Category Archives: Ancestors

Frozen II – Thoughts

Hello again folks!

This is one of those pieces that I didn’t really plan to write. Not because it is bad or anything, but that sometimes there are things that really inspire you to write that you never see coming. Such was the case with the recent movie Frozen II. Now, I watch my share of movies, but when Frozen II was originally announced I wasn’t in any hurry to run out an see it. I’ll get to why that changed in a moment.

The fact is, I’m a Disney fan. Yes, I’ve watched the vast majority of the animated movies, and well into the digital Pixar variety as well. Yes, I also know many of the songs by heart. There is no shame in that from where I am sitting, and that is a big part of my childhood memories. There are worse things in the worlds than Disney movies.

I enjoyed the first Frozen, it was a good movie. A good modern retelling of older bits of Hans Christian Andersen tales. It is a fun little story, with some good lessons in it. But I’m not here to talk about the first movie in any depth. It must be said that before I get into that, that this piece contains MAJOR SPOILERS. Seriously, SPOILERS AHEAD!!!!, so if you haven’t seen the movie and want to, come back to this piece after you have. I don’t want to ruin it for you.

So what drove me to want to see the second movie? At first I wasn’t really inclined to go out an see it, but then I heard that there was a group of people in the movie called the Northuldra, and they were built with the help of indigenous Sami consultation. That is what changed my mind. Regular readers of my work will realize instantly that I am a strong advocate of indigenous consultation and rights. The Sami are really interesting to me, as are the Norse and Finnish. When I found out that the Sami were involved in the shaping of the story, I knew I wanted to watch it. I think that Disney did a good job with indigenous consultation in Moana, and I wanted to see a story that was a little closer to my own ancestry and spiritual path.

I’m really glad I did, because there are huge intersections with many of the things I talk about on this blog. Animism for sure, but also indigenous rights, nature, complex systems, and even environmental sustainability. There are a lot of layers to the story, and I want to spend some time unpacking them. They added a lot of subtle richness to the storytelling, and I want to dig into that a little more.

It makes sense that we would start with the animism. As I have said many times before, animism is founded on relationships, to each other, and to nature. There was SO MUCH of this present throughout the film. From the Relationships between Arrendelle and the Northuldra, to the Northuldran (inspired by the Sami) connection to nature. Much of the magic in the movie, included Elsa’s own, is based on a relationship to nature. It is tied into the health of the forest and the waters, and many of the supporting characters are in fact nature spirits. There is Gale, a wind spirit. The Water Horse, which has many corollaries in Celtic (kelpie) and Scandinavian (nykk) folklore. There are also the earth giants, and of course, Bruni the fire salamander.

The ‘four elements’; earth, air, water, fire, are present in some form in a lot of worldviews and indigenous religions. There are also aspects of modern strains of paganism and even my own animistic practice. Salamanders such as Bruni are commonly associated with fire, and I found it to be a good nod towards that bit of folklore. In many ways, the animism presented throughout the movie had a lot of Last Airbender feel to it, about bringing balance back to the world, between humans and nature. It was in fact, central to the plot.

Just as central to that same plot was the Northuldra people themselves, which are based on many Sami traditions. The shape of their houses are inspired by traditional Sami forms, the magic in the story by forms of Sami animism and shamanism. And then there are the reindeer….


Reindeer husbandry and hunting is a traditional Sami occupation that continues right down to this day. Because the Sami like many other indigneous groups are living, contemporary people. They have had encounters with others cultures (sometimes with disastrous consequences), and have many issues with colonial governments that are still very real and present. Even some of that is presented in the movie, which I will come back to in a bit.

One of my favorite aspects of the movie was the presence of Water, as both a supporting character as the Water Horse, and as an essential aspect of magic and the livelihood of the Northuldra. Theirs land and way of life were put at risk because of the presence of the dam, because the ‘waters of life’ were blocked. The symbolism of all this cannot be ignored, nor can the connection between Standing Rock and the slogan that Water is Life. Water rights issues are common among many indigenous groups, and the dam itself cannot be ignored. In fact, dam building is often a threat to indigenous peoples, even to the Sami, which have resisted many dam projects proposed by Scandinavian governments.

(Hoover Dam, from Wikipedia)

I found the dam, and it’s final fate, as imposing as the actual structure. But there was another aspect of Water that I found just as powerful. The idea that water has memories is strong throughout the movie, as well as that water is life. The Water Horse stands in just as easily as guardian as well as guide. Also, Olaf’s existence and ultimate resurrection is chalked up to the idea that water has memories. This is not just a convenient story telling device, but a trait of complex systems, including water systems. Rivers ‘remember’ previous routes in riverbeds, as well as changes over time. The same is true of lakes and oceans, and even things like bacteria and chemicals in rain. Complex systems such as water cycles keep ‘records’ of their past, and memories of land and ecosystems are not just symbolic in this sense. This idea is deeply interwoven throughout the plot.

Another idea deeply interwoven all through the story in Frozen II is the idea of ancestry. Elsa is driven by the need to know about the source of her magic, and the mysterious singing voice she keeps hearing. This drive takes her and Anna to the lands of the Northuldra, and eventually the revelation that her mom was in fact Northuldran. This explains the source of her magic, as it literally, runs in the family. It also comes with the revelation that the sisters’ own grandfather was the one who betrayed the Northuldra, and also built the dam that denied them their power.

The ancestral part of the story deeply resonated with me, because Anna and Elsa are children of two worlds through their ancestry. Both of them are Northuldran, as well as Arrendelleian. This actually plays out in the story, as Anna goes back to Arrendelle, while Elsa remains in Northuldra. The connection to shamanism is important here, as through the sister’s two worlds are bridged once again. Both facilitated this in their own way, Elsa, by reclaiming her connection to her ancestry, and Anna, by her role as eco-warrior in the destruction of the dam.

The plot in this way is also a story deeply interconnected with the ideas of colonization, Arrendelle building the dam and denying the Northuldra their power and connection to nature. It also presents a bit of decolonization story, as dam breaks and the old system of oppression comes down. But at the end, through the bridging of the two ‘worlds’, and the re-connection to nature, I think most of Frozen II is a story of healing.

Anna, through her descent through grief and loneliness, and finally to her own ascension as water-protector and eventually one half of the bridge between worlds. Elsa as the other half, in her process through making a bit of peace with her own ancestry, and her place as a balance and proverbial ‘fifth element’. And of course the Northuldra, who teach us about healing the land and our relationship to it, and our relationships between people, especially indigenous people and healing the transgressions of our own past.

Thanks for reading!

The Spirits of Stars

I think one of the things that I love most about working through Finnish folklore is that the animism is really naturalistic. By this I mean that the experiences of spirits are tied closely to natural phenomena and the land. There is a real interconnection between the practical everyday experience of living and the spirits. This is one of the things I love most about being an animist, is that the mundane is also simultaneously the spiritual. There is no separation of the experience.

For me, it also allows a bridge between science and storytelling. Speaking of my own experiences allows me to speak multi-vocally, with more than one voice at the same time. When I write or speak about land spirits, I am talking about both the physical land in a very real scientific sense, as well as my spiritual experience of the same land. Sometimes spirits are metaphors or allegory, sometimes just story telling devices, but more often than not for me they are phenomenal experience of the place. A deer spirit could be a real living Whitetail, as well a symbolic device that is how I relate to the deer. It is almost never either/or, but rather a both/and way of relating to the world.

That’s why I enjoy väki as a concept so much. It is simultaneous both; both the matter and energies of something, as well as the spiritual “folk” of the same. This applies to the lands, forests, rivers, as well as the moon, Sun, and stars. As I’m sure you’ve guessed based on the title of this post, I will be writing about the later. I have loved the stars every since I was a small child. I’ve watched them for years, and I love how the stories they tell shift and move across the sky. Much like they did, and still do, for ancient and indigenous peoples across the world.

In Finnish, the Star People are referred to as the Tähti Väki (Star people) or the Tähtetär (Star spirits). Our own Sun, Sol, is also considered to be part of the star people, but it also has a name of their own. In modern Finnish, the Sun is usually called aurinko, but the Kalevala also gives the Sun another name, Päivä.

Päivä is the sun, and the Päivä väki (or Päivätär) are the spirits of the Sun, which is just one star our of billions. But Päivä is the most important star to those of us here on Earth. It is the source of the heat deep within our own planet, it is the source of life and the elements that make up all life on this planet. Like all stars, the Sun is a creator and a life giver, as well as a burning plasma ball of fusion.

Stars are the celestial forges that shaped every element in creation. Generations worth of stars living, dying, and especially exploding. These are the processes that seeded the cosmos with the heavier elements necessary for you and I to be here now. It is thought, that our Sun is at least a third generation star, as it contains heavier elements that could not have been created by the Sun.

(Stellar Element Table from

In addition, Earth as our home planet, is the result of stellar accretion, the process by which the Sun and all the planets were formed in the Solar System. As much as we are Children of the Earth, the Earth is a child of the Sun. We can draw a line of celestial ancestry back through our planet, through the stars, to the very Beginning of our universe. That is wild to contemplate through an animistic lens. Ultimately, as Carl Sagan once said, we are all star stuff. The Stars, the Tähti Väki are our literal and spiritual ancestors.

Old Väinämöinen said: “Good friend, craftsman Ilmarinen,

Let us set out to look, let us go to learn

What kind of fire that fire is, what kind of strange flame dropped

From heavens above to the Earth beneath

If it might be the disk of the moon, or the sphere of the Sun?

  • Kalevala, Poem 47 “Origin of Fire”

But our relationship with the Tähti Väki doesn’t stop there. I want you to consider that moonlight is just reflected sunlight, though I do feel it has it’s own particular ‘flavor’. I want you to consider as well, that all living beings on Earth depend on sunlight for their survival. Plants directly turn sunlight into food, and animals eat those plants. You and I, we eat the plants and animals (and fungi, and other things) to keep our bodies energized and healthy. None of us would bee here if not for the light and heat from the Sun. Stars are creators and life givers in a very real sense, and we just wouldn’t be here without them.

As such, it should come as no surprise that stars and the Sun are a huge part of so many belief systems, as they are in my own. It’s winter now, so we don’t see the Sun as much as I’d like right now. Still, I think it is important to think about the Sun even when it is behind the clouds, because it is so vitally important to our existence. If I were to look for some kind of Creator, I would look to the Sun and Stars.

In a way, Stars are energy in the very real sense of the word. They are the capacity to do work, and in some way or the other, our entire civilization depends on that work. Fossil fuels are stored sunlight in the form of decayed matter. Solar panels and winds both work on the Sun and the spin of the Earth. Water currents flow in the oceans as a result of unequal heating and cooling, and the Sun drives part of that process. In the words of Adam Frank, planets are the engines that turn sunlight into something interesting. The Earth is very good at that, with our robust biosphere. Heck, even as I’ve already mentioned, the heat of the Earth deep in the core is basically just trapped star-heat. (And radioactive decay.)

This is why I leave little shrines around to the sun and stars. All these relationships are things I consider when I am out for a walk, or under the night sky. I like to think that fire (as a weak plasma, though a different reaction), is a distant relative of the Sun and Stars. It produces heat and light, and we carry it with us whenever we go. In some Finnish folkore, fire is the (grand)son of the Sun.

Tuli kulta aurinkoinen, aurinkoisen pojanpoika, auringottaren tekemä.

Fire golden made of sunshine, grandson of the sun, born from his mistress.

– Finnish Folklore Atlas

Maybe the Stars are just campfires in the Sky, of which the Star People sit around. Really, really, hot plasma camp fires. And there, they create the elements that make the Cosmos possible.

As always, thanks for reading!


Sarmela, Matti. Finnish Folklore Atlas.

The Kalevala

Spirits of the Waters

(Me, kayaking on a local river)

Hello again folks!

I am sorry that it took so long to get another post out to you all. Truth be told, I have been struggling with the writing a little bit. It’s not a lack of interest or a lack of material, but a lack of energy and free time. My day job has been really stressful, and that has taken a lot out of me. It makes extraneous tasks a bit harder. More than that, it’s summer, so I have been spending more time outdoors. I have also been spending my time reading on nice days. For what it is worth, the Expanse series of novels is really good. I’m on number four now.

All that aside, today I wanted to continue my series on the spirits. You can find the previous posts about forests here , and about the dead here. It was also inspired by the last fall’s trip to Michigan State University, which you can find here.

I’ll like to add another post to that series today, but before I do I wanted to make a few quick notes. You might be wondering what the point is to all of this? If I may make a statement of intent, the recent series of posts on spirits is for me to hash out some of the details of my own cosmology. I draw a lot of inspiration from my ancestral cultures, especially Finnish and Nordic, but also with some Irish/Scottish/Celtic/English thrown in. That said, it’s been a long time since my family has been immigrants, at least seven generations of my family has been born in North America. As such, while my ancestors inspire me, my animism and spiritual practice is very much grounded in the contemporary here and now. It is one part inspiration, and one part bioregionalism. I’ll talk a lot more about this in the next post, as a kind of ‘hybrid’ form of spirituality.

But I don’t want to go too far down that past just yet. So instead let’s talk about the spirit of the water. In Finnish folklore, these spirits are called the veden väki, the people/energies of the water. I love the Finnish concept of väki, because it has two simultaneous meanings. It means the energies of a place, in a very real physical sense. The cycles of energy and matter in an ecosystem, including the plants, animals, air, and the earth in that system. It is the constant flow of energy that often goes unseen and unremarked. The second sense, is that the väki are the folk of a location, the people; the spirits of a place. Again, this can be in a very physical way. The fish, the water plants, the bugs, the water fowl, all of them. It can also include the more spiritual ‘unseen’, whether metaphors, meaning narratives, or other more metaphysical methods.

(Ludington Pumped Hydro Storage, literal energy)

Why water spirits? Well, first and foremost, water is essential to all life on Earth. The hydrological cycle from ocean to rain, river to lake, is absolutely vital to everything we know. Water is life, essentially and fundamentally. 70% of our planet is covered in water, and approximately the same percentage in our own bodies. That is why the veden väki are often present in healing and sustenance folklore. Water is vitality, vital for healing as well as longevity.

More than this, my home state of Michigan is defined by water and the spirits of water. The very name of the state comes from Ojibwe, mishigamaa, which means “large water” or “large lake.”

(Sleeping Bear Dunes on Lake Michigan)

The picture of me kayaking above is on a local tributary of the Grand River, whose Native American name is O-wash-ta-nong, meaning “Far-away-water'” thought to refer to the length of the river. The Grand River is the longest river in the state, at 406 kilometers (252 miles) from Hillsdale County to where it meets Lake Michigan in Grand Haven. Through it’s local tributary (and with a surplus of vacation time) I could kayak from my house all the way to Lake Michigan.

In addition, Michigan is bounded by four of the five Great Lakes, which make up 1/5 of the world’s total fresh water.

The state has 11,037 inland lakes and 38,575 square miles (99,909 km2) of Great Lakes waters and rivers in addition to 1,305 square miles (3,380 km2) of inland water. No point in Michigan is more than 6 miles (9.7 km) from an inland lake or more than 85 miles (137 km) from one of the Great Lakes. – From Wikipedia

Aside from Alaska, Michigan has the longest shoreline of any other state, at about 3,288 miles not including islands. This is the same approximate length of the Atlantic Coast from Maine to Florida. There is a reason the Great Lakes region is often referred to as the “Third Coast”.

(The Great Lakes Basin)

It would be easy to cite facts all day, but that is not what I want to do. My homeland is amazing in a lot of different ways, not the least of which that I can bike and kayak so many major waterways without going far from home. Plus the state is like 51% forest, and that surely pleases my Finnish ancestors. This state, this land, is as much the land as it is the waters. Together, the two aspects of Michigan are what make it home for me. It is an essential part of my spiritual practice, as much as it is an essential part of the land that practice is rooted in.

My childhood was spent in the rivers, lakes, streams, and forests of Michigan. The forests defined me, and the waters shaped me. The väki of metsän and veden are part of me, literally and figuratively. They are the spirits of my home, and of Michigan. Finland seems far away, but also very close to home.

Thanks for reading!


Scandinavian Folk Belief & Legend, ed. by Henning K. Sehmsdorf and Reimund Kvideland

Finnish Folklore Atlas, by Matti Sarmela

Kalevala, by Elias Lönnrot translated by Francis Magoun

Happy Belated Earth Day!

This is a special Earth Day post in the ongoing Deepening Resilience project organized by Syren Nagakyrie.

“We can make the Anthropocene into a new era for both our civilization and the Earth. In the end, our story is not yet written. We stand at a crossroads, under the light of the stars, ready to join them or ready to fail. The choice will be our own.” – Light of the Stars – Adam Frank

Happy (Belated) Earth Day everyone!

For this post, I wanted to explore something that has been on my mind for some time. We live increasingly in uncertain times, with the climate crisis on our doorstep, and whether we succeed or fail as a species is in the balance. That to me, gives Earth Day a whole different kind of meaning. A kind of urgency, to do all we can to make the future at least a little bit better.

It brings with it a deeper kind of spirituality. For me, animism and ecology are the two sides of the same coin. There’s a reason I started this post with a quote from Carl Sagan. I tend to be more naturalistic in my animism, as I don’t like to default to ‘occult’, ‘supernatural’, or ‘paranormal’ explanations in my understanding of the world. How I understand spirits, spirituality, and my place in the whole is just that, natural. No “outside” gods or spirits needed.

But what exactly does that mean? For starters, I have defined my version of animism many times before. I use Graham Harvey’s definition; that animism is view that the world is full of persons (most of which are non-human), and life is lived in relation to others. Animism as I understand it is worldview, a way of relating and connecting to the world.

Compare this to the definition of ecology; ecology is the branch of biology which studies the interactions among organisms and their environment. Objects of study include interactions of organisms that include biotic and abiotic components of their environment. – Wikipedia

In broad strokes, both animism and ecology are talking about the same thing from different perspectives; our relationship to the environment and the world around us. This is the delicate dance of science and spirituality. Physics, astronomy, biology, art, writing, stories, civilization, the Earth… All of it becomes an experience of the spiritual.

“Thus, strange and trite as it may seem, the survival of civilisation itself could in part depend on a fusion of science with animism.” – Stephan Harding

It should come as no surprise then that Earth Day in particular holds a special place for me in the procession of the year. I think it should be nothing short of a Global Holiday. This year especially, as we get report after report of the pressing problems of climate change. Earth Day is a day about Earth-Centric spirituality; animism and ecology. It asks us to question our relationships with the world, and our place upon it.

At the end of the day, we are the Earth. As Carl Sagan was so apt to point out, we are all stardust. We are the current result of billions of years of the life and death of stars, of billions of years of biological evolution on a single Pale Blue dot in the outskirts of the Milky Way galaxy. We are all travelers on the only known Class 4* world, the only planet we know of that is home to life. We are all the children of the Earth and the land of waters of this world. That is true in the very real iron in our blood, the soil in our food, and the air in our lungs. We are the planet, and that makes the current crises all the bigger, and Earth Day all that more important.

To truly come into a cooperative coevolution with a biosphere, a technological civilization must make technology – the fruit of its collective mind – serve as a web of awareness for the flourishing of both itself and the planet as a whole.” – Adam Frank

This comes with important implications of our relationship to the natural world around us. We are not separate from the planet, nor is our civilization from us. We are an extension of nature, and all our creations are an extension of ourselves. Planet’s are the engines of turning starlight into something interesting, and that makes our planet one of a kind. We are the children of starlight, and we are the Earth building amazing and wonderful things for itself.

The science is settled, that the climate is rapidly changing and this is mostly entirely the fault of us, the consequences of our actions and our relationships to the Earth. This is at the heart of both ecology and animism, our relationship to the land, the spirits, and the world around us. It asks us to live responsibly in a way that is sustainable, not only for ourselves, but for all of nature and the Earth.

Sustainable Civilizations don’t “rise above” the biosphere, but must, in some way, enter into a long, cooperative relationship with their coupled planetary systems… “ – Adam Frank

The climate crises is all our unhealthy relationships with the planet coming back home to roost. We can no longer continue to burn fossil fuels, or continue to pursue economics that rely on growth for the sake of growth. That is not a healthy relationship, and it will be our downfall if we don’t correct the path we are on. We need to walk more softly, and be more aware of our actions and the consequences of our relationships. This is where animism and ecology both have lessons to teach. Indigenous people across the world form deep reciprocal relationships with their ecosystems, and those ecosystems build relationships with them too.

That is something that we lack in the West. For all our ‘progress’, for all of our science, we are broken and uprooted from our ancestral lands and cultures. In many ways, the world has moved on. Those cultures may not even exist anymore, and for those of you like me, ‘returning’ to ancestral cultures is not an option. Aside from financial limitations, and the time pressures of modern life, I no longer feel as I am ‘part’ of any of the cultures that I can claim ancestry to. I don’t speak the language, and I have never lived in the lands those cultures are rooted in. My ability to ever travel to them may well be a pipe dream.

Which means that animism and ecology ask me to engage where I am right now. In Michigan, in the lands of the Great Lakes. With the forest and wetlands ecologies around me, and those roots might start to form once more. I can start shaping new relationships, ones that live in mutually beneficial ways with my environment. Ways that help both my environment as well as myself to flourish. That work goes well beyond me, Earth Day, and even beyond my local ecosystems. This work is daily, weekly, yearly, season after season. This kind of work is a way of relating to and viewing the world, a lifetime of relationship tending. It includes me, the air, the water, plants, animals, humans, cities, civilizations, and eventually the Earth and the stars.

We as humans don’t get a pass, and neither do our civilizations. In a way, as an extension of ourselves, civilization is our process of bringing our intelligence to the planet, and the planet becoming ‘intelligent’ in the process. We need a plan, a blueprint for the next thousand years. Not only for ourselves, but for the planet too. Animism and ecology are at the heart of that too. Building relationships where all can not only survive, but flourish.

Our project of civilization must become a way for the planet to think, to decide, and to guide its own future. Thus, we must become the agent by which the Earth wakes up to itself….“ Adam Frank

The climate crises to me presents a unique opportunity, I think, to get our shit together as a species. To understand ourselves deeply as a part of the Earth, not as in anyway separate from it. The planet is us, and we are the Earth. The climate crises represents not only the consequences of our action, but also a sobering view of our own power. Humanity has reached a point where we have the power to shape and change a planet, and not always for the best. With that kind of power, comes a great responsibility. A responsibility for the survival and flourishing of the entire planet. We have grown as children of the Earth, but now we are starting to mature. As we come of age, the health of our planet is starting to fail.

Will we be responsible children, and care for an ailing parent? The answer to that question stands firmly in the intersection of science and spirituality. In the understanding that we are the result of billions of years of emergent physics and biology. Once we start to understand that the earth is our flesh and bone, the waters our blood and sweat, and the airs the breath in our lungs… Then we start to realize that our relationship with the Earth is in need of a desperate rethinking.

I am grateful for the new animism, because it counts for something. Its importance cannot be overstated. It is a beginning, even without the history and aboriginal connection to this land. It says the human is searching and with a need to be in touch with this land, or other lands of origins in a time when the world is so achingly distressed.” – Linda Hogan

Happy Earth Day!



* Class 4 is a category created by Adam Frank. Earth is the only known class 4 planet, which is basically a planet with a robust biosphere. Technically in Frank’s classification, the Earth is between a Class 4 and a Class 5 planet, which is a robust biosphere with a growing planetary civilization and intelligent species. That is, you and me.

Light of the Stars, by Adam Frank. 2018.

Harding, Stephan

Hogan, Linda; quoted from her article in the The Handbook of Contemporary Animism edited by Graham Harvey

Spirits of the Forest

“In ancient times, the land lay covered lay covered in forests. Where, from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony. But as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed…” — Princess Mononoke

Some have wondered where they Great Lakes came from… Long ago, there were Great Spirits of ice and snow. They were so old, and so powerful, that their very bodies lay upon the surface of the land. There was no land in those days, only the endless bodies of the Ice People.

Over long spans of time, the land slowly warmed. The Ice People hated the warmth, and started to migrate towards the north. But in anger of being displaced, they dug up the land, digging great furoughs in the land. But they stayed too long, and the warmth got to them. The Ice People that remained melted away, and the water from their bodies and tears filled the Great Lakes.

Okay, so that is my best attempt at some kind of glacier-inspired folklore for my homelands of Michigan. It’s a little bit science and a little bit animism, and tries to retell the history of how the Great Lakes came to be. The short answer, they were dug out by glaciers. Obviously.

In my last post, I made brief allusions to the fact that in Finnish folklore the spirits of the dead and the spirits of the land are deeply intertwined. This makes sense, from both a practical as well as a spiritual perspective. In the words of Mufasa, when we die our bodies become the grass. The vast majority of humans, animals, plants, and every other being on this planet return to the Earth when we die. We become part of the land, whether we are buried or burned.

The spirits and inhabitants of the land are often referred to as Mann haltija literally land spirits. The land itself and the spirits of the land are the oldest beings, and have been here long before humanity first crawled out of the evolutionary past.. The plants and animals have millions of generations of dead. In Finnish folklore, these spirits are often the protectors of the land. The dead are protectors of the living, and the forests were here before the people. In this way, ancestors, the dead, and the haltija in general is deeply connected to the land, and the Earth.

For example, we can still find the fossil remains of the first forms of life that appeared on Earth billions of years ago. The memory of the Earth is deep, and those dead are still remembered by the land beneath our feet. According to the folklore, those dead spirits can also watch over their living descendants, and the species that came from them. The First Oak, would be the haltija that watched over and guarded its kin, and helped to maintain the cycles of life and death for the species.

That is why the spirits of the dead and the land are deeply intertwined. My homeland of Michigan has a deep forested history, and even today the state is over 50% forests. This is interesting to consider when you figure that the Native Americans have been here for generations, and that the Forests were here long before them. And the lakes and waters before that, and the glaciers before that. That all that ecological history, is still with us. Still below our feet. Still part of Michigan’s animistic and physical being.

Spirits of dead wolves still watch over their living kin, along with spirits of birds, and trees and forests. These are the spirits of the forest, and of the land. The mann haltijas, and also the Spirits of the Forest.

The Spirits of the Forest

The metsän väki serve as guides and mentors to us all. Their roots go deep into the ground, to the waters of the dead, drinking of the wisdom and memory of the Earth and our ancestors. Their trunks exist upon the land, in our own world of humans, animals, and plants. Their branches stretch towards the heavens, towards the stars, the spirits, and the heavens.

In Finnish, the metsän väki are the people of the forest, the spirits of the place, and also the inherent ‘power’ of the place. The spirits, and the Spirit, of the Forest. They are the living beings of the forest; all the different species of trees, of animals, plants, fungus, bacteria, and all the others. They are also the ecology of the forest, the complex system that involves not just the biology, but also the air, water, and earth of the physical landform. The metsän väki are the cycles of matter and energy that maintain and regulate the entire system. From the acorn to the rotting trunk, these are the metsän väki.

Finland, like my own country of Michigan, is also a heavily forested land. It is no surprise at all that the forest played heavily into their folklore and their spiritual beliefs. However, in my own home, there is a deeply disturbing past when it comes to the forests. Historically, after the arrival of Europeans, Michigan was basically the source of lumber for a growing America.

The vast majority of our old growth trees were logged and taken away in the 18th and 19th centuries. There was a great podcast series by Michigan Radio, if you care to listen that covers a lot of this history. Still, that history weighs on my mind. Those trees and habits were displaced, and in no small way our forests have not been the same since. Those old forests would have been something to see!

Yet, there is a deeper, more animistic connection here too. In the same way that the destruction of habitats can destabilize ecosystems, a similar idea is present in the Finnish concept of väki. Displaced spirits can become angry, or ‘insane’ if they are not treated properly. The dead can become enraged, just as in Princess Mononoke. They can make people sick, or become ill themselves. There is a real ecological and spiritual connection between the health of the metsän väki, and the physical health of the forest.

If you want to read more about my experience with forests spirits, you could start here.

Not only does that leave room for further investigation, but it also makes me deeply uncomfortable. Again, perhaps Jigo in Princess Mononoke said it best;


In goes another layer deeper as well, the connection between the dead, the living, and the land. In Finnish folk beliefs, there is also the concept of the hiisi. These were also spirits, or ghosts, that could help (or hinder) the living. Spirits of the dead were often honored in forest groves, natural land formations, and stones and rocks.

A forest where the spirit of the dead was honor was called a Hiisi forest, a spirit forest. A place where the spirits and ancestors dwell. By sacred trees, in sacred groves, or upon stone altars Finnish people would leave offerings, sacrifices, and honors for the dead. I’ve talked more about what that looks like here Reflections on the FFA. 

However, as Christianity swept into Finland, hiisi and the concepts around it actually became a profane idea. Hiisi were no longer spirits or ancestors, but devils and evil demons. As a result, it’s fallen from use; in the same way that a lot of old sacred sites were cut down, or had churches built over them. Still, I think the spirits still linger in those places, just as they still linger in the forests of Michigan.

Which is a great place to stop for the moment. There is a lot more that could be said, but I will save that for future posts. As always;

Thanks for reading!

A Cybernetic Animism

“Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of people, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationships with others.” – Graham Harvey

(From Metascientist, which might be an interesting read in context.)

I like to explore my animistic ideals and beliefs through a lot of different perspectives and different philosophical lenses. I enjoy the intellectual exercise of it all, and it also provides a lot of new insights that I may have not considered before. Sometimes, it is important that we look at things from a different perspective. We might just see something in a a new way.

As such, I give you this presentation of some of the theoretical underpinnings I am exploring in relation to my animism.

In many ways, this piece is an expansion of what I wrote over at Pagan BloggersI think I hit on a few things there that I wanted to explore in more depth, and bring you all along for the ride.

Recently I have been exploring my animism through a much more systemic and holistic lenses; through topics such as cybernetics, systems theory, and actor-network theory. Most of these things deal with our relationships to humans and non-humans in a much more networked and systemic way. It has been really fascinating for me, and it has really reinforced the central animistic idea that we are part of our world; and not separate from it. So let’s start with what I said over at my other blog;

Agency is at its simplest the capacity to act. This is also the simplest definition of what it means to be an actor, a participant in an action or process. This is what I am talking about when I refer to spirits and persons; actors in the world. Beings with their own desires and agendas.

Now agency can run the gamut from a relatively simple actions, such as a bacterium, to the much more complex beings such as you and I. When we talk of spirits, we are talking about active agents in an environment. The world becomes a much more interesting place when we consider that it is full of actors. That means whatever we do, we are in a social environment, and not an inert one.”

The cosmos is absolutely full of active agents in relation to each other. The simplest forms of matter that we can see have their own elements of agency. The fundamental aspect of chemistry is that atoms and molecules often act in predictable ways when interacting with others. You can get water predicably from two hydrogen and one oxygen atom. Water is vital to all life on Earth. But we will come back to that.

Matter builds up, and enters into increasingly more complex systems and networks; and after billions of years of trial and error; I am here now to tell you about these things. But, in order to think about these things in systemic and holistic ways let’s first talk about systems.

Systems theory or systems science is the interdisciplinary study of systems. A system is an entity with interrelated and interdependent parts; it is defined by its boundaries and it is more than the sum of its parts (subsystem). Changing one part of the system affects other parts and the whole system, with predictable patterns of behavior. ” (Wikipedia)

There is a lot to digest here, but the really important part in that a system is basically a network; a whole comprised of numerous of interrelated “parts”. A system is often bounded in some way, though boundary here can be a fuzzy terms. Some boundaries are physical, some theoretical, some metaphysical. Some are open, some are closed. Some boundaries might be hard lines, and others more like fuzzy, porous, and nebulous clouds.

(From Wikipedia Commons)

While some systems are relatively (or theoretically) simple, some are very complex;

A complex system is a system composed of many components which may interact with each other. In many cases it is useful to represent such a system as a network where the nodes represent the components and the links their interactions. Examples of complex systems are Earth’s global climate, organisms, the human brain, social and economic organizations (like cities), an ecosystem, a living cell, and ultimately the entire universe.” (Wikipedia

Systems, especially complex ones, can be modeled in terms of networks. This will become very important here in a moment, but it is important here to dwell on the raw scope of this. The entire Cosmos is really one just big complex system, and this can be really difficult to comprehend. That would just make us a tiny network, on a tiny planet, in a vastly huge universe. That is definitely a little mind bending.

But many of these complex systems as wholes are greater than the sum of their parts. The characteristics of the human brain are not predicated on simply understanding the connections among neurons. The things we might call consciousness, self-awareness, and even the soul, those are not evident if we study just the parts of the brain. They are emergences, which brings us to the concept emergence.

In philosophy, systems theory, science, and art, emergence is a phenomenon whereby larger entities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities such that the larger entities exhibit properties the smaller/simpler entities do not exhibit.

Emergence is central in theories of integrative levels and of complex systems. For instance, the phenomenon of life as studied in biology is an emergent property of chemistry, and psychological phenomena emerge from the neurobiological phenomena of living things.” (Wikipedia)

Emergence is a really important aspect of complex systems, because it changes the nature of things. The idea that a certain level of integration, new properties and characteristics arise that are not predicted by the components. Cellular life is not predicated on simple physics alone, but if you get enough molecules, in the right integration, life emerges. If chemistry is an emergence of physics, and biology an emergence from chemistry…

Yeesh, it might just be turtles all the way down.

I hope you can see where I am going with this. As stated above, complex systems are more than the sum of their parts. I as a being am more than physics, more than just biology; I am a small part of the cosmos having a human experience.

But more than that, it asks us to think a lot bigger than the human scale. Emergence asks us to ask questions about our place in greater ecosystems, our place in our societies, and our place on the planet. It asks us to witness and engage with climate change, and recognize our being as part of a much greater whole.

It asks us to consider cities are more than just humans and concrete. It asks us to consider the possibility that cities might be something we might call superorganic. As beings of a type in their own right, in which we are just cells in a body.

Which brings me to a great article from NPR;

…But if you want to consider the problem from its most general point of view, then you might want to think about civilizations purely as a network.

A network is nothing more than a group of objects (called nodes) and the links between them. Everyone is familiar with social networks — your friends and their friends and their friends, and so on. The bigger a network is the more complex it becomes, with links blossoming into a rich, dense, spider web of connections between the nodes.

Any population of intelligent creatures on any planet would, by definition, form a network…. So the question then becomes: What exactly does it take to transform a bunch of intelligent social organisms, with more rudimentary forms of interaction, into something more complex and rich — like a city with its highly ordered interactions?” (NPR)

We are a population of intelligent creatures living on a planet, and we are networked in fascinating ways. The advent of the Internet has absolutely revolutionized how we relate to one another, how we network, as well as the raw potentials of those networks. In short, it has connected us to every other human on this planet in ways that we could have never imagined. It allows us to see one another, communicate instantaneously, share stores and information. Yeah, it also lets us be shitty human beings anomalously…

The crucial question the author asked in the article is; could civilization as we know it be an emergence of a complex system of networked humans?

I think it is certainly a possibility, and one well worth exploring.

However, I don’t want to get side tracked too much here, as there is so much more I want to talk about. The question about civilizations bring up an important point that isn’t necessarily spelled out when we just consider systems. The point that complex systems are also social systems; full of actors relating to one another in various ways. Which brings us to Actor-Network Theory.

Actor–network theory (ANT) is a theoretical and methodological approach to social theory where everything in the social and natural worlds exist in constantly shifting networks of relationship.

The fundamental aim of ANT is to explore how networks are built or assembled and maintained to achieve a specific objective. Although it is best known for its controversial insistence on the capacity of nonhumans to act or participate in systems or networks or both…“ (Wikipedia)

This fits in neatly with my Harverian (is that a thing? I’m using it) view of animism that is kind of mind blowing.

Actors in networks in constantly shifting relationships…

The world is full of persons (some of which are non-human), and life is lived in relation to one another.

Spiritual persons in a world full of other spiritual persons…

How exactly I frame it is kind of up to me. It is a way in which to look at ourselves, our cities, our technology, as just elements in larger and more complex systems (such as ecosystems, global systems.) But more than that, its also can include the stories and narratives we tell each other; our worldviews and beliefs.

…it (ANT) can more technically be described as a “material-semiotic” method. This means that it maps relations that are simultaneously material (between things) and semiotic (between concepts). It assumes that many relations are both material and semiotic.” (Wikipedia)

Added onto the top of that is my layer of “mythic” narratives, that I have kind of cobbled together from the various sources. Folklore, ancestry, mythology, my own experience of the world…

In my personal cosmology, non-humans are definitely considered to be active “people” in the social environment. This includes technological people as well, such as automobiles, and smartphones, and robots too.

But it seriously makes me wonder… All the time our technology is getting “smarter” and more connected. Vehicles newer than my own are much more intelligent, and they can network and interact in ways that they never could before.

Connectivity and integration is accelerating quickly in our time. Those emergences, those “greater spirits”; of cities, of ecosystems, of the techno-organic networks we are building. With AI research progressing everyday, and bots and “synthetic persons” constantly trolling us on the internet; the technological realm is hardly exempt from having its own actors.

It makes me wonder a lot. What just might be emerging? Maybe that is the sci-fi buff in me.

Which is a great segway into animism through the lens of cybernetics.

Now we have to keep in mind that the study of cybernetics is really complex, but inevitably when people think about it, they think of cyborgs. Of some kind of fusion of human and machine, or some other such form. This is in fact partially true, but also partially misleading. In truth, cybernetics can be applied to any system that happens to be regulated in some way. In short;

Cybernetics is a transdisciplinary approach for exploring regulatory systems—their structures, constraints, and possibilities. “ (Wikipedia)

But cybernetics is more than that too, and includes a whole range of elements that range from the human, to the animal, to the machine. Cybernetics is a wide view, and can used to study systems such as social and ecosystems, but also biological as well as technological systems and how these all interact. It is an approach with multiple meanings, such as;

“The study of systems and processes that interact with themselves and produce themselves from themselves.”—Louis Kauffman, President of the American Society for Cybernetics” (Wikipedia)

In this way, it sounds almost biological. And, when combined with other ideas I have presented here, it gives us one more tool in which to explore animism and animistic systems. It gives us a form of cybernetic animism;

Concepts studied by cyberneticists include, but are not limited to: learning, cognition, adaptation, social control, emergence, convergence, communication, efficiency, efficacy, and connectivity. “ (Wikipedia)

We have already talked about emergence, and relationships between people, communication, social systems… All of this and more is included in how I view animism and how it asks us to contemplate our relations with ourselves, our environment, and our technology.

Technology, and our relationship to it is something that we need to consider.

Some time ago, I picked up Kevin Kelly’s book “What Technology Wants.” Overall, I thought it was a great read and a good reflection on our relationship on technology. This is not to say it was without it faults, but I won’t go into those critiques here.

That being said, I think his idea of the “Technium”; a kind of egregoric whole of human-tech relations, has a lot of value here. It intersects with many things that are of interest to animism; such as the idea of the superorganic;

When Kevin Kelly looked up the definition of “superorganism” on Wikipedia, he found this: “A collection of agents which can act in concert to produce phenomena governed by the collective.”…. “ (Technium Unbound)

I feel that is self sufficient, but there is a few points that I think deserve emphasis. Collective agents and superorganisms is in many ways what I have been talking about all through this piece. In many ways I consider ecosystems, cities, civilizations, and the planet as a whole as a kind of superorganism.

The technological numbers keep powering up and connecting with each other. Their aggregate is becoming formidable, rich with emergent behavior, and yet it is still so new to us that it remains unnamed and scarcely considered.” (Technium Unbound)

This is what I was talking about in my last section; how quickly things are “coming online.” Our smart technologies are getting smarter all the time, we are networking and connecting to the world around us in ways we never have before. We are already tackling questions about the nature and limits of Artificial Intellegences, and whether or not the machines are going to kill us all…

Okay, that last bit might be a little hyperbolic.

All the same, Kline is on point if you ask me. These kind of connections are rich in emergences. But this is all new territory for us as a species, so there are still plenty of questions to ask.

It reminds me of this scene from the recent I, Robot movie.

Or this from the video game franchise Mass Effect.

(Legion, from Mass Effect)

Which brings us back to Kline’s quote;

The Technium may best be considered a new organism with which we are symbiotic, as we are symbiotic with the aggregate of Earth’s life, sometimes called “Gaia.”… They are not replacing each other but building on each other, and the meta-organism of their combining is so far nameless. Kelly shrugged, “Call it ‘Holos.’ “ (Technium Unbound)

It is really strange to think about all this in those kind of terms. When you consider the whole of the planet from a holistic view it includes the human, the natural, and the technological. It reinforces the idea that our role on the planet is related and intergrated into everything else around us. At no point are we divorced from that.

It really makes me wonder what that cybernetic Gaia, this meta-organic Holos might look like…

Maybe my particular form of animism gives me some tool in which to explore that question.

Thanks for reading! (I know it was a long one!)


Additional Resources;

The Digital-Industrial Revolution (TED Radio Hour)– Covers a lot of topics that I discussed here. Machine intelligence, AI, automation, human-machine interaction.

Hard Wired (TED Radio Hour)This covers some really cool topics, and the segment with Moshe Syzf is really relevant to the topics here.

Start with the Animals and the World will Appear, By LupaA great article by Lupa, exploring some of the more systemic aspects to her own practice. Also a great example of how to look at “all this” in a much more holistic and systemic way.

Agential Realism – A theory by Karren Barrad; deserves a knowing hat tip here. This piece was already too long to include this.



Why We are Here…

Hello there folks,

I’ll start with a few updates. I’ve been real busy lately; writing, editing, and getting ready for my first vending event this fall! As such, I haven’t had a lot of time to keep this blog going. I am also starting another book manuscript soon, so this blog my go into “low power” mode so I can focus on other things. I have a whole series of topics I still want to write about, so I’ll try to get something up here monthly at least. But that is besides the point for today.

For those of you that don’t follow me on Facebook, I often use it as a testing ground to develop my own ideas. Yesterday I turned out some thoughts that have gotten a fair bit of attention, so I wanted to share those with you here. The edited post appears below;

We live in interesting times, times in which existential crises lie seemingly around every corner. These are challenges that will test the very nature of the human spirit. Challenges that not only question who we are, but who we will be. If we survive at all.

The climate is changing. That is a fact. Centuries of cutting down forests and polluting our water and air is coming home to roost. Centuries of exploitation and oppression have come back to haunt us.

I think some very old beings once dwelled in those ancient forests. We cut them down, and we killed them. Those we didn’t, we broke all ties with and exiled. We built an ideological wall between “nature” and “society” so tall and thick that we have all but divorced ourselves from all those old relationships.

Worse still, in this country (USA), we have treated the people (Native Americans, and others) the ones that knew these beings best, the exact same way. We took their lands, killed them, and have perpetuated those cycles ever since.

We destroyed other peoples, and we destroyed ourselves. We became “white”, devoid of any spirit of our own. We died in the process.

I am not the first to say these things, and surely the credit does not belong to me alone.

The amount of work ahead is greater than any one individual, greater than even a single generation. We have to deal with our shit now.

And we are poorly prepared for this. We need allies and the strength of community to face what lies ahead. We have done a fine job of isolating ourselves in the name of “individualism”. We have killed the old gods that were once our allies. Those that are left have no reason to love us. They know what we did, they remember. Why should they help us?

In this country, we cannot assume they are on our side. That is not the case. The land is not on our side.

But, I don’t want you to give up hope. Another world is possible, and it lies on the other side of the horizon. We need all the help we can get, and the amount of work we have to do is tremendous. We will not live to see the end of that work, but it must be done all the same.

I find it no coincidence that there has been a rise in spiritual specialists recently. We were made for this work. We are here to tear down the walls we have built, and to rebuild relationships we have severed. To save what can be saved, and to change what must be changed.

We are here at this time, because our skills are required. Everything we know hangs in the balance.