Spirits, Deities, and Magic - A Conversation
“You have to hear what I learned in history class yesterday.”
Lisa, my best friend and roommate, is always eager to hear what I learn in class. And sometimes she can take what I have learned to her 6th grade classroom of screw-beanies. My four years of classes at PLU have given us much to discuss, to be sure.
Today, as we headed from the coast inland to the outlet mall for a little retail therapy, I was eager to narrate the lecture and discussion about animism, totemism, and shamanism, as it is a completely different perspective on religion than I had heard in my various former lives. Combined, Lisa and I have clocked multiple decades of religious experience, and this was definitely worth an animated conversation.
So, I started with stage 1, which is the best place to start. I explained that throughout history many peoples have believed that everything has a spirit – from teddy bears to volcanoes. We laughed as I recounted the classroom discussion – we are endlessly fascinated and informed of the culture by the perspective revealed by my younger classmates. It has been many years since I was twenty-something, and that is all I am going to say about that. Anyway, I continued, we all easily believe that all the things in the universe have a spirit, and noted how it is an easy way to explain natural phenomenon, as well as unexplainable events, such as earthquakes and such. Animism, such as that displayed by just about every living human, is the personification of objects, imposing human likes, dislikes, and emotions onto the breathing and non-breathing alike (such as cars, phones, stuffed toys, animals – even rocks can ‘cry out’). Further, all items in our environment, even the entire universe, possess a sentient spirit.
After commenting about how animism has often been discussed as so much unacceptable paganism in our past lives, I moved on to stage 2. Totemism, I enjoyed explaining, was picking one spirit or divine personage out of the entire universe to focus on, since no one could do justice to honoring the entirety of surrounding spirits. And then, I dropped the bombshell – Abraham of Old Testament fame, (as well as Akhenaten, the heathen Egyptian New Kingdom pharaoh), was simply picking one of a plethora of supernatural divinities to revere, in hopes of good fortune and prosperity. My sweet friend responded with the appropriate gasp of revelation. Could that be? Could it simply be totemism that prompted Abram to choose YHWH rather than Ba’al? And further, what if he would have chosen Ba’al? We both laughed at the thought of all the interpretation and homilies we have heard and studied over the years and marveled at the indignant outrage of disbelief those leaders would exhibit if they were presented with that information!
So, if animism is the concept that everything has a spirit, and totemism is choosing one out of many to honor (such as a spirit animal for the individual or group), then the final stage (3) is shamanism, I continued. The word alone causes immense repulsion by any good monotheist. As I explained that a shaman isn’t just one who performs magic (as we had been led to belief), but a mediator between individuals and their chosen divine, I was very aware that we were enjoying this way too much. To think of a priest, pastor, rabbi, or leader of any religion for that matter, as a shaman tickled us in a way that I almost felt guilty! The religious folk of my past would be turning inside-out at the thought, I am sure. I shared the class discussion prompted by my fellow classmate who self-identified as Sunni Muslim; he was a very good example of how the blood would quickly run out of the collective face of my former congregation at the thought of them sitting under a shaman. But, technically they are – they all are. There is no difference, in my view, between the voodoo Mambos (female priest) and the LDS Bishop – they are both assumed to possess a position closer to the supernatural and are sought for counsel, prayer, healing, and other assorted rituals specific to their belief system. So, would that be considered magic? Depends upon who you ask, I suppose.
Lisa and I freely pondered these things together while driving through the lush, leafy trees dotted with the golden sunshine that lined the 2-lane country road that cuts through several small towns on the way to our favorite shopping-mecca. Somehow, being out of organized religion has given us the freedom to contemplate history in ways often warned about, even forbidden, by most religious leadership and dogma. Their loss.