Tag Archives: Animism

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!

References/Sources;

http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/04/05/522738015/is-neuroscience-rediscovering-the-soul

http://www.npr.org/sections/13.7/2017/04/04/522011396/the-key-to-life-is-the-network


Spiritual Engineering

Hello again folks!

Now that things have calmed down just a little bit, I have had the time to sit down and knock out another post. As far as updates are concerned, we are about a month away from opening the shop back up, and I am finishing up proofing on the fifth book of the Elder Blood Saga. It really has been a hell of a ride, and I am sad to see that series come to an end. But all things come to an end, so now I move on to other projects.

Just what are we talking about today? You might have noticed the title of this post is “Spiritual Engineering.” You are probably wondering what exactly I am getting at?

Naturally, I will be happy to explain. But first, some context. As some of may know, I have recently started the coursework for two year shamanic intensive. It has been rather fantastic so far! I am still in the introductory work, and there is already so much to think and write about! Of course, that is good news for you, my readers, as you get to come along for the ride.

In the intensive, I recently went through a course in which we talked a great deal about neurology, and our own set of spiritual “wiring” in the context of shamanism. What we are really going to be talking about is energy work, and the “hardware and software” we use to make that work.

However, first I want to be clear about how I am using terms. When I refer to energy work, I restrict that usage to the “self”. You have probably heard the adage that “everything is energy”, and I certainly don’t disagree with that. However, I would add that in an animistic context, every is not just energy. Once you move into the world external to yourself, you are no longer dealing with just energy. You are dealing with persons; each of which has their own will, awareness and most importantly, boundaries. I learned this the hard way. I’ll tell you that story sometime, as it has taken me a while to make sense of that.

While it may be true that trees and rocks are made up of energy, they are more than JUST energy. The point being, once you move beyond the self, we are talking more about “spiritual social work” than mere “energy work.” Beyond the self, in an animistic context, you are now interacting with the social world of other-than-human persons. I hope the distinction makes sense.

So, for this post we are only talking about individual energy work. The work you do with your own personal spirit. Now, I have a pretty complicated view of the spirit. That is because the singular individual “self” we conceive is anything but singular. We are made up of countless number of individual cells, all of which form to together to make this collective individual we refer to as “me.”

In an animistic context, all of those cells have their own spirits; but in the grand scheme of things the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Still, the point is that all of these cells exist in great vast network. It is those connections and networks that make all of systems work together, and from the connections in our brain that allow us to conceive of ourselves in the singular.

In addition, it is my working theory that the spirit is in many ways analogous to our physical body. Just like neurons in the brain, all those little connections and networks are part of our spirit, and constitute our “spiritual wiring.” You with me so far?

Now, you get at least two camps when you talk about spiritual wiring, especially in regards to shamanism.

On the one side, you get what I might call the hard-wired camp. These are the people that claim that shamanism is only for those with a certain “energetic circuitry”. Basically, if you don’t have the right make up, you can’t be a shaman.

On the other side, there are those that think it is more of a universal thing. That in short, any one can be a shaman. If the calling is there, and the spirits have come forward, the “wiring” is a work in progress. It might be worked and reworked over and over again over the process.

Which is where the spiritual engineering comes in. For me it is certainly not an “either/or” type of thing. We are pretty adaptable as organisms, and even our brains have a noted plasticity in their connections. However, I also take more of a moderate view. Some parts of our “wiring” might be hard-wired, and it places limits on what we can do and what we can’t do. Yet, it can be rearranged and adapted as well. Weak circuits can be bypassed, and new augmentations can be added. They can also be removed and stripped out too. That is spiritual engineering. Tailoring the “wiring” for the job at hand.

Are there limits, sure. Some might even be built into my “core structure”, or whatever you would like to call my predetermined wiring. But that doesn’t stop me from doing a redesign either. I little rewiring here, a little bypass there. I plug this plasma conduit into that warp core, and bam! Ready to go!

(From Google images. I think it makes the point.)

Let me use shielding as an example. I am just going to assume you all know what I am talking about. Shielding is one of those things I really enjoy to play with, because it is only limited by your imagination. I am sure none of my regular readers would be surprised if I said I have played with sci-fi inspired shielding, fantasy shielding, and pretty much anything else I have been able to imagine.

For example, say I want to wade into some kind of spiritual nightmare. Maybe I have to deal with a spiritual nasty at the boss level. As such, I want to engineer a shield that can hold up to some punishment. So I take a good hard look at my spiritual wiring, and realize it can’t handle what I need to do. I’d be pretty SOL if I couldn’t do some adaptive redesign.

So I build myself an armor suit straight out of Mass Effect, all N7 and such. But I find that one of my spiritual circuits just can’t handle the load I want to run through it. It would be the analogy of running 100 volts through a 12 volt wire. Obviously, if I don’t do something about that, my circuitry is going to fry.

I also find out that this given circuit is one of my “hard-wired” bits. It is required for something else to work, so I can’t really cut it out and replace it. It’s required equipment. I CAN however bypass it. So I install a bypass that can carry the spiritual current I need, and never have to worry about burning the little 12 volt out.

That way I can run the power I need to, and be good to go in the ass-kickery department.

However, just like real life engineering, I wouldn’t recommend just jumping into this kind of thing. The example above is for illustration purposes only. Just like I wouldn’t recommend Joe-Unskilled from the street take over Scotty’s position on the Enterprise, I wouldn’t advise messing with your wiring without the expertise to do so. Or at least without “adult” supervision.

Realize, that this kind of energy work has taken me many years of training and study to even guess at. Just like real world engineering, it takes expertise, experience and study to become proficient at it.

As such, the “don’t try this at home” caveat applies.

As always, thanks for reading!


Animism and Relationships

I just want you all to know that you all are amazing! My hits on this site have been pretty steady, even though I haven’t been posting nearly as much as I would like lately. I have been really busy on other projects… In addition to a full time job, it is really taxing on my time. I have to pick and choose what I am going to devote my time and energy to, and sadly this blog has been low on the priority list.

At the same time, I really didn’t want to put this on hiatus while I worked on other projects. Still, I didn’t want to be putting out crap here (which tends to happen when my head is in something else), because I value myself as a writer of decent content. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; being a novelist and a blogger is really hard sometimes. Usually, I have to pick between one or the other. Either I am putting out good writing for a novel, OR I am putting out good writing for this blog. When I try to juggle both at the same time, the quality of each suffers. It’s all about time and energy management.

But all the same, THANK YOU, all of you, for consistently reading even when I am being neglectful. It really means a lot to me.

Now, into what I hope will be good blog.

I’ve had a lot on my mind lately, thinking about humanity, our civiliations, and its relationship to the environment. In many ways, that is one of the cornerstones of my animism; how we live in relation to one another. “One another” can mean other humans, or non-humans. Relations is a big wide sounding concept, and it is the thing that binds us all together.

The idea for this blog struck me while I was playing games one night. It should come as no surprise that I like to play games in my downtime. I especially like creative games, because it helps to keep the juices flowing without all that mucking about with “productivity.” It lets me wind down, and imagine all at the same time.

An idea struck me late last night when thinking about a couple of games I like to play; namely Starmade and Minecraft. While neither of these are perfect models, they can be used as interesting teaching tools.

For example, Minecraft is a rough model of a pre-industrial society. Most of the work is done by hand (survival mode), and is done mostly by human and animal power. It is a relatively low energy model.

minecraft-windows-10-edition-03-700x373

(We got pigs. We got farms.)

Starmade by contrast is an industrial model. Most extraction and production is done with powered equipment and industrial scale factories. It allows not only faster extraction, but also a significantly larger building scale.

This has both pros and cons. Minecraft has a much slower building rate, and generally a slower extraction rate. Starmade’s build system allows for much larger works on a much faster time scale. However, the extraction rate is also proportionally higher. It is possible in Starmade to build extraction equipment that mines entire planets.

Neither of these games have any real consequences for environmental exploitation. Unlike the real world.

At least in the vanilla versions of these games, there is no consequences in Minecraft if I level an entire forest to build a house. Hell, I could even burn the forest down without any intent of using the resources at all. It has no effect on the breathability of the atmosphere, or generally doesn’t result in the extinction of entire ecosystems. (A few pigs might die, but that might be the worst of it.)

In Starmade, as I mentioned before, you can mine an entire planet, a continent the size of North America if you wanted, and IT HAS NO CONSEQUENCES.

maxresdefault

(That is a mining ship. We aren’t even messing around anymore…)

That is not at all true in the real world, because everything is interconnected. If we treated forests as badly as I sometimes do in Minecraft, there wouldn’t be any trees left. Let’s not even talk about destroying entire worlds, because we only have one at the moment.

But we also have to face facts here. We still need resources, even if our civilization stopped growing today. We would still need timber to maintain homes, still need metal and concrete to maintain our infrastructure. Unless every single human on this planet dies (and no I’m not okay with this), we are still going to require resources to build and maintain everything we do. That is why sustainability is so important, and that is why we need to take a good hard look at our relationships with the environment.

download

(Is this really what we want?)

In Minecraft, even trees can be replanted. Hell, they even grow at a crazy unrealistic rate. In the real world, can you guess how long the forest in the above picture would take in the picture to come back? Decades at least, centuries even.

Now, I want to say that I really do love playing these games.

But we also need to be realistic about these things. For example, let’s talk about efficiency for a moment. We live in an industrial economy, and that means we can do wonderful things like mass produce solar panels, wind turbines, and even rockets to the moon. We couldn’t do these things in a Minecraft style pre-industrial world.

But with that efficiency comes a cost. To keep up with an industrial production rate, we need an industrial extraction rate too. In Starmade I can make ridiculous large factories designed to build large ships such as Krom (not my ship by the way) above. However, those factories may also require me to WASTE ENTIRE PLANETS to keep up with their resource demands.

That is just not sustainable, especially in real life we one have the Earth. One little blue and green planet.

strip_coal_mining

(Let’s be honest with ourselves for a moment.)

To circle back to the beginning of this piece; animism is all about relationships. Between humans, and between humans and the environment. It is the relationship between us and our technology, us and our civilization, and the entirety of the planet. These relationships have consequences, and we need to be honest about that. What do our relationships say about us?

What will our relationships look like in the future?

greencity_final polluted-chinese-city_opt1

(right: by Nick Pedersen left: a city in China.)

Thanks for reading!


Reflections and Meditations on 2016 Part 1

We are moving into the time of year where I tend to get really reflective and meditative. It is my big writing time for the year, where I tend to spend most of my time on longer projects. There is certainly a novel or two rolling around in my head, and at least one non-fiction work.

It has yet to be seen if I will actually have the time to work on all three projects (or any that have yet to make themselves known.) I might be able to work on one, having to have a day job and all. If anyone wants to give me a bunch of money or offer me a residency in some far off place (preferably in Scandinavia), now would be the time. Anyone?

Oh, the sounds of silence.

Anywho, enough of that. This certainty has been a hell of a year. There is just so much I could talk about here, I am going to have to be a little selective. As this is primarily a blog for spiritual things (as well as other things), I guess it makes the most sense that I should start with the changes in my spiritual path over this year.

There have been a lot of changes in that regards to be sure. I have been reading on a lot of different topics, and experimenting with new ideas to see what works, and what doesn’t. Some new thoughts have taken root, and I have moved beyond some old ones. A lot of generalities, yes I know.

Well, I guess it is fair to say I have been in “questioning” mode throughout most of this year. There was a time or two I dropped into spiritual crisis over the course of this year. Sometimes the questions without answers become far too heavy to carry after a point. There has been a fair bit of doubt and uncertainty, and through the great ups and downs of this year, more than a share of depression and anxiety.

I have felt lost at times. When I asked myself what path am I on, I don’t know really how to answer that anymore. There is nothing that really feels like it “fits”. Skins I have either outgrown, or were never mine to begin with. In the most general sense, I consider myself an animist. The world is full of people, most of which are non-human. Since I have written quite a bit about that, so I don’t want to belabor that point.

It’s true that my ancestors have always been a real core of my practice. The dead are always with us, in some way or another. On my less “spiritual” days, I know they are still in my DNA, in my blood and bone. Even when I doubt everything else, I know that; on a purely physical level they are with me. That is one corner stone of certainty I can grasp onto when I wonder if all this is just in my head.

That has been a big bit of this year. I think it is normal that we all have doubts, especially in matters such as spirituality. I mean, we can no longer touch the dead, no longer feel them physically in our lives. Sometimes I think I hear them, and other beings too. Yet, some days I have to stretch just to reach… anything. It makes me wonder if it is all in my head? I have felt that a lot this year; looking over that edge and wonder if I should fall off?

I think I am partially convinced that line of thought is wrong. How can this be all in my head if I can look out the door and see the Bird People, and the Tree People; if I can run down the forest trails with the Deer People? That is real, at least as real as these things get. I have been down the road of “what is reality”, and I don’t want to go there again. If this what is “real” is all some kind of hologram, I don’t want to know. Let me think that where I find myself is real, and let me keep my feet on the ground. If this is all some kind of “brain in a jar” Matrix shit, I don’t want to know.

So there are some certainties to be sure, but there are days when the doubts get heavy. If the ancestors, spirits, gods (whatever) I hear some days; if that is all in my head I have some serious problems. That is the other reason I think I am scared to contemplate that possibility. If this is all in my head, I have some real serious problems… That idea terrifies me. I hate having to look at my sanity, and wonder if I am all there?

Other days, fuck it. We are all crazy here.

Perhaps that really gets at the marrow on my year. It has been a lot of that. I also have been reading a lot of my old posts on this blog. Some of them are still relevant, others feel like some long lost skin. I do not see myself in those posts anymore. I have outgrown them, and left them far behind.

That is part of why I love blogging so much. It is kind of like a journal of my path as an individual. If you are all keeping up, you might have notice things have been shifting. Old ideas have not been entertained in a while, and new ones are cropping up all the time. Some might call that growth. Me, I don’t know. Some days it just feels like I am running in place.

Which kind of circles back to the idea of the supposed “path I walk.” I don’t know what to call it anymore. It’s animistic sure, and there is some shamanism-ish in there too. Ancestor work still makes up the core, with a close periphery of work with other people, primarily of the “natural” variety. Trees, rocks, wolves; you know, things we can point to in the “real” world. I know, for a fact, that these things are beyond myself.

I also know for a fact that my ancestors are dead, as are the ancestors of those Trees and Wolves. Is it too much a stretch to thing that some part of what we are lives on after death? Maybe not our bodies, but something? That is where I get into the fuzziness that sometimes makes me question my sanity.

And then there are the gods. Oh boy, that is a big one. I have struggled with this one a lot over the last few years, because I couldn’t quite figure out how to conceive of the gods in a way I could relate to and work with. Some have claimed this is just the nature of the gods. They are unknowable and mysterious and all that.

It has been a long process (not just this year), wading through all this. My spiritual journey started with a Christian church; a Southern Baptist one. I got plenty of the “God’s will is mysterious” and that he is omnipotent, and omniscient and immortal and and and… ad nauseum.

But over the years, and especially this past year. I have stripped away much of that. To me, I think that divinity is more of a “job” or a role rather than an intrinsic state of being. The best word I have found for the gods so far is stewards, and a lot of this has come over the past year or so from my studies in Finnish folklore and belief. I have written a fair bit about that, so once again I’m not going to harp on that to much.

Still, a big part of that was the ideas of haltias in Finnish folklore. The idea of a being that was a steward over a group, a clan, a tribe, a species; what have you. A haltia can be a elder ancestor, and/or a representative; and is generally concerned with the wellbeing of “theirs”; however they may be grouped. I groked with that, I understood that.

Which lead to the other parts starting to fall away. The gods, as stewards, likely don’t know everything (some try for sure), are not all powerful, and are limited in a very real sense. They are also not likely immortal in any sense. The stories are filled with “average” people becoming gods, and gods being stripped of their power. There are also stories of dead gods, forgotten gods, and all shreds of nuance around that.

Personally, a world full of numerous “limited” gods makes more sense to me than one “Almighty” something or other.

This all leads me to think that godhood is a role, a position of responsibility. Could you imagine the responsibility on the shoulders of a being that is a steward of humanity? Such a role would almost imply you had to take the long view of things. It also implies that the life, or death, of one particular individual might not be important as the “grand scheme” of things. It would be much more about the welfare of the “whole” rather than the “parts.”

Does this all make sense? Or am I just rambling?

Still, it makes me think that maybe godhood is something that is a potential in all of us. Maybe someday, we will all be stewards of that type. Divinity might well be something that is “earned” or “granted”, and just as easily be taken away.

Or I could be way off the mark. It’s fun to think about all the same.

I want to leave this topic for a bit, and move onto another one. As I said, my “path” has been interesting so far. I have no real titles to claim, and no real “tradition” that I am an adherent to. There has really been no initiations, no big ceremonies. In many ways it has just been me stumbling my way through. Sounds a lot like life in general.

I am not trying to diminish the contributions of countless numbers of people though. I have had many mentors, guides, teachers, friends, collaborators; human and non-human both. Some of them I truly respect an count among my friends and allies, and they have helped me grow a lot as a person and on my spiritual path. Yet, at the end of the day, I am mostly self taught. One situation, one idea at a time, I have had to figure out (sometimes the hard way) what works and what doesn’t. In some wide sense, some of what I have learned has been hard earned. It has come with deep financial, mental, physical and emotional costs.

I have taken a great bit of inspiration and learning from my ancestors. There are reasons I study things like crafts, archaeology and anthropology. Not only do I get enjoyment out of doing so, in some ways I am bringing that past learning into myself. In no small way, I am taking old material and reforging it.

Because, at the end of the day we have to face the facts of the present. We no longer live in the times of our ancestors. Their teachings and traditions were created and shaped to deal with the challenge of THEIR times, not ours. The world has moved on. Yet, I find some of those old tools still work, even if a little bit differently than originally meant to.

The fact is, the past is history. Without some cataclysmic event, we have to deal with the realities of the here and now, and also for the future. That is what I feel I am doing. I am taking the threads left by my ancestors; the fragments of long decayed tapestries. I am taking those threads, and rebuilding something for the present. I am re-weaving, rebuilding, and reshaping all these ideas into tool for our own time.

As well as onward into the future.


My Animism

I wanted to sit down and type this out for two reasons; first and foremost for myself and for my readers. I have talked quite a bit here about my beliefs and worldview. I wanted to take the time to really create a more concise version of all of that. Second, I am hoping to add another contribution to the growing My Polytheism project.

As I have said many times before, I am an animist first and foremost. It is my foundation, and the lens through which I view the world. I am a polytheist as well, because there is more than enough room for gods in my animism. But that’s not the focus of this post, so will leave that for a moment.

My animism starts with a single and simple philosophy; that the world is full of people, most of which are non-human, and that life is lived in relation with others.

This idea comes from Graham Harvey’s book “Animism: Respecting the Living World.” As I have explored in many other posts, the implications of this philosophy are huge. In many ways it informs everything I do as well as many of my values and principles.

Naturalistic Aspects

There is a principle that I adhere to when approaching many of life’s obstacles; search for a mundane explanation first, then explore spiritual ones. This means I practice and live a spirituality that is very grounded in this world. A world of trees, deer and humans, and plenty of other things besides.

Science is very important to me, and I think it is a fine thing overall. Most of all, it is a reliable method for understanding that which is empirical. That being said, it is only one method of understanding the world. I prefer to integrate many different ways of understanding into how I view the world.

For example, science as well as my own senses tell me the world is full of many things. It also tells me that things like plants and animals are living.

My animism tells me that not only are these things living, but they are people too. Oak People, and Deer People, and Squirrel People. In fact, the current count of species on this planet is over one trillion.

One Trillion different species of People.

In addition, my animism also tells me that all people are deserving of basic dignity and respect, as well as the basic right to exist as they see fit. It fits nicely with things like ecology, that says in some way or another, we are all interconnected. Destroying forests for example is as bad for us in the long run as it is for the People that find themselves displaced.

It applies too to humans. It means that no matter your gender, sexual orientation, or the color of your skin, you deserve basic dignity and respect.

All are people. All deserve basic dignity and respect.

Spiritual Aspects

It is called the physical for a reason. It is the world we live in all of our embodied lives, the world of science and nature. It is the world we can touch and taste, measure and understand.

But as I said, I tend to layer and interweave the numerous aspects of my worldview. The physical is one aspect, the metaphysical is another. I draw a great deal of inspiration from old mythologies, folklore and archaeology. I weave the threads of the past into the present, and onward into the future too. It’s called the metaphysical because it is what comes “after” the physical. It is not the realm of science, but of belief and ideas.

I don’t think we just “stop” when we die. We become… well disembodied. In naturalistic ways, the dead are still with us. In our bones and blood, in our soil and in our air. Some day all the atoms in my body will be recycled into something else. My ancestors live on in my very DNA, and in my memories.

It is said that the dead are protectors of the living, and I take this to heart. In both a physical and metaphysical sense, my ancestors are still with me. I can ask them for guidance, and their blood runs in my veins. So much of my appearance, innate skills, my mental makeup, I owe to them. I have added my own bits from my own life experiences to be sure.

So there are the disembodied, and there are those that never had bodies to begin with. I am not going to go to deep into that at the moment. But I want you to consider what I said earlier about the trillions of species. Now consider they have trillions and trillions of dead behind them, back to the first of their kind. Humans have that too, and that makes my animistic view really complicated.

I want to share something now that hasn’t really appeared too much in my previous posts. It is my current way of organizing my thinking about all this. I tend to think of the various species as “Clans”. In the anthropological sense, “clan” usually means a grouping based on a common ancestor.

So in humans terms the McManus clan would in some way all be descendants of someone named McManus.

Also, if I say one of my big spiritual alliance is with the Arctic Wolf Clan, it implies most members of gray wolves, as well as the subspecies the Arctic wolf. Because under current taxonomy, Arctic wolves are considered a subspecies of gray wolves; Canis lupus artcos. See how that works?

As such, I would also be a member of the Human Clan, Homo sapiens (sapiens). If you want to go even farther back up the ancestral tree, I could claim I am part of the Primate Clan too. And considering that all life (and other peoples) on Earth have a common origin in some primordial time…

That makes every person on this planet a member of the Earth-Clan.

Obviously, there is a lot a room for nuance and overlap in this system. For example, because of my spiritual alliances, I am considered a member of Artic Wolf Clan as well as the clan of Skaði. There is a whole set of stories there I am not going to go into. Not in this post anyways.

Most of what I have said here comes as much from taxonomy and anthropology as it does a fair bit of Nordic folklore, especially Finnish folklore and modern art as well. There is plenty of scholarly material that suggests there may have been an ancient clan system in some parts of Europe. Reindeer/Elk and Bear cults being the most obvious examples.

One of my favorite Finnish folk metal bands is Korpiklanni, whose name means “Forest Clan.” As such, as I have just detailed, the various species would be the Klanni.

Gray/Arctic Wolf Klanni, Earth Klanni, and so forth. You get the idea.

Political Aspects

I don’t want to harp too much on this, as I have said a fair bit in other places. As I said earlier, my animism implies that all people deserve basic dignity and respect. This is regardless of the various ways we divide each other, by sex, gender, skin color, or what have you. This idea for me even transcends human issues. The whole of nature deserves respect as much as humans do.

I have made it no secret that I favor the ideas embodied in social democracy, especially in the Nordic model. You know, the kinds of ideas that put people first. Universal health care and education, equality and democracy. Because not only do people deserve respect, but deserve a voice too.

In addition to a lot of issues that fall under social justice, the Nordic countries also put a strong emphasis on the environment as well. As I said, basic dignity and respect extends beyond humans. We need to be doing everything in our power to live sustainably, and reduce our impact on the environment. Entire species, entire Klanni, are going extinct mostly due to habitat loss. That is on us humans. Not to put too fine a point on it, but in human terms wiping out entire peoples is considered genocide. In animistic terms, killing off entire species is genocide too.

Issue by issue, my animism does inform my political positions. Human people deserve dignity, so we should do every everything we can to make sure the people in our societies are taken care of. In addition, non-human people should enter in the equation too.

The long and short of it is; we cannot afford to think only of ourselves.

I feel like there is a lot more I can write here…

But as always;

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.

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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.

Shamanism

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!

References/Sources;

 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

Britannica


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!

Sources/References;

Manson “Pagan Temples and Shinto Shrines”

My recent FFA Reflections

Halstead “Eco Shrines”