Monday, 15 October 2007


The new animism

In an article entitled Animism Revisited, Nurit Bird-David builds on the work of Irving Hallowell by discussing the animist worldview and lifeway of the Nayaka of India. Hallowell had learnt from the Ojibwa of southern central Canada that the humans are only one kind of 'person' among many. There are also 'rock persons', 'eagle persons' and so on. Hallowell and Bird-David discuss the ways in which particular indigenous cultures know how to relate to particular persons (individuals or groups). There is no need to talk of metaphysics or impute non-empirical 'beliefs' in discussing animism. What is required is an openness to consider that humans are neither separate from the world nor distinct from other kinds of being in most significant ways. The new animism also makes considerably more sense of attempts to understand 'totemism' as an understanding that humans are not only closely related to other humans but also to particular animals, plants, etc. It also helps by providing a term for the communities among whom shamans work: they are animists not 'shamanists'. Shamans are employed among animist communities to engage or mediate with other-than-human persons in situations that would be fraught or dangerous for un-initiated, untrained or non-skillful people. The -ism of 'animism' should not suggest an overly systematic approach (but this is true of the lived reality of most religious people), but it is preferable to the term shamanism which has led many commentators to construct an elaborate system out of the everyday practices of animists and those they employ to engage with other-than-human persons. The new animism is most fully discussed in a recent book by Graham Harvey, Animism: Respecting the Living World. But it is also significant in the 'animist realist' novels now being written among many indigenous communities worldwide. The term 'animist realism' was coined by Harry Garuba, a Nigerian scholar of literature, in comparison with 'magical realism'.

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