People and Persons

(Photo is one of mine, from a local state park)

This is the second part of our ongoing exploration of animism and shamanism. I want to return your attention to the definition of animism I used in the first post on this blog. That animism is;

“the idea that the world is full of persons (most of which are non-human), and that life is lived in relation with others.”

I want to draw your attention to the first part of this definition; that the world is full of persons. You might be wondering what I am talking about when I refer to persons in an animistic context.

A quick look at almost any dictionary, and our common use in everyday language; really limits our use of the word person. Person/people is almost always used when we are talking about human beings exclusively. When every someone talks about people in the mainstream, they are talking only about humans.

That is not at all true in an animistic context. People can refer to almost any living (or not) being that is included in the social world. As an animist, I could talk about Bird People, Tree People, Rock People, or Animal People. Simplistic definitions of person hood fall apart really quickly in an animistic worldview.

(It also creates a curious idiosyncrasy in conversation. As the definition of person is so wide, I will typically refer to “humans” in everyday conversation, in order to distinguish them from other persons. As most other humans I meet don’t share my views, the looks I receive are amusing.)

As such, let’s look a little bit closer at the concept of personhood, and how it relates to animism. For this section, I will use Harvey’s book as a reference.

In chapter six of his book titled; Signs of Life and Personhood, we find a few concrete examples of animistic thought on persons. One of the firsts points made is that animals are people too, because in many ways they are similar to us. As Harvey points out;

“It is relatively easy to see that animals are ‘alive’. They breathe, consume, excrete, reproduce, are sentient and possess genomes composed of nucleic acid.” (Harvey, pg 100)

I’m going to appeal to the pet owners out there for more concrete examples. I have two cats and a dog, and they are so much more than “pets.” As Harvey says, it is very easy to see that they are alive persons, and are members of our family. Each one has their own personality, and we each relate to each other in different ways.

In animistic societies, it goes well beyond animals, and also includes plants as well as places. A great example of this comes from recent news, and three rivers that have been given the status as “legal persons.” Take this excerpt from the New York Times;

“…New Zealand’s attorney general, said the issue was resolved by taking the Maori mind-set into account. “In their worldview, ‘I am the river and the river is me,’” he said. “Their geographic region is part and parcel of who they are.”

In greater context, the river in question is sacred to the Maori, and their worldview has many animistic characteristics. The river is a person in this view, and it is a person to the Maori as well. Their communities, their bodies, and their cultural as well as spiritual beliefs are tied to that particular river. So much of their identity is co-created in relationship with the river. That means it is a person in relationship with the Maori.

I want you to look around where ever you are reading this. I want you to consider everything around you at this moment. Maybe you are at the kitchen table, what can you see? Can you see outside? What is out there? It is easier to think that the living things around us are persons, than it is things like rocks and stones.

Can you see a tree? Do you think that tree is a person?

I would suspect your answer is yes. You would probably answer the same in the case of birds, fish, and deer in the field. It is quite common in pagan circles that many of these things are considered in this way, though it is not a universal by any means.

It is not uncommon either to hear pagans talk of salamanders, or air or fire elementals. From an animistic worldview, all these things are persons in their own right, beings with their own awareness, will and agendas. Not all of those agendas line up nicely with human interests, and some may even be hostile. But we are not going too deep into that for this post.

There is entire philosophic traditions on the nature of personhood, and what that means. Such in depth studies are well beyond the scope of this post. As such, I suggest a very simple definition of a person. A person is a being that deserves basic respect and dignity. All the plants and animals, all the lakes and rivers, all the winds in the sky; all of them deserve to be treated with basic respect and dignity.

You deserve basic dignity and respect. So do I.

I want you to consider something else as well. From where you are sitting, can you see a car, or other vehicle of some sort? What about a cell phone, or a computer?

Are these things people?

I have asked this question to a fair number of people, and with pagans there is usually some sort of hesitance with this question. There is a habit among paganism to not consider technology as part of the natural, and in many ways antagonistic to it.

In some ways both these things are true. I personally would argue that things like cars are definitely part of our world, and are natural in a very real sense. They are not organic, no, as in they were not born, and do not grow. But cars are made from the same materials we are, and in many ways are an extension of our very natural selves. They are as much of this world as we are.

In an animistic context, cars are people too. They are as much part of the social world as we are, and we interact with them every day, and they interact with every other person on the planet.

But that doesn’t mean for a second that our relationship with our vehicles is healthy, or that their relationship with everything else is healthy either. There is such a thing as an unhealthy relationship, and that is the second part of the definition that I have presented; that life is lived in relationship with others.

Consider the car again. Consider the Earth People that were made into its metal and its body. Consider the Fire People that drive the engine. Consider too the long decayed remains of the dead that are pumped into the engine as fuel.

What kind of relationship is that?

That is where I will pick up in my next post.

Thanks for reading!



Graham, Harvey Animism: Respecting the Living World. 2006

New York Times

Live Science


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