Predatory Animism

In the mid-1500s, a German seafarer named Hans Staden encountered a Tupinambá chief in the Amazon rainforest who was eating a human leg out of a “great vessel full of human flesh.”

Holding the limb to Staden’s mouth, the chief invited him to try it. Staden replied, “Even beasts which are without understanding do not eat their own species, and should a man devour his fellow creatures?”

At that, the chief took a bite and turning Staden’s argument on its head, replied, “I am a tiger; it tastes well.”

Such accounts serve, as anthropologist Carlo Fausto reminds us, that not all native cultures practice a “loving animism.” Indeed, sometimes, their practices are “better understood as a predatory animism.”

In our thirst for a meaningful relationship to the cosmos, one with a nourishing spiritual dimension, it’s easy for us Westerners to romanticize indigenous cultures and their “animistic” world views.

As I once heard the Apache writer and shaman, Martin Prechtel, say: “How can you be lonely or depressed when you wake up in a cosmos where you’re surrounded by companions and friends?” He meant a sentient world, filled with life that sings in our ears and stirs our hearts with messages from beyond the merely human.

More popularly, Disney’s Pocahontas sings,

You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name.

The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends.

It can come as something of a shock, therefore, to discover that the “animistic” worldview can also be predatory, a thing practiced “in darkness and secrecy” as in Amazonian shamanism. Or in broad, consensual daylight, as among the warring Plains Indians of North America, whose torture of captured members of rival tribes would have made the Spanish Inquisition blanch:

“Indian torture rituals had a purpose beyond inflicting excruciating pain. The majority of tribes believed that all humans went to the same idyllic afterlife in the exact physical condition in which they had died. This breathtaking arcadia, bursting with ponies and game and populated by unlimited comely maidens, was a literal Happy Hunting Ground. But if the ghostly warrior had no eyes or tongue with which to see this paradise and taste its fatty meat, if he had no feet with which to chase the game, no hands with which to draw back a bowstring no genitalia with which to satisfy his carnal desires, then one man’s heaven had become another’s hell. This belief was universally accepted among the tribes.”

You can imagine the practical implications of such a cosmovision, although fine details such as punching a hole in the living war captive’s bladder and urinating or defecating in it might elude you.

Yet, leave it to the ancient Celts of Ireland to take predatory animism to the most refined artistic heights. As avid head hunters, their records and tales are filled with accounts of magically animated severed heads. Perhaps the most haunting and moving account is from the tale of Donn Bo in the Battle of Allen, from the Yellow Book of Lecan.

A battle was fought between Fergal, king of northern Ireland, and King Murchad of Leinster, whose territory Fergal invaded. The Leinstermen were victorious, and Fergal and many of his followers were killed. At the feast held after the victory, the king asked that someone should go to the battlefield and fetch a man’s head, for which he would pay a rich reward.

A man named Baethgalach went to where King Fergal lay, and as he drew near he could hear a voice commanding the musicians and poets on the battlefield to make music and to sing for their lord. Then came music unsurpassed in sweetness, and the head of Donn Bo began to sing for Fergal.

Don Bo was a youth famed for his skill in story-telling and song, who had been unwilling to sing for the king on the night before the battle but had sworn to make music for him the following night, no matter where they might be. Baethgalach asked if he might take the head of Donn Bo to the hall, and the head consented, if he promised to bring it back afterwards and lay it on his body.

The head of the minstrel was carried to the feast and placed on a pillar in the hall. All recognized Donn Bo, and grieved for the loss of the finest minstrel in Erin.

Then the head turned towards the wall where it was dark, and sang a lament, and so sweet was the song that none could refrain from weeping. Afterwards the head was taken back and replaced on Donn Bo’s body, and because saint Columcille had promised the youth’s mother that he would return to her unharmed, it was joined to his body again.

Tolkien is Wild and Disney is Tame: A Fantast’s Apologia

I can remember as a child falling into line with Disney’s black and white formulas. Jiminy Cricket’s “Give a little whistle” was a cheery invite to safety holding hands crossing the street, whereas the Fox’s “An Actor’s Life for Me” sounded ominous and full of forbidden pleasures that could lead to my sprouting donkey ears!

Yet somehow such simplistic dualism, a world cleanly divided into good and evil, abruptly ceased to comfort my young mind.

Some time ago, while walking my baby in the morning, I took a moment to reflect, why is it I am so downright suspicious and critical of Disney? If I could do a little self-psychoanalysis, what would I find?

So I played therapist, and realized where my break with Disney happened. It occurred when I was nine years old, on the day I was abandoned in a children’s shelter. As a creative kid who constantly referenced stories as a guide in life, I resorted to the mythos of Disney to populate the unknown world I was about to enter. I distinctly remember the images of the ragged, soulful-eyed orphans I generated in that final car ride, good children with whom I would bond together against a cruel world. We would have adventures together. He comforted me, Disney did, for the very last time in my life.

With my abandonment, the shaky floor of middle class values that I had been raised in splintered and collapsed, and I fell into a subterranean world that had nothing to do with Disneyesque belonging. The values Disney had inculcated in me were naïve in the face of the education I was slated to receive at the hands of the criminal class.

As I grew up during my adolescence in shelters, group homes, and foster homes, Disney’s art came to reflect the Great Lie: sanitized middle class values that secretly operated prisons and sweatshops over on the other side of the railroad tracks.

I don’t think I ever forgave Disney. What good is a mythos if it offers no survival value?

It was Tolkien’s work that came in some years later to fill the void left by Disney — for Tolkien’s mythos confronted our struggle to survive in the cosmos in a way that made sense of its spiritual dimension.

What is the essential difference, then, between Disney and Tolkien?

Basically, if the mythos of Tolkien is wild, Disney is domestic and tame.

What children, and serious minded-adults, want to hear are reminders of the wilderness, the great living cosmos filled with powers, terrors and joys lying far beyond the ken of humanity, within whose larger ecology we must struggle to locate ourselves and find our purpose. It is a realm where an angel, as the poet Rilke describes it, “will deign to destroy you.” A growing mind, and a mature psychology, needs to go occasionally astray in a wild spiritual topography, and Tolkien fulfills this function amazingly well.

Disney, on the other hand, is xenophobic — he fears foreign contamination, anthropomorphizes Nature, and whitewashes culture. All representations of mythology’s bad- assed wilderness are reduced to personifications of the family drama. Witches are inflated bad step-mothers, dwarves are cute childhood companions, dangerous sorceresses are larger than life cruel aunties, shamanic animal and plant allies are glorified pets, elves are not terrible and beautiful like the Eldar, but have little wings and wands and sit in daisy cups or are fat and wear aprons. Safe, tame, and domestic.*

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau once said, and Disney’s products censor that wild vitality. As Joseph Campbell points out, mythology gives us a map for entering the unknown and wresting value out of it. If our prevalent, functioning Disney mythology does no more than to suggest that our hero’s journey ends at heterosexual marriage and domestic bliss, who is going to take on the great tasks now awaiting doing? Is not the Disney mythos keeping us in an arrested development?

If Disney offers a counterfeit bourgeoisie paradise, Tolkien’s work offers redemption from the values of that world by reawakening us to indigenous ways of knowing, to an animistic sense of wonder and participation in a vital, non-human centered cosmic order.

Early in their friendship, Tolkien shook C.S. Lewis free from the confines of his scientific rationalism into an animistic perception of the cosmos, explaining how our ancestors experienced the sacred as immanent in, not transcendent to, creation:

You look at trees and called them “trees,” and probably you do not think twice about the word. You call a star a “star,” and think nothing more of it. But you must remember that these words, “tree,” “star,” were (in their original forms) names given to these objects by people with very different views from yours. To you, a tree is simply a vegetable organism, and a star simply a ball of inanimate matter moving along a mathematical course. But the first men to talk of “trees” and “stars” saw things very differently. To them, the world was alive with mythological beings. They saw the stars as living silver, bursting into flame in answer to the eternal music. They saw the sky as a jeweled tent, and the earth as the womb whence all living things have come. To them, the whole of creation was “myth-woven and elf patterned”

“If God is mythopoeic,” Tolkien concluded, “man must become mythopathic.”

This vision of animistic participation in the cosmos is the rarely acknowledged phenomenological cornerstone of all Tolkien’s tales of Middle Earth. But more than a literary device, for Tolkien this experience of enchantment is an essential ingredient to human existence. He called it “Faery,” and toward the end of his life he attempted to more precisely formulate it.

Here is what Tolkien wrote:

Faery represents at its weakest a breaking out (at least in mind) from the iron ring of the familiar—a constant awareness of the world beyond these rings. More strongly it represents love: a love and respect for all things, “inanimate” and “animate,” and an unpossessive love of them as “other.” This “love” will produce both ruth and delight. Things seen in its light will be respected, and they will also appear delightful, beautiful, wonderful, even glorious. Faery might be said to represent Imagination (without definition because taking in all the definitions of this word): esthetic, exploratory and receptive; and artistic; inventive, dynamic (sub)creative. This compound—of awareness of a limitless world outside our domestic parish; a love (in ruth and admiration) for the things in it; and the desire for wonder, marvels, both perceived and conceived—this “Faery” is as necessary for the health and complete functioning of the Human as is sunlight for physical life.

As Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger comments, “No great leap of imagination is needed in order to see that Tolkien was speaking from experience and that Faery was as necessary for his own spiritual health and complete functioning as sunlight for his physical life.”

Not only is it necessary for spiritual health, it is a requisite of accurate perception of ourselves and the world. For Tolkien, when we “appropriate” our experience and the things of the world, once we’ve “locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them,” the cosmos becomes, well, trite. The cure is Recovery of a clear view: “Seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them — as things apart from ourselves… so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity — from possessiveness.”

Recovery through creative fantasy, “may open your hoard and let all the locked things fly away like caged birds…and you will be warned that all you had (or knew) was dangerous and potent, not really effectively chained, free and wild; no more yours than they were you.”

The recovery of deep wonder is the gift that Tolkien gave us, and I thank him for it.

*Perhaps this sentiment is shared with Tolkien himself, who declared a “heartfelt loathing” for the American’s animations. “I recognize [Walt Disney’s] talent,” he said, “but it has always seemed to me hopelessly corrupted. Though in most of the ‘pictures’ proceeding from his studios there are admirable or charming passages, the effect of all of them to me is disgusting. Some have given me nausea.”

Loving a Sentient Cosmos

Future Primitive interviews Robert on the joy of participating in a sentient cosmos; water, the primordial womb; music and opening of the gates of consciousness; from shamanism to cultural regeneration; Tolkien: remembering the animistic perception of the world; “a love and respect of all things animate and inanimate”; “a cosmo-centric economy”; reintroducing the indigenous consciousness of reciprocity; cultivating a self-sustaining soil.

Prospero — Shakespeare’s Shaman

“Animism” is a concept first introduced into anthropological circles by one of its founders, Edward Tylor, as the belief in supernatural beings permeating the natural world. In his Primitive Culture (1871), he wrote that animism is a perception held by “tribes very low in the scale of humanity,” yet serving as the “groundwork of the Philosophy of Religion, from that of savages up to that of civilized men.”

Yet Shakespeare offered a far more sophisticated theory of animism in his final play, The Tempest. This is not surprising. Shakespeare’s works easily bear more than one interpretation, and like the termas in the Tibetan tradition, their hidden teachings seem to emerge as the centuries pass.

The Tempest is the tale of a Duke of Milan and his daughter, who, marooned upon a remote island, survive with the aid of a magic staff, a book of potent spells, and two servants: an airy spirit and a half monster/half man named Caliban.

When their enemies one day come sailing into Prospero’s prescient view, he uses his magic to regain his throne. It sounds almost silly, doesn’t it? It’s not. Shakespeare, like a quantum physicist, is exploring the fabric of reality and how “magic” can shape it, and all the play’s activity is grounded in animistic experience.

Tylor’s theory of spiritual evolution is dramatically realized in the characters of Caliban and Prospero, who both perceive the cosmos as vital and sentient, yet from different ends of the spectrum.

In Caliban’s naïve animistic consciousness, trees, streams, stars, all are alive, filled with music and strange wonder, and his most haunting evocation of that sentience comes in the lines:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises,
Sounds and sweet airs that give delight and hurt not.
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears, and sometimes voices
That, if I then had waked after long sleep,
Will make me sleep again; and then, in dreaming,
The clouds methought would open, and show riches
Ready to drop upon me, that when I waked,
I cried to dream again.

If Caliban is mother nature’s son, Prospero is her shaman. As a Renaissance magician, Prospero has a similar mode of perception as the savage Caliban — he releases spirits imprisoned in oaks, calls forth mutinous winds, and, above all, creates visionary worlds that enrapture their beholders — yet his apprehension is aesthetic, not raw or sensual. In Prospero, Shakespeare gives us a glimpse into one of the directions that science, as we now know it, was developing in his time (and would have kept developing if not for the interventions of the Inquisition, Galileo, and Descartes).

Prospero’s magic perfects God’s creation. Rather than splitting the atom, Prospero catches rides on the movements of the stars. His most memorable reflection on the nature of reality comes when he states, in the same vein as Caliban, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on, and our little life is rounded with a sleep.” Like a Buddhist magician who understands that “all things are essentially empty,” Prospero can shape “the baseless fabric of this vision” we call reality.

Yet far from rejecting Caliban, who is murderous, lecherous, drunken, and won’t fall in line with his colonialist regime, Prospero in the end embraces him. Why?

Could it be that Caliban, with his indigenous visions and uncanny local knowledge, represents that mythic line, that symbiosis of human and animal that Euro-Americans simultaneously abhor and secretly yearn for? Is not the island itself, stranded half way in a dream, the shamanic realm where powerful magic and discourse with spirits and supernatural beings is possible?

If the island is a metaphor for the realm of the transpersonal unconscious (where Shakespeare, who wrote three of his greatest plays simultaneously, no doubt resided for much of his creative career), Caliban, we suspect, is the genius of the Earth — “You earth, thou” — the impulses arising from the depths, the wild vitality, the Dionysian trickster, that still sparkle in the Bard’s work.

Prospero is a hero beyond our society’s adolescent fixation with the journey of meeting mentors, crossing thresholds, experiencing ordeals, encountering the goddess, etc. Prospero is a grown man, who can orchestrate, like an incredibly skilled therapist, the catharsis of his enemies, and then forgive them once they are repentant. In the union of his daughter Miranda and the King of Naple’s son, Ferdinand, we see the hieros gamos, the royal marriage of opposites in the soul, which allows Prospero to renounce all his powers and surrender himself to mere prayer, holding that “every third thought shall be my grave.”

In our society, so desperately short on portraits of mature men, we have much to thank Shakespeare for. Interestingly, the best film version of The Tempest is Julie Taymor’s, in which Prospero is transformed into Prospera, nobly realized by Helen Mirren.