As science revisits panpsychism in its bid to explain the hard problem of consciousness, such as our awareness of the medicinal benefits of psychedelic plants and how fungi grow – could we be heading towards a (neo) animist paradigm? Let’s ponder as we continue to battle a grueling global pandemic, we are also being warned about an imminent climate catastrophe. Are psychedelics offering us an opportunity to shift from our current materialist worldview to embrace a more unified animist perspective? Let us dive into the movement of new age animism.
What is Animism?
The word Animism derives from the Latin root ‘Anima’, which means breath, spirit, and life.
This universal life force known as the Great Spirit in many indigenous traditions was named the ‘Anima Mundi’ by the Greek philosopher Plato who proclaimed,
“This world is indeed a living being endowed with a soul and intelligence, a single visible living entity containing all other living entities, which by their nature are all related.”
Anima has been revered in most societal cultural cosmologies and mythologies throughout human history. It is comparable in similarity to Prana in the Vedic traditions and Chi in the Taoist.
The concept of Animism first appeared in Victorian British anthropology in the book Primitive Culture (1871) by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor. Taylor coined the word itself as a blanket term after he and other western anthropologists encountered and observed a widespread spiritual commonality amongst indigenous societies worldwide. These anthropologists observed a deeply rooted value-system cultivated amongst these societies, their land, and all life surrounding them. They witnessed the close relationship and their reverence for nature. Additionally, they observed the way these cultures infused their world with sentience.
Animism’s practice describes as cultivating a relationship with Plato’s Anima Mundi, the great universal spirit. This spirit is apparent throughout several thought systems. It’s the intrinsic connection between all living things on the planet. In essence, this spirit conceptualizes the invisible threads connecting people, nature’s elements, and its’ creatures in what we often refer to as the web of life.
The Western Adoption
The language of plant ‘’allies, teachers and spirits” has moved out of Indigenous vocabulary and weaves itself into Western dialogue. As non-Amazonian people flock to South America to heal with ayahuasca, it is clear that a new audience is forming and open to adopting these sentiments. Theorists, cultivators, and ethnobotanists are also aligning themselves with animist ideals, with popular figures like the mycologist Paul Stamets championing a paradigm shift in our consciousness. Stamets’ influential book, Mycelium Running, outlines his theory of a ‘living mycelium network that manifests the natural intelligence imagined by Gaia theorists,’ which also promotes nature as a powerful force of good. He states, “Good is not only a concept, it is a spirit” (Stamets 2005, 4). All in line with the overarching ideology of Animism.
This begs the question, are we seeing the rekindling of (neo)animism, not just as an analytical theory but as a lived reality?
It’s clear that Animism provides a spiritual ecology to aid humans in building a regenerative culture as well as encouraging stewardship on Earth. Something our ailing planet is in desperate need of right now as we are rapidly diving headfirst into irreversible ecological catastrophe disaster.
An Ancient Indigenous Sensibility
Animism has existed as a belief system and sensibility amongst many ancient (and modern) indigenous cultures for millennia. From the Greek Minoans to the Bwiti forest dwellers of Gabon, Animism was present.
Experts describe the cornerstone of animistic thought as a theory or way of perceiving the world and the beings and things that populate it. It’s the idea that everything is alive with ‘spirit’. Historians believe Animism to be the foundation of human spirituality and date it back to the Paleolithic period. Animists generally perceive that all beings and phenomena of nature possess a spiritual essence. It’s this essence that is “animating” them and making them conscious. They believe that all animals, people, trees, mountains, lakes, the sun, planets, and even places, are consciously alive. Furthermore, they embody personalities, and permeate with energies or ‘spirit’ which all have an experience of the world.
Animism doesn’t denote a religion per se. More so the view that there is an unseen world that lies beyond our mundane human perception. This widespread view is upheld by several contrasting cultures, one filled with living beings in many guises. According to animist cultures, we are constantly in a relationship with these spirits, despite whether or not we perceive them.
Most animist cultures associate their collective and individual well-being with their environment, community, surrounding nature, and animals. All of which they live in a close relationship. There is a deeply upheld sense of interconnectivity and in their view no separation between people and nature.
Animism in Ancient Cultures
Examples of entheogenic practices incorporated in an animistic culture can be traced to the Central-African hunter-gathering Pygmy people. Their lineage can be traced as far back as the late stone age. The African Pygmy people of Gabon, known as the Punu and Mitsogo, are alive today and maintain their traditions, dwelling deep amongst the forests of Gabon.
The Pygmy people are often cited as the origin of Bwiti, a spiritual discipline incorporating Animism and ancestor worship with the use of the master plant and psychedelic medicine Iboga. Bwiti ceremonies are crucial initiatory rites led by the community’s spiritual elders with extensive knowledge of healing practices, hexes, and spells.
Iboga is an ancient African psychedelic traditionally used ritualistically to initiate members into the Bwiti spiritual sect and is known colloquially today as the ‘Mount Everest of Psychedelics’. It is also used to drive out malevolent spirits as it initiates a war of the self which can last up to 24 hours or more. Iboga is traditionally used to heal the sick and promote radical spiritual growth and pay homage to and communicate with ancestors.
Christianity, Islam, and Animism
Although Christianity and Islam are prominent in Sub-Saharan Africa today, many ancient African cultures were polytheistic societies that maintained ideas and rituals in concern of the dead and their notions that spirits of the departed can influence the world of the living. According to many traditional African beliefs, the dead are never really dead. Ancestral spirits, who can offer assistance and protection. surround the living.
Some societies share the belief that supernatural forces are responsible for rainfall, flooding, and forest wildlife. Their reverence for “divine” nature meant, for example, that it was unacceptable to clear forests excessively, pollute rivers and water sources, or kill more animals than a family needed for food. Unfortunately, colonialism and the spread of monotheism led to the erosion of many of those animistic values.
A running theme of explorations of the underworld and communication with the dead runs through many ancient animistic cultures. The feminist and shamanistic Greek religions of the Minoan and Mycenaeans were largely female-led and involved medicine women and goddesses journeying through mystical realms and shapeshifting into sacred animals. Early Greek spirituality, which derives from indigenous animist beliefs, filters down to the Hellenic Greeks, which many of us are more familiar with. Before them came the Eleusinian Mysteries, practiced between 1600 BCE – 392 CE.
The Eleusinian Mysteries
The Eleusinian Mysteries were a mystery school whose annual Athenian festival and secret rituals and initiation rites used a selection of psychoactive plants to create a mind-altering mixture called Kykeon. Scholars believed Kykeon contained the psychotropic fungus ergot.
Initiated by the legendary ‘shaman’ of Greece, Eumolpus, in honor of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone, the Eleusinian Mysteries’ rites involved purifications, fasts, visions, and the conjuring of an afterlife. Although the exact details remain a secret, the rituals’ purpose was to ensure rebirth and immortality. Researchers trace back the animistic rituals of ancient Greece to the Egyptians, whose culture honed various complex rituals centered around death and the afterlife. For the Egyptians, death was only a transition to another realm.
Animistic thought has roots in many religions; Judaism is one of them. The earliest Hebrew religion was an animistic one. The Hebrews worship forces of nature that dwell in natural objects and a society that dedicates to their land and agriculture.
When the Romans had destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 AD, the shift away from animistic traditions began. Before this, Judaism was an animistic religion. We now know the use of cannabis by Ancient Hebrew priests in the old Temple of Jerusalem. There is evidence to suggest other psychedelics were tools to reinforce their connection to their animistic belief system. Although the earth-based practices are more hidden, modern Judaism still adheres to the honoring of ancestors and the interaction with elements in ceremonies and rituals.
Shamans, the Spirit World, and Entheogens:
The shaman is unique in that he/she does not only use their relationship with spirits for the healing of their community, but to develop the higher faculty needed to travel between ordinary and non-ordinary realms. The goal is to obtain the information and wisdom from the ‘spirit world’ they need to aid their healing work.
A shaman can mediate between the needs of the community they’re healing and the needs of the spirit world. Many indigenous shamanic cultures that adhere to animistic beliefs have a long history and tradition of using psychedelic plants and fungi ritualistically to help navigate these realms.
Many of us are familiar with the entheogenic basis of shamanism, which illustrates by the use of ayahuasca in South American Shamanic healing. Not forgetting the Mesoamerican psilocybin mushroom practices and the Siberian shamans, who still ingest the Amanita muscaria mushroom for use in their traditional rituals today.
The entheogens used in shamanic healing work in symbiosis with the principles of Animism. Some shamans explore shape-shifting in order to travel between non-human beings and places, exploring their relationships and sometimes temporarily inhabiting them.
From an Animistic Lens
Scientific evidence in clinical trials reveals one of the most long-lasting effects of a psychedelic journey is the increased feelings of interconnectedness with nature, people, and the universe at large. Psychedelics can show us that the world around us can come alive with meaning. They reinforce that there is profound meaning in our surroundings and connect us back into being in relationship with them.
It’s important to note that Animism as a world view and sensibility goes a lot deeper than what we may call a ‘mystical’ psychedelic experience. Animist thought requires seeing life permanently via a non-materialist lens, seeing consciousness as primary, and aware that our behaviors, choices, and actions impact everything. It’s a perspective that requires deep empathy and connection with nature. If we cannot put ourselves in the position of other living creatures or things we are unlikely to treat them with the respect they deserve.
People can learn many lessons from taking an animist view, especially when assessing our relationship with the environment and its direct influence on our wellbeing. All animist cultures live in close relationship with the land and nature. They surmise the quality of their well-being as reflective of the prosperity of the land around them, the health of the community they are part of.
They attribute feelings of happiness and good health to their connection with their environment, nature, and their community. Most animist societies don’t make a distinction between themselves and nature, more so they place no border between spirits and matter itself.
The indigenous Sami, the reindeer-herding people of Lapland, work in union with their animals. They believe they have conscious ways of communicating emotions, goals, and values. The reindeer give themselves to the Sami in return for shelter and food. The herders believe animals and spirits to be mutually interdependent due to the ecological, economic, cultural, and social spaces in which non-humans and humans interrelate (Elina Helander Renvall 2009).
The animist worldview is one of mutual caretaking. If the animals, plant life, or surrounding nature is unhealthy or in decay, they believe the wellbeing of their society suffers as a direct result of their relationship.
Ethos of Animism
These cultures are adept at maintaining a balance between themselves and their surroundings. Conversations occur between humans and non-humans in a mythic discourse that serves the community well in maintaining equilibrium. They also understand and believe that intentionally damaging, polluting, or destroying the land will result in negative energy returned by the spirits.
So what can an animist belief system teach us about our relationship with nature and our attitude towards human ecology?
An animist perspective allows us to explore our human influence on nature and the influence of the environment on our collective well-being. It reminds us that we are part of a complex and interwoven system, a living and conscious world filled with purpose and meaning.
Panpsychism and the Consciousness Conundrum
Although panpsychism is one of the oldest philosophical theories of mind, individuals often see it as an outsider and too wacky for many materialist scientists. The recent interest in the hard problem of consciousness has revived the theory amongst science philosophers to provide a new understanding of the nature of reality and how we understand consciousness.
The historian Lynn White argues that the problem with ecology dates back to when Monotheism overcame Paganism. The triumph for humans was that Monotheism reserved all agency and life for conscious human beings making all other things, animals or elements of nature, like trees or gas and oil, for example, redundant of meaning so they could be used with impunity and destroyed at our will.
In a Pagan world where rocks and trees are alive and rivers and mountains have personalities, it would have been harder to consider destroying or exploiting nature so capitalistically.
In contrast to our current and standard view that consciousness only exists in the brains of highly evolved organisms, which as a result means consciousness can only exist in the parts that we inhabit and only in the very recent history of mankind.
On the other hand, Panpsychism suggests consciousness pervades the universe and is a fundamental and ubiquitous feature of it. The theory attributes consciousness to subatomic particles in matter and not just the confines of the brain.
Many material scientists and philosophers deem the animistic theory of mind as too new age for their liking. Further, boundary-pushing non-reductionists such as the biologist Rupert Sheldrake believe this theory is the first step in shifting our world view from the materialist philosophy it has been locked in. Sheldrake who would like to push panpsychism down the slippery slope into embracing full-blown new age animism.
“Pan means everywhere and psyche means mind, I’m in favor of panpsychism, I just think it’s much too limiting to confine it to the realm of subatomic physics”Rupert Sheldrake
Science is starting to provide arguments that, at the core, support the foundation of animist thought. So, perhaps we really ought to consider what adopting an animist view means for our materialist society?
Primarily it would mean embracing a world filled with a deep sense of purpose and meaning, where consciousness is primary, and our minds work far beyond the self, that perhaps mystical experiences can, in fact, connect us to even greater minds.
It would also require cultivating real empathy, because in order to feel more deeply about all that inhabits our world we will also have to feel in harmony with more of life. This would mean for many of us, dealing with our deep disconnect from others, animals, and nature. A disconnect that many of us westerners suffer from.
Adopting an animist sensibility is a stark contrast to where we are currently, living in a world where the theory that our conscious minds are meaningless and our existence is but a chance happening. One could also question whether the mental health epidemic we are currently suffering globally reflects this rather bleak perspective.
Welcoming in New Age Animism
Living with a deep sense of purpose is not only congruent to higher levels of positive wellbeing. Still, it allows for expansion in the reframing of our existence and our relationship with others and nature. Psychologists have long championed the mental health benefits of boosting our connection with others and building relationships with the community. Evidence has also shown that spending more time in nature and around animals can positively affect our mental health and wellbeing.
As we approach the precipice of climate disaster and enter an era of deadly pandemics, it’s clearly evident that the world needs healing and there couldn’t be a better place to start than focusing on our own personal connections with mother Earth.
Psychedelics aren’t a prerequisite for all animist societies, but it is clear they play a huge part in deepening the unitive experience within their communities. So perhaps the psychedelic renaissance we’re experiencing during this climate of chaos and catastrophe is no coincidence. We know now that during the psychedelic experience, ego dissolution can occur. As a result, the sense of ‘self’ dissolves, allowing for major perspective shifts, feelings of oneness and unity with nature and the universe – all positive effects in enabling a more conscious attitude towards life.
The Start of Something New
Are we entering this new paradigm of psychedelic healing because of Westerners’ loss of spirituality?
Even if Animism is too abstract a concept for some to grasp, resonating with the fact that we are ourselves nature and not just an aspect of it may encourage a reassessment of our behavior individually to realize the real impact our actions have on the planet and as a consequence the greater collective.
Although we cannot expect psychedelics to solve all of humanity’s problems, one must note that the therapeutic process may be more effective when taken correctly. Psychedelics allow us to take a step back and hold a critical assessment of our behaviors. Psychedelics refrain us from blindly empowering the governing materialist ideals that have raised us. Consequently, the fundamental root of our collective suffering today is materialistic obsessions.
Animism, personhood and the nature of reality: Sami perspectives
Elina Helander-Renvall, Cambridge University Press 2009
The Mechanisms of Psychedelic Visionary Experiences: Hypotheses from Evolutionary Psychology, Michael J. Winkelman 2017
The Handbook of Contemporary Animism. Graham Harvey 2013
Chaper: Psychedelics, animism and spirituality, Andy Letcher
Philosophy Now Issue 121
Radical Theories of Consciousness: The Case For Panpsychism, Dr Philip Goff 2017