Editor’s note: this post was updated for clarity and consistency with the theme of this site on 1 April 2023.
Once upon a time, I was a musician.
My musical development was stunted due to a fundamentalist Christian upbringing in which rock ‘n’ roll was a “sin,” so I was in my early twenties before I got around to seriously immersing myself into bands like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Those two bands were the opening of the musical heavens, a blast of blinding light like Paul on the road to Damascus or the Buddha under the Bodhi Tree. My life was forever changed.
As a musician, though, I didn’t want to just cop their licks and be yet-another-Led-Zep-wannabe. I read about these bands and I learned that they’d been heavily influenced by American blues… old-time African-American men like Muddy Waters and B.B. King. So I bought blues CDs by the gross, all the way back to Robert Johnson, and I soaked it up as best I could. Again, not so I could sound like a bluesman, but because I wanted to be influenced by the influencers of my influences.
In other words, I wanted to get to the source.
Through over a half-century of living, I’ve learned that this is how I do things: if it matters enough to me, I want to get to the roots… and study the roots. When I blundered into the modern pagan movement – as many do, via Wicca – I wanted to dig, and I did… I peeled back layer-upon-layer of history, running down leads, some leading to dead-ends but none that didn’t lead me into other places and other times. People and centuries, wonder and mystery, right down to the roots of the world tree itself.
It was only when I arrived at, and lived amongst, the roots, that I was able to grow.
Because I’m not a fan of pointless effort – and because they say it rather well! – I am including an excerpt from Wikipedia’s entry for “animism” by way of introduction to the topic:
“Animism (from Latin anima, ‘breath, spirit, life’) is the worldview that non-human entities—such as animals, plants, and inanimate objects—possess a spiritual essence. Animism is used in the anthropology of religion as a term for the belief system of some indigenous tribal peoples especially prior to the development of organized religion. Although each culture has its own different mythologies and rituals, animism is said to describe the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples’ ‘spiritual’ or ‘supernatural’ perspectives. The animistic perspective is so fundamental, mundane, every-day, and taken-for-granted that most animistic indigenous people do not even have a word in their languages that corresponds to animism (or even ‘religion’); the term is an anthropological construct.https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Animism
“Animism encompasses the beliefs that there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world, and that souls or spirits exist, not only in humans, but also in some other animals, plants, rocks, geographic features such as mountains or rivers, or other entities of the natural environment, including thunder, wind, and shadows. Animism may further attribute souls to abstract concepts such as words, true names, or metaphors in mythology. Some members of the non-tribal world also consider themselves animists (such as author Daniel Quinn, sculptor Lawson Oyekan, and many contemporary Pagans).”
This – animism – came “before.” Before paganism, before Islam, before Hinduism, before Judaism. So it seemed to me a good idea to try and better understand animism (not difficult because it’s mostly how I felt things were to begin with) in the same way that I’d embraced the blues so many years ago… so that I might be influenced by the influences of my ancestors.
Ancient paganism is animistic, which is to be expected as paganism was an indigenous worldview and we’ve already seen that animism is “the most common, foundational thread of indigenous peoples.” Pagans are known for leaving little offerings to the spirits of their homes, their yards, and to special places in nature that they visit.
My personal interpretation of animism is that trees and streams and flowers and lizards and possums and racoons are alive, and they’re beautiful and worthy of my respect. This isn’t a patronizing pat-on-the-head lip-service respect but a genuine “I am in awe of you” respect. It’s a belief that whatever “spirit” I may have, they have it too, and it’s not something humans with all our technological advancement can understand or replicate.
The Old English word wight (Old Norse: vættir) is used for the various spirits of place. In Old Norse, sjövættir were sea spirits, vatnavættir were water spirits, landvættir were spirits of the land, and i referred to the keepers of the household (like the English brownie and the Swedish tomte). “Wight,” however, could also be used in reference to any living thing, like a deer or a bear or a human. The fact that I could be a wight, as could the spirit of a really special forest glade, has perplexed anthropologists, but to me it makes perfect sense: living things are living things, human, plant, four-legged or rooted to the ground.
If I lay an offering, say, at the base of a particularly old and wonderful tree, and – let’s say that it’s an edible offering – chances are, the tree won’t eat it. Nor will some magical elf-like being come out of the tree and scarf up my offering. After I leave, however, something will eat it, and based on some historical accounts the ancients took such things as a good sign. And I do, too, because nature has accepted my offering.
Self-help books tell us to cultivate feelings of gratitude and thankfulness because it’s good for us. The physical act of making an offering to some element of nature is an expression of my gratitude; my genuine thankfulness that I am able to share a world with animals and plants and lakes and rocks and rivers. (Maybe this is why the ancients didn’t need self-help books!)
In my efforts to understand paganism, animism became my foundation, and it was, I believe, the original ground-floor of the ways of my pre-Christian ancestors. But there is a key phrase in the above Wikipedia definition of animism that I have yet to touch upon: “there is no separation between the spiritual and physical (or material) world.”
The idea that the spiritual world is somehow separate from the natural world – “supernatural” – is called “dualism,” and thanks to our upbringing in a predominately Judeo-Christian world, dualism is pretty firmly-embedded in most of our minds. Because I wanted to really understand what it meant to be pagan, this was a concept that I spent years trying to uproot. If, somehow, my “spirit” was part-and-parcel to my body, what were the implications? What is the effect on the concept of “self”?
These topics will be (and have been) discussed in more detail throughout this site.