Animism isn’t one thing. It changes based upon the culture and the person that embraces it. However, there are lots of misinformation and myths about animism that can make it appear scary to those who don’t understand it. Let’s take a look.
We worship our ancestors
Ancestor veneration is not the same as worship. It’s more like respect. We understand our connection to the past. We believe our ancestors are still alive in spirit and want to help us. Maintaining a connection is beneficial to both sides. So we maintain contact with them through prayer and offerings.
We are polytheists
Some animists are. Some are atheists, monotheists, pantheists, and agnostic. Animists can accept that we have different views and different definitions. If everything is energy, it’s not a conflict to have all these different points of view and ways of expressing these views on deity.
We are Nature worshipers
This is like the belief that animists are ancestor worshipers. It’s not Nature “worship.” It’s Nature respect. All things are created equally. Everything has different energy. When we make an offering to a tree or squirrel, it’s a way of appreciation its place in the web of life, asking it for help, or connecting with it.
We are superstitious and primitive
These types of statements are a reflection of misunderstanding. When a person outside your culture looks in, they can only describe it from where they stand. Look at how the Bible describes the burning bush (Exodus 3:1-17) or the wheels in the sky (Ezekiel 1:16). What were they talking about? I am not sure, but clearly they were seeing something that wasn’t part of their every day reality.
If I watch someone having a nightmare, I can tell you what it looks like from the outside, but there is no way I can tell you about the dreamer’s inner experience. Spiritual experiences are personal and internal. Everything from a person’s clothing style and color to their diet may be an expression of that spirituality even when there is nothing notable about it from the outside looking in. Conversely, someone whose environment looks stereotypically “spiritual” may have nothing going on on the inside.
If animists are “primitive” we ought to have evolved out of our beliefs and into something “higher.” That’s not what has happened. Animism is the oldest spiritual belief in the world. The religion of the ancient Greeks, Romans, Egyptians, Persians, and Mongolians have come and gone and we are still here. So, if primitive means belonging to an early evolutionary stage, I would disagree with that title. If primitive means simple and basic, I own that. Sometimes simple is best.
Indigenous shamanism sprang from animism. Modern shamanism is another animal. It may or may not have anything to do with animism. The way it’s widely taught is as a set of techniques devoid of culture or spiritual connection. The word “shamanism” has been applied to things like yoga and Reiki which have nothing to do with traditional shamanism. It seems more like a marketing tool than anything having to do with spirituality.
You can be a shamanic practitioner (someone who uses shamanic skills) without being an animist. Most animists are not shaman. Most people are not shaman. Those who are born into animist cultures often believe that true “shaman” are chosen by the spirits. They cannot be made (although some people can be effective at using shamanic skills). Shaman traditionally do not use this title for themselves. It is given to them by the people who believe in them. So, as in most animist things, the relationship is reciprocal.
There are many more myths about animism. If you are curious about animism, join us on Facebook and strike up a conversation. However, the best thing to do is experience it. You can’t really know what it’s like by reading about it. It’s not intellectual. It’s a felt, lived spirituality.