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The Case for Animatism by Marco M. Pardi

by on November 22, 2013

“The hills are alive with the sound of………………”

First defined by British anthropologist Robert Marett as a belief in an impersonal, divisible, supernatural force or forces potentially resident in organic and inorganic matter, the focus is on “mana”, a Polynesian term intended to localize and quantify this force or forces. Thus, there can be more mana or less mana from object to object, and even good mana versus bad mana though the latter condition is more commonly ascribed to little or no resident mana.

Evident in the folklore and myths of societies across the globe and throughout time, a search for the origins of animatism would be fruitless. Over the millennia it has morphed into many subsets: the life giving rays emanating from Ra, the Sun god in Pharaonic Egyptian iconography; the pre-Christian Stoic philosopher Posidonius’ “vital force” emanating from the Sun to all earthly life; and, into 19th century “Vitalism” hotly debated over its inorganic and/or organic roles and the “will to live”. These latter incarnations, heavily influenced by Carolus Linnaeus (Carl von Linne; 1707-78; Sweden), skewed presumptively toward the organic. Indeed, his binomial nomenclature dealt strictly with what was perceived at the time as organic.

More recently we have seen the evolution of modern “witchcraft” as a historical revisionism centered upon what it calls “The Old Religion”, a religion purportedly centered on worshipping Mother Earth. Much of the impetus for this movement derived from 40,000 year old figurines of females which were either pregnant or morbidly obese. Inferring from the figurine to a full scale belief system, the reasoning was that the figurines represented Earth as the sentient and purposeful giver of life and thereby worthy of gratitude and worship. Recent analysis agrees the represented females were obese, perhaps symbolizing a hoped for excess of food in times of scarcity.

That there is not a shred of conceptual evidence for the existence of such an “old religion”, if the term is properly used, seemingly has no effect on the modern acolytes and self proclaimed practitioners as they continually churn out books for the “parapsychology and occult” sections of commercial bookstores. In keeping with the saying about diet books, you do not find a home with just one such book.

A worthy set of books, however, can be found easily in the writings of James Lovelock and his assistant, Lynn Margulis.  Starting in the early 1970’s, this team originated and developed the GAIA Hypothesis, since scientifically accepted as the “influential Gaia Hypothesis”.

Translating for the non-science reader, their fundamental position is that organic life does not merely sit atop inorganic and develop as it may; the two interact in a generally symbiotic way with alterations occurring in either sphere due either to inherent factors or to the developments in the other. In other words, despite the very limited temporal perspectives of some people Nature is never in balance; a change in the inorganic means a changed environment for the organic, and vice-versa.      

My comfort zone in inorganic and organic chemistry is in the conceptual more than the mechanical, just as I am more fluent in paleontology as a subset of geology. The conceptual focus arises from what I perceive as commonly unjustified presumptions in the classification of Nature.

Learning Linnaeus’ binomial nomenclature Taxonomy in elementary school I learned that we are: Homo (Man) sapiens (the wise).  “Iacta alea est”, attributed by Suetonius to Julius Caesar as he prepared to march his army across the Rubicon, 10 January 49BCE. The die is cast. We are on top. Who put us there is never asked.

Our place in this taxonomy raises questions.  Returning to Marett’s definition of animatism we see it includes the word “supernatural”. Webster’s Ninth new Collegiate dictionary defines this as: Of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe. Holding to this definition suggests we have established the content of this universe. Yet, modern astrophysics informs us of the existence Dark Matter and Dark Energy, neither of which we can perceive. Furthermore, the consensus of estimates for these are: Dark Matter = 23.3% and Dark Energy = 72.1%. The total of the two is 95.4%, leaving the visible observable world of atoms and their energy at a mere 4.6%.  

“Dark” is perhaps misleading. It implies an object which would be visible under a proper light source. Astronomers routinely identify planets orbiting distant stars by observing the dark spot transiting the light coming from the star. In the same way, an experienced night fighter knows that simple dark (as in dark clothing) is not protection. An unmoving dark clothed opponent is a difficult target to acquire, until he or she foolishly moves against even an elementary background such as a starry sky.  Outline noted; shot taken.

New interpretations are veering away from dark and toward invisible. That is, the dark matter and dark energy are not hiding behind some distant star, they pervade everything around us and probably within us as well. The implication should be obvious: we quite possibly are in constant interaction with matter and energy we have yet to see or sense in other ways. No big surprise for people who understand that Mankind’s senses represent only very thin bands of the still unknown range of available information.

Thus, our officious pronouncements on something being “supernatural” betray an unparalleled hubris. Such a claim effectively says that we know everything that is in the cosmos, this (the entity being defined as supernatural) is not in the cosmos and is therefore supernatural. All hail the other 95.4%.

A more telling example comes from a little exercise I perform with my college classes.  Holding up a white board dry erase marker, I ask, “Is this a natural object?” The universal answer is No. The reason given is that it is “man made”. I then question whether Man is natural. Ambivalence appears. Answering my own question with the assertion that Man appears in nature and is therefore natural, I assert that what Man does is natural. Including the making of white board dry erase markers.

The point, of course, is perception, and the superlative place Man has been given, perhaps as some “supernatural” entity sprinkled here by a curious god.

Recent decades of actual observation, particularly in the field of ethology, have seen the collapse of one barrier after another erected by Man between himself and the rest of nature. Tool use, tool making – even in anticipation of later use, intra-species communications variance based on particular group upbringing and membership, and even cognitive displacement, the ability to distract and/or to create a fiction have been observed and documented in numerous species. The discovery of viruses called the very definition of life itself into question.

In the same way, we now know to look at inorganic material quite differently. Many cultures throughout time and across the globe have prized various rocks, crystals and metals for more than simple decorations. Inorganic “lifeless”, “inert”, and otherwise denigrated objects have been imbued by many with power beyond that which pleases the eye; they have been worn and/or ground into powder to be ingested for metabolic effects which range from the vague and general to the very specific. Lest this be taken as a categorical endorsement of the cornucopia of “traditional” medicines, I will state unequivocally that I reject the harvesting of non-human animals for their body parts to be used in medicine. It is not that I know these body parts do not work. It is that I would much prefer to see the non-human animals retain their body parts while the poachers and harvesters lose theirs. I’ll even help to bring this about.

The wearing of crystals, semi-precious stones such as jade, metals such as copper and gold, and the ingestion of powdered minerals may seem primitive and “unscientific” to the casual “modern” observer. Yet, a few minutes spent reading labels in the Vitamins and Minerals section of any mainline pharmacy would indicate that this multi-billion dollar industry has support from more than a few “New Agers” and hypochondriacs. Routine blood scans done by mainstream physicians include tests to detect imbalances or deficiencies in minerals, with follow-up recommendations or prescriptions to correct them. What powers do these stones have without being ingested?

As in any science, advances often occur by accident; accidents which dramatically overturn preconceptions. In 1895 Wilhelm Roentgen stumbled upon hitherto unknown rays, which he termed “x-rays”. Able to penetrate solid wood or flesh, these greatly excited the scientific community. One researcher in 1896, Henri Becquerel, used rocks containing uranium to produce images on photographic plates. He isolated radiation, which Madame Marie Sklodowska Curie later labeled “radioactivity” as she worked in her self-funded lab with various uranium and thorium bearing compounds. Yet, some might call it mana.     

Of course it was not long before the power (or “mana”) in these rocks would be harnessed and directed in ways not foreseen. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were proving grounds, Chernobyl and Fukashima were lessons learned. But between those dramatic sets of events there have been countless other lessons ignored. While studying Population Genetics at the Medical School of Washington University in St. Louis I read many dozens of cases of generational genetic mutations resulting from the bombing of Japan. Recently, we have been seeing the same in the Balkans, where munitions with depleted uranium, to harden the projectile, were used in almost unaccountable numbers. Once fired or detonated the coating on the munitions is degraded, allowing the radioactivity full play. Children picking up spent bullets or shards of cannon shells for souvenirs or scrap metal put them in their pockets, irradiating their genitals. Mana.

Perhaps even calendar dates, imbued with significance for some reason, acquire mana. Fifty years ago, November 22, 1963, I was home on military leave watching television when Walter Cronkite interrupted the programming with a special announcement. For the next three days that box of metal, glass and plastic parts exerted a gravitational force upon me I had never before known. Of course, there were many testimonials to John Kennedy in the coming days. But today I am reminded of the five lines of poetry with which Robert Kennedy closed the eulogy of his brother at the August 1964 National Democratic Convention:

When he shall die

Take him and cut him out in little stars

And he will make the face of heaven so fine

That all the world will be in love with night,

And pay no worship to the garish sun.

   

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10 Comments
  1. A new Marco article. I have my dictionary and note pad by my side. As with most I have learned new words and information. Only Marco could incorporate this many different topics into one coherent and apropos a piece.

    • Thank you, Mary. I enjoy the world of ideas and am greatly heartened that you also do.

    • Dana permalink

      Mary, I read each piece at least two or three times initially, but I also have them saved in a folder for future reference. I do this for several reasons, but mainly because Marco provides such a wealth of interesting information. There is much to absorb.

      I also keep a dictionary handy, and I not only learn new terms and ideas, but I often also end up doing some outside research on my own. This blog sometimes elaborates upon things I learned in Marco’s classes; sadly, his lectures always went by too quickly! I’m ever grateful to continue learning from him through this avenue.

      Marco, this blog contains some similar ideas I have thought about while walking Billie. I seem to do my best thinking outdoors on these walks, and as you know, dogs make some of the greatest silent companions. During our last walk it must have been squirrel and chipmunk dinner time. On this particular trail, they are quite bold and fearless even around dogs, and we were able to stop and watch them in close proximity. I wondered if there is anything that makes my life more important than a squirrel or chipmunk’s. I could think of nothing. That isn’t to say I have little value, but since my childhood observations of Earth’s non-human inhabitants, I have never thought of myself “at the top.”

      • Thank you, Dana. I know that you, unlike the neighbors, are entirely understanding when I walk Plato in the mornings mumbling to myself. I would like to think the squirrels listen. Maybe they do. Marco

  2. Just found out that you had posted so many new posts ! for some reason, even if i am following, i dont seem to get notices. will have to check on you more often ! 🙂 and then , what can i say that has not been said by Dana and Mary about this blog post…! i so agree with them ! but in a few words, …i feel more `cultured` !!! thanks for the sharing of such great knowledge on almost every possible thing. i am sorry i was not your student !

  3. Rose Palmer permalink

    I find it most interesting that you use the word “mana” to define so many forms of energy. Within the card game “Magic the Gathering”, mana was defined as the energy coming from various types of lands and used to power the creatures and objects used to attack and defend. The concept is that different types of mana come from different natural sources.

    Many stones and metals have been said to have properties beyond beauty; among these are amethyst (said to be a healing stone), rose quartz (said to attract love), and moonstone (defends against lycanthropy lol). I’ve learned of these from various places, and while it does not make the information correct or valid, it is interesting that it comes from so many disparate sources.

    Do inanimate objects contain mana? As I’ve mentioned before, Feng Shui tells us that objects contain “ancestor energy”, left over from the previous owner. It is believed that this energy should be purged from the object before it is allowed to enter our homes, lest it affect us in a negative way. Have you ever been attracted or repelled by an object for no logical reason? Perhaps ancestor energy is the reason; just saying! Rose

    • Thank you, Rose. I once placed an object, belonging to someone I wanted to check out, in the hand of a “psychometrist”. I thought it was rather woo-woo at the time. But, she then went into great detail and was dead on in every respect.

      • Rose Palmer permalink

        My parapsychology professor (at Merced College) was a practitioner of psychometry, and would demonstrate his abilities for us at various social gatherings outside of class. His results were accurate about eighty percent of the time. When given a photo of my cousin, nine of his comments were absolutely correct; the tenth was true of her brother.
        He made the comment that she had been confined on the day the photo was taken, which made no sense until I asked and was told that her boyfriend had put her in handcuffs that morning, which had upset her very much.

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