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The myriad of realities for animists, spiritualists, mystics, magicians, and witches
There are yet those who still walk through many lands, and many worlds
Reality is in flux. Not just in the sense that, as I described previously, things aren’t always as they appear to be; or in the way our sense of time and place can be uncertain or unstable; but also in the sense that reality itself doesn’t exist in a fixed state. Or maybe it’s that reality is a formation of layered and multifaceted coexisting realities—there is no single reality. A multitude of probabilities are constantly shimmering along the edges of those layers, if not sometimes peeking through them. Our ability to navigate through these different layers of reality, and even perceive their existence, is shaped by our personal perspectives and worldviews. Those of us who are determined to have a deeper look into these multitudes to have a say in the shape our reality takes, understand the infinitely complex nature of our world and the cosmos as one in constant transformation; and we seek to use such transformation to our advantage.
This week’s material is a little bit about—and for—animists, spiritualists, mystics, magicians, and witches among us who work across varying philosophies, modalities, and technologies to effect change. I’m feeling a bit shy about this one, if I’m honest. It feels somewhat exposing of my personal beliefs in a way that I'm not given to make public, often. And it feels incomplete. There are so many things to clarify, clean up, edit further, and authors to acknowledge. But for now I think I’ll just present this here, as part of the conversation about the many different aspects of human reality.
Across the great expanse of human history, we’ve understood the intimate relationships between the spirit world, concrete world, and humans as being a complex matrix of overlapping existence. And we’ve always known that there are some people who can move between worlds, see and hear what others cannot, shift their form from one to another, divine hidden knowledge, and otherwise work with the unseen whether physical, elemental, or otherworldly beings. In observing the interconnectivity of ourselves to these various beings and worlds, we’ve sought to better understand the formation, and the function, of our surrounding cosmos, as well as our place within it. We observed that like the earth, our entire universe is constantly changing. And in understanding how the world around us is in endless transformation, we’ve rightly determined that in fact everything else is also mutable, malleable, influencing and influential, and therefore full of vibrant possibilities to shape and reshape our collective world and realities. What formation our reality takes today, doesn't necessarily have to be the formation it takes tomorrow. Human reality, in these cases, and what we are hoping to change, are the material conditions and circumstances of our daily lives.
Across cultures, there are methods and means of working with such change through connecting with the land, beings, spirits, and energies in ways to create an impact on our material world and conditions. These methods can often be described as technologies, to some degree, and those who employ them are in a sense, technologists; but every culture has their own verbiage for the act, and the actors. In the English-speaking world, through various northwestern European-based frameworks (and some beyond), those who traffic in the unseen have been called any number of things from cunning folk, magicians, sorcerers, mages, enchanters, and conjurers to priests, druids, seers, diviners, mediums, and witches. It’s my opinion that many of these roles, being rooted in the lands and cultures from which they originate, have multiple points of overlap, but none of them are quite exactly the same. Some of these roles are oriented towards spiritual guidance and leadership, some may work as healers. Some are defined explicitly by their relationships within human communities, and others are lived on the fringes or outside of them. Others—witches specifically—have always been associated with malefic work and the title is often rejected by those to whom it’s given; but many more people today claim the title proudly. Regardless of the name or title, a key point of many of these roles for me is that they all share an animist worldview, to some degree.
An animist worldview greatly expands our concepts, as well as our experiences, of reality. When we live in a world of interconnectivity between all beings; seen and unseen, animal and insect, fungi, vegetable and mineral, stone and soil, air and water; all bodies, spiritual and corporeal; we understand our environment to have not just personhood and therefore autonomy, but relationality. This is more than simply understanding the ensouled or spirited nature of all things, which is passive and still somewhat unengaged. It’s that we actively understand ourselves to be in relationship with all the various elements and entities of our surrounding world, and act dynamically on these relationships with a sense of responsibility. We are not at the “top” or “center” of anything, but amidst all things that have equal partnership and equal say. The choices we make are involved, and inclusive, of those around us; kith and kin—whether or not they happen to be human. The implications of this of course, are that contrary to all we have been taught in Eurocolonial society, we are part of, not separate, from the natural world; that what constitutes “life”, "death", and “reality” is far beyond the scope of any singular human experience; and that we ultimately have a responsibility to the world we live in, and beyond, in care, respect, and reciprocity.
As animist worldviews acknowledge a multitude of beings both within and outside of our known world, animism also allows for the acknowledgement that there is potential for an infinite number of adjacent worlds, existing simultaneously to each other, overlapping each other, perhaps at times merging together; worlds which may even be visited and traveled through by the practitioner. Methods of visitation vary from dream journeying to travel by way of altered waking states such as trance and meditation. The ritual act is one of intense energetic focus—not even just in the sense of “raising energy” but in expending it mentally, physically, and emotionally towards our purpose. It takes a great amount of exertion to employ methods that lead to trance, whether it’s through movement, playing an instrument, chanting, breathwork, or other physical and mental activity. Often, in these journeys, we may find ourselves shapeshifting, taking on various forms to experience the immateriality of our own familiar shape and embody the ways in which we are also in flux. We are, all of us, a number of varying things at once including spirit, physical body, consciousness, and energy. In these ways, otherworld travelers become bridges between the material and the spiritual world, whether to serve as someone providing something important to themselves or others in the community such as hidden knowledge or healing. They are mediators between worlds, and conduits for energy.
There is no sufficient mainstream substitute for the word “magic” in describing the combination of actions and results of those of us who engage it. In this way I think about how the word “magic” can be a contentious term, because its implication is that of trickery, make-believe, or fantastical thinking; of making something out of a non-existent thing. But what it is in actuality is that magic is the result of a methodology of collaboration, a way of working to achieve a certain goal, or to bend a situation to our advantage. To build relationships and collaborate with plants, animals, insects, lands, waters, or other people and spirits is no different than building relationships and collaborating with humans. It is a way of life. Medicine, divination; methods of blessing, purification, and protection; protocols of right relationship with the land; and otherwise working in ways to benefit one’s best interests (individually and communally) are not necessarily “magical” acts on their own; but possibly magically defined by the technologies used to achieve such tasks, and the inherent collaborations required to complete them. For some, perhaps tying it all together, is the idea of some sort of interconnected creative and generative life force that is shared and amplified through these collaborations.
No matter the method and tools used, and no matter who we work with, we’re motivating our will to have a material effect upon our reality, in collaboration with the seen and unseen. We work this way to maintain balance, relationships, and meaningful exchange across our various and interconnected, interwoven worlds. We either solidify the paths already before us and open up all roads; or we create a new path, where before there was none. We are weirding, that is to say we are bending, aspects of our world to suit our will, to have some semblance of control over what comes, to have an effect on the outcome of our material conditions and reality.
Further resources for those interested in animism (and some bits on otherwords within):
Althaea Sebastiani, writing and education on animism is found throughout various courses and written materials in website articles and throughout their published books
Britton Boyd, Earth Witch: Finding Magic in the Land, Hierophant Publishing, 2021
David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Perception and Language in a More-Than-Human World, Vintage Books/Random House, New York, 1996
Emma Wilby, Cunning Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic, Sussex Academic Press, East Sussex, 2005
Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World, Columbia University Press, New York, 2005
Graham Harvey (editor), The Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Routledge, New York, 2015
Graham Harvey, We Have Always Been Animists, Harvard Divinity School, (video of lecture), 2019
The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Animism
Kocku von Stuckrad, Making Senses: Poetic Knowledge of Nature in Science, Art, and Shamanic Ritual, Counterpoint: Navigating Knowledge, 2018
The Open Encyclopedia of Anthropology entry on Animism
Nell Aubrey, A Dwelling Place for Dragons: Wild Places in Mythology and Folklore, from The Psychology of Religion and Place (pp.145-166), Dr. Victor Counted and Dr. Fraser Watts (editors), Palgrave Macmillan, 2019
Nurit Bird-David, Animism Revisited Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology, University of Chicago Press, Current Anthropology, Vol. 40, No. S1, Special Issue Culture—A Second Chance? pp. S67-S91, February 1999
Occvlta— teachers of witch lore, folklore, animism, and plant lore based in the Pyrenees, Catalonia
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, 2013
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss, A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses, Oregon State University Press, Corvallis, 2003
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Nature Needs a New Pronoun: To Stop the Age of Extinction, Let’s Start by Ditching “It”, Yes! Magazine, 2015 (online)
Rune Hjarnø Rasmussen, Nordic Animism—historian of Nordic religion with focus on preservation of cultural knowledge and animism with an emphasis on social political awareness and environmental action
So Sinopoulos-Lloyd, Apocalyptic Ecology, Essays on philosophy, identity, ecology, and mysticism through animism and wayfinding
Tairis.uk, Gods, Spirits, Animism, and Ungods, online Gaelic Polytheism resource
Tairis.uk, Cosmology, Creation Myths, Sources for the Three Realms, Afterlife and the Ancestors, online Gaelic Polytheism resource