Animist Existentialism

I’ve been thinking more than usual about the philosophical side of my “paganism” (for lack of a better term). This is due in large part to the folks at the Hermetic Agora, which you should consider joining if you’re interested in magic, hermeticism, or any generally associated stuff. I’m a mod there (eek)! And while a few people were talking about the ontological existence of gods and what that implies about their genders, I got to thinking some more, and I have found that I am, apparently, an animist existentialist. If an animist existentialism does not exist, it will be necessary to invent it.*

Animist Polytheism

“Animism” is a troubling word in some ways – applied willy-nilly to everything and everyone, it almost doesn’t mean anything anymore. It does, and means some important things, but the history of the term is fraught, is what I’m saying here. In short, “animism” at first basically meant “not an atheist,” as it pointed to thinking things were “animated” by spirit, and that meant people. Edward Tylor coined the term and used it in that way. In the popular mind it can mean some very distressingly vague things. At one point I told a fellow druid I was reading about animism and they said they could understand that a tree might have a spirit, but their toothbrush? I just left it alone at the time, but let me point out here that most animists wouldn’t necessarily impute sentience to their toothbrushes, and if they were to do so it would be with the reminder that the toothbrush is an essential part of one’s life, and necessary to live in the state of health one lives in currently. It’s worth thanking our tools, as they are our companions, whether we think they have “spirits” or not. Because they exist, and they help us, and that’s enough.

That takes us to both the functional definition of animism and the bridge into existentialism. The meaning of animism, as defined by Graham Harvey, via Irving Hallowell, is, simply, a worldview in which there are many kinds of people, some of whom are human, all of whom deserve respect, and which insists on relations between all the kinds of people. Animism can be metaphysical or naturalist. I’m cribbing from Harvey again, who gives examples that I’ll just quote: some use the term to refer to “encounters with tree-spirits, river-spirits or ancestor spirits. This animism was metaphysical… [others used the term] as a shorthand reference to their efforts to re-imagine and redirect human participation in the larger-than-human, multi-species community. This animism was relational, embodied… and often ‘naturalist’” (p. 2). In the way I’m using the word, then, animism means that entities deserve respect and that we must relate to them. Additionally, entities may or may not be human.

This insistence on relation is key, I think. Bird-David has gone so far as to coin the terms “dividual” and “to dividuate,” locating identity in relation and interaction, not in isolated thought. “We relate, and therefore we are” (qtd. in Morrison p. 39). Whether or not we exist individually, we do not function individually. A person who lives totally alone, impacting nothing and speaking to no one functionally does not exist.

Existentialist Animism

Existentialism fits better with this point of view than you might initially think. The core tenet of existentialism I am referring to here is summed up in a pithy phrase: “existence precedes essence.” In the context of philosophers such as Camus and Sartre, who were agnostic, this is completely literal. They argue that there is no pure “essence” of a person that exists before the person is born, and the “essence” of a person that does exist is built up over time, as we build up our personas, memories, and histories. There were and are religious existentialists as well, who obviously do not argue that the spiritual world is nonexistent but who still argue that our existence comes before our essence: we shape our souls through our life, and are not “pre-formed,” so to speak. Both the agnostic and the Christian existentialists focused on free will. I think existentialism may be back-loaded with Cartesian dualism, with “I am” instead of “we relate.” But Aristotle wasn’t always right either! 

We are formed by our histories. We are shaped by our relationships. You are a different person than you were before you met your best friend or your spouse. Your parents, or whoever raised you, helped to shape you. We are not created in vacuums. Our identities are made of relationships, not individual, isolated points on a graph, separated by void.


The big point here is that gods are entities that deserve respect and to whom we relate. A god without relationships to others, be they forests, rivers, humans, or other gods, would effectively not exist. Existence precedes essence, so we have to take the existence of the gods as assumed here – maybe that’s for another essay, that particular argument. At any rate, given the assumption that gods exist, they must exist within a framework, a way of relating. This is why my animism feeds into my existentialism: when we look around in nature we see networks of interconnected biomes; webs of life spread rhizomatically, rather than in a hierarchy. And so the many gods would interconnect and interchange, not in their identities but in their mutual flourishings. Just as we do.

Nature is everything: there isn’t anything that’s not nature. The gods count. They exist inside the “sphere” of nature along with everything else that does or did or will exist. And everything is inspirited: “animated” in Tylor’s somewhat old fashioned terminology. We relate to it. And the gods are no different.


Gods exist and we must relate to them. But the existence of the gods must precede their essence as well. And here is where we get really weird. Because, honestly, we all tend to think of gods as mostly essence, don’t we? But just like people, their essence can be imagined as coming “after” their existence. Gods are shaped by their experiences just as we are. Now this does not argue, in the pop occult chaos magic way, that we invented the gods. You didn’t invent your roommate, but you did shape them for years. Any relationship of sufficient length will cause those in the relationship to change. And we’ve been in relationship to our gods for a long time.

I think this bolted-together animist-existentialist model can help with some of the issues we might run into when we get to thinking about our relationships with our gods and their relationships to one another. Consider this little thought experiment: imagine you live in Norway and your neighbor knew the best places to fish. You always had plenty to eat because of your neighbor and you were sure to thank her all the time. Now if you move to England and your new neighbor knows a great place to fish, do you have the same neighbor in both places? I’m not trying to engage in the argument that gods are tied and bound to places, but they do come from them: just like I came from a particular house on a particular road in a particular town, so too do gods, because they exist, like we do. Just like your neighbors in two towns who do similar things aren’t the same person, different gods who do the same thing aren’t the same person either. Because in the end each neighbor (god) has a different relationship to the river, the fish, the street you live on, and you. They have to be different people just because that’s how people work.

So what?

Thinking of gods as other-than-human entities that we relate to helps with some problems I can imagine, and some I’ve actually seen people grapple with.

  • Are Jupiter and Thor “the same god?” Well, it actually doesn’t matter that much, because the way you relate to that entity is what’s important. However, I do think it offers an answer: no, because they have not historically related to the same places, events, persons, peoples, and fellow gods.
  • Is Loki an asshole or not? Loki’s position in a relational web of gods and giants, as well as their relationships to certain gods, their personal history, and their change over time since we started writing things down obviates this question again. Loki may have done some shitty things, but so did Odin. The way they relate to us ends up being more important. However, measure twice and cut once whenever you speak to either of those two.
  • Can my god be all things for all people? No god can. No, not even that one. Build a relationship with a god and maybe they will tell you to go talk to X or Y spirit if you need something they can’t handle, or can’t handle as well as X or Y. Your neighbor might be great at fixing cars but not computers. And if you happen to have the one big, monolithic god, and if that god seems to change over time? Everybody does that. It’s the essence forming, the existential movement through the world. Relate to them, rather than expecting them to be only essence, only pure form that never changes. Everything changes, because everything relates.

Credit, or Blame

Four people form the Hermetic Agora are responsible, in different ways, for this essay. Aerinn, Piezo, GodofWorms, and DanKadmos. Many have contributed to my thinking, of course, but in recent days these four have, in one way or another, spurred my thought on. And I’m certain every one of them will disagree with at least one thing in this essay!


*with apologies to Voltaire

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2 thoughts on “Animist Existentialism

  1. Pingback: Seven Spheres and the Great Chain of Being – G Conley: Magic Arts

  2. Pingback: Ineffable Experiences and Effable Gender – G Conley: Magic Arts

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