ani-mism noun 1 the attribution of a living soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena (Barber 2005, 51).
Folklorist Sabina Magliocco writes that most contemporary Pagans grew up in a dominant social system that rejects the existence of a spiritual realm but are, nevertheless, engaged in a re-enchantment of the world (Magliocco 2012, 17). Citing Starhawk, she argues that Pagans do not so much believe in the Goddess but connect with her, “…through the moon, the stars, the ocean, the earth, through the trees, animals, through other human beings, through ourselves” (Starhawk, 1979, 91-92 cited in Magliocco 2012, 17-18). The participatory consciousness she describes is primarily achieved through ritual, but its theological underpinning is animism, which manifests in a variety of ways depending upon the needs of the Pagan practitioner. For example, a friend who practices Druidry has recently made a study of the underground mycorrhizal networks that transfer carbon, water, and other nutrients between plants. She has said to me that these networks express intelligence and help plants communicate with one another, so for this reason they are sacred, living beings. Her study of these networks has inspired the creation of an outdoor labyrinth comprised of plants that complement one another horticulturally and folklorically, resulting in a space where plants that grow well together are placed in proximity to one another and where the folklore of these plants also informs their placement.
My friend’s efforts illustrate a primary argument of this blog entry; namely, that animistic re-enchantment of the world sacralises it and inspires people to act in constructive ways on behalf of the Earth. I would also argue that this combination of animistic re-enchantment and constructive action is not only useful in the current ecological crisis, it’s accessible to Pagans and non-Pagans alike. To the non-Pagan rationalist, this might seem like an odd assertion. After all, contemporary Western culture tolerates the various supernatural beliefs associated with major world religions (gods, devils, saints, etc.), but they’re still subject to criticism from a position of normative disbelief (Hufford 1982). As part of a worldview that accepts magic as a force of agency in the world (Magliocco 2012, 6-7), animism is often rejected altogether. However, it might be useful for the rationalists among you to note that my friend’s understanding of mycorrhizal networks is in line with that of the biological sciences (Fleming 2014). The only difference between them is that she has sacralised fungal intelligence and included folkloric plant narratives in her garden plan, which together have resulted in the ensoulment of her labyrinth and the network beneath it. This approach is similar to that of scientific pantheism, which does not posit a belief in the supernatural but does hold the Earth sacred:
When we say WE REVERE THE EARTH, we mean it with just as much commitment and reverence as believers speaking about their church or mosque, or the relics of their saints. But we are not talking about supernatural powers or beings. We are saying this: We are part of nature. Nature made us and at our death we will be reabsorbed into nature. We are at home in nature and in our bodies. This is where we belong. This is the only place where we can find and make our paradise, not in some imaginary world on the other side of the grave. If nature is the only paradise, then separation from nature is the only hell. When we destroy nature, we create hell on earth for other species and for ourselves. Nature is our mother, our home, our security, our peace, our past and our future. We should treat natural things and habitats as sacred – that is, to be revered and preserved in all their intricate and fragile beauty. (‘Basic Beliefs of Scientific Pantheism’ n.d.)
For Pagans then, animistic re-enchantment of the world may include scientific and spiritual understanding of plant and animal intelligence, folkloric narrative, and a belief that the Earth is aware in ways we do not yet understand. For the scientific pantheist, the possibility of supernatural agency is not present, but the rest may be. Because of this, both the mystic and the rationalist can acknowledge the unique intelligences and emotional capacities of plant and animal species, appreciate the stories told about them, and revere the world they inhabit.
However, translating animism into action can be a messy undertaking. On first glance, the animistic traditions of indigenous cultures might seem a good place to begin, since many of them sacralise the natural world and provide actionable counsel for interacting with it. Unfortunately, these cultures have been widely marginalized and their traditions appropriated, so they are not for people outside indigenous communities. Still, the Earth belongs to all of us and so does the right to both hold it sacred and affirm its sacredness via narratives and ceremonies. The difference between indigenous people and the rest of us is that we need to reconnect, revitalize, and innovate if we want to accomplish these goals. Contemporary Pagans are already doing this by learning about the abandoned animistic traditions of the world and filling the knowledge gaps with new insights and practices, but non-Pagans can also connect with the world in ways that complement their extant philosophical and theological traditions.
Reconnection might be simple as knowing where you live; the wild animals that make their habitats near you, the vegetation that grows in your community, the transition places between urban and rural environments, and the life that happens beyond the borders of your neighborhood or town. It might also be involved as keeping a daily, written record of the weather, living zero-impact for a week in the woods, planting a food garden, or meditating upon the influences of air, fire, water, and earth upon your daily life. Revitalization might include quilting from scraps the way your grandmother did, making wine with your grandfather’s recipe, or walking the wooded paths your mother once enjoyed. It might also include learning and passing on new “old” skills like building furniture from scrap wood, healing with herbal medicines, or creating habitats for local bees and other living beings. In all cases, keep a journal about what you’re doing, and innovate with homemade ceremonies and stories about it. You might write a prayer of thanks to the rain and soil for the tomatoes in your garden or a blessing over the baby quilts you make that includes a promise that you’ve re-used the cloth that comprises them rather than buying it new, thus helping to preserve the world the child will inherit. If you dream about the Earth or have important experiences as part of this work, write these in your journal as well. Let these activities lead you into a deeper awareness of the sacred land, sea, and sky. Let them transform your understanding of what it means to be a human in coexistence with the river, the squirrel, and the milkweed. In the fullness of time, pass your journal on to a worthy young person and ask that she or he build on what you’ve written to create new traditions for the generations that come after.
It is my hope that these expressions of reconnection, revitalization, and innovation will help you discover and acknowledge the innate intelligence of the world as sacred, whether or not you choose to believe it is also ensouled. It is also my hope that once you hold the squirrel, the river, and the milkweed sacred, you’ll be less likely to do them harm. This might mean setting a live trap for the squirrel in your attic rather than poisoning her, organizing a community river cleanup, or planting milkweed in your garden to attract monarch butterflies. This is activism, and it springs naturally from a desire to protect what we value. In my case, it means that I’m vegan, that I volunteer time to a Nova Scotia wildlife rescue and rehabilitation facility when I’m able, that I include reverence for the Earth in the Pagan rituals I write, and that I compose blog entries such as this one. It also means that I support direct action on behalf of the Earth like the recent Extinction Rebellion marches and donate to worthy ecologically-minded charities. Your path will be a different one, but whether or not you’re already Pagan, I hope to meet you at the crossroads. This Earth is our only home, and she needs our reverence now more than she ever has before.
- Barber, Katherine, ed. 2005. Canadian Oxford Dictionary. 2nd ed. Don Mills: Oxford University Press.
- Fleming, Nic. 2014. ‘Plants Talk to Each Other Using an Internet of Fungus’. 11 November 2014. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20141111-plants-have-a-hidden-internet.*
- Hufford, David. 1982. ‘Traditions of Disbelief’. New York Folklore Quarterly 8: 47–55.
- Magliocco, Sabina. 2012. ‘Beyond Belief: Context, Rationality and Participatory Consciousness’. Western Folklore 71 (1): 5–24.
- Starhawk (Miriam Simos). 1979. The Spiral Dance. A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess. San Francisco: Harper Collins.