Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Participating in Enchantment: Redefining Magic

This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com


After the flight two days earlier to Charlotte, NC, I’d learned one thing for certain: I was not a natural flyer. My first time in an airplane in more than fifteen years had left me feeling queazy and disoriented, retreating to the quiet sanctuary of my hotel room for an evening as I attempted to ground myself in a new landscape, a city hundreds of miles from my home in chilly, hilly western Pennsylvania. High-rise buildings, a depressing lack of trees and green park space, people walking around without jackets in early December… Even after that first evening, I’d spent the entire trip feeling out of sorts, cut off from my usual sense of place.

Now, I sat anxiously in the claustrophobic cabin of the plane, preparing for the flight back to Pittsburgh and worrying that I was in for another nauseating, jolting ride.

flysky-ShannonKringen

Susan Greenwood’s latest book, The Anthropology of Magic, was tucked into my carry-on. The text was academic in flavor as well as subject matter. It had clearly been written with the new student of anthropology rather than the lay magical practitioner in mind. A more accurate title for the book might have been “Competing Theories About Magic, And What It Really Is, In Anthropology” …but that would’ve been a bit cramped on the spine.

The text introduced a number of scientists and researchers who’d spent their long, distinguished careers studying the practice of magic and shamanic techniques in tribal cultures throughout history and all over the world. Some of the names I recognized from my college days studying comparative religions, but even still I’d often felt my head swimming as I worked through Greenwood’s arguments. I’d spent the past few days reading her intense (and sometimes convoluted) discussions of the myriad competing theories of consciousness, ritual, reason and myth that have been informing and shaping the field of anthropology for the past several generations.

This book wasn’t your typical Magic 101 how-to that many Pagans enjoy. Still, it held something immensely valuable for those seeking to deepen their understanding of magical work as a spiritual practice. It would take time, and some rigorous intellectual work on the part of the reader, but it would be worth it.

As our plane taxied into place on the runway, I took a deep breath and pulled out the book, flipping through the loose pages of notes I’d taken and thinking once again about the nature of magic…

flying-dowitchers-TJ-Gehling

The central tenet that Greenwood puts forth early in her introductory chapter, and returns to often throughout the text, is that magic is not so much something you do as it is a kind of consciousness. More specifically, magic is participatory consciousness: a consciousness of participation and enchantment.

For much of the book, in fact, Greenwood’s discussion focuses on mapping out the more widely-accepted theories of magic found within the anthropological community, and then illustrating how these traditional theories fail to speak to and reflect the essence of magical consciousness.

As a social science, the field of anthropology has tended to strive for standards of rational analysis and objective observation that have served the physical sciences well and proven invaluable in collecting reliable data from controlled experiments. This approach has led many anthropologists to view magic itself as a kind of failed science, an attempt made in ignorance to control and manipulate the forces of nature, acting on false premises about patterns of relationship and causality. Many anthropologists have therefore concluded that magic is the antithesis of religion (being more concerned with manipulative power than with worship) while at the same time viewing it as merely the embarrassing progenitor of “real” science, with no more to teach and nothing of relevance to contribute to the “civilized” epistemology of more enlightened modern times. Other theorists, such as Evans-Pritchard, have argued that while belief in magic may be ignorant, it is not primitive or inherently irrational. Far from it, such social groups as the Azande function with belief systems that are perfectly rational and internally consistent, albeit founded on a few basic wrong assumptions.

What all of these theorists hold in common, Greenwood argues, is their own fundamental bias towards the objective-rational approach of modern Western science, which renders certain key aspects of magic and magical consciousness practically invisible to study and consideration. Yet the human mind and the socio-cultural community function together in ways that are often subjective, nonrational and mythological in nature. Understanding the role that magic plays for individuals and their communities requires an appreciation of these aspects of human experience that cannot easily be reduced to rational analysis or dismissed as psychological quirks.

Rather than relying solely on the model of objective experimentation and data collection exemplified in the physical sciences, Greenwood suggests that anthropologists hoping to gain insight into the workings of magical consciousness must be willing to approach the processes of magic on its own terms, and to develop epistemological models that can integrate diverse kinds of rational and nonrational, objective and subjective kinds of knowledge in ways that inform and lend perspective to both. Greenwood herself lives up to this rather intimidating demand for a new generation of anthropologists. Her eloquent accounts of her own participation in magical and shamanic rituals as part of her participatory field research are arguably some of the most engaging and intriguing parts of the text, and they serve as indispensable illustrations of theoretical concepts that might otherwise be too abstract for the reader to fully grasp.

heron-taking-flight-Donald-Ogg

As a result of her participatory approach to research, Greenwood has clearly come to appreciate certain aspects of magic and its role in society that many anthropologists have until now largely overlooked. Picking up an old debate between the two anthropologists, Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard, she revisits the possibility that magic is indeed a kind of consciousness distinct from that of logos-based reason so celebrated in the West.

At the time Lévy-Bruhl proposed such an argument, his theory was considered implicitly racist, demeaning those of “primitive” cultures as pre-logical and lacking the reasoning faculties of more civilized peoples. In response to this misunderstanding of his idea, Evans-Pritchard took on the task of proving that such peoples as the Azande were fully rational and intelligent human beings who were not somehow lesser than their Western counterparts, but merely different. An on-going correspondence between the two researchers continued to inform and clarify Lévy-Bruhl’s original theory, however, and Greenwood returns to his suggestion that magical consciousness is, though not degenerate, certainly a unique kind of consciousness distinct from and not reducible to reason alone. (Indeed, as her discussion of the experiment in which sugar-water was labeled “poison” illustrates, modern Western academics themselves are not immune to magical consciousness, even when their rational minds insist otherwise.)

What characterizes magical consciousness, according to Greenwood’s revised hypothesis, is a particular kind of participatory awareness. While traditional Western science relies on analogical reasoning in which participation is characterized by repeatable, controllable outcomes of physical reactions in order to predict similar future results, the analogical participation of magical consciousness is subjective and experiential, informed by culturally-shared myths and shaped by a sense of nonphysical interconnection between objects or events that share metaphorical relationships.

In traditional anthropological terms, this describes sympathetic and contagion magical practices — in which the similarity of ritual acts and objects are seen as being in meaningful relationship with those things they symbolize and/or imitate. Objects or people once in contact are understood as maintaining a connection or relationship that can be used to exert influence at a distance. In Greenwood’s understanding, however, the basis for sympathetic and contagion magic is not merely inaccurate assumptions about how the physical world functions.

Instead, she proposes that these conceived patterns of relationship accurately reflect the subjective experiences of the participants in magical work. They are therefore not only valuable and valid in understanding how and why people utilize magic, but they can actually provide us with meaningful knowledge about the world, insofar as they offer us insight into the perceptions and relationships of the world as we experience it, that the normal consciousness of rational analysis cannot always discover.

Pagans and other modern magical practitioners in the West may find in Greenwood’s theory of participatory magical consciousness echoes of some popular definitions of magic among our own communities. One of the most well-known, attributed to Dion Fortune, is that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” The various ritual acts described in classic anthropological texts, as well as in Greenwood’s own field research, are interpreted in her theory as the means by which individuals and social groups intentionally induce this particular altered state of magical consciousness, which renders the participant receptive to and capable of perceiving patterns of relationship and participation that are nonrational and emotional (rather than objective and analytical) in nature.

The modern Pagan approach to magical work, with its emphasis on meditation and creative visualization, is very much in keeping with this interpretation. However, in my own experience, we Pagans can be just as prone to the mistakes of an ingrained rational-scientific bias as the average anthropologists. This is why Greenwood’s work is worthy of study and contemplation not only by those entering the academic world, but for anyone who wants to challenge and deepen their approach to magical work as an integrated part of an authentic spiritual life.

Too often, even Pagans can slip into the habit of mind that approaches magic as merely an occult (i.e. hidden) alternative to mainstream science, with our focus primarily on controlling the forces and energies of nature for particular ends. As I leafed through my pages of notes jostling in my lap, trying to concentrate despite the thrumming engines of the plane as it prepared for take-off, I realized that this was exactly the mistake I had made myself.

At first I’d tried a handful of tricks to help myself adjust to the disorientation of flying, drawing from my years of Druidic practice. On the trip to Charlotte, these techniques had proved beyond useless. I’d experimented with breathing techniques meant to induce relaxation… but the result had been an overpowering, nauseating awareness of the pressurized and recirculated air of the cabin. I’d tried to remain grounded and centered, sensing the edges of my physical body and energetic field, imagining a smooth stone resting in my center as a firm point of stability and connection with the land below… yet the stone turned over and seemed to slosh in my stomach as my small, dense body rattled in my narrow seat with every wave of turbulence or dip of a wing. Magic, it seemed, had failed me.

But now, with the plane taxiing down the tarmac and anxiety slowly tightening its grip in my chest, I recalled what Greenwood had written about participation as the key to magical consciousness. She spoke of the unexpected relationships she’d experienced between far distant memories and the sensations of her immediate landscape. Of the tensions of myth and metaphor that drew these disparate events into patterns of meaning and beauty that wove an experience of interconnection with the world. This was magic, after all.

I thought back to that first evening in the hotel room, remembering the time I’d spent returning to myself and slowly ridding my body of air-sickness. The night had been stormy, and outside my window the rain danced in expanding, overlapping ripples that reflected the fluorescent lights of the city in ever-changing patterns as the water beat out a subtly complicated soft-shoe rhythm on the roofs above and the pavement far below. I’d sat watching and listening, and singing my awen, a Druidic meditative chant, until the vibration of breath in my body had released every twinge of tension.

sunset-airplane-SAM-Cheong

Remembering this experience, I squared my feet on the floor beneath the seat in front of me and did my best to sit upright and relaxed in the uncomfortable airplane. As the plane roared into movement, raging down the runway and lifting off from the ground, I closed my eyes and sang to myself, letting my awen expand and fill my awareness.

This time, I didn’t resist the experience of flight as I had before. I didn’t imagine stones or hard boundaries. I didn’t try to control the experience and the energies rushing through me. Instead, I allowed the chant to open my body up to vibration.

As I did so, I found that my physical body began to vibrate with the thrumming turbulence of the plane. In sympathetic movement, suddenly I could feel the exhilaration of flight not as something wrenching and disorienting, but as comfortable and natural: I was participating in flight with the huge machine around me.

And this experience of participation and interconnection with the world around us is perhaps the most important aspect of Greenwood’s theory. By understanding magic as a kind of consciousness that places participation at its heart, we no longer relegate magic to the realm of anti-religious power-mongering and manipulation. Instead, magic opens us up to relationship. To reverence. To an engagement with an enchanted world that plays a vital role in an earth-centered spirituality that seeks the sacred in the natural forces and landscapes in which we live our everyday lives.

Because of this heightened sense of participation, my experience of the flight north was smooth and almost pleasant. Our descent into the shimmering City of Steel just as the sun was blazing brilliantly in shades of orange and purple on the western horizon infused the journey home with a sense of breathless enchantment I will remember for a long time to come.


susan-greenwood-anthropology-magicNote: An earlier version of this book review originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality (Spring 2010) under the title, “Participating in Enchantment: A Reflection on Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic


Photo Credits:
• “flysky,” by Shannon Kringen (CC) [source]
• “Flying Dowitches,” by TJ Gehling (CC) [source]
• “Water of Leith Heron Taking Flight,” by Donald Ogg (CC) [source]
• “Over the Moon,” by Dagmar Collins (CC) [source]
• Airplane at sunset, by SAM Cheong (CC) [source]


This post originally appeared on Holy Wild, at alisonleighlilly.com

Deep Ecology, Holy Wild, Rite & Ritual

Participating in Enchantment: Redefining Magic

After the flight two days earlier to Charlotte, NC, I’d learned one thing for certain: I was not a natural flyer. My first time in an airplane in more than fifteen years had left me feeling queazy and disoriented, retreating to the quiet sanctuary of my hotel room for an evening as I attempted to ground myself in a new landscape, a city hundreds of miles from my home in chilly, hilly western Pennsylvania. High-rise buildings, a depressing lack of trees and green park space, people walking around without jackets in early December… Even after that first evening, I’d spent the entire trip feeling out of sorts, cut off from my usual sense of place.

Now, I sat anxiously in the claustrophobic cabin of the plane, preparing for the flight back to Pittsburgh and worrying that I was in for another nauseating, jolting ride.

flysky-ShannonKringen

Susan Greenwood’s latest book, The Anthropology of Magic, was tucked into my carry-on. The text was academic in flavor as well as subject matter. It had clearly been written with the new student of anthropology rather than the lay magical practitioner in mind. A more accurate title for the book might have been “Competing Theories About Magic, And What It Really Is, In Anthropology” …but that would’ve been a bit cramped on the spine.

The text introduced a number of scientists and researchers who’d spent their long, distinguished careers studying the practice of magic and shamanic techniques in tribal cultures throughout history and all over the world. Some of the names I recognized from my college days studying comparative religions, but even still I’d often felt my head swimming as I worked through Greenwood’s arguments. I’d spent the past few days reading her intense (and sometimes convoluted) discussions of the myriad competing theories of consciousness, ritual, reason and myth that have been informing and shaping the field of anthropology for the past several generations.

This book wasn’t your typical Magic 101 how-to that many Pagans enjoy. Still, it held something immensely valuable for those seeking to deepen their understanding of magical work as a spiritual practice. It would take time, and some rigorous intellectual work on the part of the reader, but it would be worth it.

As our plane taxied into place on the runway, I took a deep breath and pulled out the book, flipping through the loose pages of notes I’d taken and thinking once again about the nature of magic…

flying-dowitchers-TJ-Gehling

The central tenet that Greenwood puts forth early in her introductory chapter, and returns to often throughout the text, is that magic is not so much something you do as it is a kind of consciousness. More specifically, magic is participatory consciousness: a consciousness of participation and enchantment.

For much of the book, in fact, Greenwood’s discussion focuses on mapping out the more widely-accepted theories of magic found within the anthropological community, and then illustrating how these traditional theories fail to speak to and reflect the essence of magical consciousness.

As a social science, the field of anthropology has tended to strive for standards of rational analysis and objective observation that have served the physical sciences well and proven invaluable in collecting reliable data from controlled experiments. This approach has led many anthropologists to view magic itself as a kind of failed science, an attempt made in ignorance to control and manipulate the forces of nature, acting on false premises about patterns of relationship and causality. Many anthropologists have therefore concluded that magic is the antithesis of religion (being more concerned with manipulative power than with worship) while at the same time viewing it as merely the embarrassing progenitor of “real” science, with no more to teach and nothing of relevance to contribute to the “civilized” epistemology of more enlightened modern times. Other theorists, such as Evans-Pritchard, have argued that while belief in magic may be ignorant, it is not primitive or inherently irrational. Far from it, such social groups as the Azande function with belief systems that are perfectly rational and internally consistent, albeit founded on a few basic wrong assumptions.

What all of these theorists hold in common, Greenwood argues, is their own fundamental bias towards the objective-rational approach of modern Western science, which renders certain key aspects of magic and magical consciousness practically invisible to study and consideration. Yet the human mind and the socio-cultural community function together in ways that are often subjective, nonrational and mythological in nature. Understanding the role that magic plays for individuals and their communities requires an appreciation of these aspects of human experience that cannot easily be reduced to rational analysis or dismissed as psychological quirks.

Rather than relying solely on the model of objective experimentation and data collection exemplified in the physical sciences, Greenwood suggests that anthropologists hoping to gain insight into the workings of magical consciousness must be willing to approach the processes of magic on its own terms, and to develop epistemological models that can integrate diverse kinds of rational and nonrational, objective and subjective kinds of knowledge in ways that inform and lend perspective to both. Greenwood herself lives up to this rather intimidating demand for a new generation of anthropologists. Her eloquent accounts of her own participation in magical and shamanic rituals as part of her participatory field research are arguably some of the most engaging and intriguing parts of the text, and they serve as indispensable illustrations of theoretical concepts that might otherwise be too abstract for the reader to fully grasp.

heron-taking-flight-Donald-Ogg

As a result of her participatory approach to research, Greenwood has clearly come to appreciate certain aspects of magic and its role in society that many anthropologists have until now largely overlooked. Picking up an old debate between the two anthropologists, Lévy-Bruhl and Evans-Pritchard, she revisits the possibility that magic is indeed a kind of consciousness distinct from that of logos-based reason so celebrated in the West.

At the time Lévy-Bruhl proposed such an argument, his theory was considered implicitly racist, demeaning those of “primitive” cultures as pre-logical and lacking the reasoning faculties of more civilized peoples. In response to this misunderstanding of his idea, Evans-Pritchard took on the task of proving that such peoples as the Azande were fully rational and intelligent human beings who were not somehow lesser than their Western counterparts, but merely different. An on-going correspondence between the two researchers continued to inform and clarify Lévy-Bruhl’s original theory, however, and Greenwood returns to his suggestion that magical consciousness is, though not degenerate, certainly a unique kind of consciousness distinct from and not reducible to reason alone. (Indeed, as her discussion of the experiment in which sugar-water was labeled “poison” illustrates, modern Western academics themselves are not immune to magical consciousness, even when their rational minds insist otherwise.)

What characterizes magical consciousness, according to Greenwood’s revised hypothesis, is a particular kind of participatory awareness. While traditional Western science relies on analogical reasoning in which participation is characterized by repeatable, controllable outcomes of physical reactions in order to predict similar future results, the analogical participation of magical consciousness is subjective and experiential, informed by culturally-shared myths and shaped by a sense of nonphysical interconnection between objects or events that share metaphorical relationships.

In traditional anthropological terms, this describes sympathetic and contagion magical practices — in which the similarity of ritual acts and objects are seen as being in meaningful relationship with those things they symbolize and/or imitate. Objects or people once in contact are understood as maintaining a connection or relationship that can be used to exert influence at a distance. In Greenwood’s understanding, however, the basis for sympathetic and contagion magic is not merely inaccurate assumptions about how the physical world functions.

Instead, she proposes that these conceived patterns of relationship accurately reflect the subjective experiences of the participants in magical work. They are therefore not only valuable and valid in understanding how and why people utilize magic, but they can actually provide us with meaningful knowledge about the world, insofar as they offer us insight into the perceptions and relationships of the world as we experience it, that the normal consciousness of rational analysis cannot always discover.

Pagans and other modern magical practitioners in the West may find in Greenwood’s theory of participatory magical consciousness echoes of some popular definitions of magic among our own communities. One of the most well-known, attributed to Dion Fortune, is that “magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.” The various ritual acts described in classic anthropological texts, as well as in Greenwood’s own field research, are interpreted in her theory as the means by which individuals and social groups intentionally induce this particular altered state of magical consciousness, which renders the participant receptive to and capable of perceiving patterns of relationship and participation that are nonrational and emotional (rather than objective and analytical) in nature.

The modern Pagan approach to magical work, with its emphasis on meditation and creative visualization, is very much in keeping with this interpretation. However, in my own experience, we Pagans can be just as prone to the mistakes of an ingrained rational-scientific bias as the average anthropologists. This is why Greenwood’s work is worthy of study and contemplation not only by those entering the academic world, but for anyone who wants to challenge and deepen their approach to magical work as an integrated part of an authentic spiritual life.

Too often, even Pagans can slip into the habit of mind that approaches magic as merely an occult (i.e. hidden) alternative to mainstream science, with our focus primarily on controlling the forces and energies of nature for particular ends. As I leafed through my pages of notes jostling in my lap, trying to concentrate despite the thrumming engines of the plane as it prepared for take-off, I realized that this was exactly the mistake I had made myself.

At first I’d tried a handful of tricks to help myself adjust to the disorientation of flying, drawing from my years of Druidic practice. On the trip to Charlotte, these techniques had proved beyond useless. I’d experimented with breathing techniques meant to induce relaxation… but the result had been an overpowering, nauseating awareness of the pressurized and recirculated air of the cabin. I’d tried to remain grounded and centered, sensing the edges of my physical body and energetic field, imagining a smooth stone resting in my center as a firm point of stability and connection with the land below… yet the stone turned over and seemed to slosh in my stomach as my small, dense body rattled in my narrow seat with every wave of turbulence or dip of a wing. Magic, it seemed, had failed me.

But now, with the plane taxiing down the tarmac and anxiety slowly tightening its grip in my chest, I recalled what Greenwood had written about participation as the key to magical consciousness. She spoke of the unexpected relationships she’d experienced between far distant memories and the sensations of her immediate landscape. Of the tensions of myth and metaphor that drew these disparate events into patterns of meaning and beauty that wove an experience of interconnection with the world. This was magic, after all.

I thought back to that first evening in the hotel room, remembering the time I’d spent returning to myself and slowly ridding my body of air-sickness. The night had been stormy, and outside my window the rain danced in expanding, overlapping ripples that reflected the fluorescent lights of the city in ever-changing patterns as the water beat out a subtly complicated soft-shoe rhythm on the roofs above and the pavement far below. I’d sat watching and listening, and singing my awen, a Druidic meditative chant, until the vibration of breath in my body had released every twinge of tension.

sunset-airplane-SAM-Cheong

Remembering this experience, I squared my feet on the floor beneath the seat in front of me and did my best to sit upright and relaxed in the uncomfortable airplane. As the plane roared into movement, raging down the runway and lifting off from the ground, I closed my eyes and sang to myself, letting my awen expand and fill my awareness.

This time, I didn’t resist the experience of flight as I had before. I didn’t imagine stones or hard boundaries. I didn’t try to control the experience and the energies rushing through me. Instead, I allowed the chant to open my body up to vibration.

As I did so, I found that my physical body began to vibrate with the thrumming turbulence of the plane. In sympathetic movement, suddenly I could feel the exhilaration of flight not as something wrenching and disorienting, but as comfortable and natural: I was participating in flight with the huge machine around me.

And this experience of participation and interconnection with the world around us is perhaps the most important aspect of Greenwood’s theory. By understanding magic as a kind of consciousness that places participation at its heart, we no longer relegate magic to the realm of anti-religious power-mongering and manipulation. Instead, magic opens us up to relationship. To reverence. To an engagement with an enchanted world that plays a vital role in an earth-centered spirituality that seeks the sacred in the natural forces and landscapes in which we live our everyday lives.

Because of this heightened sense of participation, my experience of the flight north was smooth and almost pleasant. Our descent into the shimmering City of Steel just as the sun was blazing brilliantly in shades of orange and purple on the western horizon infused the journey home with a sense of breathless enchantment I will remember for a long time to come.


susan-greenwood-anthropology-magicNote: An earlier version of this book review originally appeared in Sky Earth Sea: A Journal of Practical Spirituality (Spring 2010) under the title, “Participating in Enchantment: A Reflection on Susan Greenwood’s The Anthropology of Magic


Photo Credits:
• “flysky,” by Shannon Kringen (CC) [source]
• “Flying Dowitches,” by TJ Gehling (CC) [source]
• “Water of Leith Heron Taking Flight,” by Donald Ogg (CC) [source]
• “Over the Moon,” by Dagmar Collins (CC) [source]
• Airplane at sunset, by SAM Cheong (CC) [source]

Deep Ecology, Featured, Holy Wild

Animist Blog Carnival: Wakeful World Book Club

Welcome to the May 2014 edition of the Animist Blog Carnival! For this month’s theme, the ABC hosts its first-ever virtual book club — exploring the work of renowned animist and Druid author, Emma Restall Orr.

The Wakeful World, by Emma Restall OrrLast summer when I first picked up Orr’s The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, I was anticipating a memoir-like book rich with the poetry and storytelling that has come to characterize much of her work. By its outward appearance, The Wakeful World is a slim book with a beautifully minimalist cover. I’d tossed it into my suitcase as I packed for vacation, thinking I’d squeeze in some light reading between our morning hikes and afternoons by the pool.

Boy was I wrong! I ended up reading this book out loud with my partner every evening that week — and for almost a month afterwards — during which we found ourselves constantly setting the book aside to discuss the nuances of Orr’s complex and fascinating ideas. Despite its unassuming appearance, The Wakeful World is no lightweight. It takes up tricky topics such as the nature of consciousness and mind-body dualism, and carefully examines them from every angle, drawing on the insights of some of the most influential thinkers in the history of Western philosophy.

In the year or so since I first read it, I’ve returned to this book again and again. (The pages of my copy are now worn and bent, the margins thick with notes — the highest compliment I can give to a writer!) But what I’ve enjoyed most about the book are the endless discussions it’s provoked. There is so much to chew on, and plenty to disagree with and debate. When grappling with questions about the mind, the soul and existence itself, every reader will inevitably bring their own unique perspectives and experiences to the discussion. This wonderful variety is reflected in this month’s ABC. So without further ado, let’s get to it!


Our first review comes from Brian Taylor, who welcomes Orr’s contribution to the growing plurality of ideas about modern animism. In his post “An Animist’s Bookshelf: The Wakeful World by Emma Restall Orr,” he writes:

In a talk posted on her website she tells us that she finds animism exciting and dangerous because it offers an alternative to Western consumer capitalist culture’s objectification and exploitation of many human beings, other animals, forests, and so forth. In Wakeful World she wanted to hone a definition of animism that would stand its ground against other world views, and help us deconstruct self-sabotaging assumptions in the process.

As a confirmed pluralist I welcome this book. We need a range of perspectives. I like the way in which Restall Orr develops her thesis, step by step, throughout the book. The research behind her most recent offering has clearly been a labour of love, and there’s much of interest here, not least an extended consideration of the mindedness of nature.

Brian also points to an aspect of Orr’s book that falls somewhat short, in being primarily a philosophical work less concerned about how these ideas might have personal, spiritual relevance for the individual animist. Weaving his review of the book into a reflection on the power of astrology and divination, Brian raises some important questions about the bleakness of some of Orr’s theories about purpose and beauty:

Emma Restall Orr’s ideas are certainly interesting, but, despite her assurances to the contrary she sometimes writes as though defining a singular animism, and speaking for all animists. Responding to Whitehead’s teleological God, who guides the universe towards the production of beauty, for example, she writes ‘there are no such benevolent gods in the pantheon of the animist’. Well, no single teleological god, perhaps – but no benevolent gods, guiding us towards beauty? There is a bleakness in this omission that, once again, I’m uncomfortable with. I know about ‘brutality’, but the beauty I’m surrounded by feels more fundamental and enduring. There’s bleakness too in the statement that ‘as no more than a flow of percepts, of changing contextual data, the self actually has no purpose, no meaning at all‘. If that were so, how could ‘we’ enter into long term relationships with other (meaningless) selves? Why would ‘I’ want to ‘create a sustainable and peaceful world’? Why would I find that the pattern of the planets consistently reflects the capacities, challenges, and intimate concerns of individual human, or other-than-human lives? Why would any of this matter?


In his post “The Mind of a Rock: Musings on Orr’s ‘Wakeful World’,” Jeff Lilly draws on his professional background in linguistics and computer engineering to dig into the implications of Orr’s theory of “minded nature” for a modern society where the lines between technology and biology, man and machine, are increasingly blurred:

Orr’s take [on the mind-body paradox] not only leads to the idea that rocks think, but answers why human brains think differently from rocks, and gives a new view of the place of the human experience in the ecology of mind. […]

Orr’s work leads us to a very different conception of mind: one in which humans are no longer at the top of a great chain of mental being, no longer kings of cognition, but simply possessed of a brain that is very well adapted to our needs — not too constrained, not too free, not too malleable, nor too rigid, for our ecological niche and social natures. Just as Copernicus dislodged humanity from the physical center of the universe, this reading of Orr dislodges us from our psychic pinnacle. Instead we’re part of an ecology of mind, one in which the tiny brightly lit mind of the beetle is as valuable and miraculous as the vast dark mind of Mt. Ranier.


Over on the Naturalistic Pantheist blog Nature is Sacred, Matt shares a review of The Wakeful World that explores how Orr’s animism can offer a solid foundation for theories of panpsychism and panexperientialism, two important concepts in his own philosophy. He details the overlap between these concepts in his post “Everything Experiences!“:

One of the Yule/ Christmas presents my partner gave me this year was a book called “The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature” by Emma Restall Orr. It is a fascinating book yet I have found a lot of it very difficult to understand and am still trying to get my head around the concepts explained in it. Much of the book is made up of looking at different philosophies and building a theory of metaphysics to explain the world as an Animist sees it. This post isn’t exactly a review of the book, but it will use a lot of the information from the book to explain the idea of Panexperientialism/ Panpsychism and what it offers to Naturalistic Pantheists. […]

I have come to the conclusion that an Animism based on the theories of Panpsychism/ Panexperientialism is a valid, reasonable and ethical worldview that can bring many benefits for Naturalistic Pantheists who choose to incorporate it into their life. It answers the Mind-Body problem and gives a foundation for Animistic Ethics of treating the world and all life with respect, reverence and honour.


In a beautiful embodiment of the power of animistic experience, the “Dad Who Writes” Gabriel M. Clarke shares his personal reflections on Orr’s book one cold night at yoga camp, in his post “Drenched in moonlight: accidental animism and The Wakeful World“:

You may think of silence as an absence of something but at certain times and in certain places, silence is like a full glass with the liquid swelling right on the edge of the rounded rim. I held my breath. The moonlight and starlight were bright enough to navigate the guy-ropes webbing the field. I made my way to the main path circling the tents and listened.

Part of the world, that part of it made up of people zipped up in sleeping bags in tents and caravans, was sleeping. The rest of it was awake and listening to me. I walked through it, becoming aware of the fulness of it embracing me from all directions. It’s possible I said a prayer; not to any divinity in particular, though the sacred in various forms was walking all around me at that moment, but as a part of my immersion in the infinite interpenetrating of life with life that I suddenly found myself a part of. Sleeping humans, animals, trees, grass, earth, stone, water, wind – all held me and I was happy and grateful to be held. […]

The challenge of experiences that can only be described as animist is to shift from the anthropocentric view of what it means to ‘experience’ the world, and to accept the fleeting nature of one’s own egocentric perception. At the sensory level, a tree perceives the world in an unimaginably complex and far-ranging way. Does the tree feel? Does the soil that the tree grows in?

I think the tree and the soil do. Not as a human feels but if human feelings are made up of chemical trails, sensory inputs and neural connections, then a tree’s are hardly less valid and a good deal more durable. Perception, accepting the breadth of possibilities that perception stands for, is the important thing. Zen, yoga, various Christian traditions of quietism and the Sufis all look to a the idea of mindfulness, of letting oneself be situated in the world. In so doing we experience what it is to be a minded being, to be purely perceiving the world. It seems to me that Orr argues that the very stuff of nature is minded – that nature is mindedness and that this mindedness enables the network of perceptions that, at various levels of intensity and complexity, forms communities, tribes and, ultimately, individuals.

Anyway, I’m putting it all very badly so you should just read [Orr’s] book.


In the introduction to The Wakeful World, Emma Restall Orr notes that the book can be considered a prequel to Living with Honour: A Pagan Ethics, developing some of the philosophical ideas that were first proposed in her earlier work. While most of our ABC bloggers this month focused on Orr’s more recent text, Chas Clifton shared a review of Living with Honour he wrote in 2009 that can give some context to the on-going development of Orr’s ideas:

She wants to locate her ethics in nature. This “nature” is primarily planetary as opposed to cosmic—and she makes an argument about hurricanes and tsunamis that I would agree with completely: “The *Pagan acceptance of nature’s destructive power is not about resignation, but reverence.” You can have a relationship with planetary nature, but it is not all about you.

Yet she almost completely ignores centuries of Pagan thought on ethics and philosophy from the Greco-Roman tradition! […] The ancient philosophers ranged from the hardest of “hard polytheists” to skeptical materialists like Epicurus to the “honor the gods and do your duty” attitude of the Roman Stoics. And they had a great deal to say about living ethically in friendship, in marriage, and in civic life–even when (as under the worst emperors) one was caught up in a corrupt governmental system. Why leave them out in favor of Schopenhauer, Martin Buber, or A.J. Ayer?

[…] Thus, while I find much to like in Living With Honour: A Pagan Ethics–I do enjoy seeing intelligent writers wrestle with the issue of just what “nature religion” is–I cannot help but see it as crippled by its rejection of still-relevent Pagan ethical traditions.

For readers like Chas, The Wakeful World will answer a good number of these criticisms, though not all of them. Orr continues to develop her conception of nature as grounded in the “planetary” even as her discussion reaches beyond this understanding of the natural world to include the “cosmic” and ontological. But as a modern animist grappling with the legacy of such eminent and influential thinkers as Kant and Whitehead, Orr’s approach to Pagan and animistic thought remains thoroughly rooted in more recent developments of the Western philosophical tradition, taking ancient Greek and Roman thinkers as a foundation but not limiting her discussion to them.


Finally, for my own contribution to the ABC, I offer a recklessly ambitious, two-for-the-price-of-one review of The Wakeful World by bringing it into conversation with Louis Liebenberg’s The Art of Tracking: The Origin of Science to place Emma Restall Orr’s work in a broader cultural context. In my post “The Hunt for a Wakeful World: Anthropocentrism & Subjectivity (Part 2)“, I continue my on-going exploration of anthropocentrism in Pagan theology and ritual by considering how Orr’s systematic and speculative approaches to animistic philosophy are rooted in the evolutionary insights of our prehistoric hunter-gatherer ancestors:

Orr sets herself no easy task when she endeavors to articulate a philosophy of modern animism that can hold its own among the heavyweights of the Western philosophical tradition. […] Within Western philosophy, the theory of animism has long been disparaged and dismissed as fundamentally irrational, immature, even primitive and “backwards.” A modern Druidic writer and priest, Orr has encountered this attitude personally through her work at interfaith events, and she describes one experience in particular that left such a lasting sting that, even years later, it remained part of the impetus behind her decision to write The Wakeful World.

Another inspiration in the writing of this book, however, was Orr’s deep desire to respond to the call of the natural world itself. In The Wakeful World, she hopes to rise to the challenge of presenting a compelling and intellectually rigorous case for nature’s inherent value apart from our human judgements about its use or beauty. There is a certain poetry, then, in thinking of The Wakeful World as a kind of metaphysical hunt for a more robust animistic worldview than the incomplete, cursory treatment it’s received from scholars in the past. If the Western world has long since dismissed animism as a child’s fantasy, as easily debunked as the mythical unicorn, then you might say The Wakeful World is a hunt for the mud-and-blood reality behind such myths.


There is so much more to say about The Wakeful World, and I have no doubt it will become a cornerstone of modern animist thought, provoking discussion and debate for many years to come. Thank you to all who participated in this month’s Animist Blog Carnival!

A More Wakeful World - Animist Blog Carnival Book Club
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A More Wakeful World: Animist Book Club Call for Submissions

A More Wakeful World - Animist Blog Carnival Book Club

[dropcap style=”font-size: 60px; color: #038c4a;”]T[/dropcap]his May, the “ABC” in Animist Blog Carnival will also stand for the Animist Book Club!

Here on Holy Wild, I’ll be hosting this monthly gathering of bloggers and writers exploring the evolving role of animism in modern Pagan and earth-centered spiritual traditions. Most months, the ABC host chooses a theme for all participating writers to explore (past themes have included Becoming an Animist, Bioregionalism, Trees, Animist Ethics, and Dreams). This time, I wanted to try something a little different. And so, the ABC theme for May is:

A More Wakeful World: Reviews and Responses
to the Writing of Emma Restall Orr

Emma Restall Orr is one of the most prominent and well-respected Druids today. For more than two decades, she has been sharing her vision of creative, embodied living in relationship with the natural world in her books and other writing, as well as through her advocacy work in the UK. Her recent book, The Wakeful World: Animism, Mind and the Self in Nature, is one of the few resources out there that explores a thoroughly modern approach to animistic spirituality grounded in both a solid grasp of western philosophy and the poetic insight that has come to characterize her work.

One of the biggest obstacles for people who want to learn more about modern animism is that there are so very few resources available. My hope is that highlighting writers like Emma Restall Orr can bring greater visibility to the resources we have, and spark some great conversations about how animism has influenced so many of the Pagan traditions that are thriving today.

How Do I Participate in the ABC?

You don’t have to identify as an animist to join in the ABC! Anyone can participate by writing on the chosen theme and exploring how animistic practices and beliefs have influenced their own spiritual lives and communities. To contribute to the Animist Blog Carnival-slash-Book Club, there are just a few simple steps to follow:

1. During the month of April, write about the upcoming theme on your own blog or website. Your contribution might be an essay, article or book review, or it could be a creative piece like a poem, short story or memoir. For this month’s theme, I especially encourage you to read and write a response or review of The Wakeful World — but reflections on any of Orr’s other work are also welcome! (You can find a list of her published writing on her website). You can also contribute old or previously published posts.

2. Make sure to include in your post a link back to this blog (https://alisonleighlilly.com/blog/), as well as a link to the Animist Blog Carnival HQ at http://lifthrasirsuccess.wordpress.com/animist-blog-carnival/ (where you can also find more detailed writer’s guidelines and links to all of the past ABC themes).

3. Send me a link to your blog post or essay via my contact page or by emailing me at: ali [at] alisonleighlilly.com. Make sure you send me your submissions by Sunday, April 27, 2014.

4. Sit back and enjoy! I’ll be sharing the links from all contributors and participants in a big ABC Animist Book Club round-up on Thursday, May 1st!

This is the first time the ABC has experimented with using a “book club” approach to the monthly theme. If all goes well and we get lots of folks involved, I hope we’ll be able to feature more awesome animistic writers on a regular basis! Thanks for joining, and I look forward to reading your thoughts and reflections!