Exploring Animism: History and Modern Benefits

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Many pagans and witches alike will have heard the term animism, but many may not know what it means to be an animist. In today’s blog post, I want to go over what animism means, how it is significant, and how embracing an animist perspective can help us as witches, pagans, and humans alike.

Defining Animism

In very simple terms, animism is the word used to describe the belief that all things on Earth contain a spirit or energy. In the dictionary, it is defined as the belief that plants, objects, and natural things such as the weather have a living soul1. An animist doesn’t just view plants and animals as having spirits or souls. This belief extends to inanimate objects, landforms, bodies of water, and even weather patterns. An animist may see a tree and use language such as “they” rather than “it”. This gives the tree personhood, and as Robin Wall Kimmerer states, it is much harder to chop down a “they” than an “it”.

Animism isn’t a religion, either. It is a spiritual belief system that can fit into most religions. Most pagans and witches I have encountered have also been animists. I have also met some Christian animists, though they tend to be less common. Since animism isn’t a religion, it does not have a set structure or any rules that must be followed. Instead, it is generally a feeling and core value that people have either due to inherent belief or their personal experience.

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A History of Animism

It should come as no surprise that animism has its roots with indigenous people all over the world, well before the founding of modern organized religion – and I say modern in the grand scheme of things. I won’t pretend to have knowledge on the full extent of animism’s history. I will attempt to give a brief overview of my understanding of animism. Please note, though, that this is not scholarly at all and should be double-checked against factual sources.

It is my understanding that animism is attributed to most, if not all, indigenous peoples around the world. Before the development of organized religion, animism was the way that people related to their landscape. Animism and the respect given to other beings creates a cycle of reciprocity, a give and take that must stay balanced in order for the people to thrive.

We know historically that our hunter-gatherer ancestors often had rituals in place to ensure a successful hunt. We also know that they would ensure no part of the animal hunted was wasted. Everything was used in one way or another, and gratitude was expressed for the animal’s sacrifice. This gratitude and the belief that the animal allowed the hunter to hunt them shows the core of animism – the animal has agency and also strives to live in balance with the human population.

With this belief in balance and reciprocity, it is easy to see how we are all connected. The web of life, the threads that hold us all together in a delicate balance, were easy enough for the ancient animist to see.

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The Benefits of Modern Animism

Today, it is much harder for us to see the life in all things around us. We are naturally busy, filling our calendars and schedules with all sorts of things, both fun and not-so-fun. Most pagans and witches have an easier time seeing the spirit in the world around us, but the layperson may not. Not every pagan or witch is an animist, either. They instead have different beliefs about what can and cannot contain a spirit or life energy.

I’m not here to tell you that you have to be an animist. It is my experience that you either are an animist, or you’re not. This is a belief that you are nurtured in, or it is one that comes from experiencing the spirits of the world around us, from the smallest pebbles to the largest mountains. It is my opinion that the world at large would benefit greatly from more people adopting an animist point of view.

There is a lot to be said about our current Christian-based society and the pillaging of resources from Mother Earth. I first made this connection after reading Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. In the very beginning of her book, she details the story of Sky Woman and the creation of Turtle Island. She then compares that story with that of Adam and Eve from the Bible. When you put the two next to each other, it is easy to see the different language and how that affects our views of the world.

The story of Skywoman details how everyone works together and has a job to do. The animals saved Skywoman from falling, and Skywoman planted a garden for all to enjoy. There is a sense of reciprocity and gratitude in the story of Skywoman. On the other hand, there is another woman with a garden. Her God created everything in the garden, plants and animals alike, to be used by Adam and Eve for whatever they needed. As soon as Eve ate from the forbidden fruit, she and Adam were banished from Eden and left out on their own.

The stories we grow up with, whether consciously or not, can color our view of the world. If we are taught that everything on Earth is meant for us to use, pillage, mine, and kill, then we as a people aren’t going to have respect for the gifts of Earth. If we instead have gratitude for the world around us, we may think twice about harvesting more than we need, monocropping, and the current industrialization of animal agriculture.

If we adopt an animist perspective, giving gratitude for our food and the animals we may consume, our relationship with the Earth and ourselves can change. We may think deeper about how our actions affect ourselves and others. Instead of overconsumption, we may thrift more. Instead of contributing to food waste, we may begin to compost. The climate, both metaphorically and physically, could literally shift if everyone began to hold gratitude for Mother Earth in their hearts.

I’m not saying animism can fix the world’s problems – that’s a bit of a reach considering the systemic issues our Western society faces. However, I am saying that if more people adopted an animistic point of view, we just might be able to reverse the damage that’s been done to both our species and our planet.

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Animism and Witchcraft

As a witch that believes in the spiritual and energetic models of witchcraft, animism is a vital part of my practice. I don’t believe that herbs, plants, and stones help us on their own. Instead, I know that it is the spirits of those beings that lend us their power. Viewing the world through an animist lens allows me to see every being as an entity in their own right.

What right do I have to pluck the leaves off a plant without asking? What right do I have to dig holes in the ground where animals may be living? What right do I have to cut down a tree, one that may hold hundreds of animal families? These are all questions I ask myself as an animist as I go about my day.

And let me assure you – there is no perfect way to be an animist, especially not in our modern world. What I can tell you is that animism allows me to cultivate relationships with my allies in ways I wouldn’t otherwise be able to. Knowing that there is a spirit in the plant that I hold allows me to communicate with that spirit. I can ask what they need. I can ask for their help. Or I can just ask how they’re doing.

This doesn’t only extend to plants and animals. I have often talked to my house, a technically inanimate object. My house is alive and has a spirit, a young one full of life and hope. I talk to the wind, calling on her for help when I need her. I have begged and bargained with weather patterns, giving offerings when my bargains are agreed upon.

As a witch, animism allows me to see deeper into the physical world as well as the spiritual world. There is more around us than what we can see. We can dig deeper, feel deeper, with our entire being and experience the magic and energy of all the beings we encounter.

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Are you an animist?

If you have never asked yourself this question, maybe now is a good time. Or maybe you’re here reading this post because you’re wondering yourself! I encourage you to read the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I encourage you to think about how you view the world, both alive and not. Spend some time in meditation with a plant. Get to know the plant on an energetic level, and you may just learn something about yourself and your world.

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2 responses to “Exploring Animism: History and Modern Benefits”

  1. Shadeweaver Avatar
    Shadeweaver

    There is so little out there on Animism, Thank you for this

    1. Megan Black Avatar

      You’re welcome, Shadeweaver! I’m glad you enjoyed this post!

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