“For I created all things spiritually…”

Animism is the belief that “gods” and “spirits” — and the anima that imbue them with their god and spiritliness — inhabit things both living and inert. Eurocentric anthropologists originally used the term negatively, believing animism to be a stage in the evolution of religion from primitive belief to more “advanced” monotheism. This view should be rejected.

I am definitely an animist. I don’t mean that as some kind of poetic characterisation of my love for nature. No, I definitely believe nature — rock, animal, and tree — is animated by more than just the material sum of its parts. Crazy stuff.

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These are the hills and trees near my home. Should I get a good death, they may be the last thing I see as I lay dying at home as an old man. The hill is North Hill in Malvern and it looms both over the house I was born into and the house in which I now live. I believe that this hill is more than its granite and grass. It is “North Hill,” the animation of that granite and grass. It — and the things that live in it and around it — has, to borrow a Japanese idea, kami-nature (more on kami below).

The same goes for this old oak tree. I touch him every time I see him. I greet him as an old friend. My kids swing on him. He was here before me and will be here after me. He is beautiful and he is definitely “this old oak tree” with all his thisness and not just “a tree.”

Is this Age of Aquarius madness? I don’t think so. Consider Japan. Japanese animism is not some modern neo-pagan, pantheistic revival but a deeply embedded consciousness of the yaoyorozu no kami, the “8,000,000 gods.” 70% of the Japanese may not be part of institutional religion, but there remains a deep spirituality in Japanese culture nonetheless.

You know Japanese animism through the films of Hayao Miyazaki [1] who has said that, “animism is in me.”[2] Consider some features of pantheistic animism displayed by his Studio Ghibli work and see if it resonates:

  • The kami inhabit circular not linear time, emerging as they do from the circle of the day and of the seasons. The Deer God in Princess Mononoke becomes the Night Walker at night. Every night.

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  • The kami are often attached to particular places or objects. Totoro resides in the forest behind the Kusakabes’ house.

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  • The kami are transformative, oscillating between good and evil depending on human attitudes toward them. Again, consider Mononoke’s Deer God’s transformation into a raging god of death.

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  • Good and evil are therefore malleable concepts. In Spirited Away, Chihiro does not return to her world because she is good and has conquered evil. Chihiro learns to co-exist with nature and helps nature (via the bath house) co-exist with itself. Compare this with the Manichean world-view of stories popular in the West (Harry Potter, Star Wars).

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  • It is the forest and its trees that are the summum bonum of the animist impulse and it is the loss of the forest that will see the world de-animated (cf. Nausicaa) in awful ways.

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  • The kami are both personified and frequently syncretised with other things (cf. Ponyo’s mother, who is both the sea itself and Kannon, a female Buddhist deity/bodhisattva).

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I don’t have a concrete view on the metaphysics of the kami, I just know they are real and that concrete view kill the kami anyway. Maybe they are animated solely by our own human projections but that would still make them real, for I am real, as are my projections. And am I not part of the world anyway, not separate from it? Who is projecting onto whom? Could it not be that the ru’ah elohim is the animation of all?

Anyway, here is what I think for certain: where the kami perish, so will humans.


  1. Eriko Ogihara-Schuck, Miyazaki’s Animism Abroad. A really interesting discussion of how Miyazaki’s animism is toned-down in western translations.
  2. Hayao Miyazaki, The Starting Point, 341.

Comments

  1. The spirit blows where it wants. I can’t read this without hearing echoes of Enoch’s personified earth. “Wo is me, the mother of men.”

  2. Yes. There is a kind of pan- and panen-theism in Mormonism.

  3. But not panem-theism, amirite?

  4. Since moving to Hawaii, we’ve heard stories from different people in our neighborhood who decided to talk to their mango trees when they weren’t producing fruit–basically calling them out & telling the trees they expect fruit. And for all of them the trees responded & began producing fruit.

  5. I would do that. It’s like wassailing here.

  6. I’m with you on this, Ronan. Having walked the Malvern Hills with you, I think I’ve felt their spirit. Earlier today I was earnestly wishing that I could walk them with you again. Someday, friend, someday.

  7. We are kindred spirits RJH. Someday I will introduce you to some of my favorite aspens and willows. They will be delighted to meet you.

  8. Cannot wait!

  9. Im an insensitive clod about such things, and I don’t know North Hill from [Adam]. But I do remember a worshipful awe in the presence of a 3000-year giant sequoia. And I remember a farm in central Wisconsin that was ‘alive’ for my friend who grew up there, that somehow felt different to me than any other acreage in the county. There’s not nothing there.

  10. N. Bailey says:

    Hopefully the link below works… it is a Caspar David Friedrich painting with a lone tree foregrounded and centered. The tree itself is striking and not the most symmetrical or beautiful at first glance. Deep in the background, evidence of a small community and chapel, moving toward the foreground is presumably a family farm and home with fires and work happening. There is a lone shepherd leaning against the tree with his flock. Letting your eye follow the trunk of the tree upwards, just above the horizon line, the mangled branches form a cross. This painting has progressively meant many things to me, wish I had a living diorama like yours.

  11. Fabulous painting.

  12. Interesting. I’m reading up about Christian Animism at the moment. Now that’s a phrase I never expected to see. It’s fascinating.