Divination, an Animist Art – 2

Weathered Gravestone, Whitby, North Yorkshire.

Weathered Gravestone, Whitby, North Yorkshire.

Occasionally the processes of the natural world appear to respond to human intention in quite specific ways.  This beautifully weathered gravestone in the cliff top cemetery at Whitby would seem to be a case in point.  From within-and-beyond the immediate material (geochemical, microclimatic) processes of Nature, a voice seems to be speaking.  I find the resultant image as open-endedly evocative as any piece of human art.  Yet mainstream Western culture has no conception of other-than-animal agency, mind, or sentience, in nature.  Describing Koyukon sensibility, David Abram (drawing on the work of Richard Nelson) writes ‘Rather like the trickster, the Raven, who first gave it its current form, the sensuous world is a spontaneous, playful, and dangerous mystery in which we participate, an animate and articulate field of powers ever responsive to human actions and spoken words’.  Although Abram could almost be describing my own perspective here, I want to resist the assumption that the implications of such a world-view are obvious, readily generalisable, and even necessarily benign.(1)

The following notes were prompted by Patrick Curry’s discussion of animist divination, which (hard as it is for me as an ‘insider’ to make the point) could also be read as romanticising contact with Nature.  I found myself wondering whether I had become set in my ways, and wanted to consider the relevance of categories such as bidden and unbidden omens, and inductive or ‘rational’ versus direct or inspired divination, to my own practice.

When I’m concerned about a particular situation I tend to turn to astrology, or to dowsing with a pendulum.  These happen to be the media that work for me.  Astrology is a complex subject that I’d prefer to discuss elsewhere. It is worth noting, however, that traditional ‘horary’ astrology, where a horoscope is cast for the time a meaningful question is asked, has an in-built safeguard against casual or inappropriate use.  There are various ‘considerations before judgement’ that, if present, prevent a reading from going ahead.  These include a check on the condition of the astrologer.  This significant step may not be entirely foolproof, but it does foreground a crucial issue common to all modes of divination.

In an individualistic culture where anxiety and despair is endemic -one in five of the population in some parts of the U.K are now on anti-depressants!- there’s an understandable temptation to resort to divination either out of desperation, as an antidote to alienation, or instead of doing the necessary preparatory work on an issue, or looking for/setting up networks of mutual support.  Where someone is prone to anxiety, depression, or mental disorientation, astrology may make matters worse, though even in these circumstances, in the right hands (and with good back-up support) it can be a useful general guide to what’s going on, not least in terms of timing.

If I, or someone I’m concerned about, is faced with several specific options, I may dowse with a pendulum.  When I do this I am ‘bidding an omen’, eliciting a response from other-than-human persons.  I’m not sure, though, how applicable the term omen is in relation to such a direct method. Provided that I’ve done some research, that the question I’m asking matters, is timely and appropriate, I seem to get a clear and unambiguous response.*  This, for instance, is how I decided between two possible options when I was about to embark upon a PhD as a mature student. In this case I suspect that I was helped because my health challenges were a significant factor.  I was on the horns of a dilemma and needed to be in the right environment. As things turned out I got a good answer.

A pendulum reading may leave me with much to think about, but the message is not encrypted as a sign that needs to be deciphered or interpreted.  Either the pendulum stalls, indicating that my question may not be appropriate, or that there’s nothing I can do about the situation, or I receive a fairly immediate response to a particular statement (occasionally after an arm-aching few minutes!).  The method I use is blind and ‘randomised’, though again, the latter term, with its scientific connotations (randomised double blind pharmaceutical trials come to mind) doesn’t feel right.  This kind of dowsing happens within the protected enclosure of simple heartfelt ritual, and is a subtle meditative process involving careful mental and emotional attunement.  I have a vivid sense of intimate contact with one or more other-than-human-persons who can ‘see’ the matter at hand, and somehow move the pendulum using my receptive body-mind as a conduit in order to reply.  My act of ‘randomisation’ simply works to prevent my conscious/rational mind from interfering with reception.  This would also be the case if I were using cards, or throwing the I-Ching.

A crucial difference with the pendulum for me, however, is that the feeling tone that comes through is either a sufficient answer in itself, or is what confirms the validity of the reading.  This can sometimes give a good indication of how someone I may know little about is getting on, or what a person I’ve not (yet) met, and couldn’t have picked up subliminal signals from, is like.  This is why I find the method so powerful, and think that explanations involving my own ‘subconscious’ mind are inadequate.  I also find that the pendulum moves eloquently -detecting, conducting, and expressing psychic-emotional energy- in response to my ongoing questions or suggestions.  This can feel very much like a conversation with a close and trusted friend.  The process is, therefore, dialogical.  Another key element in the method of pendulum dowsing I use involves visualisation, often of a permeable membrane of some kind (curtains, a screen, a water surface) which helps me to distinguish received from internally generated imagery and feelings.  Once again, there is nothing casual about this kind of enquiry.  I doubt that anything would ‘come through’ unless the question I asked mattered in terms of someone’s wellbeing.

(Continued on next page)

Divination, An Animist Art – 1


Delphi is not the only place where an oracle was established at a site determined by the flight of birds.  In the Celtic world, ravens with white feathers were said to have flown down at the moment when the city of Lugdunum was founded.  This was thought to be such a good omen that a prophetic shrine was established.(1)  Picking up a friend’s copy of The Way of the White Clouds recently, I found myself reading a description of the founding of an oracle in Tibet.  Local tradition there has it that a powerful magician who lived up in the mountains, near the source of the river that flows past Llasa, put a spirit in a box and floated it downstream.  A monk who happened to be walking by the river found the box and looked to see what was inside, at which point the spirit flew out in the form of a dove, and made its home in a grove of trees.  Whenever the monk approached the grove the spirit entered him, so an oracle was established on the site.(2) At the ancient Greek oracle of Dodona, an oak tree is said to have spoken through the mouths of two doves.  That these may have been dove priestesses only makes the comparison more striking.(3)

I like the sense here that divination draws upon the communicativeness of Nature.  But this may not always be the case, and of course, attempting to communicate with Nature is not necessarily a sign of wisdom or integrity.  In classical Greece, ornithomancy became so politicised that Aristophanes felt the need to parody it in the Birds.

Geoffrey Cornelius, a leading British astrologer now teaching at the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Kent, reminds us that, for ancient cultures, divination was about interpreting the will of divine beings, often with the assistance of daemones (or, if you prefer, guides, allies, or ‘spirit’ helpers).*  Daemones might communicate through inspiration, dreams, signs and omens, or occurrences in the natural world. Cornelius draws attention to an important distinction between bidden and unbidden omens, and points out that the possibility of prediction was incidental to the main task, which was to ‘consult with the gods’, to bring the matter in question ‘within the guidance of the sacred’.(4)  This, of course opens up questions about the various ways in which ‘we’, as animists in the postmodern West, perceive and engage with deities and/or daemones, guides, allies, or ‘spirits’, and/or the world around us.

According to Barbara Tedlock the term divination comes from the relatively narrow ‘rational’ or inductive practice of the Romans, where phenomena of nature -originally the flight of birds in augury- were read for evidence of divine assent using established procedures.  By contrast, the ancient Greeks also valued intuitive or ‘natural’ divination, in which divine guidance was experienced directly.  The Greek word Mantike (from which mantic and -mancy are derived) was related to mania, divine madness, and came to refer to possession, trance, and otherwise inspired states.(5)  Current usage of divination, however, encompasses all manner of embodied practices.

Patrick Curry gives an explicitly animist description of divination, contrasting what he provisionally calls aboriginal or indigenous divination with Platonism.(6)  He associates a decline and impoverishment in divinatory practice in the West with a historical progression from animism, involving an unlimited number of ‘spirits’ (we might now say persons), through polytheism, involving a large but limited pantheon, to monotheism.  Ancient Pagan oracles were associated with cosmological and geopolitical pluralism, their spirits were local and inseparable from the sanctity of place (geophany).  Divination and arose from a metic mode of being, characterised by ‘cunning wisdom’, shapeshifting, and disguise, and embodied in the figures of Hermes, Metis herself (also perhaps the trickster), and associated with non-human animals such as the fox and the octopus.(7)  Fate was conceived as open ended and constantly negotiable.

By contrast, Curry sees Platonism as monist-universalist, in the sense that plurality is tolerated only insofar as its entities don’t conflict with the One, and universalist also in the sense that logos (reason, law) and epistēmē (abstract truth) were it’s supreme values.  He therefore proposes Platonism as the foundational instance of disenchantment.  The political correlate of this kind of cosmology is that an elite has privileged access to truth.  With its hierarchical privileging of the ‘spiritual’ over the material, the male over the female (and so forth), Platonism is inherently contemptuous of the sensuous ’embodied, embedded, and perspectival life’ where the ‘conrete magic’ of divination happens.  He goes on to argue that divination is a natural human faculty that can appear when needed, rather than ‘a divine good’, but does point out that these need not be mutually exclusive.

Responding in defence of neo-Platonism, Maggie Hyde argues that divination can work quite well for contemporary Westerners using methods that are not rooted in place, and can flourish within monist and hierarchical cultures.  The metis-like nature of divination resists containment within any preconceived theoretical structure.  Material somehow arises that reflects the observer’s psychic state.  For someone engulfed in chaos, a sense of cosmic order, holding the promise of new life, can be crucial. Divination cannot proceed without a belief in ‘some source of truth to be called on’, rather than open-ended interpretation.  Although divination arises in a particular context, it locates a ‘sacred unifying truth’.  Metis paradoxically reveals a sense of unity.(8)

When I first read this discussion I identified with Patrick Curry’s animist argument, not least against the neo-Platonic position, doubtless because of the political resonances of that tradition.  On re-reading, however, I’m uncomfortable (as perhaps he now is?) about the romanticising implication that, because of their proximity to nature, ancient animisms were intrinsically benign.  Although Curry has enthused about the recent reassertion of astrology as a postmodern divinatory art, the kind of divination practiced by contemporary astrologers is, of course, very different from animistic shamanism.  Geoffrey Cornelius, for example, cites a beautiful piece of work by herbalist Graham Tobyn, prompted when his wife peeled an orange and found a perfect smaller orange inside, and his sister commented that this was a symbol of fertility.  Tobyn found a startling fit (synastry) between his wife’s chart and a 1651 horoscope about a pregnancy that he happened to be studying, and realised that the latter gave the necessary context-specific guidance she needed.  Cornelius aptly describes this gift of divination as spellbinding.(ibid pp215-8).

In this example the herbalist-astrologer combines a ‘symbolic attitude’ with sophisticated traditional procedures that draw upon planetary symbolism which is neither derived from local nature (oranges don’t grow in Britain) nor the spirits of a particular place.  The association between the Moon and fertility, a key significator in the 1651 reading, can be found in many cultures, and traced back as far as the Palaeolithic Goddess of Lausell.  I wouldn’t take this, or the usefulness of the ensuing reading, as evidence of universal truth, however.  Even though there may be only one subjectively right move at the time when guidance is sought, divination doesn’t (even in this remarkable case) furnish general truths about other similar questions or instances.  That a 337 year old horoscope came alive again here is surely down to Metis.

Perhaps a middle way can be found between the universal/cosmic and the particular/situated if we understand the cyclic phenomena repeatedly evident in astrology, or the more-than-metaphorical value of correspondences, as manifestations of a pattern making impulse inherent in Nature.  Nature abounds with large scale rhythmic regularities, but the language we use to interpret them is necessarily local, specific, and embodied, even when we draw upon long established and non-local discourses.

From the perspective of scientific ecology, animist practice in traditional societies appears to combine the pragmatic and empirical with the numinous and ‘irrational’, yet in some cases such holism has been shown to be more effective than modernist science.  Stuart Harrop refers to the ability of the James Bay Cree to manage the hunting of moose and other large mammals sustainably, with the help of omens from spirits and the natural world, in an environment where ecologists have struggled to obtain comparable results.  Likewise, traditional management of irrigation in the terraced rice fields of Bali, involving a complex system of water temples, far outperforms the ecologically dangerous ‘green revolution’ systems that almost destroyed it.(9)  Of course, the use of animals and plants for magico-religious purposes doesn’t always confer protection, and commercialisation can be problematical.

Returning to Patrick Curry, after discussing Merleau-Ponty and other theorists who deconstruct modernist Cartesianism, he gives a further definition of divination as ritual and tradition ‘constituted by, and constituting, an ongoing dialogue with more-than-human agents …’.  He then argues that it necessarily includes both ‘an embodied, sexuate, and ecological dimension’, however ‘spiritual’ the procedure may be ( because ‘the animate, enminded, ensouled, non-modern natural world’ is at the heart of divination), and ‘an irreducible discursive, ideational, and spiritual dimension’, (a ‘logic of divination’), no matter how practical the intent.  Divinatory rituals and traditions therefore include a working assumption that any ‘formal contradiction’ between these dimensions is inconsequential.(10)

Reading this I found myself wondering whether we still need to talk in dualistic terms -either because hierarchical dualism is so ingrained in our culture, or because, from a human perspective, the world we live in, the world of thought and feeling, night and day, summer and winter (where appropriate), and most starkly, life and death, appears dualistic- even as we attempt to comprehend non-duality?  In any case, divination is arguably as fundamental to animism as animism is to divination.

With the above in mind, I’d like to ground this in some personal observations in Part 2.


* The spelling of Daemones was changed in response to Christian propaganda about ‘demons’.


(1) Alexei Kontraditieff, Lugus, the Many Gifted Lord, An Tribhís Mhór, The IMBAS Journal of Celtic reconstructionism, I, Lúnasa, 1997.

(2) Lama Anagarika Govinda, The Way of the White Clouds, Rider, 1966/1992.

(3) J.S. Morrison, The Classical World, in Michael Loewe and Carmen Blacker, eds. Divination and Oracles, George Allen and Unwin, 1981.

(4) Geoffrey Cornelius, The Moment of Astrology, Origins in Divination, Second Edition, the Wessex Astrologer, 2003.

(5) Barbara Tedlock, Divination as a Way of Knowing: Embodiment, Visualisation, Narrative, and Interpretation, Folklore 112 (2001):189-187.

(6) Patrick Curry, Divination, Enchantment, and Platonism, in Angela Voss and Jean Hinson Lall, The Imaginal Cosmos, Astrology, Divination, and the Sacred, University of Kent, 2007.

(7) Marcel Detienne and Jean-Pierre Vernant, Cunning Intelligence in Greek Culture and Society, Harvester Press, 1978.

(8) Maggie Hyde, The Cock and the Chameleon; Divination, Platonism, and Postmodernism, in Angela Voss and Jean Hinson Hall, Ibid.

(9) Stuart R. Harrop, The Carbon Footprint of Oracles: How Green is Divination? In Patrick Curry, ed. Divination, Perspectives for a New Millennium, Ashgate, 2010.

(10) Patrick Curry, Embodiment, Alterity, and Agency: Negotiating Antimonies in Divination, in Patrick Curry, ed Divination, Perspectives for a new Millennium, Ashgate 2010.

Natural Magic


The Common Bluebell ( Hyacinthoides non-scripta ).

Natural magic sounds as though it should be compatible with animism.  Marian Green, in her introduction to the subject, writes that Nature, our mother, ‘mistress of arcane alchemy’, has all the answers.  ‘We are the stuff of stars … every tree, plant, animal, jewel, and other person shares this ancient heritage’.  Natural magic reconnects us with natural cycles.  Likewise, Nigel Pennick writes that natural magic teaches us we’re not separate from nature, and that we have no special privileges.  The earth, plants, and animals, have as much right to exist as we do.  ‘To practice natural magic is to respect one’s fellow humans as well as all sentient beings in the Cosmos’.  So far, so very good.  Why then, despite being an astrologer, benefiting from herbal medicine, meditating, working with dreams, dowsing, and so forth, have I never wanted to describe what I do as magic?  Why does Nigel Pennick’s account of natural magic, in particular, not feel more compatible with animism, as I understand it?

Historically, natural magic engaged directly with the powers and properties of substances ( planets, stones, metals, herbs, resins etc ), whereas ceremonial magic called upon the assistance of discarnate spirits.  Natural magic can therefore be seen as a disowned ancestral relative of natural science (think of astrology/astronomy, alchemy/chemistry, herbalism/botany).  Despite attempting to master material circumstances however, Renaissance magic was unambiguously transcendental.  It was preoccupied with spiritual ascent.  Patrick Curry observes, for example, that Pico della Mirandola’s magical philosophy was ‘masculinist, will-oriented, anthropocentric … contemptuous of the dark, the feminine, the ensouled let alone embodied, the earth, and all its limits’.  These values, personified in the figure of the Magus, were a major formative influence on Francis Bacon, and hence early science.

The notion of cosmic sympathy, that all divine and material phenomena are connected by ‘sympathetic’ powers or energies within a ‘Great Chain of Being’, emanated from the Stoics, and appears in Plato and Aristotle.  Within this magical paradigm, each animal, plant, or part of the human body, corresponds to a planet or god that can be invoked in order to influence change.  Nick Campion argues that Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the Corpus Hermeticum (gnostic texts from the 1st and 2nd centuries BCE) turned the Renaissance in a pagan direction and ‘laid the foundations for Western esotericism and occultism’.  Unfortunately, the Hermetic view of humanity was grimly pessimistic.  Salvation entailed focusing on the inner divine, and returning to the Light by means of the planetary spheres.  The material world, the Platonic world of becoming, was regarded as illusory.  Only the absolute, unchanging, disembodied ‘Good’ was real.  How far, then, do neo-Platonic assumptions underpin today’s natural magic?

An Animist Response to Nigel Pennick’s ‘Natural Magic’.

Having liked Nigel Pennick’s Celtic Sacred Landscapes, and noticed that he was once a biologist, I looked forward to reading his Natural Magic.  Because he draws upon the nameless artthe magical tradition of East Anglia, which also happens to be the heartland of contemporary English nature writing, my expectations were perhaps unrealistically high.  This is, after all, a brief introductory guide written over a decade ago.  In the event I found myself arguing with the author’s approach, and provoked into reflecting upon my own ideas and practices.  I therefore want to respond by focusing on differences in perspective, and points of concern.

Chapter One opens with an epigraph from the medieval alchemist Basilius Valentinus.  ‘The Earth is not an inanimate body … All created things draw their strength from the Earth Spirit …’.  For Valentinus, the Earth is maternal because it is animated by a nourishing and sheltering spirit, life.  Nigel Pennick, by contrast, describes a unitary ‘creative force within all things, including us’, which is neutral, and goes on to define natural magic as the right use of this force within nature ‘for the good of all beings, without subverting the free will of others’.  For him, magic is ‘a spiritual, not a material, technology’, whose primary purpose is to ‘uphold our free will and direct it towards personal understanding and spiritual growth’.  It is ‘first and foremost aimed at the spiritual empowerment and development of the individual’.

Like magic, animism is inherently pluralistic, but I suspect that the above differs from most contemporary animism in several respects.  Firstly, this is an emphatically dualist project; the spiritual/material divide is firmly drawn.  Secondly, the emphasis on human will, and intervention based upon human moral agency (stewardship?) rather than dialogue and/or reciprocity, would appear anthropocentric to many ecologists, let alone animists.  How is the natural magician to know what is good for all beings?  Thirdly, the use of magic primarily as a means of personal development is vulnerable to the same critique that has been leveled at therapeutic neo-Shamanism, insofar as the latter internalises and individualises realities that might be more fruitfully understood in social, ecological, and political terms.

Do our working assumptions really matter?  I think they do.  Nigel Pennick’s magical philosophy is inevitably reflected in the content of his book.  I was surprised to find that only fourteen of its ninety pages are devoted to working with plants, birds, or animals.  The difference between ‘magical’ and animist approaches becomes clear in relation to ‘Bird and Animal Magic’.  There is a brief discussion of the process of obtaining an animal helper According to Pennick animal helpers symbolize a part of ourselves that we need in order to survive a crisis, and may already be within us in the form of an inner image.  This can be used to connect with their power, or projected on to real animals as a way of maintaining contact.  An external part of our being, our fetch, ‘a projective spirit’ or guardian angel, may appear as an animal.

Phenomena as complex and subtle as this don’t lend themselves to brief summation, but animist readers will note that Nigel Pennick describes the process of contacting animal helpers entirely in terms of human initiative, and may be surprised that he thinks its ‘not too difficult’.  If you’re on a path of wisdom, for instance, you simply look for a ‘perceptive beast’.  After learning about, and observing, your chosen helper, various spiritual exercises (visualising yourself as the animal, and going on an inner journey in that form) purportedly enable you to become familiar with animal’s inner life.  Judging by the difficulty most humans have understanding domestic cats, I’m somewhat sceptical about this claim.  Anyway, at this point, ‘you will be … able to call upon (your helper’s) power at will when you need it’.

Responding to this from an animist perspective I worry about (i) the focus being entirely on human experience, (ii) the tone being dry and technical; the heart doesn’t appear to be involved, (iii) that a lack of guidance around ethics and etiquette is likely to encourage an exploitative attitude, and (iv) that interaction with flesh and blood other-than-human animals is approached instrumentally, as a mere stepping stone towards acquiring the capacity to undertake implicitly more meaningful magical/psychic work in the service of human need.  These worries are greatly compounded by what comes next; a neo-Platonic sounding injunction about going native.  If, when working with animals, we forget that we are human and regress to ‘a sub-human state’, this may impair our ‘spiritual progress towards a state of higher consciousness’.  In numerous shamanistic and animistic traditions, of course, other-than-human animals offer assistance to humans as spiritual teachers, guides, and messengers.

So to an example of the art.  The Toad, is said to be important in natural magic.  A certain bone from a dead toad is traditionally claimed to confer various superhuman powers.  Well, I’ve just come back from a toading trip.  Last night we rescued sixty of these beautiful little animals from a lane where they were in danger of being run over.  I’m sure Nigel Pennick doesn’t want natural magicians to harvest the grisly remains of road kills, but in contrast with various neo-Shamanic/new animist texts (e.g Gordon ‘the Toad’ MacLellan, 1989), no mention is made of the ethical responsibility incurred when collecting the tools of what, at this point, begins to sound like a very odd trade.  We are not even urged to ask permission for the use of body parts.  Once again there is no sense of dialogue or reciprocity.  No sense of the beauty of other-than-human beings, or affection for them.  They are simply there to be used when we need them.

Another claim that animists are likely to raise an eyebrow at, is that certain kinds of trees are more likely to be enspirited than others.  These turn out to be trees that attract human attention in various ways; by their shape, location, rarity, or ceremonial/folkloric associations.  The Wild Wood is a place we can go to for psychic renewal, without apparently incurring any obligation to reciprocate.  Having heard reports of Pagans stumbling into woods at night, heedless of the needs of non-human residents or the sensibilities of place, in order to conduct loud ceremonies, or seek psychic stimulation, I worry about this too.  There may be a good case for making inner journeys instead.

One of the difficulties I have with the M-word is that it confers a patina of authority on truth claims.  When Robert Bly introduced us to Iron John, the Grimm Brothers’ hairy Wild Man, John Rowan pointed out that for unreconstructed men this was hardly a helpful story.  Rowan argued that because Bly’s Jungian fairy tale says nothing about Iron John’s attitude towards women, he’s not a culturally transformative figure. (see also Robert Connell).  Critical responses notwithstanding, variants of the Wild Man seem to be alive and well in Pagan circles as an image of ‘our natural instincts’.  Nigel Pennick suggests that ‘we’ enter the Wild Wood ‘either in reality or on an inner journey’, in order to contact the ‘Wild Man’ within us, and find our ‘true natural selves’.

From a postmodern animist perspective many question arise here, such as: Who is this all-inclusive ‘we’?  Why should our ‘natural selves’ be more worthwhile than the cultivated selves we have grown through decades of relationship and social participation?  Are we talking about ecological selfhood, and if so wouldn’t that entail relating to other species?  Can there be such a thing as a ‘true’ (pre- or a- social) instinctual response, separate from cultural performance?  Should psychological discourse be dressed up as magic?

As exemplars of ‘the sheer energy of wildness’, Bears and Wolves get a raw deal from Nigel Pennick.  They are only considered in relation to martial arts and the battle frenzy of warrior cults.  The Viking Beserkers, who ‘took their power from the Bear’, apparently often lost control and became ‘possessed’, running amok and killing friends and family.  Likewise, werewolves were said to be more dangerous than real wolves.  Well quite.  I would suggest that stories like this need to be evaluated in the context of a discussion of militaristic masculinities.  The notion that co-operative social animals such as Wolves live lives of unconstrained instinctual spontaneity is surely a product of human discourse, concocted for all-too-human purposes.

No-one has a monopoly on the M-word, of course.  Susan Greenwood, for instance, -who, in contrast to Nigel Pennick illustrates and tests her developing ideas about magic against personal experience- talks about magical consciousness.  She draws upon Lucien Lévy-Bruhl’s participation mystique, as indeed do some of those currently writing about enchantment and divination.  In another post I want to consider whether these ideas offer a conception of magic, enchantment, and divination, that feels more compatible with postmodern animism.

to be continued ….


Marian Green, The Elements of Natural Magic, Element Books, 1989.

Nigel Pennick, Natural Magic, Lear Books 2005.

Roy Willis and Patrick Curry, Astrology, Science, and Culture; Pulling Down the Moon, Berg, 2004.

Nick Campion, The Dawn of Astrology, A Cultural History of Western Astrology, Vol 1: The Ancient and Classical Worlds, Continuum, 2008.

Robert Wallis,  Shamans/Neo-Shamans, Ecstasy, alternative archaeologies and contemporary Pagans, Routledge, 2003.

Gordon MacLellan, Sacred Animals, Capall Bann, 1997.

Robert Bly, Iron John, A Book About Men, Element, 1990.

John Rowan, The Horned God, Feminism and Men as Wounding and Healing, Routledge, 1987.

R.W. Connell, Masculinities, Polity Press, 1995.

Susan Greenwood, The Anthropology of Magic, Berg, 2009.

Naturalists, Animists, and Spirituality.

In Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold spoke of a ‘need to re-integrate the full range of human faculties into the study of nature’.  Isn’t this what animist ‘spirituality’ is all about?  Some of our finest naturalists write about moments of intimate contact with other-than-human beings.  Their love for their subject matter is obvious, and perhaps best left understated.  Many more naturalists experience such moments, but don’t write about it.  Public discourse about nature leaves human subjectivity, let alone spirituality, at the margins.  There may be some valid reasons for this.  Discussing spirituality could, paradoxically, be divisive, when ecological priorities demand broad involvement.  Many published accounts, however, suggest a continuum of experience, from the kind of silent attunement my father showed me when we watched birds together, through a range of more intense and exceptional phenomena, some of which are plainly inconsistent with Western scientific rationality.

In Whistling in the Dark, Richard Mabey recalls developing ‘a slight gift for intuiting and predicting’ where unusual birds might be seen.  He found he could ‘conjure up a Woodpecker’.  In Landlocked, he talks about the ‘serendipity’ involved in an encounter with a Dartford Warbler; ‘they are usually the shyest of birds, but true to the spirit of that day, this one sported about in the open for a full quarter of an hour’.  The outside world begins to penetrate his ‘fragile membrane’.  In Common Ground the first pair of Bee Eaters to breed in Britain are described as a benediction.  Yet Mabey resists the implication that his sensitivity has anything to do with ethereal spirituality.

Neo-Paganism is often described as a nature religion.  Apart from a few notable exceptions, however, writings in this tradition seem more concerned with philosphical abstraction, deities, technologies of magic, historical research, or human healing – important as these may be – than with the natural world.  Where other-than-human beings feature there often appears to be more interest in otherworldly ‘power’ or ‘totem’ animals or familiars, an animal’s place in lore, or their purported symbolic or elemental attributes, than in their flesh and blood lives or the fine detail of ecology.  This can become problematical, but again there may be valid reasons.  Animism is not all about ecology.  Reaching for my slightly frayed hat as a reasonably feet-on-the-ground social scientist and worker with human people, my own carefully recorded experience, and that of friends, suggests that other-than-human persons may turn up as helpers or witnesses at times when a human is dealing with a crisis, or a death, and in no state to be thinking about ecological concerns.  I appreciate that the subtlety of such a process may tax the scientific mind.

Questioned repeatedly about spirituality, Richard Mabey describes himself as a materialist or matterist, and stresses the importance of the real.  He does however admit to ‘something close to a moment of communion’, in which his own ‘sort of familiar’, the Nightingale, became a shaman – ‘experienced, rhetorical, insistent’ – and he, the bird’s ‘willing initiate.’   As Mabey’s peripheral vision closed down, the bird’s song appeared to solidify and create synaesthetic effects with the light.

Whether or not we describe such experiences as ‘spiritual’ depends on what we mean by the term, of course.  If the presence of love is a hallmark of spirituality, there certainly seems to have been love involved.  We need to come to our own conclusions about this, and leave others to theirs.  Although I’m not entirely comfortable with ‘spirituality’, because of its associaton with earth devaluing traditions, I want to retain it, for the time being at least, as a way of talking about otherworldly experience.  My mentor in these matters was a spiritual healer, and too many of my experiences seem best described in post-materialist terms.

I’m also concerned that some new animist writing seems intent on turning away from other dimensional experience.  David Abram may have had a point when he recast shamans as ecological experts, and argued that in indigenous cultures the over-worked term ‘spirits’ refers primarily to non-human intelligences such as ants or birds.  His redefinition of magic ‘in its most primordial sense’, as the ‘the intuition that every natural form one percieves … is an experiencing form, an entity with its own predilections and sensations’, may not be very far from Richard Mabey’s animist sounding materialism.  Not all animists go along with Abram’s perception of sentience in grass blades or rocks, after all.  I’m not convinced, however, that this is the whole truth about indigenous traditions.

Some elements of the world view of the Ojibwe people of mid-twentieth century Manitoba, as retold by Irving Hallowell in a paper that has become a key reference point for new animism, would not surprise Western spiritualists.  Hallowell’s informants say that souls can leave the body during dreams, and appear in animal form to a distant observer.  They say that all ‘persons’ have an enduring inner aspect; that the human self survives death and continues its existence in another place.  Entities encountered in dreams may be powerful other-than-human persons who bestow revelations, power, and blessings.  Although such accounts are susceptible to interpretation as metaphorical statements about intrapsychic or ecological processes, there are striking cross-cultural parallels with phenomena and experiences that I would describe in terms of earth-centred spirituality.

Richard Mabey reminds us of the value of reflexivity.  He constantly questions himself, and is scathing, for example, about some of his own early writing that reduced a local Barn Owl to a symbol, ‘an emotional puppet’.  As animists we need to be alert to this all too human tendency to appropriate the lives of our other than human neighbours.

But if we want to deploy the full range of human faculties in the study of nature, we arguably need to engage with the subjective realm, and in particular with the kinds of ‘otherworldly’ sensibility that emerge in dreams, meditation, and visionary states.  Not, in my view, because these states and the worlds they reveal matter more than ‘the real’, but because they’re integral to an appreciation of the layered complexity of this world, and our place in it.  Such a project, I believe, entails careful symbolic thought, and writing as cautious, committed, yet poetic as any good naturalist’s.  I’m only a plodding -ologist, but I’ll do my best.

B.T. 29/11/12.


Aldo Leopold  A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, Oxford, 1947/1987.

Richard Mabey, Whistling in the Dark, In Pursuit of the Nightingale, Sinclair Stevenson, 1993, and The Barley Bird, Notes on a Suffolk Nightingale, Full Circle Editions, 2010.

Richard Mabey, Landlocked, Sinclair Stevenson, 1994.

Richard Mabey, The Common Ground, a Place for Nature in Britain’s Future, Hutchinson, 1980.

David Abram, The Ecology of Magic, Orion, 10, 3 Summer 1991, quoted in Bron Taylor, Dark Green Religion: Nature, Spirituality, and the Planetary Future, University of California Press, 2010, p89.

Graham Harvey,  Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst 2005.

Irving Hallowell, Ojibwe Ontology, Behaviour, and World View, reproduced in Graham Harvey, ed. Readings in Indigenous Religions, Continuum, 2002.

Richard Mabey, God and Me, Granta 93, Spring 2006;  Bioluxuriance, Resurgence, 238;  Definitely Mabey, Interview with Richard Mabey, BBC Wildlife, March 2010.

The drawning by Peter Goode first appeared in a book of poems by Rod Hartle called The Iron Tree, Lantern Press, 1993.


These jottings are dedicated to the memory and presence of a very dear friend, Peter Goode, who ‘passed over’ in August.  Our discussions in the months before he died were increasingly squeezed between the demands of visiting care workers, nurses, and helpful neighbours, and periods when the physical toll of pain and exhaustion made thinking and talking difficult for him.  But when we did talk, Peter consistently expressed the view –  hopefully my words convey his sentiment accurately – that he would be more than happy to melt back into the living world, even perhaps to transform into some other-than-human life form, a Cat, a Silver Birch, a Pigeon, a Jackdaw, a Peony, any of the plants or animals that lived in, or visited, the garden that surrounded the prefab that he was only given during the last three years of his life, when too disabled by chronic illness to take care of it himself.

Peter didn’t have a rose-tinted view of the natural world, and I certainly don’t have a rose-tinted view of human culture, but it became clear that I was more of an unreconstructed spiritualist than he was.  His conviction about metamorphosis made me wonder why I was resistent to the idea that he, or I, might become other-than-human.  Did I not respect my animal companions as equals, after all these years?  Like many of Peter’s friends, I understandably wanted to hold on to his memory in human form.

Wherever he went, he still seems to be ‘around’, not least in his life affirming art.  I am devoting a page – ‘All Life Lives on A Leaf’ – to some reflections on Peter’s deeply animist work, and how the natural world responded to our shared appreciation of primal beauty.