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The Soul of Nature:
The Meaning of Ecological Spirituality

Copyright 1996 by Lynna Landstreet. See contents page for full permissions.

6: Immanence and animism in the West

However, the sense of divinity immanent within the world was not always an unfamiliar concept, even in the West. While religious beliefs and even social structures in prehistory are difficult to reconstruct, and a topic fraught with controversy, it is possible to draw certain inferences from archaeological evidence and from the belief systems of many surviving tribal societies. Our earliest ancestors probably held an animistic worldview, perceiving and interacting with a world permeated with indwelling spirits and divinities of various sorts.

Whether we are speaking of nomadic hunter-gatherer societies or early agriculturalists, we can find a reverence for nature, and a sense of the natural world as embodying divinity, embodying the sacred. According to historian of religion Mircea Eliade:

Between the nomadic hunters and the sedentary cultivators, there is a similarity in behavior that seems to us infinitely more important than their differences: both live in a sacralized cosmos, both share in a cosmic sacrality manifested equally in the animal world and in the vegetable world. We need only compare their existential situations with that of a man from the modern societies, living in a desacralized cosmos, and we shall be aware of all that separates him from them.[16] (Italics in the original)

LaChappelle's notion of sacred-as-relationship, discussed earlier, can clearly be seen in the animistic worldview. Sacredness is perceived in the world, and humans perceive themselves as intimately connected with that world:

Unlike us, primitive man was not disposed to separate his own soul from the world-soul. Soul is soul, invisible power that moves in the wind, so how can it be chopped up and compartmentalized?[17]

Closely linked to primal animism is what could be termed animistic polytheism. Here, divine power begins to be personified, but is still experienced as being strongly embedded in nature. We can clearly see this view of divinity in Celtic mythology, where many deities are linked with specific natural features -- the river goddesses Bóann and Sionan, who gave their names to the Boyne and Shannon rivers in Ireland[18]; the two mountains in County Kerry known as Dá Chich Dhannann, "the two paps of [land goddess] Danu"[19], and so on. Divinities may be depicted in human or semi-human form, or perceived as possessing human attributes, but they are still based in the natural world. As Miranda Green writes:

In Celtic religion, it was the miraculous power of nature which underpinned all beliefs and religious practices. Thus, some of the most important divinities were those of the sun, thunder, fertility and water. These were the pre-Celtic deities: the celestial gods, the mother-goddesses, and the cults of water and of trees transcended tribal boundaries and were venerated in some form throughout Celtic Europe. Every tree, mountain, rock and spring possessed its own spirit or numen.[20] (Italics in the original)

Accordingly, most of the groups and individuals involved in attempting to reconstruct Celtic paganism also take a very nature-based -- and often overtly environmentalist -- approach to their faith. Erynn Laurie, author of A Circle of Stones: Journeys and Meditations for Modern Celts[21], founder of the Nemeton-L Internet mailing list for Celtic pagans, and one of the most respected voices in Celtic reconstructionist paganism, writes that:

We must understand our local ecologies and work with them as embodiments of the sacred.

Every river has some spark of Danu and Bóann and Siannan within it. Every spring reflects the Well of Wisdom guarded by Segais or Nechtan. All islands are potentially the drowned city of Ys. Each forest may be a hidden part of Broceliande. All beaches are places where we can meet with Manannan mac Lír, no matter what ocean they front. We should certainly make pilgrimages to holy mountains close to us to commune there with the Cailleach or Lugh. Our interactions with trees should reflect our respect for the world tree, because it is the center of the world, and the Center is everywhere.

I can't take a day trip to Brugh na Boyne or camp on Ben Bulben. But I can make my pilgrimages to Tahoma and give my offerings on a mountain there. I can sail on Puget Sound and talk with Manannan, because the Sound is an inlet of the sea, and therefore he lives within it. I can leave offerings at the foot of trees in nearby parks and acknowledge them as sacred. These are things that the ancient Celts would have done, had they found their way here two thousand years ago.[22]

Even looking at classical Greece, which begins to move into quite a different form of polytheism, we can see residual elements of animistic belief in some of the more primal deities: Gaia, Pan, Artemis, Dionysus, Demeter, Persephone. These nature-based deities stand out in the mythos of what was becoming an increasingly less nature-based culture. In classical polytheism, we see the majority of the deities becoming more human, and less "natural," but even there, there are lingering elements of an older worldview, enough to cause Eliade to generalize as follows about "homo religiosus" in archaic societies:

For [archaic] religious man, nature is never only "natural"; it is always fraught with a religious value. This is easy to understand, for the cosmos is a divine creation; coming from the hands of the gods, the world is impregnated with sacredness. It is not simply a sacrality communicated by the gods, as is the case, for example, with a place or an object consecrated by the divine presence. The gods did more; they manifested the different modalities of the sacred in the very structure of the world and of cosmic phenomena.[23] (Italics in the original)



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