Nature and Animism
by Teviot Fairservis
"There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy..."
Take away the technology, the language and the culture of the contemporary world, and imagine life in simpler settings and times. Make an attempt based on pure observation without contemporary perspectives to explain why things are as they are. Imagine yourself as a child or an alien seeing a chair for the first time; then imagine what the Hawaiian chiefs must have thought of it when Captain Cook first presented them with the gift of a chair. Listen for your often elusive "inner voice" to tell you and be guided by your intuition, your physical skills, your reason and your imagination to find some way to survive on an unpredictable planet. Do this and you will come close to the experience of the first conscious humans in "primitive cultures" and also what is the foundational perspective for almost all religions and societies to this day. "Animism" lies at the root level of much of human understanding of the universe.
So-called "Western Scientific Thought" since the 17th century Age of Reason has denied the validity of intuition and imagination as ways of understanding. A modern Western child who has night visions or nightmarish dreams of monsters under the bed is told it's just an overactive imagination making up scary ideas. Stories of appearances of abominable snowmen, dragon creatures living in lakes or monsters in the ocean, or giant ape men living in forests are discounted as stories to scare children or "whoppers" - exaggerated stories made up by the storyteller to boost his status in the community. Sightings of aliens and spaceships from other planets are fodder for sensationalist magazines and modern fiction writers.
"This belief was the most primitive and essential form of religion, in that it derives from people's self-conscious experience of the intangible, such as one's reflected image or dreams..." - Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, 1871
A familiar theme in children's tales from Britain's "Doctor Doolittle" and "Peter Pan" to the "Wizard of Oz" from Kansas, U.S.A. to the ancient Indian "Panchatantra" (the first children's tales, precursor of the later Greek "Aesop's Fables") is communication between humans and animals, plants or inanimate objects. The essential premise of animistic thought is that communication with the natural and supernatural (invisible) worlds is both possible and actual. The language may or may not be spoken; often intuitive or telepathic exchanges are the norm (according to Carlos Castaneda's "Don Juan" series and other writers such as the Hawaiian shaman, Serge Kahili King). Guidance may also come from "the other world" in the forms of signs or symbols.
"Anthropomorphizing" is the term used by social scientists to describe the attribution of human characteristics and behaviors to non-human things. Clouds, trees and rocks may be described by an artist as ' being' an old man or a winged horse. But science would deny that the object in question is the thing it looks like while agreeing the object may resemble some animate thing in it’s shape. Animism would look to the spirits that are taking on the forms to send messages and provide guidance to human worshippers.
To begin to accept the concepts behind animistic thinking, it is necessary for the modern person to drop scientific skepticism temporarily (Coleridge's "willing suspension of disbelief"). Like watching a science fiction movie, the entrance into seeing through another culture's eyes requires a radical shift and accepting imagination. To change the frames of perception and point-of-view and remain open to the ideas of other cultures may be very difficult for the inculcated modern Western thinker with a fixed scientific perspective.
Animism conceives of the Universe as filled with spirits, some taking form and others unseen. The babbling sounds of a brook can be interpreted with a little imagination as the voice of one or more water spirits singing. Children throughout the world readily accept that even though they can only catch glimpses of them, there are indeed fairies and elves dancing in the woods on full moon nights. In many traditions, the unusual appearance or behavior of an animal is interpreted as a sign directly from Spirit with important meaning. Wise elders in many tribal communities are consulted for their readings and interpretations of these messages.
Early man, the hunter / gatherers, needed to have the awareness and the intuition of his animal prey. The earliest cave paintings show animals and human-like animals. It is generally thought among anthropologists that an animistic point-of-view would have developed as humans sought ways to control their success rate in obtaining their food. Rituals and magical offerings, dances to incite warriors to frenzy in their hunting attacks, masks made of the inedible skulls became lures and ways of "getting into the minds" of their prey. Theatre designer Robert Edmond Jones imagined the development of theatre and storytelling from a hunter returning to his family and miming the scenes of the hunt in a fire lit cave.
With the dawn of agriculture and the settling of communities into tribal villages, the whole populace would have been involved in the seasonal patterns of sowing, planting, tending the fields, and harvesting. In years of plenty, the abundance of food would provide the occasion for communal celebrations. To request the blessings of the forces that provided for the miraculous growth of the crops is but a small step in the imagination to the development of rituals and magical practices to ensure those blessings. The "Seasonal Pattern" or "Cycle" governs all aspects of life from daily work to social behaviors. In most cultures, evidences of animistic thought can be seen in offerings, prayers and rituals made to the weather, the elements and the directions. In temperate zones, as in Native American, Celtic, and Mongol/Chinese traditions, links are made between the micro and macrocosmic forces: earth (winter, north. night), water (spring, east, dawn), fire (summer, south, noon), air ((or sky,) fall, west, afternoon), the ether ((or spirit, etc.,) eternal cycles, up, space (or heaven)) personified as gods which affect and inhabit both the individual and the universe. The Dalai Lama of Tibetan Buddhism himself is said to travel with a "Weather Maker," a priest whose duty is to invoke, appease and honor the spirits of weather.
Archaeological research of the Egyptian, Sumerian, Babylonian and other prehistoric and preliterate cultures on the Indian subcontinent and China, often points to examples in art and artifacts indicating early ritual practices and a broadly animistic worldview. By the time of the literate Greeks, a pantheon of deities is actively worshipped in a variety of rites and rituals, signs and symbols have important meaning, and the channeled mystical messages of unfortunate Cassandra and the Oracle at Delphi are acknowledged as directly inspired by one divinity or another.
Psychologists and anthropologists studying the cultures of isolated tribes, especially their shamanic and religious practices, note radical differences in worldviews. When long isolated tribal peoples come in contact with contemporary Western culture - even through the presence of a single field researcher - there is an essential shift in their understanding of the universe. As the moviemakers put it, "The Gods Must Be Crazy." Noted explorer Martin Johnson in the early days of cinematography shot movies of a cannibal group of South Seas islanders. He returned some years later and showed the films to the now older group. His description of their reactions implies that they believed the pictures were truly magic in action - a kind of "time collapse" - at any rate, a traumatic experience for the group. Illiteracy is prevalent in many parts of the world: for someone who has never seen a map or read a book, the news that men have walked on the moon and that there is a space station in the sky now clearly must come as a shock or simply beyond belief.
"Magical thinking" is one of the distinguishers between so-called "primitive thought" and the modern one. Sir James Frazer in his massive collection of myths and legends, The Golden Bough, defines magic as the performance of certain acts to effect change or ensure continuance of the season cycles. Seasonal rituals, such as the sacrifice of a human (especially a king) or animals at the spring planting, are performed for the efficacious purposes of ensuring food crops will grow and gods or spirits will be propitiated. These "superstitions" or magic-making rituals flow from a conception that humans must interact with spirits to keep the world order moving along safely. If the rites are not performed in a timely, accurate manner, many cultures believe - and can offer empirical proof within their own lifetimes - that the security of the community will be jeopardized. "Magic" offers safety and control in a chaotic and unpredictable world.
CREATION MYTHS - The Judeo-Christian Bible begins with a chapter on the Creation Myth, the "Genesis" of the Universe: "In the beginning, God created Heaven and Earth." The Japanese Shinto book, the "Kojiki" describes the grandparents of the world on a bridge stirring the oceans below with their spears; drops fall from the spears to form the islands of Japan. Native American and African myths tell of the appearances of birds, spiders, turtles and other creatures that shape the earthly environment and make it suitable for human life. A Chinese story tells of Pan Ku, the first god, who was born out of the world egg.
Myths explain the connection between individual human life and the universe surrounding the individual and their community. The environment is the way it is because of a specific divine purpose, which gives meaning and underlies the culture. It is an important task of each community to figure out the best ways to work with the seen and unseen forces that shape their lives - the creation myths especially offer keys as to how to do that. They describe the uses of power in specific ways and offer patterns of behavior that will elicit more power for humans to control their realities. Nothing less than the energy of the Universal Life Forces is at stake. By working with nature and the unseen guiding divine forces, power will be granted to humans: "mana" to the Hawaiian shamans, "prana" (the breath of life) and "shakti" for Hindu yogis, "chi" in Chinese traditions, "ki" in Japanese arts. This power is spiritual in its essence and energy in its manifest presence on the earthly plane.
Much has been written about the meaning for Christians and Jews of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden for their "sin" of eating the apple of forbidden knowledge. In many Christian teachings, humans are inevitably sinners and will be tempted throughout their lives by satanic forces that they must resist. Human life, then following the story pattern, is shaped by the avoidance of seemingly innocent tempters like the snake - danger or "evil" in disguise. Temptation and loss are strong themes as is the search for the regaining of paradise. These are just some among many familiar animistic images at the root of Christian thinking: the lion with Daniel in the den, the lamb who lay down with the lion to create the peaceable kingdom, the medieval and Renaissance tales of the Crusades and the legend of King Arthur of Britain are just a few examples. The New Testament Jesus, as the Christ, is described repeatedly as having magical powers: "miraculously" transforming water into wine, curing the ill and raising the dead, making a few fishes and loaves feed thousands. Shrines and statues of the Virgin Mary throughout the world today are centers for thousands of pilgrims seeking miraculous cures. Some interpret the New Testament and certain Old Testament texts including "The Song of Solomon" as similar to the Hindu Vedas and other sacred texts as direct teachings of how humans can learn to perform miracles.
REAL MAGIC - One night in December every year since the late 9th century, Shinto priests and priestesses have met on a mountain above the city of Nara in Japan. There they gather for a procession down the mountain lit by flaming tree boughs. They play gagaku music, eerie sounds echo through the forest, as a litter containing a small box is lifted on several priests' shoulders. Slowly they proceed down to a large field where several bonfires are lit on their arrival. Throughout the night, figures dressed in white don masks of animals and mythical creatures and perform stately dances. Prayers, chants, and music continue till dawn. Often in Japan, Westerners are mildly scolded for asking "Why?" Yet the power of tradition is such that even without mundane explanations for why these rites must be performed, they continue the tradition even in times of extreme hardship, war, and natural disasters. Would Japan cease to be if the priests stopped the rituals?
On the island of Bali in Indonesia, women rise at dawn every day to pick fresh flowers and cut bamboo for offering baskets to be placed throughout their home. Rice and spices are favorites of certain benevolent deities that live in sunny spots; other foods please the more malevolent spirits that reside in inauspicious places such as certain doors and dark places. On festival days, women are expected to make as many as 200 offerings, which ornament their homes, temples, streets and fields of the village.
In Tibet, North India, Nepal and Bhutan, and in many cities around the world since the exodus of the Dalai Lama from Tibet in 1959, Tibetan priests daily offer prayers for the welfare of the world, especially all sentient beings. Special spinning prayer wheels and prayer beads multiply their prayers thousands of times. Tibetan priests now tour the world offering performances and sand painting demonstrations to raise funds for the Tibetan communities in exile. Audiences, "New Age Intuitives," and some Tibetans themselves will speak of their magical work in raising world consciousness, bringing in of non-visible deities to visibility, and changing the vibratory rate of human thought.
Walking the streets of India today, there are a number of living saints and gurus around whom millions of disciples may gather. Temples, monuments, retreats and universities are devoted to the teachings of Sathya Sai Baba, the Mother, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi of Transcendental Meditation fame, and many others. Each of these has miracles attributed to them. Hindu Yogic teachings offer specific practices to learn to levitate, to be present in two places on the planet at once, and to return from the dead.
Shamans from New York City to Outer Mongolia climb up on to the ridgepoles of tents or buildings, spin in ecstatic dances, or lie down to send their spirit into the ground, some with the help of hallucinogens or other herbal potions, to explore the world on the other side with the help of totems and guardian animals. There they may obtain and bring back spiritual weapons or see the "dis-ease" affecting their patients from the viewpoint of spirits or the dead. After these meditations, impossible cures have been affected.
Filipino spiritual healers perform psychic surgeries with only their hands, removing horrible organs from patients, which onlookers swear were removed with no incisions and patients report total healing. Hands on healers, Reiki practitioners, charismatic ministers and others work miracles by altering auras and "moving the energies" with the guidance and help of spiritual forces. In hospitals and homes throughout the world, midwives (and a growing number of nurses) continue the herbal medicines and hands on healing skills passed down through the generations as secret knowledge. This heritage dates back to the Burning Times of millions of witches by the Inquisition, and beyond to the earliest beginnings of human society.
These are living examples, among millions, of animistic thinking and practice alive in the contemporary world. These run contrary to the 19th century Cambridge and Oxford scholars like Sir James Frazier and his colleagues, or to the super-rationalistic modern scientists, doctors, and many politicians and religious leaders among others who discount magical thinking as primitive and childish. Increasingly, however, a "neo-animism" is coming into vogue.
THE NEW ANIMISM - In the United States, marketing analysts recently have taken note of a new target group that they have dubbed the “cultural creatives," numbering over 50 million people and growing rapidly, nearly a fifth of the American population. Artists, educators, healers, environmentalists and others concerned with the future survival of the individual and of the planet have emerged as forces to be reckoned with (and as potential markets). The women's "consciousness raising" movement, human rights organizations inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's work in India came to the U.S. in the sixties led by black leaders such as the late Rev. Martin Luther King and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the "outing" of gays and lesbians especially since the initial wave of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the maturing of the hippie / yuppies "baby boomers," all are forces which have contributed to major changes in American society and law and form the contemporary American worldview. The "cultural creatives" are for liberal policies on major issues, but further they are concerned with global citizenship - the place of Americans in the world. The ongoing conflict between what in the sixties were called "the peaceniks" and "the hawks" emerges in the millennium with the last election as underlying concepts of open and closed societies - open liberalism versus closed conservativism.
Both inherently, however, have elements of animistic thinking (primitive, childish, magical, superstitious) in conflict with modern "scientific" thought (sophisticated, adult, practical, skeptical). Southern and Midwestern "Bible Belt" believers in the U.S., for example, acknowledge faith healing. Their religion, primarily Baptist sects, denies the scientific findings of Charles Darwin; as Creationists they do not accept the theories of evolution or survival of the fittest. Some even dramatically stake their lives to demonstrate the intensity of their faith by handling poisonous snakes and spiders. There is much similarity in this practice to that of certain tribes in North India which worship a Hindu cobra goddess who determines the birth of children. Martin and Osa Johnson ca. 1935 filmed a priestess kissing the head of a cobra three times to ensure the birth of boys in the coming year. Faith healing demonstrates a fundamentally animistic belief in the ability of a divine force or forces to intercede in human lives.
The "New Animism" attempts to integrate both a belief in divine forces at work with a healthy dose of scientific practicality. Human action is necessary to affect the "forces of the Universe." Among the most significant American and European groups working from an animistic worldview might be listed:
1. Celtic based Neo-Pagans - "New Druids," new Celts, witches, wiccans, etc.
2. "New Age" charismatic and mystical healers and (mostly Christian) religious leaders and self-appointed ministers
3. Astrologers, Tarot readers, Psychics and other Intuitives
4. Hindu and Sikh based Yoga and Meditation practitioners
5. Chinese and Japanese based practitioners of acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, tai chi, chi kung, aikido and other martial and related arts
6. Adherents and promoters of Channels and other known figures - Alice Bailey's Theosophy, John and Eva Pierrakos' Pathwork, Edgar Cayce, spirit channels coming to one or more "speakers," i.e. Abraham, Seth, Archangel Michael, Hilarion and others
7. Shamans and neo-shamanism practitioners - Celtic, Native American, Siberian, African and other traditions
In James Redfield's best-selling work, "The Celestine Prophecy," he describes the rediscovery of a fictional ancient book listing the tenets of the New Age: ten "Insights" into direct ways for the spiritual seeker to experience the presence of "The Mystical." The first insight urges the reader to note the synchronicities that occur in daily life. Every meeting with a new person, every creature seen on the road, every event, according to the Prophecy, has significance and a message. In his fictional account of one person's passage through the sequence of insights, he offers a summary and "how-to" guide for acquiring spiritual knowledge that draws on many sources.
In the later "insights," a sweeping reinterpretation of history is made with the conclusion that our present time (the end of the 20th century and beginning of the millennium) is a time of raising the vibratory state of the planet. At some point, the most spiritually enlightened will obtain the ability to pass from a state of visibility "across the veil" into a living invisibility. We can, say the insights, "pass over" and return from death. This ability is one attributed by many to saints, gurus, and spirits of various kinds. In essence, Redfield and many other New Age writers, as well as the ancient mystics assert that it is possible to "defeat death," live eternally, participate in both the visible and invisible worlds, and reach the highest levels of spiritual development. It takes some work and some "waking up" according to the consensus, but it is possible and accessible to everyone.
Organizations like "Byakko Shinko Kai," the White Light Society based in Japan associated with the Aikido organizations, and the affiliated World Peace Prayer Society, producers of peace ceremonies, festivals, and plantings of peace poles around the world are devoted to increasing the vibratory resonances and bringing down white light energies to the planet to create peace. White Light Workers, the Rainbow Family, and the important works of Native Americans, especially the Lakota Sioux, are bringing new myths, rituals and magical practices to the fore. There are an increasing number of created events being produced around the planet: celebrations and festivals of drumming, dance, music, theatre, women's and men's spiritual circles, and certain people emerging to lead and speak on "the circuit" of events. Authors Dr. Deepak Chopra, "Course in Miracles" interpreter Marianne Williamson, medical intuitive Carolyn Myss, Dr. Bernie Siegel, Barbara Hand Clow, Jean Houston and many others appear on public television and radio as voices for the new spirituality and the power of spiritual healing. Institutions like the Omega Institute and the Kripalu Yoga Center are offering intensive studies in spiritual development drawing on many traditions.
Many people are turning to other cultures for new understandings. A Western trained doctor, Deepak Chopra returned to India as an adult to rediscover meditation, Ayurvedic medicine and yoga. With an integrated "global" worldview, Chopra theorizes that there is no reason that the body should wear out - theoretically it is possible to live forever with sufficient spiritual advancement. Like many others, Chopra looks to the Merlin and King Arthur stories for teachings about ways to integrate the Old Ways with the New. Celtic groups meet in Glastonbury, England, to "part the mists" and re-establish connections with the Arthurian myth and the visions of Camelot and Avalon. Celtic shamanism and contemporary witchcraft as well as psychology and hypnotherapy reaffirm the possibility of past lives. The "reclaiming" women's tradition led by Starhawk and others looks to past lives to inform a return to the power of matriarchy and matrilineal societies. The explanations of death as one kind of visitation to "the other side" with a subsequent return to the visible world comfort many people. Despite scientific evidence to the contrary and Christian church denials of past lives or an afterlife, the ancient animistic beliefs are re-emerging. Death is just one of the many seasons on the continually turning wheel of life.
The birth of a white buffalo on a Lakota reservation a few years ago is said to be a sign among many heralding a New Age. A time is emerging, says the prophecy, when the Rainbow Woman will return. All races can learn to live in harmony - like the rainbow made up of many colors but all a part of the one beautiful image. As in the earliest days of humankind, animism is not only a way of life, a religion, but also a philosophy: that each individual by interacting with divine Spirit has the power to create the future.