Animism is possibly the closest thing you’ll get to a universal belief in modern witchcraft. We talk about leaving offerings for plants, about genius loci, about the spirits we work with, and often the spirits of our tools, divination tools in particular. There is an undercurrent of animism the runs throughout our practices, and yet, we rarely talk about animism in any structured fashion. It’s simply there, never explained but always present.
This can pose a problem for witches who aren’t sure what they believe, if they believe in animism, and how to practice magic if they’re uncertain. Do you still leave offerings if you’re unsure if the plant has a spirit? Are you comfortable leaving offerings for spirits you don’t even know, could it be dangerous if you do? And what if you’re a secular witch? If your spiritual beliefs are atypical, then how does animism fit into that? Today, we’re going to look at what animism is and how it might fit into your practice.
What Is Animism?
Animism is the belief that everything has a spirit. This idea is deeply rooted in many magical practices and is, in truth, the foundation that much of magic is built on.
The extent to which an individual interacts with this concept can vary, but in general, it’s commonly accepted that when we say everything, we mean everything. Plants have a spirit, places have a spirit, houses have a spirit, these are commonly accepted. They aren’t the only things with spirits though! Your dining table has a spirit. Your computer has a spirit. A thunder storm has a spirit. Your car has a spirit. Hell, the engine inside of your car has a completely separate spirit. Everything doesn’t just mean the convenient things or the “natural” things. It means everything!
Do Witches Have To Be Animists?
No. You don’t have to do anything in the craft that you don’t want to (other than, you know, magic), although some things, like magical hygiene, are heavily recommended.
Spirit work can add a lot to the craft but not everyone engages in it. Some people only work with certain spirits like a green witch who works with genius loci and plant spirits but not with the spirits of the departed or anything else. Some people don’t work with spirits other than their gods. Some people choose to avoid spirits altogether. Spirit work takes effort to maintain, a relationship with a spirit is like a relationship with a friend, it takes time and consistency to make it a fruitful, healthy, and happy thing for both parties!
There’s no right or wrong way to structure your craft in this respect, it’s simply a matter of what you’re comfortable with and what you hope to accomplish with your magic.
Why you might choose to work with spirits:
- There are one or more spirits that interest you
- There’s a type of magic that would benefit from the help of a certain spirit
- Some spirits are easy to work with and keep other spirits away
- Spirits can teach you new magic that you can’t find in books
- Spirits can lend a lot of power to your magic
- Spirits can give a sense of community to isolated witches
Why you might choose NOT to work with spirits:
- You don’t like the idea of invisible beings in your house
- You don’t have the time to devote to maintaining spiritual relationships right now
- You aren’t great at maintaining personal boundaries and don’t want to be taken advantage of
- Your discernment/divination skills aren’t great yet and you’re not sure you can tell helpful spirits from unhelpful spirits
And you do not have to accept this belief at all if it doesn’t resonate with you! You will have to put quite a bit of thought into whether witchcraft is right for you if you don’t believe in animism, since much of it functions on animist concepts, but if you find that it’s not incompatible within your worldview then it is possible to be a witch without animism.
What Does This Have To Do With Witchcraft?
Accepting that animism is real is one thing, but that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to connect the belief with the craft. How exactly does this belief impact witchcraft and why is it so widespread?
Very likely, you’ve already been using an animistic worldview in your craft without realizing it. When you choose ingredients for a spell, you think about the correspondences and “energy” of that thing. What is that energy? It’s a spirit, of course! Like every other being in existence, these spirits have wants, needs, likes, dislikes, strengths, and weaknesses. We work with these beings and their personalities when we use them in spellwork.
When witches collect plants from nature or their garden, they will often ask for permission and leave offerings for the spirit of the plant. When we work using planetary times and days, we are working under the spirit of that planet. Animism is everywhere in the craft!
This opens up many exciting possibilities magically but it also opens potential pitfalls. With all of these spirits around, you can do magic with anything! Suddenly modern technology is no longer dead and inert but a spiritual being in its own right. If you’re not careful though, this can become an overwhelming worldview.
Animism is not necessarily religious. You don’t have to believe in gods to be an animist, you simply have to believe that spirits exist and that everything around you has one. You don’t have to interact with these spirits heavily, or even at all just because you believe in them. Accepting this belief as your own does not doom you to a life of talking to coffee tables and never getting a moment of peace.
Waking Up Spirits
This mindset might seem a bit overwhelming. Suddenly you’re aware of about a billion more spirits around you than you’re used to, that’s quite an adjustment! It’s important to understand is that many of these spirits are essentially asleep though. They’re dormant, they have been living with people who have ignored them and so they have drifted into an unconscious state. This is a good thing because it would get quite noisy if every object in your house was constantly trying to talk to you. In order to work with many of these spirits, it is necessary to wake them up though!
Now, this is an easy enough thing to do and it offers incredible benefits to your magic. Waking up the spirits of your spell ingredients and reminding them of their magical abilities adds strength and potency to spells. Rather than you having to front all the energy for a spell, you can go to a plant, stone, or other item and ask it to help you, since it’s particularly good at whatever it is you’re trying to do.
How do you wake these spirits up? It’s so simple it’s almost laughable, you tell it to “Wake up!” That’s it, the spirit will stir and you will be able to communicate with it readily as you would with any other spirit.
This knowledge comes with a caveat, however. It would be a supremely bad idea to go about waking things up left and right without any thought. It might sound fun to have a house full of spirits but when they’re clamoring on at all hours, keeping you up, demanding offerings, interfering with spellwork, antagonizing your cats, and throwing off the energetic state of your home, things are less exciting.
To that end, do not wake up random spirits for the fun of it! Remember that once awake, a relationship with any spirit will take real effort and time to maintain. And if you wake up dozens of them? They may demand far more of you than you have to give. Waking a spirit up is a simple thing, putting it back to sleep is damn near impossible. Save yourself the headache and only wake up spirits that you are ready to do serious work with.
It’s also good to note that while many spirits are dormant, by no means is every spirit dormant. This is easy enough to see. Your pets are not dormant. Spirits that people regularly work with like saints, gods, and other common spirits are not dormant. Your ancestors are probably not dormant. These spirits will not appreciate attempts to wake them up.
Respect & Allyship
For those who are interested in interacting with this animist world more, getting started can feel a bit daunting. This idea that everything around you has a spirit, that all of it has some form of consciousness, suddenly makes the world look very different.
In the western world, we’re raised with the intrinsic idea that humans are separate from and above all other things. All other animals, all plants, and certainly all inanimate objects are ours to do with as we wish because, in this learned worldview, we are more conscious, more sentient than these things. In an animist worldview, all of this is turned on its head.
Suddenly we are not above and we are not separate.
This is where the concept of allyship becomes important. If we, as witches, accept that all things have spirits, that they all have consciousness, then treating these beings as lesser is at best, incredibly rude and at worst, downright dangerous.
Can you imagine if a stranger walked up to you and, having no regard for what you wanted or thought about it all, tried forcing you to do something for them? I’d imagine you’d be more than a little pissed off and outraged. Other forms of consciousness are no different and no less individual. While some people may be happy to jump to the aid of others with only the slightest provocation, other people need to be invested in the cause or individual to lift a finger to help. Spirits are equally varied in character, it pays to know the temperament of the beings that you’re working with.
Many spirits are inherently antagonistic toward humans. For example, the Belladonna plant is incredibly lethal and yet, it has wonderfully delicious berries. This is a plant that wants to kill things. These spirits can still be allies to the careful and studious witch but you must not assume that they lose their danger because you work respectfully with them. There are many such spirits throughout our world, of all shapes and sizes, plants and otherwise. Not every spirit you meet is your friend.
When I talk about allyship, I’m talking about treating these spirits with respect, as peers, not as servants. You should be thinking just as much about what you have to offer them as what they can do for you. This is a fundamental shift in how we interact with the world, as a collaborative and creative participant rather than as arbiter and master.
What does this look like in practice? That depends on the spirit. Let’s look at plant spirits as an example.
A person attempting to be an ally to a particular plant spirit that they wished to work with might consider first getting to know the plant. One of the best ways to do this is to grow the plant yourself. You get a chance to learn about the plant, its needs, likes, and dislikes in all seasons and all stages of life. You might consider researching the plants’ uses, medicinal properties, and dangers. You can interact directly with the plant through your senses, touching its leaves, smelling it, observing how it grows and changes in appearance, and, if it’s safe to do so, by tasting small amounts of the plant.
You can leave offerings for the plant, things that it needs or appreciates like fertilizer or oil and honey to attract insects. You might speak to the plant spirit. Many people will not hear words when communicating with plants, they’re not verbal creatures! Instead, you may get emotional impressions, images, or thoughts from it. Always be thinking of what you can give to this being, how can you help it meet its needs? Through this collaboration and careful attention, you will learn about this spirit and its uses and talents in magic.
This process can be replicated for many other kinds of spirits. A house spirit has needs such as cleaning, maintenance, and to be beautiful. A stone might need to be kept out of light, carefully cleaned, and regularly cleansed. Get creative and you’ll find that developing a respectful relationship with many kinds of spirits is possible for you!