Noilly Prattle: Animism is alive. . .

Monday, June 23, 2014

Animism is alive. . .

. . . and well in the 21st Century

     Animism, the belief in a kind of universal soul, is, arguably, the oldest form of “religious” or spiritual belief, predating written history. It's earliest expressions can be found in prehistoric burial sites where bodies were carefully arranged and left with baubles and artifacts from when they were living. A reverence for the dead is the earliest known incidence of religious expression.

ceremonial in the village
       My first encounter with animism was during the two and a half years I lived in a jungle village in West Africa. Its artistic expression was in the form of ceremonial masks and carvings of animals and strange creatures with animal features. Its physical expression was in body painting and decorations and all night ceremonies to propitiate or cajole the spirits of nature and ancestors to cure the sick and infertile or to bring down maledictions on enemies and foes. Fire, the compelling rhythms of tom-toms, wild dances, hallucinogenic drugs and powerfully alcoholic palm wine were staples of these occasions. It was compelling and exciting to participate in them and, depleted, wend your way home in the early pre-dawn hours and sleep the rest of the day.

narrow strip of land across the street
       I've run into an interesting expression of animism right here in my neighborhood. Our house is situated on the edge of a housing area with a wooded valley right across the street. There is a narrow strip of presumably public land there before it plunges steeply into the valley that we and some of our neighbors use for small gardens. We have some herbs, one neighbor does flowers and some vegetables and another does some serious though small scale vegetable gardening.

the veggie farmer
       There has been, recently, a somewhat low-grade neighborhood land war over the strip of land across the street. The serious farmer has been extending the length of his strip garden closer and closer to our herb patch, extending it to the area fronting our next-door neighbor who does not use the land for a garden, but resents the encroachment to the front of his door. The vegetable farmer recently cleared some of the land right in front of the neighbor's door and bordering on our herb patch.

young lime tree and barrier branch
with strange heptagon behind
       I was sitting here at my computer last week when I heard the two men arguing, more or less politely but vociferously, in Japanese. When their conversation was over, we went outside and told the farmer that he must not extend his garden any further into our herb patch. He seemed subdued after his chat with the neighbor and assured us that he wouldn't. Just to be certain, however, we planted a lime tree and re-positioned a large cut branch (that the farmer himself had cut and left on the ground) as a not-so-subtle reminder that his garden stops here.

heptagonal tomb for a pet bird
       A few days ago I noticed a strange arrangement on the land that the farmer had cleared. I told my partner about it and we took some photos and discussed what it might signify. I thought it looked like some kind of altar that reminded me of Japanese tomb stones with a place for leaving offerings of food and drink or flowers, etc. She, being a bit superstitious, thought it might be a kind of talisman for protection from curses or even, in reverse, a curse upon the neighbor. Nevertheless, we agreed to ask the farmer what it was.

       This morning he was out there gardening while my partner was in the herb patch and she asked him what it was.

       It is a tomb for a pet bird.

       Animism! It can be beautiful.  

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