This series has taken a little longer to get going than I wanted, mostly because I was waiting for a book to arrive. That book is Animism: Respecting the Living World by Graham Harvey. It is going to be a core book throughout this series, because this time around we will be talking about ideology as much as archaeology.
Which is where this series begins, not such much at the beginning of the universe, but with the history of an idea. With the history of this thing we call animism. What does it mean to be an animist, and how has the idea changed over time?
So let’s start with the first question. What does it mean to be an animist, to recognize animism as one worldview. Well, as a starting discussion to these things, the dictionary is a good first step. The Oxford Dictionary defines animism as “1) the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena, and/or 2) the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe.”
I think one should exercise caution with basing ones definitions solely from the dictionary alone. Not only do dictionary definitions lack a great deal of nuance, they also are generally what might be called “common usage” of terminology. For instance, even as a self identified animist, I am not sure I wholly agree with the definition given above. It is simplistic in the most vague way, and honestly isn’t really reflective of what I do or what I believe. To put this another way, I do not think that the dictionary definition in this case has much to say about what I do or how I view the world.
Which is why I am going to be using Harvey’s book for a core definition, which I will be discussing an exploring in a lot more depth as this series goes forward. He starts out by saying this right in the preface;
“Animists are people who recognise that the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human, and that life is always lived in relationship with others.”1
I was first exposed to Harvey’s book several years ago when I was in college, and I devoured it. I would check it out several more times over the years, and now finally have a copy of my own. I do not know why it took me so long, because this book has been a core foundation on the path I walk today.
Unlike the dictionary definition of animism, Harvey’s speaks to the very core of how I view the world. It is full of persons, and I would say most of which are not human. There was actually an article recently that said they might be trillions of species on the planet. Trillions of species, composed up of countless individual persons. That is very difficult for me to even conceive.
The second part is foundational as well to me, because it acknowledges that we live in a social environment, instead of just a material one. We do not just live alongside trees and deer, but alongside tree-people and deer-people. Our relationships with other people define ourselves, as much as they define our place in the world. We are part of a vast web of social connections.
But before we get too deep into that, it is important we pause here2 and look at the second question I raised. How has this idea changed over time? To put this another way, how did we get here? To answer this question will require a short recap of the history of an idea. The history of the idea of animism. For this, again we turn to Harvey.
Harvey devotes nearly a hundred pages to the history of the idea of animism, and I will not be able to recap that all here. To do so might be considered beating a dead horse, as Harvey has already covered this territory. As such, I will only be offering the briefest of surveys.
The ideas that would contribute to the development to animism were present as early as the early 17th century. In 1708 George Stahl proposed that it was “anima” that was that stuff that animated living things.
David Hume, without using the term “animism”, laid out nearly in entirety the concepts of Old Animism in his book A Natural History of Religion. Here is a small excerpt quoted in Harvey’s book;
“… Nor is a river-god or hamadryad always taken for mere poetical or imaginary personage; but may sometimes enter into the real creed of the ignorant vulgar; while each grove or field is represented as possessed of a particular genius or invisible power…”
It is important to note here the mention of the “ignorant vulgar” which here means any backward, primitive or “unevolved” person that hasn’t grasped the heights of European civilization at the time. The earliest of theories on animism were laced with the Myth of Progress, the idea that the “primitive” was somehow backwards and ignorant compared with those that wrote about them. There is also healthy doses of colonialism, and imperial power all throughout the early writings. The idea being, that being an animist or subscribing to an animistic worldview, was more or an insult and derogatory term.
Such ideas are the basis of old animism, and we will explore this more going forward.
Which brings us to the “father” of old animism, Edward Tylor. Tylor is considered by many to one of the founder’s of modern anthropology, and as such I have been subject to many lectures and discussions on Tylor in my college days. And even these days, Tylor continues to come up as his influence on the field as well as the study of animism in nothing short of prominent. Harvey devotes a good five pages to Tylor, even when most other thinkers are given an paragraph or two.
That being said, Tylor was a big proponent of his time of the idea we call today The Myth of Progress, and it applied to Tylor’s animism as well. In Tylor’s view, animism “identifies a ‘primitive’ but ubiquitious category error, namely ‘ the belief in souls or spirits’ “ 4
To put this another way, Tylor felt that modern (to his time) religions had “evolved” from lesser, primitive and savage states, and ideas such as animism were in fact the error of “lesser” minds. Such conclusions reeked of Eurocentrism, and in no small part intesect with the spheres of colonialism and imperliamism; In Tylor’s own words;
“It is a harsher, and at times even painful, office of ethnography to expose the remains of crude old culture which have passed into harmful superstition, and mark these out for destruction.” 5 Tylor felt that “higher” forms of religion had evolved from “lesser” forms, of which animism was the “origin” of religion.
I could talk at length about the flaws and problems with Tylor’s thinking, but to do so would certainly make this post a long one. So, for the time being I would like to leave Tylor and his thinking behind, because he represents only the beginning of the history of the idea of animism.
Several other thinkers and anthropologists would follow in Tylor’s footsteps, and contribute in some way or another to the literature on animism and other related religious topics. Many of these would be plagued by the same problems of colonialism, imperialism, and the Myth of Progress; all of which would lead later scholar’s to reject earlier thinkers writing, and with it many concepts such as animism.
It is an unpleasant truth that many disciplines have their origin in the past, times when things such as the Myth of Progress were thought of to be self evident. It is obvious, the thinking went, that those “primitive” people are backwards in their thinking and would be much better being “raised” to a higher form of religion and culture.
I cannot begin to describe what this kind of thinking did to non-Christian and native peoples the world over. Hell, the things this kind of thinking is still doing. But less I get off on a tangent.
So as fields like Anthropology tried to distance themselves from the flaws of our own past (and thinkers like Tylor), animism as a concept was relegated to dusty old shelves of the past as an useless and antiquated term. Indeed, many scholars past and present still question whether it was a useful concept at all.
Which brings us to Irving Hallowell, who did his fieldwork among the Ojibwe. His writing would redefine animism, and bring with it the “new animism.” Here Harvey is quoted;
“Consideration of the ‘new animism’ neccesarily begins with what Irving Hallowell learnt from the dialogue with Ojibwe hosts in southern central Canada in the early to mid-twentieth century. According to the Ojibwe, the world is full of people, only some of whom are human.” 6
Which brings us through a short history of animism, as many other thinkers would pick up the threads Hallowell put down, and it is here too that I take my own definition of animism. It is a concept laced in the prejudices of the past, which had very real repercussions for countless. To those like Tylor, it was the (mistaken, and erroneous) “belief in souls or spirits.”
But as questionable as its past might be, the “new animism” I find to be a useful way of conceptualizing the world.
As one full of persons.
Thank you for reading!
1Harvey, pg xi
2As there will be plenty of words dedicated to deeper explorations.
3Harvey, pgs 3 – 5
4Harvey pg 7
5Harvey, pg 8, quoting Tylor’s “Primitive Culture.”