the word I use for the blend of courage, discipline and integrity that animism requires from us in order to be useful. Without these qualities, animism can’t work in our lives; we will always be sabotaging ourselves.
But animism recognises that these are not static qualities. We can grow them and learn how to access them better through specific practices. And we can express them in varied ways; not just through physical courage, but through a huge spectrum of internal and external behaviour.
Nature is vastly important in animism throughout the world. This isn’t because nature is ‘better’ or ‘safer’, as is often misunderstood in Western distortions of animism, but rather because it is the heart of who and what we are as a species.
Animists remember that we are animals, and that this animal nature must be honoured for us to be healthy. Nature reminds us of the importance of our own individual natures; it provides deep teachings about freedom, mortality, power, health and relationships.
Imagination is the language of animism. It lets us understand the areas of life that are non-linear, non-rational, inaudible, invisible, unpredictable, uncertain and yet vital.
Imagination is used every time we use animist tools, from divination to spirit communication; it is the sense we use to interpret the world. It is, like warriorship, a skill that we can develop through practice, and it will grow as your animist practice does.
Having your own relationship with these principles will mean that the foundation of your animism is strong and reliable.