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Appropriating, Romanticizing and Reimagining: Pagan Engagements with Indigenous Animism

Anna Fisk


Pagan conceptions of human relations with the nonhuman world, especially that understood as “nature,” have been considered in terms of the ethnographic concept of animism. This was originally a colonial concept—one that regarded indigenous worldviews that incorporate the subjectivity of nonhumans as the “primitive basis of religion.” Recent anthropological and theoretical accounts have presented a new understanding of animism as a profoundly relational worldview in which “the world is full of persons, only some of whom are human” (Harvey 2005: xi). The extension of social structures and relationality to the nonhuman environment is a common element of the otherwise diverse worldviews of indigenous cultures around the world. It is also prevalent in contemporary Pagan discourse, but with a key difference: for contemporary Pagans, animism is “elective,” deliberately adopted as an oppositional response to the dominant cultures in which they live, rather than embedded within them, as for indigenous societies (Rountree 2012).

A. Fisk (*)

University of Glasgow, Glasgow, UK © The Author(s) 2017

K. Rountree (ed.), Cosmopolitanism, Nationalism, and Modern Paganism, DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-56200-5_2

Cross-cultural engagement with indigenous animist traditions (and related anthropological and philosophical discourses) is widely regarded in contemporary Paganism as a positive move in the face of global environmental crisis. Both traditional indigenous worldviews and contemporary Pagan and philosophical understandings of the subjectivity of the “other-than-human world” (Hallowell 2002 [I960]) are thought to contribute to a way of life that is more ecologically sustainable than the dominant paradigms of modernity. Yet, while the cosmopolitanism of Pagan “new animist” engagement with indigenous cultural traditions may be good, that does not make it innocent. In this chapter, I explore how Pagan animism may run the risk of western imperialism in the following interrelated modes: first, through the direct appropriation of indigenous beliefs and practices; second, through the romanticized and essentialized view of indigenous cultures; and third, through the contemporary Pagan reimagining of indigenous animist cosmologies by relocating them in what is perceived as “one’s own heritage”—the mythic and religious traditions of the European past (such as occurs in Heathenism and Druidry). This is often from an explicit resistance to appropriating indigenous cultures, as well as the potentially more nationalistic impulse of claiming harmonious relations with nature as native to one’s own culture. I will suggest that both the imagining of an animist pagan past in Europe and the turn to indigenous animist ways of knowing are related to the modern desire to escape superficiality and dualistic rationalism.

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