People tend to misunderstand “animism,” and they tend to misunderstand it in two different ways (Bird-David 1999). Either they think that animism refers to the worship of the earth as a single entity (usually a goddess), or they think that animism refers to the general belief that “everything is alive” (Bird-David 1999).
The reality is that beliefs we refer to as “animism” are a lot more complicated, but also a lot more interesting. In this article, I’m going to explain what these beliefs really are, why people believe in them, and why they aren’t irrational, but rather a perfectly logical way of seeing the world (Bird-David 1999).
Individuals and Dividuals
Take a look at this picture:
There are two ways of looking at this image.
You can look at this image as a collection of discrete, individual objects. This means that this image is composed of several apples, a table, a table cloth, a wine bottle, and a basket. (If you are more scientific minded, you might think of this picture as being composed of a collection of subatomic particles.)
An alternative way of understanding this image is as being composed of relationships between objects. Someone viewing the image from this perspective would focus on the relationship between the table and the apples (the table holds the apples up), or the relationship between the basket and the apples (the basket holds the apples).
Which of these ways is the best way to understand the image? That’s a trick question. In truth, both methods are equally valid. There is nothing wrong with either method, and one method is not inferior to the other. However, it is fair to say that the methods are different, and that using one method will lead to different conclusions about the image than another method.
Why is this important? Many anthropologists believe that the two different ways of looking at the above image roughly correspond to the worldviews of two different kinds of cultures (Bird-David 1999). The first worldview–that of discrete individual objects–represents the “western” way of looking at the world (Bird-David 1999). The second worldview–that of relationships between objects–represents the “animistic” or “non-western” way of looking at the world (Bird-David 1999).
NOTE: the above paragraph is a simplification: Smith (2012) argues convincingly that so-called “western” cultures use the second world-view as well as the first. At the same time, I think that it’s clear that some cultures use one world-view more frequently than the other, and I find this dichotomy useful in explaining differences between cultures. I also think that this dichotomy explains why many western observers have had a hard time understanding several non-western traditions.
The question that everyone should be asking about the second worldview is “how does this perspective manifest itself in a culture?” Or to ask the question in another way: “if someone saw the world using the second worldview, how would they be different from someone who used the first?”
Let’s answer this question by performing a modified version of the exercise I used to open this blog post. I began this blog post by asking the question “what are two different ways of viewing this painting.” I would now like to ask a similar question. If you are a human, you should have some sort of a conception of yourself as a person. The question is: do these two different world-views impact one’s perception of one’s personhood? Let’s play it out:
If you believe in discrete, individual objects, then you are likely to conceive yourself as a discrete, individual person (Bird-David 1999).
If you view the world in terms of relationships between objects, then you are likely to view yourself, not as an individual, but in terms of the relationships you form with other entities (Bird-David 1999).
Does the second conception of personhood seem foreign to you? It should. To clarify matters, here is an ethnographic account, from a person who uses the second conception of personhood, that should explain how this works in real life.
Long ago, when I was learning to play the flute that accompanies the drums, I had a dream.
I was summoned to the courthouse. The elders were sitting in a row, as the elders always do, their heads bound in red turbans. A big basket was sitting in the center of the table. There were flutes inside the basket.
“Would you like to play the flute?” I was asked.
“I’d like to,” I said.
“Play, then! Pick one out!”
There were brand new flutes inside the basket, but I didn’t choose them. The flute I picked out for myself was old and had been used already.
Now I can play the flute for the ensign-bearers.
It was its soul I received. Yes!
What just happened? Here’s the crucial detail: the narrator describes receiving the soul of a flute (Hendon 2012). Furthermore, it is only after the narrator receives the soul of the flute that the narrator gains the ability to play the flute (Hendon 2012). Another interesting detail is that this scene took place in a dream, although that detail is unfortunately not relevant to this discussion (Hendon 2012).
This scene has everything to do with the concept of viewing the world in terms of relationships (Hendon 2012). The above scene is fundamentally about the relationship between a human and a flute, but the language is different than the language a western narrator would use to describe such a relationship (Hendon 2012). Specifically, the narrator discusses sharing souls with a flute, or rather, a flute giving the narrator its soul (Hendon 2012). This is fundamentally related to the idea of viewing the world as composed of relationships (Hendon 2012). The narrator and the flute are not discrete individual objects; it is the relationship between the two that is the focus of the narrative, and that relationship is physically depicted as the sharing and receiving of souls (Hendon 2012).
The world soul was almost certainly chosen for translation purposes. Functionally speaking, a better word for soul would be personhood or essence (Hendon 2012). However, the word soul is more poetic.
This type of personhood is called a dividual as opposed to an individual (Bird-David 1999). The word dividual refers to the idea that personhood is shared among other persons; dividual sounds like divided, and a dividual is a divided self (Bird-David 1999).
This type of belief system is often referred to as animistic (Bird-David 1999). Animism is often wrongly interpreted as the belief that “everything is alive”, or that there is one god/goddess that represents the entire natural world (Bird-David 1999). In most cases, this interpretation arose due to the inability of western observers to understand non-western belief systems. (Bird-David 1999) A simplistic observation of the flute narrative quoted above would merely conclude that the flute is alive, and ignore the sharing of the souls between the flute and the narrator. (To be clear, the statement “the flute is alive” isn’t incorrect; it just fails to grasp the full picture.)
In an animistic belief system, such interactions between dividuals occur everywhere (Bird-David 1999). For example, rocks will have dividual interactions with other rocks, with humans, with the weather, and with animals (Bird-David 1999). This view of the world can be thought of as viewing the world as a social system (Bird-David 1999).
Bird-David, Nurit. 1999. “‘Animism’ Revisited: Personhood, Environment, and Relational Epistemology.” Current Anthropology 40 (S1): S67-S91. http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/200061 .
Fowler, Chris. 2004. The Archaeology of Personhood: An Anthropological Approach. Routledge.
Hendon, Julia A. 2012. “Objects as Persons: Integrating Maya Beliefs and Anthropological Theory.” In Foundations of Archaeological Inquiry: Power and Identity in Archaeological Theory and Practice: Case Studies from Ancient Mesoamerica, by Eleanor Harrison-Buck. Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
Karasik, Carol, ed. 1988. The People of the Bat: Maya Tales and Dreams from Zinacantan. Translated by Robert M. Laughlin. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Smith, Karl. “From Dividual and Individual Selves to Porous Subjects.” Australian Journal of Anthropology 23, no. 1 (2012): 50-64.