An Animist’s Bookshelf- ‘Animism, Respecting the Living World’, and other Writings by Graham Harvey..

This Animist's Bookshelf - detail, showing ye olde working methods!

An Animist’s Bookshelf – showing ye olde working methods!

As a latecomer to ‘new’ animism, I’m still feeling slightly dis-orientated, in a good way, by the process of looking anew at familiar landscapes and questioning long held assumptions.  So I’ve decided to take another look at some of the books I’ve been inspired and informed by -and have found myself arguing with.

Rather than attempting comprehensive reviews of titles that have mostly been around a while, I propose to focus on issues that concern me, including some aspects that seem problematical.  When I worry away at the latter, I hope you’ll hear a thoughtful, rather than hostile, ‘tone of voice’.  All of the following authors have made (and continue to make) significant contributions to the emergence of animism in the contemporary West, so their work deserves careful and constructively critical attention.


'Kunka Women's Dreaming' by Gladys Yawentyne, on the cover of Graham Harvey's, Animism, Respecting the Living World.

‘Kunka Women’s Dreaming’ by Gladys Yawentyne, on the cover of Graham Harvey’s, Animism, Respecting the Living World.

Graham Harvey’s Animism, Respecting the Living World (Hurst, 2005) was the book that convinced me I was an animist.  Harvey, who is head of Religious Studies at the Open University, and a prolific author, mostly manages to write in an accessible yet argument-rich style.  Some readers have nevertheless found Animism too much like a text book.  Horses for courses, I suppose.  All I can say is that, unlike much of what I’ve read in academic journals, I found it engaging, and ethically focussed.

In Parts One and Two, Harvey covers vital conceptual and political ground, setting out the case for reclaiming the once derogatory term ‘animism’, and practicing what he preaches by entering into dialogue with Ojibwe, Maori, and Australian Aboriginal ‘animists’, as well as hedgehogs, all of whom he visited while researching the book.  He also draws on the work of postcolonial ethnographers, espcially Irving Hallowell, whose Ojibwe inspired neologism ‘other-than-human-persons’ (refering to the Ojibwe sense that personhood is not restricted to humans) has become part of the currency of contemporary animism, and Nurit Bird-Davis, whose characterisation of animism as relational epistemology, informed Harvey’s emphasis on the principle of respectful relationship.

Some nine years since Animism appeared, its widely recognised as a landmark text, but some of the inter-linked Animist Issues given an unavoidably brief airing in Part Three, and developed by Harvey and others elsewhere, are  complex, and remain far from resolved.


My background in the politics of ‘mental health’, and various other experiences and involvements, sensitise me to debates about the psychologising of shamanism.  I prefer to distance myself from the term mental health, by the way, because (as the psychiatric survivor and critical mental health movements have long argued) this ubiquitous construction fixes distress and madness as primarily ‘mental’ rather than social, cultural, and/or emotional, and reinforces the assumption that it needs to be addressed medically or psychologically, rather than by means of crisis support, practical help, human contact, the sharing of stories, artistic creativity, gardening, contact with other-than-human persons, walking in the countryside, cups of tea, political activism, and so forth.

If you’re wondering what this has to do with animism, I’ve been concerned that ‘new’ animism, as expounded by Graham Harvey (and others), appears to be focussing on ecological relationship at the expense of human concerns, not least social justice (activism/advocacy), and healing work.  In the recent Handbook of Contemporary Animism, for example, these appear to be minority interests (more so than in Listening People, Speaking Earth where personal or community healing is included as a major part of what shamans do) -though, for example, Linda Hogan’s powerful reference to aboriginal ceremonies that ‘return the human to his or her place within the natural world, the human community, and the universe’  reminds us that animist cultures often ground human healing in communal celebrations of the sanctity of both place and cosmic nature.(1)

In Animism, Harvey links Mircea Eliade’s emphasis on shamanic ‘techniques of ecstasy’, and Levi Strauss’s reframing of shamanism as a branch of psychology (rather than an outbreak of ‘psychosis’!), with the tendency for neo-Shamans to reduce shamanism to ‘a set of methods for altering consciousness’.  By replacing ‘frightening otherworlds’ with the ‘life-enhancing innerworlds’ of a ‘quasi-Jungian therapy’, Michael Harner made shamanic initiation ‘achievable in a suburban living room’ or New Age workshop.  Harvey identifies this as part of a long colonising process in which psychological discourse about inner truths has been a pivotal way of undermining indigenous voices.  Neo-Shamans need to give the term shaman ‘extra pay’ by returning benefit to the land, and/or to indigenous cultures, or by demonstrating effects and values different from those of individualising psychotherapy and/or (late capitalist?) modernity. (Animism, pp142-4.  Listening People Speaking Earth, ch 7).

Yup'ik shaman, Nushagak. Creative Commons.

‘Yup’ik Medicine Man Exorcising Evil Spirits from a Sick Boy’, Nushagak. Creative Commons.

My response to this is complicated. I agree with Harvey that re-packaging shamanistic work as psychotherapy may constitute a further layer of colonisation, but would want to summon the ‘spirit’ of Michel Foucault in order to argue that psychology also functions as a disciplinary power/knowledge regime within Western Cultures.  There are, nonetheless, radical (critical, feminist, pro-feminist, etc), even democratic forms, that may have considerable potential -both for their insights into the human condition, and as forms of healing practice.

A major strand of support for radical forms of therapy comes from the many feminist and pro-feminist writers who have commented on public masculinity’s appropriation of rationality (as a way of marginalising women, ethnic ‘others’, madness, etc.), and identified a political imperative for men to take responsibility for their emotional and inner lives.  Bob Connell, for example, argues that psychoanalysis evolved from a debatable form of therapy into a normalising technology of surveillance and control, but nevetheless recognises its potential to cast light on the often precarious construction of masculinities. I’ve discussed this in some detail elsewhere(2), but what matters here is that we consider the therapeutic turn in neo-Shamanism in the context of the quite complex politics of therapy and healing.

Predation and Violence

A pivotal issue for feminist and pro-feminist commentators has, of course, been the need to address men’s overwhelming culpability for initiating and enacting violence in both private and public arenas.  Although the late Val Plumwood links feminism and anthropocentrism in her chapter in Handbook of Contemporary Animism, discussion of this fundamental issue in the emerging literature on ‘new’ animism appears to have been deflected by acceptance of an all too familiar mainstream discourse that constructs human violence in terms of predation, and regards it as ‘natural’.

Graham Harvey’s concern with the fabric of human culture is clearly reflected in his many references to diversity and respectful relationship.  I am worried, however, that in his discussions of exo-cannibalism, and the dangerousness of indigenous shamanisms, he appears to accept, and even justify, not so much some aspects of some animist cultures that seem wholly inconsistent with the animistic ‘liberatory good life’ he urges us towards -for good reasons postmodern Europeans are hardly in a position to offer moral advice to indigenous animists- but, the ethical code (of animist warfare) they implicitly represent.

Having discussed compassionate cannibalism -the practice of eating the flesh and bone ash of the deceased as ‘the spirits of the dead join the community of animal spirits’ (perhaps, so that they might return as prey animals), Harvey then cites various indigenous animist traditions in which the bodies of enemies were eaten as an expression of domination and contempt.  He concludes that even when families disrespectfully devour, and no doubt disrespectfully excrete, an enemy’s flesh, ‘the killer becomes more fully human and more complexly relational by the incorporation of the killed enemy’s ‘spirit’ as ‘inner ‘child’, and that the drama of cannibalism is, therefore, about ‘subjects relating, and necessarily, being predatory, and/or prey’. (my italics, and see note 1 below).

My first thought on re-reading this was to turn to the Geneva convention – Article 34(1), 1977 Additional Protocol, which states: “the remains of persons who have died for reasons related to occupation, or in detention resulting from occupation, or hostilities … shall be respected.”  Since I don’t see anything ‘fully human or relational’, in a commendable sense, in the historical intances of animist warfare Harvey mentions, I wondered whether ‘fully human’ was being given an ironical twist here? 

The conflation of human warfare (and more intimate human violences) with other-than-human predation, though quite common, is surely wholly inappropriate?  Predation, as Aldo Leopold demonstrated in Thinking Like a Mountain, often involves complex relationships of inter-dependence in which ecosytems and prey species both benefit from the sacrifice of weaker individual herbivors.  Other-than-human predation is about catching food, and is, therefore, biologically unavoidable.  Human warfare (and ‘domestic’ violence), despite its historical prevalence, is not. 

This, it seems to me, highlights a key problem with the adoption of animist assumptions, namely that, alongside the obvious benefits of bringing Western culture into closer and more honest relationship with the ‘natural world’, there’s a corresponding danger that it could encourage an uncritical transfer of understandings from ethology (the study of animal behaviour) into human psychology or sociology.  This could encourage simplistic biological reductionism (men are violent because of testosterone), evolutionary determinism (‘man the hunter’/’hard wiring of traits’, etc), and/or essentialist assumptions about gender (women are emotional, men rational, etc.), all of which tend to be politically regressive.(3)

Returning to Graham Harvey’s implication that neo-Shamans understandably dilute, sanitise, and domesticate shamanism, by re-packaging it as ‘quasi Jungian therapy’, I’m also concerned by the implication that ‘predatory’ (a.k.a.’dark”) shamanism – perhaps we could  refer to these forms as agonistic (doing battle) when they’re about violent human conflict rather than hunting for food?- is somehow more real, more exciting perhaps, than forms of neo-Shamanism that concentrate on personal healing.  If these neo-Shamanisms are sometimes found ‘dull and petulant’ (as one critic describes John and Caitlin Matthew’s Celtic shamanism), this may be because their proponents do understand the potential dangerousness of otherworlds, and the vulnerability of  many Western neophytes?

I’d like to complicate the picture further by noting that powerfully transformative events can sometimes occur in ‘suburban sitting rooms’, that the transformative potency of an event is not a simple function of its drama or danger -quiet ‘inner’ work may be more valuable and life-changing than noisy public celebration- and that, although there may be much else to disagree with in their work, many post-Jungian’s do acknowledge both the reality of otherworlds (this was the point of Jung’s ‘objective psyche’, and Henry Corbin’s ‘imaginal’), and even the possible dangerousness of shamanic allies.  Furthermore, the figure of the charismatic shaman, when transposed into a Western context,  is potentially quite  problematical.  For example, one influential Seidr worker, who Harvey might regard as giving ‘shamanism’ extra pay by ‘rediscovering ancient traditions’, uses some decidedly questionable concepts from the psy-disciplines (such as ‘mental disease’, and Jung’s ‘collective unconscious’).


Since a great many humans seem to have difficulty treating other human persons with respect, I’ve been wondering whether extending the notion of personhood into other-than-human worlds, risks undermining an already devalued currency?  What it means to be a human person is already a complex issue -we now increasingly recognise the plurality of selves, voices, and identity.  Nietzsche’s term ‘dividuals’, referring to the multiplicity of our bodies and minds, has been quite widely adopted by anthropologists.

If we are to adopt the terminology of ‘other-than-human persons’ we need to think carefully about the possible implications.  Since, for Westerners, the equivalence of ‘person’ and ‘human’ is so ingrained, ‘other-than-human person’ could become the currency of a new anthropomorphism based on an underestimation of inter-species difference, and an overestimation of our human capacity to communicate with other animals, let alone plants, rocks, clouds, and a vast array of other beings with whom we share the ‘natural’ world.

My hope, of course, is that calls to extend respect, compassion, and rights, to non-human others might clarify and strengthen demands for human rights.  The ethical principle of respectful relationship, that Graham Harvey finds in the lifeways of contemporary indigenous animists, expresses such a hope -and works well as an ethical guideline,  opening up a multitude of questions about how we might show respect in a whole variety of circumstances.  Even this formulation can’t be assumed to be universally applicable however.  Under hierarchical conditions, respect can mean deference, or proud defiance.

I leave these lively questions open, and warmly reccomend Animism, as a path breaking and thought provoking introduction to contemporary Western animism.

Brian Taylor, April 2014 (with minor revisions November 2014).

Note : On Graham Harvey’s website (consulted 9/4/13) he quotes the late Maori scholar, Te Pakaka Tawhai’s statement that the “purpose of religious activity … is doing violence with impunity”, without further comment.  On predatory shamanism, see for example, Harvey and Wallis, A to Z of Shamanism (Scarecrow Press/Lanham, 2010, p25) quoting Carlos Fausto on Amazonian shamanisms in which a shaman’s ability to relate to powerful other-than-human persons (especially jaguars) is related to ‘predation in warfare and hunting’ as ‘a preferred means of affirming one’s agency and intentionality, rather than being used, preyed upon, by other persons’.


(1) Linda Hogan, We Call it Tradition, pp17-26, in Graham Harvey, ed Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen, 2013.

(2) Brian Taylor, Responding to Men in Crisis; Masculinities, distress, and the postmodern political landscape. Routledge, 2005.  See Ch10 (pp184-210) Reconstructing Men’s Lives, Power/Knowledge, personal recovery, and social transformation.

Bob Connell, ‘Pyschoanalysis and Masculinity’, pp11-38 in Brod, H. and Kaufmann, M. eds, Theorising Masculinities, Sage, 1994.

(3) Bob Connell, Gender and Power, and Masculinities,Polity, 1987 and 1995.

Animism, Respecting the Living World

Video: Graham Harvey interviewed by Voices of the Earth 

Books written or edited by Graham Harvey include:

Listening People, Speaking Earth, Contemporary Paganism, 2nd edition, Hurst 2007.

Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst, 2005.

Handbook of Contemporary Animism, Acumen, 2013 (edited by G.H.).

Shamanism, A Reader, Routledge, 2003 (edited by G.H)

see also:  Robert Wallis, Shamans, Neo-Shaman; Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies, and contemporary Pagans, Routledge, 2003.

Next month’s ABC (Animist Blog Carnival, re-named Animist Book Club for the purpose) will focussing on Emma Restall Orr’s Wakeful World.    


5 thoughts on “An Animist’s Bookshelf- ‘Animism, Respecting the Living World’, and other Writings by Graham Harvey..

  1. … that’s only a small section, of course. I seem to accumulate feathers too. Found a lovely barred one on the edge of the moor that I’ve not managed to identify yet …

  2. I think that a lot of what you have raised here can be put down to the changing nature of language, even terms from less than 10 years ago can be seen as morphing into something else because of changing social culture.

  3. I suppose that’s possible Neil, but I’m also aware that we’re very ‘fragmented’ these days, into a panoply of sub-cultures. My re-reading of the book was informed by a range of past involvements, so my perspective was, in some ways, bound to be different from Graham H’s, and no doubt many other readers. Since the book still provides a very useful introduction to animism, I felt it was important to discuss what seem to me to be some problematic issues (especially the references to warfare and predation). 2005 doesn’t feel very long ago to me! 🙂

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