This week I am starting a new series of blog posts – An A-Z of Witchcraft. The aim is to explain some important words which Traditional Witches use a lot (and forget not everyone knows what they mean!) and to talk about some important issues. They will be shortish articles – an overview and introduction, a taster to an important topic and not an in-depth consideration of all the nuances.
I am kicking off the journey with one of the most important concepts in my witchcraft – Animism.
A is for Animism……
Quick Overview: Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit, an animating principle. It is the belief that mind is not separate from matter. The spiritual not separate from the physical. From the smallest microbe to the whole universe. There is life force within it.
I’ve chosen to start here because whilst animism is one of my four pillars of witchcraft, for many years it was a word I couldn’t connect with, I couldn’t really understand.
The books I read generally described it as ‘a belief that all things have a soul’. And I just couldn’t connect with that idea. Back then I had quite clear ideas of what a soul was, and that didn’t sit well with my concept of what a plant or a rock was.
But in recent years the term has gone through something of a rehabilitation. It’s thrown off many of the negative layers and thinly veiled racism of Victorian colonialism which used it to justify the description of other practices and beliefs which it didn’t properly understand as primitive (ok it was rarely veiled). But importantly for us as witches the attention it’s received recently has resulted in many really well written books and articles which make the concept of animism easier for us to understand.
The value of this resurgence isn’t that we have suddenly discovered animism, but that people like me have read the books and articles, engaged with them, and gone “WOW!! That’s what I am!!” For me I’ve come to realise that Animist describes so well the hotch potch of labels I’ve been trying to wrestle with for so long. The label of witch has always worked for me – but that describes what I do, not what I think, what I believe or what I feel. Perhaps that doesn’t matter – labels are just labels after all – but it brings a certain clarity and simplicity to me which I love.
Well at least that’s the value to me!
In Search of a Definition
A definition of animism is still not easy to come by, because it doesn’t describe a single thing. There are a number of different types of animism, but they all have something in common.
For me, animism describes a ‘more than human’ world – or a more than human universe. It’s an appreciation that in some form all things consist of a living energy, it has spirit, and a personality (or a more than human persona).
This spirit is not equivalent to our human spirit and consciousness. Its not a ‘lower’ level of what we have. It’s something very different to us – but equally valid and alive.
It is important that in acknowledging that non-human inhabitants of the world have personalities that we do not accidently project human personalities on them. This is a common error I see (and have fallen into myself, so this is not judgement!). But this places us, the human, at the top of the hierarchy, and misses the fundamental point of an animist worldview.
Its most common with pets – its incredibly easy to project human traits and emotions on to our family cat or dog.
But we need to move away from Hierachy and understand our interactions as a web, a net, where each has an integral role upon which others rely in some way or another.
One of my favourite quotes, which sums up the idea of animism for me comes from David Suzuki a Canadian Academic and Environmental Activist:
“There is no environment ‘out there’ separate from us. The environment is embedded in us. We are as much a part of our surroundings as are the trees and birds and fish, the sky, water and rocks.”
This acknowledgement that we are all part of a living whole is an idea that really powers my magical work. When there is no separation we become a continuum of energy which can be travelled. It opens up the idea that we may be reincarnated – or our energy transformed after death – into something other than human. It opens up a possibility that our ancestors are not only humans. All things that have ever been in the universe are an ancestral spirit.
You may have heard about Spirits of Place or Genus Loci (concepts I’ll cover further in this A to Z). In an animist world view this spirit is a combination of EVERYTHING found within a place. It is rich and full, and pulsing with energy. Far from being primitive it is brimming with wisdom of the Earth.
Animist world views tend to include ancestor worship, belief in non human beings such as fairies or gnomes or other nature spirits, and a reverence for sacred earthly features (sacred rocks or sacred waters). Something animates each of these to lift them beyond the physical.
The final point I will make in this rapid consideration of Animism is that it is not a faith or a path in and of itself. It’s an aspect of a wider path. An aspect of my witchcraft for example. It exists not alone, but within a wider practice of an individual or a community.
And I will leave you with a wonderful passage from Sarah Anne Lawless – from her website which is sadly offline at present. But it sums up perfectly and far more elequantly all that I wanted to say here:
“Animism is a philosophy backed up by practice, it is a way of life and a way of thought. Animism is your personal relationship with nature and with the inhuman spirits who inhabit and compose nature. It is a relationship of respect and value for all things and all beings, visible and invisible. All life is sacred and sentient, even those outside of your current definition of life and even those regarded as malevolent. Within a balanced ecosystem, all life serves a purpose– even those who may seem like the villain at first glance. Animism is the hands-on spirit work of building an awareness of and relationship with the spirits of plants, trees, fungi, animals, insects, waters, forests, mountains, plains, deserts, elemental forces, and the spirits of the dead buried under your feet. When you live within nature you realize you are a part of it, not separate from it. It becomes important to know as much about your surroundings as possible because your survival depends on your knowledge of and respectful treatment of the land, plants, and animals around you.”
(Sarah’s new website, whilst not containing the vast wealth of articles yet of her old site, is still worth a visit: https://banefolk.com/ )
The Handbook of Contemporary Animism edited by Graham Harvey
Mystery Teachings from the Living Earth: An Introduction to Spiritual Ecology by John Michael Greer
The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind, and the Self in Nature by Emma Restall Orr
The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman
The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben
Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth by various authors
The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns and Fairies by Robert Kirk
The Tradition of Household Spirits: Ancestral Lore and Practices by Claude Lecouteux
(Next Time: B is for Bling!)