“Shinto seeks to cultivate and ensure a harmonious relationship between humans and the kami and thus with the natural world.” – Wikipedia
Hello again folks!
If you are like me, a white American and an inheritor of a history of colonialism; you know the cultural struggle that many of us face. The feeling that we are constantly stuck between a rock and a hard place – not being indigenous to this continent, and also being the descendent of Old World cultures that many of us no longer have little if any direct connection to. I don’t share the cultures of most of my ancestors, I don’t speak their languages either. I’m also not indigenous, and certainly don’t share those cultures.
So what are we to do, those of us that are adrift like pieces of wonderbread? White, and without any claimable substance? For me, the answer has been continuing to develop, create, and recreate a kind of local/bioregional spirituality. It is a syncretic mix, just like my home state of Michigan. I look to the cultures of my ancestors, the native cultures, and see what inspires me. I also spend a lot of time outdoors, with the lakes and forests of my homeland looking for local spirits of rocks, plants, animals and whatever else I happen to stumble across. Michigan is a place of many peoples, from indigenous Anishinaabe, to the Germans and Finns that made this place their home. That cultural cross section, which includes many of my ancestors, and the rich diversity of other-than-human spirits in this land is more than enough to keep me busy. It also lead to a much bigger project (or series of interrelated projects).
That project would be this one; shaping a Michigan animism for myself, as well as sharing it here. Or at least, sharing the public parts. There is a lot of behind the scenes private work that won’t ever be posted here. In other words, lacking any real cultural ‘traditions’ for my spirituality, I’ve set to work shaping my own. But, as you can guess, this is a massive undertaking. Bigger than any one person really. Still, you have to start somewhere. So where to begin?
As mentioned, I look a lot to the cultures of the people of Michigan, which often intersects with my own Germanic/Norse/Celtic/Finnish/Complicated ancestral history. This is is addition to the Native peoples that have lived in this land for generations, and also animism as a general worldview. In fact, much of how I define animism comes from Irving Hallowell’s work among the Ojibwe, a local indigenous people. Yet, I don’t claim these cultures as my own, and also want to do my best to avoid appropriating living cultures outright. So, that kind of inspired syncretism is one part of this project. The other is what I will be looking at today. How Shinto can act as a rough ‘model’ for the kind of animism I’m creating for myself. Today (and after a long winded introduction), I want to look at the aspects of Shinto that grok with how I understand animism, and how Shinto might inform a ‘Michigan Animism’ as a kind of conceptual framework.
I’ll be drawing from Wikipedia article on Shinto for this discussion, because the scope of this is immense and I’m hoping to keep this brief. So, we start basically with;
“Shinto (Japanese: 神道, romanized: Shintō) or Shintoism, is a religion that originated in Japan. Classified as an East Asian religion by scholars of religion, its practitioners often regard it as Japan’s indigenous religion and as a nature religion.. Shinto has no central authority in control and much diversity exists among practitioners.”
Right off the bat we have a kind of nature religion. I think that is a great start for any kind of Michigan animism. It should be based in nature, and that nature of Michigan. In addition, many forms of animism and modern paganisms also are often considered nature religions, so we have some important overlap. Another important note is the lack of central authority, and an inherent diversity. It means a lot of different people can approach this in different ways, and there is no ‘one true way’. Shinto is often translated as the “way of the kami”, and is treated as a worldview more than a specific set of religious doctirines. That works a lot with animism being a worldview, a ‘way’.
“Shinto is polytheistic and revolves around the kami, supernatural entities believed to inhabit all things. The link between the kami and the natural world has led to Shinto being considered animistic. The kami are worshiped at kamidana household shrines, family shrines, and jinja public shrines. The latter are staffed by priests, known as kannushi, who oversee offerings of food and drink to the specific kami enshrined at that location. This is done to cultivate harmony between humans and kami and to solicit the latter’s blessing. Other common rituals include the kagura dances, rites of passage, and seasonal festivals.”
Okay, so kami is one of those things that doesn’t translate well into English and can easily be both/neither god/spirit. I will be using spirit as a general term. The important components here is that we have spirits, shrines, and spiritual specialists in this mix. In addition, there is a host of private, family, and public aspects. The idea is to cultivate harmony with nature through a variety of cermonies, festivals, and other rituals. In my past posts on naturalism, animism, pantheism and polytheism I think all these aspects could find a nice home in a Michigan animism, and all all deeply interconnected in my own practice, and in Shinto.
“In Japanese, it is often said that there are eight million kami, a term which connotes an infinite number, and Shinto practitioners believe that they are present everywhere. They are not regarded as omnipotent, omniscient, or necessarily immortal.”
Here we have little bits of spiritual philosophy, and theology. The idea of ‘8 million kami’ is one that deeply appeals to me, because I understand the spiritual world as immanent; that is the divine/spirit is manifested as the natural world. Michigan is home to tens of thousands of native species, and countless individuals within each species. As well as just shy of ten million humans, and all our own cultural diversity. This is a good way to describe animism in a diverse and pluralistic way, and treating the spirits as ‘everywhere’ is a good way to frame immanence. In addition, treating these beings as not all knowing, all powerful, or immortal (but certainly there are some that are very long lived); is a good basis for a dynamic and ever changing animism that reflects the natural world.
“The term kami is “conceptually fluid”, and “vague and imprecise”. In Japanese it is often applied to the power of phenomena that inspire a sense of wonder and awe in the beholder. Kitagawa referred to this as “the kami nature”, stating that he thought it “somewhat analogous” to the Western ideas of the numinous and the sacred. Kami are seen to inhabit both the living and the dead, organic and inorganic matter, and natural disasters like earthquakes, droughts, and plagues; their presence is seen in natural forces such as the wind, rain, fire, and sunshine. Accordingly, Nelson commented that Shinto regards “the actual phenomena of the world itself” as being “divine”. The Shinto understanding of kami has also been characterized as being animistic.”
This is why I general use ‘spirit’, as it is vague and imprecise. We have a habit in Western thought of wanting everything clearly defined and put in neat little boxes; This is X and that is Y. Nature is often vastly more complex, dynamic, and chaotic than that. The ‘power of phenomena’ is exactly how I understand the concepts of spirits. As I have spent a fair bit of time talking about ‘the sacred’ in previous posts, this part also fits well. Being able to see kami and spirits as inhabiting all of nature, both as beautiful trees as well as floods, is a great fit for the animism I am trying to shape for myself. “The phenomena of the world itself being divine’ is quite like how I view Spirit in a naturalistic, animistic, pantheistic, and polytheistic way.
“Kami are not deemed metaphysically different from humanity, with it being possible for humans to become kami. Dead humans are sometimes venerated as kami, being regarded as protector or ancestral figures. One of the most prominent examples is that of the Emperor Ōjin, who on his death was enshrined as the kami Hachiman, believed to be a protector of Japan and a kami of war. In Japanese culture, ancestors can be viewed as a form of kami.”
This basic idea is also present in Germanic, Norse, and Finnish forms of animism. In fact in Finnish, there is a deep connection and overlap between the spirits of the dead ancestors, and spirits of the earth. We can become the dead, and the spirits of the earth. Our spirits move through the cycles of life and death like the water and minerals in our bodies. The forest floor is the remains of the dead, and this nourishes the living. This is another good concept for a Michigan animism.
“Although some kami are venerated only in a single location, others have shrines devoted to them across many areas of Japan. Hachiman for instance has around 25,000 shrines dedicated to him.”
This speaks to the shrines aspect we touched upon earlier. I could easily imagine a kind of Michigan animism that has local spirits honored at single places, as well as multiple places. Maybe a particular rock formation in the UP has a single shrine associated with it. Whereas our long rivers and Great Lakes would have multiple shrines in many different places, owing to the massive influence these spirits have on our lives. These are Michigan spirits, that could easily take on the ‘pan-regional’ aspects that you see in Old World cultures like Thor for example.
“A key theme in Shinto is the avoidance of kegare (“pollution” or “impurity”), while ensuring harae (“purity”). In Japanese thought, humans are seen as fundamentally pure. Kegare is therefore seen as being a temporary condition that can be corrected through achieving harae. Rites of purification are conducted so as to restore an individual to “spiritual” health and render them useful to society.”
I find it interesting that humans are fundamentally ‘pure’ in Shinto. We are not a fallen species, we are not born with sin. As such, ‘impurity’ is a temporary thing, and I am understanding as the idea of ‘right relationship’ found in pagan and animistic thoughts. We are not inherently ‘a plague upon the earth’, more so we have created systems (economic and so forth) that cause harm to the earth. Our relationships with nature are what need work, so a Michigan animism could have ceremonies and rituals that reconnect us with nature and heal our relationship to it.
“In the 21st century, Shinto has increasingly been portrayed as a nature-centered spirituality with environmentalist credentials. Shinto shrines have increasingly emphasized the preservation of the forests surrounding many of them, and several shrines have collaborated with local environmentalist campaigns.”
^^^^ THIS. I think if we are going to create a Michigan animism, then environmentalism should be at the heart of that. Michigan has a long history of colonialization and the destruction of our forests as a result. A Michigan Animism as a nature religion, would easily intersect with environmental protection, truly sustainable living, and supporting the well being of human and non-human species. If a Michigan based animism could cultivate the love of the nature, but also the need to protect and preserve nature for future generations, then I would think that a wonderful thing.
The amount of work here is immense, as I have already mentioned. It will be a big project that I will continue to work on. There will be more forthcoming work on this blog that builds on this foundation, and more work behind the scenes. For future posts I will be exploring local natural areas, talking about them and taking pictures. This will be an exploration of natural, local spirits.
Shinto has a deep interconnection with the society, politics, and values of the Japanese people. As such, a Michigan animism would also have these aspects. I will also be exploring this more deeply, especially when it comes to human society; things like politics and economics of Michigan, and how my understanding of animism influences these things. Especially when it comes to environmentalism and sustainability, I don’t think a Michigan animism can be ahistorical or apolitical in that regard.
There is plenty of work ahead, and so here is a briefest summary of how I think Shinto ideas could translate into a Michigan style animism.
A non-exhaustive list of ideas for a Michigan based animism
- Animistic/Polytheistic nature religion
- Great Lakes/Local cultus/bioregional
- Based around nature spirits/natural places
- Spiritual specialists
- private/family/community/ancestral/public shrines (built around nature/natural sanctuaries)
- Basic value of nature conservation/preservation/reverence
- Spirits of the dead and ancestral veneration
- Ceremonies and rituals for ‘right relationship’/natural reverence
As always, thanks for reading!