Category Archives: Spirits

Tracking as a Way of Knowing: A Commentary

Tracking as a way of Knowing: A Commentary

There has been quite the flood of great material coming out lately, and to be frank I am having a hard time keeping up. Maybe I shouldn’t put the expectation upon myself that I will ever keep up, but at the same time it doesn’t really stress me out all that much. It is more exciting for me than stressful, knowing other people are exploring things along similar lines that I am.

Or at least, I am becoming more aware of that fact.

In addition, it doesn’t help when I feel like I have been dog piled with my own writing projects. As an advanced warning, this blog may go on (semi) hiatus in the near future. There is a longer project starting to poke on prod at me. I may decide to give that project my full attention, but that is up in the air at the moment.

Things have been pretty chaotic in my own life, and I don’t feel like I have had much time to breathe. In addition, the world on the whole has seemed pretty chaotic too. It has all left me feeling overwhelmed and anxious. I’m dealing with that the best I can, and life goes on.

As such, I bring my commentary on a piece I came across lately, called “Tracking as a Way of Knowing” by Sophia Sinopoulous-Lloyd. This particular piece really spoke to both my spirituality, and my practical on the ground skills as a hunter. This is kind of a long commentary, which isn’t usually my habit. Some people just won’t read longer pieces, or don’t have the time to do so. For that, I apologize, but I didn’t want to break this up either.

As such, we start here with this quote from the author;

“One of the central themes in permaculture (as in ecology) is that living beings—both plant and animal—build alliances with each other and form natural communities characterized by certain highly efficient cycles of energy. Part of this efficiency owes to the fact that the structure of ecosystems is the opposite of mechanistic. Everything has multiple functions, and there is no such thing as waste. Naturalist knowledge not predicated on a neoclassical production-oriented view of the environment is critical to the skillful practice of permaculture farming. To this end, tracking seemed to promise a way of beginning to build relationships that lead beyond the boundaries of the homestead and private property, into the wild…”

There are several aspects of this quote that also apply to an animistic worldview. The most obvious of which is that living beings build alliances with each other and form natural communities. This is a foundational part of my own animism; being primarily concerned with people living in relationship with each other. In addition, I love the parallels between my spiritual practice and the patterns of natural ecosystems.

That is part of the reason I am animist to begin with. It runs parallel in many ways to many scientific disciplines, not least among them ecology. To me at least, the natural environment is a social environment, in which many non-human agents are in constant connection with each other, and forming self-organized networks and systems. These systems, whether they are deciduous forests, or wetlands, or watersheds, they tend to be self-organizing, self-regulating, and self-governing. I think there is a great deal to learn about society by studying natural systems.

More than that, as opposed to many mechanical production methods, as the author points out, almost nothing is wasted in an integrated natural ecosystem. Unlike many of our human productions methods, that run linearly from extraction —> production —> consumption —-> waste, natural systems tend to have a higher degree of multilinear networks that continuously cycle material as well as energy.

Lastly in the above quote, the author introduces the practice of tracking as a way to build relationships with the natural world. I cannot agree more, and my own experience tracking has highlighted a lot of the points the author makes. There will be more on that in a moment, but first we have to ask what is tracking? Here the author picks up the thread;

“Tracking is an umbrella term for discerning an animal’s endeavors from the marks it has left on the landscape. Its subdivisions include things like clear print identification, gait and track pattern analysis, trailing (where you follow a particular animal’s tracks to find out other things about it), and identifying other signs of behavior, like feeding or territorial marking. Tracking is not limited to uncovering the past of animals though. We can use the rings on an old tree stump to diagnose an ancient forest fire or a particularly hard winter, and we can examine the topography of the forest floor to discern the effects of a century-old ice storm. Such things leave their own sorts of tracks. Our ancestors didn’t only track things on the earth—they tracked the skies too, charting movement of constellations, the paths of planets, and the phases of the moon, giving us the basis for our understanding of time. “

There is so much more to tracking that simply following animals. There is a lot of knowledge and practical experience that goes into being able to do it well. It is so much bigger than the individual tracks themselves.

I was learning forestry from a very young age, rather or not I realized it at the time. My childhood home was heated with firewood in the winter. This means that I spent a lot of time learning from my dad not only how to cut and move wood, but also basic understandings of forests. How to identify trees, as yes how to read their rings. I have seen first hand evidence of burns, rot, disease, seasons that were wet, seasons that were dry and so on. You began to realize on a holistic scale, that you are part of an unfolding story. The trees, the animals, the plants, all it is part of a story that you are smack in the middle of.

You also realize, as the author points out, that your ancestors understood this too. When I hunt, when I track, when I spend time in the woods it brings me a little closer to their stories. I become entangled in the webs around me, in the unfolding story of the land, sea and sky.

As the author points out, this also included the stars and planets, the Cosmos on a much wider level. Tracking in this way becomes a means of connecting with the past, being in the present, and looking to the future.

That is what my animism is all about, building those connections across time and space. It is learning the stories that bind us to the past, telling the stories in the present, and wondering about the stories of the future. The telling of these stories shapes reality around us, and shapes our position in those stories. Tracking is just another way of learning a story, of what has gone before.

“Hunting especially in a survival situation requires a basic familiarity with tracking. Since then though I’ve put in dirt-time in service of a less particular goal: a glimpse of the unique and specific creatures that live around me. Getting familiar with my non-human neighbors is driven by an open-ended desire for relationship. My wish to track now doesn’t feel so different from my impulse to connect with the spirit-world. After all, the all-but-forgotten root of religion is in part the multifaceted need to relate to something both deeply “Other” and also deeply, invisibly, woven into our lives. The necessity of securing food and resources and the communion with the invisible and holy are not by definition distinct endeavors. In much of human history they have been complementary— they’ve even required each other. The first spirituality had to have been practical.”

As I have mentioned before on this blog, hunting is not something I just do as a practical endeavor. It is deeply interwoven with my spiritual practice, and I love that the author brings up this point; that the first spirituality had to have been practical. It had to work, and there was not a clear seperation between the mundane and the sacred.

Hunting is so much more than wanting to fill the freezer. It is how I connect with the spirits of nature around me, it is how I connect with my ancestors and the Huntress I work with. Hunting and tracking is kind of like following in the footsteps of the sacred, that also has the very practical aspect of putting food on the table (on occasion). It is a deeply connective and affirming practice that weaves me into the Greater around me.

It is, as the author states, a communion between past, present, and future.

It is more than that as well, because it also connects you with the greater cycles of life and death, of nature itself around you. I have followed the game trails, tracked my prey through the great mixed-Oak forests of my homeland, and I learned their habits, learned their stories, and in some cases even gave them names. After all this, after taking part as two dancers in the story of life, that is when I had to decide whether or not to take a life I had come to love.

This is something deeply spiritual, and hard for me to put into words. It is one of those deeper Mysteries of my practice that has to be experienced to really understand. In addition, the moment you decide to release that arrow (I’m a bowhunter), that is when the real work begins.

Suddenly, you are connected to the realms of the Dead. With your ancestors, who stand behind you, and with the ancestors of the prey, who stand before you. All will hold you accountable for what you have done, and that in my experience is where the real work begins. I am accountable for what I have done, and obliged to do everything I can to smooth the transition of Dead to the keeping of their ancestors, which return them into the cycle of life and death. I have to calm the confused spirits, and treat the remains with respect. I have to answer to Ancestors of the slain, and return their fallen kin to their keeping.

These webs go deep, and suffice to say that I am still trying to navigate my way through those entanglements.

To take a brief tangent, it is a common perception among non-hunters that hunters are just barbaric ruthless killers. I’m sympathetic enough to agree with that perception in some cases. By my own standards, and the deep animistic way I approach hunting, some hunters do qualify as barbaric under my view. When you frame hunting as a sport, as a game, as a means to rack up points in the “top predator game”, in my opinion you have missed the point.

Life and death is not a sport. Treating it that way has a noted lack of respect, and denies the deep spiritual practice that our ancestors knew some well. In some way, I think all hunters experience a little bit of that, but the degrees of difference between spirituality and sport are wide enough to float an armada through.

That break, that sundering is an important point in and of itself.

Which brings us back to the article;

“For some, following the tracks left behind by a game animal and courting the divine by following a trail of psycho-spiritual signs exist along the same spectrum of activity, both characterized by a sort of sympathetic allurement. Keeney comments later on how this practical spirituality has been largely lost on the modern world: “As we broke the bonds of relationship and interdependency with one another and disrupted our ecological matrix, our link to the divine mysteries became all but lost.” “

From the first time the “animism” as a concept entered our lexicon, it has been littered with this kind of ideology. Animism as a form of indigenous spirituality was immediately categorized as something “primitive” people did, and not something that had any place in “civilized” society. The entire concept is littered with the relics of imperialism, colonialism, and Eurocentrism.

But the ideology goes back even farther than that, at least as far back as biblical times if not further. The idea that mankind, and our “civilization” is somehow separate and dominant to all others. We have tried our best to sever our connection to nature, as “moderns”, and in the process we have sundered away connections that once defined us.

It is so important we rebuild those bridges, and see ourselves once again as part of nature, as part of a wider natural community. It is imperative think, if we are every going to heal those disrupted matrixes that were once so essential to our lives.

Returning again to the article;

“Tracks glow darkly in the snow like icons, triggering some ancient seeker in us, an invisible string pulling us forward. I often hear an astonished “I could do this for hours!” exclaimed by folks from a wide range of backgrounds who are just learning basic wildlife tracking techniques—confirming that it is far more than just the master trackers among us who are tugged by such strings. The metaphor of the invisible string is well known in some old tracking traditions. Keeney quotes a Bushman hunter explaining the metaphysics of spiritual ropes or strings in the context of tracking:

The ancestors and God can attach a rope to you. When that happens, they are able to pull you to where you need to go; that’s the secret behind our ability to track. A Bushman hunter feels something tapping on his arm when it is time to hunt. It is the ancestors pulling a rope that is attached to our arms. The other end is attached to the animal. We simply follow the pulling of the rope, and it takes us to a kudu, giraffe, eland, warthog, or gemsbok.”

There is an important metaphor here that made me want to jump out of my seat and go “yes!”. The metaphysics that I have talked about so many times here, the ideas of strings or “filaments” that connected everything in the Cosmos.

It is not unusual for me to call up my gods, ancestors and spirits when I hunt. It is really strange to think about how deep of a connection I am building in that moment, when I am tracking. I am creating bridges with the ancestors, the gods, and with the animal I am tracking. I am building relationships and connecting with the past in a deep and profound way, a spiritual way that is like going headfirst underwater. The world changes, and your perception shifts. It’s trance work, in a way, reading the trails and learning their stories…

As the article points out, tracking is way more than just following the physical prints;

“Tracking, it turns out, is nothing less than an epistemology: an ecological way of knowing, a green hermeneutics. It is not just a way of seeing “how things are connected,” it is a discipline that redefines and expands what connection and relationship even is. As such it seems to have something to add to nearly every realm of experience and knowledge—an interdisciplinary skill to the core. It blurs modern distinctions between art and science, because it is at once a contemplative practice and also an empirical and quantitative study. It blurs our distinctions between fact and myth because though it is a deterministic study in physical cause and effect, it inevitably lends itself to forming personal relationships with spectral creatures, telling stories about them, and dreaming dreams about them. Eventually, beings are “known” through their tracks, and archetypes emerge. These archetypes have great value to an ecosystem as ways of mapping the world so that a near infinite number of facts can be codified and passed on to future generations. Tracking is unequivocally poetry and it is also unequivocally ecology—at least as long as we humans are involved—and both dimensions are necessary, two halves of a whole. Tracking always leaves room for Mystery with a capital M—it’s impossible for it not to. Whereas in their most dogmatic guises religion protects Mystery sometimes too fiercely, and science perhaps does not defer to it enough, tracking stands innocuously in the middle as the symbiosis of mystery and knowledge.”

Tracking, as with hunting more generally, is a kind of Mystery that is hard to clearly articulate. It is a liminal practice, where art & science, the mythic & the mundane start to mix and swirl in a many unexpected ways. It is a space where stories are told, and where stories are heard. It is in that un-time, in that un-space that the forest and the world around you becomes alive. You are part of that story, apart of that liminal unfolding as you follow the paths that have been led for you.

Hunting in general has greatly influenced my spiritual practice for this very reason. Being in the woods has, being in that liminal place, that is where the real work can happen. We have tried too hard as “modern” people to seperate our “society” from the “natural”. We cut ourselves off from the sacred when we did that, and we lost a whole part of ourselves in the process. We failed to understand that we are part of that great natural community, and the moment we started to separate ourselves from that, it was like cutting away our senses and our limbs.

We are blind and floating in an empty world.

Returning to the article now;

“Ecologist Dennis Martinez points out that unlike the “biocentric” Euro-American model of conservation and land management, a model that can be drawn from Indigenous methods of land management is what he calls “kincentric”; it neither idolizes nor alienates humans, but cherishes and enshrines the alliances among and between humans, animals, plants, and the earth.”

This is both timely and curious that this idea would resurface here. I am working my way through a shamanic intensive, and I am currently in the classwork on Totemism. Now, as I have said before “totem” isn’t a concept I use much at all in my own practice, partly because it doesn’t feel relevant, and partly because I am wary of cultural appropriation. “Totem” is a corrupted version of an Ojibwa word, and I am frankly just not comfortable using it.

That said, in a grand sense the idea behind Totemism is of one’s “kinship group,” that is the close community of human and non-human nature with which we are surrounded. That is what we are talking about here, the realization that nature is part of ourselves, part of our community, and even part of our “kinship group.”

As I have said on this blog many times, we are related to every thing on this planet in some measure. As such building those relationships and alliances is vitally important not only to our spiritual lives, but also to the future of this planet. Reintegrating ourselves within and as part of nature is a vital change in spirit that is required to fully build a sustainable civilization.

If you want to think of it in a very wide sense, the Cosmos is our distant ancestor, the planet Earth is too. My home state of Michigan is an ancestor too in a very real sense. I was born here, the minerals and soil are in my bones. The plants and animals are part of my flesh, and the Great Waters that surround this state are part of my greater community, they are part of my spirit too.

We need to be giving back and being good members of that community.

I’m going to give the last words to the article;

“The words conservation and ecology, as we use them in the Western sense, don’t exactly fit what Indian people did or do with the land. It was their livelihood, which depended on reciprocity. Thus, the trees were not seen just as trees, they were also seen as relatives. The trees are relatives and other species are relatives and they watched you all the time.

In this view, feelings of solidarity, love, and belonging that traverse the boundaries of species and beyond are not luxuries or overly sentimentalized notions; they are functions of ecological interdependency and are integral to survival. Seeing as the majority of beings on our planet (as well as the rest of the universe) are non-human, we can expect a limited view of reality if we aren’t welcoming efforts to soulfully relate to them. Let us see beyond the jaded (and polarizing) caricature of the nature-hippie who escapes from civilization to the forest. If the intention is not to leave but to enter, not to hide but to belong, relationship with the non-human brings back deep value to human community and enriches culture. This is loud and clear in nature-based spiritualities, but it is also buried in our most dearly held stories…”

It is time to tell those stories once more.

Thanks for reading!


Interanimism: A Brief Commentary

Hello again folks,

As a brief note, WordPress is telling me that today is my sixth year anniversary here at The Thought Forge. Hurray! It has been a pleasure writing for you all these years, and I hope to continue to do so into the future. We have nearly 930 email followers on this blog, and I thank each and every one of you for this journey so far! Now, onto the meat!

There have been a lot of great articles out recently concerning animism and relationships. Today I would like to take a more in depth look at one of the them Interanimism By Mathieu Thiem. It has given me quite a lot to think about, and I want to dig a little deeper into the article itself.

Now, I will not be examining the whole of the article, as certain aspects I still want to sit with for a while. Naturally, if you want to read the whole of the article in context, links are provided. I invite you to take a read before reading my own exploration.

Let’s start with a quote from the article, to really set the stage for what I am going to be talking about here;

“By intra-action I mean that each act upon an object is effectively co-creating both the actor and the object because it introduces a new parameter of relationships. The relationship of interbeing between the two are co-constitutional, they act as feedback loops that mutually affect one another.”

To put this into my own words, intraction is the mutual relationship between two actors/agents. Take for example to people in a close, intimate partnership. Say two lovers for example. The relationship is the whole construct for both the individuals themselves, as well as the greater connections between them. It is not a neither/or kind of thing, but a “and” kind of relationship. The two lovers are co-creating their reality, through cooperation, and conflict as well. The constant push and pull, the constant integrated creation of of thing greater than just two individuals.

This extend well beyond our persons as well, to include all of our relations to other humans as well as our environment. I will be detailing this more in a future post, with graphics and everything; mostly because this kind of thing is better illustrated with visuals.

The primary topic of this blog has been animism for a long time; using Harvey’s definition that the world is full of persons and that life is lived in relationships with others. The principle of intraction is that those persons are involved in a delicate relational dance that co-creates their reality. As Clifford Geertz put it so perfectly;

that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning” (Clifford Geertz, from The Intrepretation of Cultures)

That is really what my animism is all about, a search for meaning. That meaning, following the spirit of the article, is something we co-create with others in relationship. Returning to the article;

This brings us to Interanimism, the notion that existence is mutually inspiring and co-creating itself, animating its interbeing through intra-active relationships. Rather than seeing the world filled with particulated essences or souls, what would reality be like if we saw all matter as an emergent function of relationships and agency as the phenomenology of entanglement?

This really gets to the heart of animism as I understand it. I have said it dozens of times here, but I understand it in the way Graham Harvey articulates animsim; “that the world is filled with persons and that life is lived in relation with others.” Actors and agents (persons) are more than simply individuals in isolation, but a web of beings in a network. More than just defined by their individuality, they are defined by their connections to everything else. It also implies that by focusing on simply “atomist” perspectives, we miss a lot of the picture. As Thiem points out;

Rather than committing reductionist fallacies, we must come to observe matter as it really is, an emergent phenomenon of relationships. An atom is a construct of its relational existence…”

Now, I wouldn’t necessarily call it a reductionist fallacies to look an individual entity is terms of itself, but it would definitely be missing the bigger picture of networked connections. As humans are relatively complex beings, it would be the equivalent of trying understand the whole of my being from just a single cell. While it is true in a large degree that you could extrapolate my DNA and get a decent view of my person, you would miss all the memories, all the experiences, the scars, and the resulting personality that has emerged from all those interactions; with others as well as with my environment.

You could get a decent portrait, but the image and person are not the same.

By just looking at a single cell of my being, you would miss the bigger picture; and that is an important point in and of itself. In addition, if you just look at me as an individual, you would also miss the fact that I am defined in relationship with others. You really see me as a whole when I am with my partner, my friends, or in any kind of network with other beings. You are seeing me in the totality as a whole, instead of an isolated partial. I wouldn’t be who I am today without all those intra/inter-actions.

Thiem continues with;

Every time an intra-action occurs, there is a resulting degree of agency emerging. As more intra-action and entanglement occurs, the emergent agency becomes more attentive, more aware, more enlivened. This is applicable to all interbeing within our existence. Agency is not a special or rare occurrence, but it is rather the basic emergent function of ALL EXISTENCE. That is right, awareness seems to be the norm rather than the exception.

Agency is just as much a physical phenomenon as it is a mental one. The two are the same thing.”

While I myself tend to communicate more plainly, I have expressed this thought in a dozen different ways. “The world is filled with persons” can be simply restated matter itself is agential. The Cosmos as a whole, from the smallest scales to the largest, can be said to have some measure of agency. While I do think there are limits to nature and scope of that agency, it would still seem to be a basic characteristic of existence.

Consider for a moment the nature of the atom itself, as one of the many parts of the cosmic whole. Even taken alone, there is a basic agency to the atom. It seeks out a “balance”, combining itself in numerous forms in order to achieve that. That basic drive to balance out internal charges (positive protons and negative electrons) denotes a basic form of agency. No, it is not the kind of agency found in larger and more complex forms, but an arguable simple agency all the same.

Throughout the history of the known universe, we see this basic agency. Smaller forms coalesce into more complex and diverse forms, and from that eventually comes the basics of life as we know it. We as humans are the result of countless generations of constructive agencies.

This is not to say that this is a linear progression of simpler to more complex, but like biological evolution itself, it is a process of starts and stops. Entropy resists the larger and more complex forms, which then breakdown and rearrange before becoming something new.

As such, as Thiem points out, our reality is a process in motion. Not a linear track, but a complex of becoming…

Now, I want to move this discussion from the most broad to talk about a few specific points for a moment. I have said many times that I am an animist first, but also consider myself to be a polytheist by proxy. This means simply that there is plenty of room in my cosmology for those elusive beings we tend to refer to as gods.

I have struggled for a long time to clearly articulate how I view the gods. I have tried to describe them in the past as collective beings, as cumulative ancestors, and as the “spirit of a group”. Thiem has done a service by putting into words what I could not;

Gods are not separate disembodied ideals, but are instead the emergent agencies from the vast networks of ancient entanglements within which we are embedded. Gods arise not as archetypes, but as the long lived intellects of ecosystems and bioregions. As a bioregion, or any massive networked system for that matter, begins to experience multi emergent synergistic qualities that are unique to its paradigm, the agency of that system becomes more capable of awareness and attention. It develops its own paradigmatic memory and it seeks its own teleodynamic harmony.”

Gods can be all the things I just mentioned, and have tried to articulate in the the past. As emergent agencies, they can be the collective agency of a tribe, or a city. They can be collective agency of an entire region or ecosystems, a co-creation of human as well as natural persons. We as humans can well be part of those emergences, as we tell our stories of the gods, and so add to the network that is the agency of the very same beings.

In the nature of synergy, the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. We may see the spirits in individual trees, but the god is in the forest.

Puts a whole new spin on the old cliché of “seeing the forest through the trees.”

(One of my photos.)

As I have already said, my animism sees the world as full of persons, of agents. But most common discussions of animism revolve around the idea of spirits, or not necessarily corporeal persons. As such, any animism must make space for these kind of beings, and Thiem here also articulates this idea well;

Spirits are the liminal agencies of the rocks, the trees, the rivers and all the other functionaries of the more than human world. They are not themselves astral or ethereal, but are physically present in the waking dream of the land. They are nature’s diffractive agencies, emerging out of the entangled relationships of various enlivened constructs.”

There is really not a lot I can add to this. This means that every rock, every tree, and every rivers may well be agencies in their own right. Through the networked intra/interactions of all of the parts, a new whole emerges. This is especially true of natural ecosystems, which often work in cooperation, as well as sometimes in competition. In addition, Thiem’s article also touches on the ancestors as well;

The ancestors are the culminating influences of the past embedded onto the present, all their gravitational waves pushing us forward into the expanse of the universe. The ancestors are not ghosts that pop up like some spooky ethereal being, but are the past actions of our ancestors imprinted upon the informational matrix of our reality which produces an emergent agency capable of communicating with the living, forever affecting and inspiring our future.”

This gets at the heart of how I have tried to articulate how I understand the ancestors. They are no longer embodied, but they are still around, embedded as they are in the intangible. They are, as Thiem put it, “imprinted upon the informational matrix of our reality.” This is a good way to conceive of the disembodied generally. Thiem goes on to add;

…Because of this, the ancestors were not an aspect of dead beings that somehow haunted us in the present, but rather to be an ancestor was to be alive as a different state of being. And this state of being was a kind of imprinting or embedding into the eco-sociological matrix of their places. So when you died you literally became the land, the flora and fauna etc. Your stories inhabited the land and were still very much a part of what made it what it was.”

In short, we are more than just our bodies. We are our stories, our relationships, our very real and formed relationships with the land, the water, and the sky. We are part of the air that we breath, and the water that we drink, so too they are part of us. The minerals from the earth compose our bones, and the fruits and flesh of plants and animals form our tissues. Even when we die, and those tangibles die away, our stories and our memories live on. This is how I understand the ancestors. But they are not just mere memories either, but agencies as well. People, in a different form.

As Thiem points out, the land too can sometimes also be counted as a ancestor. That my story is part of the land I call home. This makes me wonder a great deal. You see, I am a native of Michigan, and this is a curious land indeed. I was born here, and this land has been part of me since the very beginning.

I will have to look into this line of thought a little deeper, but I am sure the Native Americans of this region knew this well. On three sides of this state, we are bounded by the largest freshwater lakes in North America. Nearly one-fifth of the worlds freshwater resides at the edges of my state. This is something I will have to consider more, perhaps in a future post.

There is some much to Thiem’s article, and for the sake of brevity I am not going to explore anymore here. As such, I give the last words to Thiem himself.

I call on these mythic beings because I am seeking to commune with the reality of our interbeing. I call on my ancestors because I must become aware of how deeply we are affected by them, even though they have changed form. In many ways their death hasn’t stopped their meddling in our world, to the point where one must wonder if they ever really died at all. Their wisdom and stories are embedded into the fabric of our reality and this has vast implications. I call upon the Gods because I know that my human agency isn’t enough to understand the desires of the land…”

Thanks for reading!



The Spirit, Networks, and Emergence

Hello again folks, hope you are all doing well!

Today I want to talk some about some recent pieces that I have read recently. The two pieces in question are really fascinating to think about in the context of an animistic practice.

Both of these pieces come from NPR’s 13.7 Cosmos and Culture blog. If you are not familiar with it, I would highly recommend checking it out. There are some great writers over there.

The first piece is by Marcelo Gleiser, and is entitled Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul? To frame this discussion, I start out with a quote from the article;

“The idea that neuroscience is rediscovering the soul is, to most scientists and philosophers, nothing short of outrageous. Of course it is not.

But the widespread, adverse, knee-jerk attitude presupposes the old-fashioned definition of the soul — the ethereal, immaterial entity that somehow encapsulates your essence. Surely, this kind of supernatural mumbo-jumbo has no place in modern science. And I agree. The Cartesian separation of body and soul, the res extensa (matter stuff) vs. res cogitans (mind stuff) has long been discarded as untenable in a strictly materialistic description of natural phenomena.”

I have to admit, I had the same kind of reaction when I first read the title. The world really is a fantastic mix of matter and energy, but these things are interchangeably and so far science has not found what might be called a “spirit particle” or anything of the sort. From what we know of this world, everything is pretty much matter or energy.

Still, as an animist there is definitely a spiritual component to all the work that I do. I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.

I take a similar view; but on a much more biological scale. My body is the collective of countless numbers of individual cells, individual spiritual persons. Together, they make something much greater than the sum of the parts. (We will come back to this later in this piece.) Yet there is something in there, a sum collective of all my energies and processes that is distinctly me. My body and my spirit are so deeply integrated and networked, that it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins.

Gleiser says it this way;

“But what if we revisit the definition of soul, abandoning its canonical meaning as the “spiritual or immaterial part of a human being or animal, regarded as immortal” for something more modern? What if we consider your soul as the sum total of your neurocognitive essence, your very specific brain signature, the unique neuronal connections, synapses, and flow of neurotransmitters that makes you you?

Just as we have unique fingerprints, our brains, their “connectome,” are also unique. Surely, all brains are made of the same stuff, but wired in very individual ways. Recall that our brains are plastic, and mold themselves according to environmental and emotional inputs — the stories of our lives. To this, we must add our bodies and their relation to our brains. For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration as mapped through the complex highways of nerves interlocking all of you.”

Reading that made my skin crawl in a rather wonderful way. I especially love the bit where he says “For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium, but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration…”

Remember that part about emergent properties and integration, we will be coming back to that.

The thing I refer to as my “self” is really more of a collective of individuals than a single being. All the trillions of cells in my brain and body working in conjunction across masses of networks. That is my body as well as my soul. The Norse concept of hugr, a form of the spiritual “self” is a rather nice fit here. The hugr is considered to be the sum total of the mental life of an individual, and that is exactly what I think Gleiser is talking about.

Our stories, our environment, and our own makeup interacting and coming up with this thing we might call the spirit. That is just wonderful in so many ways.

Before I harp too much on that, I want to turn to the other article that I read recently. It is by David Haskell, and is titled Life is the Network, not the Self.

In talking about a maple leaf, Haskell says;

“By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. “

I told you we would come back to emergent properties and networked integration. When we consider our own bodies, we see huge networked complexes working together in both conflict and cooperation. Bacteria in our guts are working to help us digest our food, networked neurons are working to process the information from our senses, our heart muscles are working in a constant beat to keep the blood, nutrients and oxygen moving through our bodies.

As Haskell points out, this kind of integration expands well beyond the individual human, but to maple trees, ecosystems, and the entire biosphere of the planet. Every collective being on this planet is networked, and from that networking new and fascinating forms emerge. Over the long course of evolution, individual cells have been experimenting with different collective networks, and that has given rise to every single living thing on this planet.

As Haskell says;

“Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself. Models and lab experiments on the chemical origin of life show that interacting networks of molecules beat self-replicating molecules in a Darwinian struggle. Many of the first fossilized cells of life on Earth lived in integrated bacterial stacks called stromatolites. Today, all major ecosystems — forests, coral reefs, grasslands, ocean plankton — are built on conversations between interdependent partners. Cut these conversations and the ecosystems fall apart. The first artificial cells also have a networked character. When scientists organize chemical reactions into arrays of tiny, interconnected compartments, life-like properties emerge: cycles of protein production, gradients of signaling chemicals, and the ability to maintain a steady internal state. Without the network, the homogeneous chemical soup lacks any tang of life.

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the “self,” but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship.”

If we consider the soul to be the sum total of all these connections, in our bodies and with our environment, something rather fascinating and terrifying starts to emerge. As I have explained many times before, animism is concerned with life living in relationships with each other.

Consider our relationships well beyond ourselves. Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?

[Credit: NASA/Suomi NPP VIIRS/Miguel Román/Joshua Stevens]

Thanks for reading!


Walking with the Spirits Part 3-B

(Update: I noticed today that my email followers is over 900. Thank you! Each and every one of my dear readers!)

After long cycles of debate, the Peoples had decided that they would introduce themselves to the humans. But yet the questioned remained of who would do the introductions?

“We are too unlike them. We cannot understand their needs.” The Tree People argued.

“They would kill us and eat us.” The Rabbit People added.

“They already kill and eat us.” The Deer People said.

It was in that moment that a person came into the circle among all the competing voices.

“I will do it.” The small voice said.

It was not heard over the cacophony. Many of the People gave reasons why they should not be the ones to introduce themselves to the humans.

“I will do it.” The small voice repeated.

It was in that moment that one of Tree People noticed the tiny little person. It was a small boy. A small human boy. To this point, no humans had ever joined the debates.

“How did you get here?” The Tree asked. The boy looked around, and an expression of fear crossed his face.

“I am unsure. I was laying down to sleep, and when I woke up I was here.” The little boy said.

The Tree then addressed the group, and brought their attention to the little boy. He repeated his offer.

“Why have we never considered a human before?” The Wolf asked.

“Of all the People that would understand their needs, it would make sense it would be one of their own.” The Tree added.

“And in time, this human can start to introduce his people to our own.” The Deer said.

“We could grow together as friends as allies.” Bear said, obviously excited by the idea.

By nearly unanimous vote it was decided that the boy would serve as the mediator to humanity. The only one that voted against it was a very unfriendly member of the Pine Clan. When pressed for a reason why, all the Pine would say was;

“I dunno. I just don’t like him.”

The boy was invited to sit in with the council of the Peoples, and he would live and learn from them.

“Why can’t I go be with my own people now?” The boy asked.

“You have a lot of learning to do first. There is much that you must understand, and when it is time, you will have to teach all you have learned to your own people. Then we all can begin the long process of getting to know each other.”

The boy nodded in agreement, and his days as a student began. Over many long ages did the boy grown into a young man, learning all he could from the People of all kinds. Even if he spent a year with each, there would never be enough time to learn from them all.

In what seemed to be the blink of an eye, the boy had grown into an old man. He had learned much, and had become wise and full of knowledge. One of the Oak People approached him.

“You have become quite wise in the time you have spent with us, but now it is time for you to take all you have learned back to your own people. I do think your descendants will be quite happy to see you.” The Oak said.

“My descendants?” The old man asked.

“Oh yes. You have spent quite a bit of time with us here, time in fact for many of your relatives to grow and have children of their own, and as such down through the generations.” The Oak said.

“How long?” The old man said.

“Generations, but the exact amount of time is not important. What is important that they learn of what you have to teach. It is important that they learn the way of other Peoples.” The oak said.

“How will I do that?” The old man asked. The Oak invited the old man for a walk.

They walked across the land, and as they did it started to shift and change. It was noticeable for only a second, and then the old man found himself staring down a hill at a small group of humans sitting around a fire.

He turned to see that the Oak person was gone.

The old man took a deep breath, an walked into the stranger’s camp.


I have had writer’s block on this series for a while, mostly because of this story. I have found out something about myself all through this process, and that is I struggle a lot with writing shorter stories. I am much more of a novelist at heart. The reason being, I think, is mostly because I am a wordy person. I feel like there is always more to a story, and more to the world than a short story allows me to explore.

Deliberately editing myself drives me a little bit crazy. There is plenty of material here for a few thousand words, and here I am trying to keep it under a thousand. You know, a good size to read in a single sitting; something fit for a blog instead of a novel.

All that aside, there were a few things I really enjoyed about this story. It really has an “otherworldly” feel in my opinion. The little boy comes to the People at the beginning of the story. Honestly, I imagined that the boy had died young, and so he met all these people in some sort of after life, where time and space really don’t play my the rules of “reality.”

That is why by the time the boy has become an old man, an inexact number of “generations” has passed. The way I figured it, learning from even a few dozen mentors could be a long process. Never mind that the People represent different species, of which there is some trillion or so living on the planet. Can you imagine the length of time it would take to learn all that, or even a small part of it? Even if you spent a day with each of them, that is still some trillion days.

Which, if I have enough zeros (12) in my calculator, is something like 2,739,726,027 years.

It’s a really long time, even I messed up the math. That is some 2.7 billion years. Humanity hasn’t even been on the planet that long.

Math! I know, it is pretty intense. There is another odd note I wanted to make about the “time” of this story. Sometimes the chapters of my two series are interconnected, sometime they are not. It is all part of the same “story arc”, but they don’t always line up one-to-one. This is one of those felt really disjointed to me. I am not really sure where it should fall in the time line, if it really fits at all.

All the same, in the next part of this series, we get to explore the earliest evidence we have for spiritual and/or religious belief.

Thanks for reading!

Walking with the Spirits Part 3-A

For this one, I want to talk for a bit of what we know about the “origins” of religion. How did it begin? Where did it begin? Why did it begin? In reality, these are huge questions, and there are no real clear cut answers in regards to these questions. There are many difficulties with dealing with the past, and in no small amount there is a degree of interpretation involved.

For purposes of this discussion, religion will be taken to mean really any form of spirituality or spiritual beliefs. I will be using it in a very wide context, in order to help navigate the vagueness of this all.

In short, we just don’t know the answers to these questions with any real degree of certainty. Part of this has to do with the very nature of prehistory and archaeology in general. Prehistory means just that, before written records. As such, we don’t have any writings to help us nail down the specifics. There is no prehistoric text that clearly says “religions begins here.”

In addition, archaeology is an interpretive science. The data and artifacts are collected for countless sites, and then debated and compared. It can really tell us a great deal about the past, but it is important to keep in mind that there are very real limits when dealing with prehistory. The questions of “how” and “where” are easier to answer than the “why?” I will do my best to explore all this in a coherent matter.

So let’s look at the how’s, where’s and why’s to the best of our ability.


This is a good map by Simon Davies, showing how many of our contemporary religions developed over time.

I think this map is a great starting point for this discussion. I want to draw your attention to its lowest branch for the moment. The base of this tree is labeled as “animism” at ca. 100,000 BCE. I will be getting into the nuance a little later on in this post, but I wanted to start here.

In chapter one of this series, I talked a fair bit about the ideology of animism, and how it has changed over time. I am not going to recap all that here, but suffice to say that animism is often cited as the oldest of all spiritual beliefs. It often serves as a foundation for the later diversification of numerous branches of religion.

Now I would like to draw your attention to the second branch from the bottom; which includes the categories such as “European Animism” and “Fosna Shamanism.” Shamanism is the another important part to this. I have not spent much time talking about shamanism yet in this series, and that may have to wait for another post. That being said, there is a deep interconnection between shamanism and animism. As I mentioned in chapter 1 of this series, (new) animism is the idea that the world is full of persons, most of which are not human, and that life is lived in relation with one another.

Shamanism as such, is the ideas, concepts and methods of dealing with these other-than-humans persons. A shaman is a specialist in these regards. I have wrote a lot about this subject, and the reader is invited to Google the topic if they want to know more.

We will not be moving any higher on the tree with this post, and so the later polytheisms, monotheisms and others will not be covered here. Sorry folks.

So we have established both animism and shamanism as the two ideological foundations for religion, but there is one more piece of this puzzle that we have not yet covered. In a chapter by Matt Rossano, he talks about the three elements of early religion. Animism, shamanism and ancestor worship. As he rightly points out, it is impossible to tell if these “constitute religion’s original traits”; but that they are so commonly present in the oldest religions that they might be considered “universal”, and have deep evolutionary roots.

Animism, shamanism, and ancestor worship. These are the big three, and will be the core focus of this series going. In addition, as I explored in chapter 2, so will be totemism as it is strongly interrelated to all these concepts.

So, with our ideological focus in mind, let’s explore some of the early archaeological evidence for these religious ideas.

Ancestor Worship

As Rossano and many other scholars have pointed out, the evidence for ancestor worship is more prominent in burial finds and grave goods. There are countless numbers of sites that could be brought in as evidence, and that would be far too exhaustive for this post. That being said, we can focus for a brief moment on Shanidar Cave in modern day Iraq.

The remains of ten Neanderthals were found in Shanidar Cave, and are dated between 65 and 35 kya. One of these skeletons was found to be buried with a flower, which can be argued to be evidence of not only intentional burial, but can also be pointed to as evidence of some form of burial ritual to the dead. It is important to note that this find has been recently disputed.

However, a less disputed site is present at Qafzeh Cave in modern day Israel. At this site was found the burial of two modern humans dated to about 100 kya. They are thought to be a mother and a child, and both bodies were found to be stained with red ochre. This is thought to be evidence of a ritualized burial.

There are countless other sites that could be mentioned that provide much more detail and specifics to this line of thinking, and we will explore them more going forward in this series. But for now, generalities will have to suffice.


As Rossano points out; “in traditional societies the shaman’s role is to enter altered states of consciousness wherein he/she connects with spiritual forces in order to gain knowledge or effect cures. The shaman is the community’s spiritual emissary…”

Naturally, Rossano points to several Upper Paleolithic cave art sites in support of early forms of shamanism, from the caves at Chauvet and Lacaux which date from about 30 kya and 17 kya respectivetly. The notable traits of the cave sites, such as shapeshifting and theriomorphic and anthropomorphic images on many of the cave walls.

Some sites even push evidence of shamanism and animism back until the Middle Paleolithic (ca. 300Kya – 45 kya), such as this excerpt from Wikipedia;

“Likewise a number of archaeologists propose that Middle Paleolithic societies — such as that of the Neanderthals — may also have practiced the earliest form of totemism or animal worship in addition to their (presumably religious) burial of the dead. Emil Bächler in particular suggests (based on archaeological evidence from Middle Paleolithic caves) that a widespread Neanderthal bear-cult existed” (Paleolithic Religion)

In addition, another source at Britannica adds, in the context of animal worship;

“This phenomenon is similar to what is still known today as animalism (or nagualism or theriocentrism). It is characterized by close magical and religious ties of humans with animals, especially with wild animals. It is also characterized in terms of otherworldly and superworldly realms and practices, such as placating and begging for forgiveness of the game killed, performing oracles with animal bones, and performing mimic animal dances and fertility rites for animals. Animals were thought to be manlike, to have souls, or to be equipped with magical powers. Animalism thus expresses itself in various conceptions of how animals are regarded as guardian spirits and “alter egos,” of the facile and frequent interchangeability between human and animal forms, and also of a theriomorphically (animal-formed) envisioned higher being—one who changes between human and animal forms and unifies them. Higher, often theriomorphic, beings are gods who rule over the animals, the hunters, and the hunting territory, or spirits in the bushland and with the animals.”

We can see some of these aspects in the archaeology of numerous sites, which as mentioned before, will be examined in more depth later. However, the idea of animal worship brings grants a bridge back to animism in general

Animals and Natural Spirits

From Rossano’s text, we can see the evidence of many of the animal worship that was just discussed above in the context of animism. Rossano points to many of theriothropic images in Chauvet and other caves from the Upper Paleolithic.

He even highlights how there appear to be certain chambers that are dedicated to certain animals, or their spirits.

For example; “The ‘Lion Chamber’ at Les Trois-Freres contains a large feline mural along with the remains of a fire surrounded by apparently deliberately place bones.” – Rossano

Or another one; “In the ‘bear chamber’ at Chauvet Cave, there is a bear skull carefully placed atop a large limestone block. Below the block are the remains of fire and more than 30 other bear skulls that seem to be intentionally place.” – Rossano

So where does this all leave us? I think I will give Rossano the final world here, in his section aply called;

Ancestor Worship, Shamanism and Animism:

Supernaturalizing Social Life.

In which Rossano says;

“The critical point about religion’s primitive traits – ancestor worship, shamanism, and animism – is that they represent the addition of a supernatural layer to human social life. For example, the ancestors are typically thought of as fully participating members of the social community who play a critical role in the health, prosperity, fertility, and future fortune of their earth-bound tribe.

Ancestors are the ever-watchful, “interested parties” whose goals and concerns… must be considered in the everyday affairs of the living.

Likewise, the shaman is the spiritual world’s earthly messenger, relaying critical information about the spirits’ desires and demands…

Finally, an animistic view of the natural world incorporates nature into the human social world. There is considerable evidence that this sacred orientation toward the land and its resources can curb exploitation and enhance human cooperation over the sharing of scare resources.”

I could not have said it better myself. With this kind of framework in mind, we can move forward to exploring some of the beliefs of our ancestors.

Thanks for reading!


 Map of Religions

Walking with the Spirits Part 1-A

(I find that Wikipedia is good for general survey, and has a useful bibliography for finding other sources)

Wikipedia (Evolution of Religions)

Wikipedia (Paleolithic Religion)

Wikipedia (Prehistoric Religion)

Wikipedia (Shanidar Cave)

Wikipedia (Atapuerca Cave)

Wikipedia (Qafzeh Cave)

Rossano, Matt


Thinking about the Gods

One of the guiding motivations of my personality is “does it work?” I love ideas, I love debating them, discussion them, and generally playing with them over and over. It is one of the reasons I write. There is something very satisfying to me about pulling my ideas out of my mind and giving words to them, and manipulating the ideas in order to convey them to others. That is something I had trouble doing orally. I find things get a lot more muddled when I try to talk about them, and I think part of that has to do with the fact that my mind runs a lot faster than my mouth.

All that aside, as much as I like ideas, I find such idealism balance with another part of my personality, the pragmatic and practical side. After a point, “theories and politics” start to seem hollow to me if they don’t work, or have little in the way of application. Ideas are great things, but it circles back to “does it work?” Do these ideas enhance the meaning or add something to my life, or are they just “academic” questions with little in the way of usability?

Which brings me to the point of this post. I have struggled with how to even conceive of the gods in any kind of meaningful or practical way. So far in all my explorations, all my reading and writing, I have found few things that have really helped me to really understand the gods. So I wanted to explore that idea a little deeper here.

I define my animism in this way; Animists are people who recognize that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others.”

There is more to this as well, that plays into the notion of relationships, and relativism. The idea being, that the influence of a given persons varies in context. My influence over an ant hill might considered to be “bigger”. In addition, I acknowledge there are persons out there that might view of me in the same way as I do ants.

But some sense of “bigger” is not enough to be considered a god. Back in my reflections on the FFA, I stated the following;

“Yet, the gods as a kind of ancestral guardian invested in humans. The gods as a “guardian of humanity has protected its own kind, in a way safeguarding the survival of a certain species by returning dead or slaughtered humans back to life on earth” and “the eldest of the species or the first representative of humanity.”

I said at the time that there was something about this statement that resonated with me. As I have continued to sit with it, the more it has resonated. I want to dig into this a little deeper, and really get at the marrow of why I am attracted to this kind of conceptual thinking.

As an animist, and polytheist by proxy, the general logic looks like this;

  1. That the world is full of persons.
  2. That the relative influence of these persons varies.
  3. And that some of these persons might be gods.

The general characteristics of haltias gives me plenty of room to wiggle, and plenty of room to explore. But let’s take two avenues for the moment.

1) Gods as guardians/ancestral guardians

One of my conditions for “godliness” has been that there has to be some general regard for the welfare of humanity. A given person can be “bigger” (such as a mountain) and not have any concern for humanity at all. In Norse myth, there is a distinction made between “gods” and “giants”. A being of “bigger” status without a care for humanity would fit the bill, in my mind, for “giant” but not “god.”

The second part of this is the “safeguarding of the survival of the species”. Protection factors largely into this, and I cannot think of a better example than Thor, the “protector of mankind.” There is also the bit in there about the dead, in a more generalized form a kind of “caring” for the dead.

And this is just not limited to humanity, and is dependent on context. There can be Wolf Gods, that care nothing about humanity. They would be a god (protector, guardian, caretaker) to wolves, but might only be a “giant” (not really concerned with) towards humanity.

But a Wolf Person, might have an interest in humanity (their reasons are their own), and could be both a god of humans and wolves. See how the context changes?

I have often wondered about why many of our mythologies have the gods connected with a certain people, tribal in a way. Greek gods for Greeks, Norse gods for Norse, and so on. Each with unique origin/creation stories, and yet very grounded in the context from which they arose.

Could it be they are a kind of tribal “ancestors”? Concerned not with all of humanity, but with “their people?” I would think that the story of humanity being formed from driftwood might not have meant a “universal” humanity, but the creation of “the” gods people.

Even in the Bible the god Yahweh/Jehovah was more concerned with his own people, and leading them to safety and the “promised land”.

As a side note, I want to make clear that this is no way justifies Folkish beliefs. My view of ancestry is pretty wide, and has little to do with “blood and soil.” As an example, tribes were not always made up of bloodlines. Marriage, adoption, and many of things can lead to a group of people coming together who may not be blood related. In short, basically whoever the gods consider “their people” is really up to them.

2) Gods as the eldest of species, representatives

Which brings us to the next point. I have already commented on how things like wolves can be gods of their own kind, without being gods to humanity. Honestly, in case of “elder spirits” or representatives of a given species, where their interest lies is entirely up to them. They might have some concern for humanity (good, bad or otherwise), or they might not care at all.

What does probably concern them, is the welfare of their own clan. I am using clan here to mean “shares a common ancestor”, as such all gray wolves would have a common ancestor among Gray Wolf, and therefore would be all members of the Gray Wolf Clan. I would be counted among the Human Clan, as we all descend from a common ancestral hominid.

As such, is it impossible to conceive of the gods as some kind of representative or “elder ancestor” of our species, concerned specifically with our survival and well being? It has always struck me how very “human” we conceive of the gods. Of course, the argument could be made that we do this because of things like anthropomorphism, or that we might be limited to conceive of things in very human terms.

Still, I think it could also be said that perhaps the reason they look like us is because they are us, at least in a sense. They are often pictured as human, or every human like (the exception being shapeshifters), and with concerns that are very human-centric, things like agriculture and smith work. Things that really no other species share. The concerns of the gods are very human-centric concerns.

Of course, I am not saying they don’t have concerns outside humanity. That is their own business. But what I am saying, is that maybe they are human-like because they are some form of “elder” representative of our species. Now, less I be accused of euhemerism, I am not saying that gods were once living humans. It is possible of course, but I do not think that any one god can be traced to any one human.

As I said above, an argument could be made for gods being very “tribal” as in being connected to a certain people in a certain context. The flip side of that is that a given god might be a kind of communal/collective guardian spirit, that may or may not be ancestral. The entire tribe/clan would have been interacting with this “communal spirit”, adding stories and narratives and communal wisdom/beliefs; kind of like a spiritual mosaic. Ancestral stories/spirits might be added too, but the point being is that the given “god” would be “greater” than any of the individual parts; built up over time organically alongside the community.

So instead of a single ancestor forming a god, it could be that gods are a collective spirit composed of multiple ancestors, as well as the collective ideas and beliefs of a given tribe/clan . They could be the spiritual analog of their given community, tribe, or clan.

I think that this can get all very complicated very quickly, so I am going to leave this here for the time being. I feel like there is plenty more to explore, but that I am generally on to something that might work for me here. Feedback is welcome of course, as a way to help me develop these ideas further, or to find errors in my own thinking.

Thanks for reading!

Finnish Folk Belief and Shinto

As I was writing some of my thoughts down on my previous post here, I was struck with some more thoughts when I started writing this section;

“Yet, the gods as a kind of ancestral guardian invested in humans. The gods as a “guardian of humanity that has protected its own kind, in a way safeguarding the survival of a certain species by returning dead or slaughtered humans back to life on earth” and “the eldest of the species or the first representative of humanity.”

There is something there that resonates with me.” – Me

Something has been playing on my mind since I wrote that down, and that was the curious parallels between what I was writing, and my love of Hayao Miyazaki movies.

As I said, this has resonated with me, and in this post I am hoping to explore a little more of the reasons why. As I wrote the above quote, I kept thinking about characters from Princess Mononoke. As I wrote about haltias as “guardians” and “eldest of the species”, I kept thinking about Moro, the wolf god, and Nago the boar god, and others as well. In the movie, Moro is referred to both as a wolf god, and a member of the Wolf Clan/Tribe. There are also references to the Boar Clan, and the Ape Tribe/Clan.

And my mind kept turning and turning. In many of Miyazaki’s movies, you see forest gods, forests, spirits, and little stone altars, structures and statues. All of this kept running through my mind as I wrote about hiisi woods and stone altars and cups, and ancestral woods. Bridge lead to another bridge, as the connections fired across my mind.

I cannot help feeling there is something a lot more to this. I also realized that I don’t really know much about Shinto, which inspired Miyazaki to put many of those ideas in his movies. But at least superficially, I am starting to see a lot of parallels between Finnish folk belief, and some of the ideas of Shinto, which is often described as an animistic/polytheistic system.

Which makes the timing of this article even more convenient. The article is titled Pagan Temples and Shinto Shrines, by Megan Manson. Here I am going to quote from the beginning of the article;

… But there are differing opinions within the Pagan community when it comes to the idea of building temples. On the one hand, some love the idea of having a building where Pagans can all go to honour the deities safely and comfortably. On the other hand, there are Pagans who see their “temple” as being all around them – in the form of the forests, rivers, mountains and oceans – and so a man-made temple is not necessary.”

I have struggled with this question for some time, and I don’t think it is really an either/or question. For those that want to build temples, build temples. For those that want to be outside, go outside. There is not any superior position between these two things, but there are questions of upkeep to be sure. Can the community support a temple, or a smaller shrine? Obviously “natural temples” pretty much take care of upkeep on their own, but then it is on the human to make sure the place is properly respected.

But I digress a little bit, as it is a later statement in the article that really struck home for me;

When I read these debates, I think that Shinto has a good solution. Shinto does have shrines and other man-made constructions that serve as places of worship. But compared with churches, mosques, gurdwaras and the places of worship of many other religions, Shinto shrines are for the most part quite small and low-key. Some are tiny hokora, “spirit houses” that range from the size of a bird house to the size of a small shed and are often found tucked away at the wayside or deep in forests. Then there are larger ones, jinja”.

As I mentioned Miyazaki movies earlier, when I think of the hokora, I think of My Neighbor Totoro. There are several hokora pictured throughout the movie. More importantly to the overall story, there is a giant tree that is pictured as surrounded by hokora, as well as what may be part of a larger structure. Notably, this tree is also the home of Totoro, who is a spirit of the forest and of nature.

Finnish folklore and folk beliefs are embedded with very similar objects, which I have talked about in other posts. The Finnish Folklore Atlas is full of maps that show the sites of hundreds if not thousands of stone altars, stone cups, and hiisi trees.

At the end of the Manson article; there is something that kind of stuck with me;

But even within the forest, there are continual small reminders that you are in a sacred place – stone altars, shimenawa ropes tied around trees or by waterfalls, the tunnels of red torii gates, and of course, thousands of fox statues, the guardians of Inari. But these objects never overwhelm their natural surroundings – instead, they are designed to be harmonious with the environment.

This is what I think Pagan places of worship could be like. Rather than being enormous, grand monuments of human architecture in which dozens, if not hundreds, of Pagans can gather under a roof and away from nature, I believe they could be small and understated, serving merely as an indicator and reminder of the sacred significance of a particular place without seeking to dominate it.”

This is not to say, as Manson points out, that things like the Valheim Hof are not truly amazing and wonderful. Nor it is to say that they are wrong, or that we should avoid doing things like that. What I am saying is things like Shinto and Finnish folk belief gives us models that we can use as inspiration, without excluding things like the Hof of course.

There is more I would like to say here, because recently John Halstead brought up an idea that has been incorporated into my own practice, and serves as a great compliment and supplement to the idea of haltia shrines.

Recently, Halstead published the article here, and I wanted to spend a little bit of time with it because the idea of eco/spirit shrines is an important one. I am not going to go into all the details here, so you should give the article itself a read.

As I already said I have already incorporated this idea into my own practice. I cannot remember where I was first exposed to the idea, only that I thought it was a good one. I now regularly leave eco-shrines behind when I hike and explore new grounds and get to know my natural neighbors there. In addition, I have also taught this idea to my small working group, and it is something we have done together as a group activity.

Halstead adds this to the conversation;

At first, at least, we would have to expect that these shrines would be removed by landscaping or maintenance staff or desecrated by ne’er-do-wells or iconoclasts. But one of the advantages of the eco-shrine is that it is relatively easy to rebuild. Some people are bound to be creeped out by public shrines. But I imagine that, if we kept returning to the same spot, rebuilding our natural shrines, that one day we would find that someone else had followed suit and built an eco-shrine before us. And after years, the place might indeed become a holy place in the mind of the non-Pagan public as well.” – Halstead

There is something very important here too. While most eco-shrines are natural and biodegradable (as they should be), there is something to the idea of semi-permanent or otherwise “marked” locations. I have my own habit of mapping where I leave my shrines, because they are often places that “call” to me, and place I might return to. Arrangements of stones, a particular tree, a body of water, that kind of thing. The point being that the trees, stones, and lakes are not going anywhere (generally). They are much more permanent sites. And maybe after years as Halstead points out, these might be regular pagan shrine locations, something like we see in Shinto or the FFA.

I think there is plenty more here to consider, and I might come back to this in future pieces.

But as always; thanks for reading!


Manson “Pagan Temples and Shinto Shrines”

My recent FFA Reflections

Halstead “Eco Shrines”