“In ancient times, the land lay covered lay covered in forests. Where, from ages long past, dwelt the spirits of the gods. Back then, man and beast lived in harmony. But as time went by, most of the great forests were destroyed…” — Princess Mononoke
(From Princess Mononoke)
I felt that this quote was a great way to start off this piece, as it covers a lot of the topics I want to talk about. Today, I want to explore how I conceive of the gods as part of my cosmos, and the implications and experiences I have had with that conception.
I hope it has been clear so far through this blog that I am first and foremost an animist. This means to me that the world is full of persons, and that life is lived in relationship with others. Some of those persons are what might be called nature spirits, and some might be called ancestors… And so on…
When I say “spirit”, what I really mean is person and/or agency. To me it means that a given being (however corpereal) has the capacity to act in some way. Ancestors, even though dead, are still active agents in their environment. Their bodies may still feed the soil, the memories and stories they left behind still shapes our past, our present, and our future. The ancestors are here with me now, through the memories I cherish and the DNA in my body. They have shaped me, and they will continue to shape me.
Animals, plants, lakes, trees and rivers are all active agents in nature, and how they relate to one another defines everything from foodwebs to the complex interactions that we call ecosystems. Nature spirits go even bigger than that, and are part and parcel of the entirety of the living planet.
That to me is where the ideas of the gods comes in. My animism is focused on persons, and the complexity and influence of those persons varies a great deal. Some are very localized, some are much more global.
I have long conceived of the “greater spirits” as collectives, as being formed not from a single “part” or single individual, but something more complex than that. These collective beings are much larger than ourselves, and can be emergent agencies in their own right. This is how I think of the gods, and the ancestors too. In fact, there is a great deal of overlap between spirits, ancestors, and gods. I don’t think I will have the space to tease out all that nuance here.
There was a great podcast I listened to recently that really gets at the heart of what I am trying to say. It was by Radiolab , and it talks about the vast forest networks that are formed mutually by tree roots and fungi. I highly recommend you give it a listen, as it adds a lot more than I could. Here is the basic idea of the Wood Wide Web; courtesy of the New Yorker;
“The implications of the Wood Wide Web far exceed this basic exchange of goods between plant and fungi, however. The fungal network also allows plants to distribute resources—sugar, nitrogen, and phosphorus—between one another. A dying tree might divest itself of its resources to the benefit of the community, for example, or a young seedling in a heavily shaded understory might be supported with extra resources by its stronger neighbors. Even more remarkably, the network also allows plants to send one another warnings. A plant under attack from aphids can indicate to a nearby plant that it should raise its defensive response before the aphids reach it. It has been known for some time that plants communicate above ground in comparable ways, by means of airborne hormones.”
The Wood Wide Web is a vast mutalistic network that is formed between plants and fungi. As the quote above illustrates, it is very complex, and is comparable in a lot of ways to the Internet as we know it. It also has vague similarities to James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s almost like a fictional world was based on the real world…
(From Cameron’s Avatar)
It is a complex communication network that goes way beyond just basic resources. As the podcast from Radiolab points out, it goes beyond simple material and into the realm of what we might consider to be a Pan-Forest based intelligence. That is the very kind of complex, collective agency I think of when I think about the gods. As Mathieu Thiem puts it;
“Gods are not separate disembodied ideals, but are instead the emergent agencies from the vast networks of ancient entanglements within which we are embedded. Gods arise not as archetypes, but as the long lived intellects of ecosystems and bioregions. “ – Interanimism
The concept of these kind of god-like agencies goes way beyond just ecosystems however, and I apply it to complex social-cultural systems (like cultures), cultural-technological systems (like cities), and the intersections of all of these up and down the scale. These are often called Complex Adaptive Systems, and they range from everything from the human body to the planet as a whole.
Cultures are dynamic, adaptive, shared and complex. There can be cultural gods, that emerge from those systems. Those like Odin, who is a complex being who is rooted in the far past (maybe even one a real person, or persons), and is called upon in the present. He is said to have 99 names, representing a mesh of stories that is embedded in complex past cultures as well as modern Heathenry. His stories are embedded in the pre-Christian past, the written stories, and the memories and experiences of living people.
I want you to stop and just imagine what that kind of being might be like. That is what a god-like “great spirit” might look like to me.
Cities are the same kind of thing, as are ecosystems. More importantly, none of these complexes exist in a vacuum. Our planet as a whole is one massive sociocultural-technoecologic complex.
Imagine what THAT kind of being might be like.
The interesting thing about being a modern animist and shamanic practitioner is I don’t necessarily have to imagine. On the topic of complex forest intelligence, I had the experience of getting to meet one recently. I would like to share that experience with you.
Now, just a brief disclaimer, this experience is something I am still processing and it is hard for my to translate into words at just this moment. If the language gets fuzzy or unclear, I do apologize.
There is also some back story that is important here. I have been working with this forest for probably two decades now, since I was a very young lad. I have hunted my family forest for at least 15 years, and I have learned a ton from this forest. It helped me to understand what it means to be an animist. In addition, the forest was logged some years ago, and I worked with the forest through that trauma. It was certainly a learning experience.
(My hiisi woods, at dawn)
I was out hunting in the morning, and in that liminal space that is dawn I did a little bit of journey work. My intent was fairly straight forward, I wanted to meet the spirit of the forest, of my family’s woods. I wanted to meet the spirit of my hiisi woods. (This is a Finnish word that means, “ancestral/spirit woods”)
It was a really strange experience. I was leaning with my back against a tree, and as I closed my eyes and did my breathing, I started to feel fibrous roots start to creep up the back of my neck. It was kind of like that, these shiny spiritual roots. They were climbing all over me, and like “plugging” into me.
Next thing I know, I’m jacked into this huge spiritual network, wrapped in roots and in a great web. I’m entangled in the roots, and interwoven into this huge root-esque spirit network. I feel like I’m underneath the forest, and I feel and sense everything that is happening in the forest. You know how spiders use their webs to communicate and to sense prey trapped in the web? It was kind of like that. My senses were extended, and I was part of something much bigger than myself. I could feel every animal moving as their steps vibrated across the web. These traces out like glowing maps in my mind. I could feel every tree, and every bird that passed over top of them. I could feel and track the deer as they moved through the forest, every footstep reverberated. I could move about through the network, and feel trees that were alive, and also feel the ones that were dead.
That hit me kind of hard, as I have done a lot of work with that land since it was logged. I took the logging really, really hard, because it took away the oldest and healthiest of the trees. It took a huge chunk out of the living memory of the forest. The spirit of the forest had me visit a few of those stumps. A few the forest was still keeping alive. It was trying so desperately to keep alive the memories that had been lost, almost like it was telling stories about the dead to maintain the memories.
The whole time, there was this voice in my head and all around me. It was disembodied and permeated almost everything. I can only describe it as the consciousness, as the spirit of the forest itself. It was talking to me, telling me a little bit about itself in the best way it could. It keep telling me it could help me go deep, deep, deeper, and to understand it better. I remember asking it about a lot of things, and getting sensations more than words in response. It appreciated all the work I had done for the spirit of the forest, and it definitely gave the impression it wanted to spend more time with me.
I snapped back into myself after that, and two my surprise there was a doe off to the left of me. Well out of arrow range, so I just watched her for a while as she crunched on acorns and thought about the experience.
That is EXACTLY what I am talking about here. In a very real scientific sense, that forest is networked and communicating as something greater than the whole. To bring in a little more folklore into the mix, I had met the haltia of the forest. This is another Finnish concept that means “elder spirit”, “ancestor” “guardian”, and “representative”, all at once. I wrote more on haltias here.
To me, haltia means god, and I had met the god of the forest.
Which leaves us with all kinds of implications, as there are haltias of cities, humans, forests, and every species on the planet. They are simultaneously collective memories, and complex agencies. Sometimes they are even non-human intelligences. The world is full of haltias, This has vast implications well beyond the forest. Forests can be logged, memories can be forgotten, cultures can die. The world is full of dead gods, dying gods, old gods, growing gods, and new gods.
For my parting words, there is another great podcast I listened to recently from the Ted Radio Hour. In Sam Harris’ segment on artificial intelligence, he had this to say;
“The moment we admit that informational processing is the source of intelligence…. and that we admit we will improve these systems continuously.
Then we have to admit we are in the process of building some sort of god.
Now would be a good time to make sure it’s a god we can live with.”
Imagine what kind of being that might be…
Thanks for reading!