Wednesday, May 13, 2009
Animism was given its modern definition by the 19th century anthropologist Sir Edward Tylor. Typical of his times, he understood Animism to be a primitive form of religious expression which naturally evolved into more sophisticated forms, such as Monotheism. Although we may question the inevitability of cultural “progress,” his interpretations of Animism—and of culture and cultural evolution— are still definitive today.
Animism, according to Tylor, is the belief in spirit as an essential animating force and in the existence of nonhuman spiritual beings. Although later religions limited spirit to humans and their mono-gods only, early Animists understood spirit as permeating all things, even things contemporary culture considers to be inanimate. It is this distinction, rather than a belief in the existence of spirit itself, that separates Animists from other religious groups. In fact, Animism is the foundation of all religious forms. As Marvin Harris says, in Our Kind, “the basis of all that is distinctly religious in human thought is animism, the belief that humans share the world with a population of extraordinary, extracorporeal, and mostly invisible beings, ranging from souls and ghosts to saints and fairies, angels, and cherubim, demons, jinni, devils, and gods.” Including big-G Gods.
Critics of Tylor’s work appeared immediately, fussing about definitions and origins, but animistic beliefs are found in every culture and, as Harris states, “a century of ethnological research has yet to turn up a single exception.” Tylor also wanted to find the origin of Animist thought, believing that such a universal idea could not be reached without a shared, underlying factual experience. He eventually concluded that dreams, trances and visions were the sources of our belief in spiritual realities. His stumbling over this issue reveals his bias, because for those of us who directly experience the life and intelligence of nonhuman beings, Animism is not a vision or a dream, but a living reality.
Over the past 500 years, traditional or Tribal Animism has been crushed by the expanding hegemony of the Dominators and their mono-gods. Only about 4% of the world’s people are still Tribal Animists, and the number grows smaller every year. A small scale resurgence of polytheistic religions and new age groups, such as Wiccans, as well as revivalists of Tribal Animism, are propping up its numbers and holding fast against Animism’s total demise. See, for example, Itzhak Beery’s Shaman Portal for more about Tribal Animism’s revivalists. New forms of Animism are also being developed, such as Kenn Day’s “Post-Tribal Shamanism.” See Shaman's Touch. Many of these groups and individuals focus on individual healing and personal exploration. Some work hard for the benefit of the earth and her children.
I am most interested, however, in those who may not yet self-identify as Animists or “shamans” but whose powerful and ecstatic experiences with nonhuman beings are exploding through their ordinary lives and leading them to demand an alternative to the Dominator cultures, societies and realities in which they are forced to live. These people are my kinfolk. We often find ourselves compelled to speak our reality out loud and express it with art and ritual. We, the “New Animists” want nothing less than the transformation of the Dominator culture, which of necessity makes our work political. And there are other New Animists, living quietly beside their more outspoken kin, who wish only to live in loving communion with their nonhuman friends in peace and without shame.
I call to you, my New Animist kinfolk! Take courage and speak your vision out loud. As beautiful and wise as the Tribal Animists may be, their visions belong to them. It’s time for us to seek our own visions and create our own forms. Using art and magic, we can transform the Dominator reality into an Animist reality. We can dance and sing and live the Animist reality into existence.
Best to all,
Our Kind: Who We Are, Where We Came From & Where We Are Going, by Martin Harris. (1989)
(and for the brave reader) Religion in Primitive Culture, by Edward B. Tylor. (1871 . . .1970)