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Can Psychedelics Rekindle Ancient Animism in Modern Society?

Animism—seeing the spirit in everything—goes deeper than the psychedelic experience; and this distinction may be crucial for psychedelic healing work.

Pat Smith // September 23, 2020


In the mid-19th century when Western anthropologists began to study indigenous cultures, they noticed a pattern. Almost always, these societies had belief systems that were totally unfamiliar to a Western, materialist mindset. A single world was used to identify these beliefs: Animism. 

Animism is difficult to define, but generally it refers to any belief system that considers everything to have a spirit. Animals, trees, rocks, even the weather; all have purpose and motivation. According to the animist philosophy, the world is a vast web of relationships among living beings in different guises. Many of these relationships occur in an unseen world—lying beyond our mundane perception—but nonetheless having real consequences for our immediate existence.

Entheogenic plants are sometimes, but certainly not always, used in animistic societies. Animism, however, goes deeper than the psychedelic experience; and being aware of this distinction may be crucial for psychedelic healing work. If we don’t pay attention to the lessons of animism—seeing life through a more soulful perspective—we risk falling into the trap of thinking that psychedelics are all we need to create a harmonious society.

There’s no doubt that historically, animism and psychedelics often appear together. We’re perhaps most familiar with Amazonian and Mesoamerican shamanism—the paradigm in which plant medicines like ayahuasca, tobacco, psilocybin mushrooms, and Salvia divinorum have been fundamental parts of those animistic traditions. With the help of psychedelic plants and fungi, shamans have been able to venture into the unseen world of animistic relationships and bring back wisdom, while communities at large have been able to conceive of the interconnectedness of the world around them and the part they have to play in it.

You may also have heard of the Eleusinian Mysteries—secret rituals in ancient Greece that used a mind-altering mixture of unknown psychoactive plants, called kykeon, as part of their initiation rite. The Eleusinian Mysteries derived from earlier indigenous—and animist—Greek beliefs that were later adopted by the more familiar Hellenic Greeks. “In the early Greek spirituality there was no separation from nature,” Zoe Helene, founder of environmental feminist collective Cosmic Sister and a descendent of indigenous Greek Minoans and Mycenaeans, tells DoubleBlind. “Places, objects, elements and all living beings had a spiritual essence.” 

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Minoan ‘Snake Goddess’ figurine found during an excavation of Minoan archaeological sites in Crete, dating from approximately 1600 BCE. Photo via Flickr.

Many of the animistic beliefs of the Minoans and Mycenaeans made it into the   Hellenic pantheon only to then be appropriated by the Romans, whose culture was more materialist and patriarchal. Before this, the Minoan and Mycenaean religions were distinctly feminist and shamanistic. Early Greek rituals were largely female-led, and goddesses frequently practiced shape-shifting and journeying through mystic realms: 

“Minoan medicine women are depicted with sacred snakes, cats, birds and more,” says Helene, noting that in the later Hellenic pantheon, most goddesses have sacred animals and many can become them: Athena, for example, can shape-shift into an owl, while both Hekate, goddess of crossroads, and Artemis, the daughter of a wolf, can transform into a bear and a cat. “Persephone travels back and forth from Gaia’s surface to Hades, the Underworld—which is not ‘hell,’ but rather a realm for souls in transition,” she adds. “Most goddesses have sacred plants and elements (fire, water, earth, air), too.”

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Helene suggests that the loss of animistic traditions was linked to the more patriarchal and colonizing culture that first appeared in late-stage Hellenic Greece, and then became more destructive and excessive in Rome. This is aptly reflected in the shifting popularity of the deity Dionysus. Associated with altered states, ritual madness, and death-and-rebirth through estatic revelry, Dionysus had a powerful and positive reputation among the Greeks. Yet there were consequences to his promotion: “Dionysus rose from the ranks of an immortal demi-god [in Hellenic Greek mythology] to demand a seat at the table on Mt. Olympus,” Helene says. 

Being the 13th member at a 12-seater table that was divinely gender-balanced, someone had to leave to make space. “This ended up being Hestia, an ancient and essential goddess of home and hearth, who embodies Center,” she continues. “It got to the point where citizens were abandoning day-to-day responsibilities to worship Dionysus by participating in his festivals. Chaos ensued and soon the Greek empire fell to Rome.”

In other words, the Ancient Greeks changed their relationship to sacred medicines. Where plants like the poppy, syrian rue, ergot fungus, and the mysterious kykeon had previously been allies for animistic ritual and healing, they now shifted towards recreational and excessive use. As Roman society focused on conquering the lands around them, rather than maintaining ecological balance, the connection to nature gradually slipped away.

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Mosaic pavement: drinking contest of Herakles and Dionysos, early 3rd century A.D. Courtesy of Princeton University Art Museum

A similar pattern repeats itself in ancient Judaism, where, according to some, animistic roots were replaced by a more patriarchal system relying on scripture rather than nature. 

Kohenet Lady Tiana Sophia Mirapae, Hebrew priestess and founder of the Wisdom School of SOPHIA, explains to DoubleBlind that Judaism used to look somewhat different from the way it looks today: “Judaism began as an earth-based religion; with prayers for the dawn, and connection to the changing seasons. It involved mysticism and divination—things that mainstream Judaism doesn’t discuss, but that we are unpacking now!”

It was the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 70AD by the invading Romans that catalyzed the move away from animistic traditions. “The focus of Judaism shifted from the temple to teachings, and to the Rabbis’ interpretations of texts,” Mirapae says. Before this dramatic shift, Judaism was an animistic religion that also had a close connection to psychedelic plant medicines: “The Ancient Hebrews spoke of altered states of consciousness. We know they were using psychedelics, but we don’t know exactly what they were,” says Mirapae. “We have evidence that cannabis was used by the priests in the old Temple in Jerusalem, and it’s possible that priestesses used it also.”

Today, people like Mirapae are venturing back into the mystical roots of Judaism, and amplifying the remnants that have survived: “The earth-based part of Judaism is still here now, it’s just more hidden,” she says. “In modern Judaism we still make prayers and offerings to the earth, honor our ancestors, and interact with the elements in our rituals and ceremonies.” 

Read: Psychedelic Synergies in the Bible: How Ancient Shamans and Priests Combined Plants to Get High

Rishe Groner, rabbinical student and founder of The Gene-Sis, a movement for embodied Jewish spirituality, also spoke to DoubleBlind about the animistic elements of Judaism: “The idea that every living being and creature possesses a divine spark is definitely referenced in different rabbinic texts, and of course became very much a discussed idea in the Kabbalistic literature, up to today in contemporary Hasidic and Kabbalistic Jewish mystical literature.”Shortcode

The source of this animistic spark almost certainly rests somewhere in Ancient Hebrew, as Groner points out: “I think you can find almost magical rituals in the Bible, requiring a belief in the spiritual effect of rituals involving plants, water, animals, mountains, or the earth.”

In tandem with Mirapae, Groner also points towards the earth-based background of Judaism, the echoes of which still exist in modern practice: “Ancient Hebrew society was all about agriculture, and operating through principles like Shmita (allowing the land to rest every seventh year), and festivals like Sukkot (the harvest festival in the fall), which some say was all about sympathetic magic—people pulling together phallic-shaped plants and ovary-shaped citrus fruits and shaking them together as a form of ritual to bring in the rains.”

Returning to these old ways of Judaism is quite often incorrectly described as “New Age” by critics, but Mirapae disagrees: “There’s nothing new about it,” she says. 

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In both ancient Judaism and indigenous Greek spirituality, psychedelics were a tool with which priestesses and practitioners could reinforce their connection to an animistic belief system. But animism certainly doesn’t require psychedelics.

In his recent film Tawai, explorer and filmmaker Bruce Parry meets two cultures that practice harmonious egalitarianism without any need for psychedelic plants; the Penan in Borneo, and the Pirahã in Brazil. Both cultures exist in a profound and immediate connection to nature, and a relationship with the spirit of the forest; and neither depend on rituals or entheogens to renew this connection. Parry spoke to DoubleBlind about the peaceful animism maintained by the Penan and the Pirahã: 

“The most harmonious groups I’ve lived with are egalitarian groups. They don’t have leaders, and everyone is working very hard to make sure that no one is more than anyone else. This harmony is maintained by a deep sense of empathy.” 

But empathy can take a lot of work: “To cultivate a deep sense of empathy, one needs to feel deeply, and to feel deeply, one needs to be able to feel everything that’s going on,” says Parry. “And that means before harmonizing with what’s around you, you have to harmonize with the stuff that’s inside you.” Dealing with our own baggage may be more difficult for us Westerners, who have mostly been brought up to be profoundly disconnected from our environment, within the anxious isolation of nuclear families. “I don’t think the Penan and Pirahã have the same degree of trauma to deal with, which ultimately enables them to be able to feel more deeply.”

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Tawai trailer, 2018.

With neither group having been completely colonized nor converted, the Penan depend on foraging and hunting to survive in the forest, and have been nomadic people for almost all their existence; carrying everything they own on their backs and moving when they need to. Their worldview is deeply connected to the wellbeing of the forest—if the forest is suffering, so are they. In Tawai, Parry remarks on the depth of the empathy the Penan have for each other and for the forest.

The Pirahã also live as hunter-gatherers, sharing everything they find equally, and using a shamanic connection to forest spirits to guide them in their interactions with their environment. Crucially, the structure of their language does not allow them to speak far into the past or future, meaning that, from a cognitive linguistic perspective, they are wired to live in the present moment, and within their immediate surroundings: 

Read: The Strange Joy of Climate Change

“The Pirahã have never been converted by anyone, because all they care about is the here and now. When a missionary comes along and says, ‘We wanna tell you about this guy called Jesus,’ they’re like, ‘Well have you met him? Have you been to where he lives?’” Parry explains. “They’re just not interested in anything that’s not relevant. Especially as they have this running dialogue with the pantheon of spirit deities that they exist with on a daily basis.”

The deeply egalitarian and harmonious societies of the Penan and Pirahã are maintained without the influence of psychedelics, thanks to their closeness to nature and the depth of their empathy for each other and the world around them—and to even practice that level of empathy is already quite aligned with the animist ethos. 

Yet Parry has had his own healing experiences with psychedelic plant medicines, and believes that entheogens can be used to reintroduce us to animistic concepts. “I do think that animism definitely predates any form of taking psychoactive plants, and over time I think it’s possible entheogens became more widely used as a way of reconnecting to that which came first,” he says. “These spiritual practices, whether they’re meditation or dancing or poetry or song or the use of psychedelics, are tools which are being found in order to bring us back to a way of being that perhaps we once had.”

Read: The Function of Awe

Researchers have investigated the use of psychedelics to reinforce animist concepts. One clinical study of fourteen participants showed that a moderate dose of psilocybin boosted people’s self-reported connection to nature by about 15 percent. Additionally, one large survey of more than 1,500 people showed that those with more psychedelic experiences in their lives are more likely to feel connected to nature

This effect is hypothesized by most researchers to be due to the capacity of psychedelics to blur the distinction between self and other, which makes empathizing with the environment (and seeing the consequences of our actions) much easier. “During the psychedelic experience, the sense of self can break down, and perceived boundaries between self and other can dissolve,” ecologist and psychedelic researcher Sam Gandy tells DoubleBlind. “This can catalyze an expanded perspective and deep feelings of unity, and can result in a powerful perspective shift, the memory of which can be enduring.”

Gandy says he feels encouraged by seeing this perspective shift in clinical environments, outside nature and even without animist prompts: “This makes psychedelics quite special in this regard.” They may have even greater potential when used with animist principles in mind, or in natural settings.

So while psychedelics are not required for a functional animist society, psychedelics can certainly help Westerners get back in touch with core animist concepts: our innate connection to nature, and the relationship between our actions and their consequences.

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Still, there is a limitation to the psychedelic awakening. We risk bringing a drunken Dionysus to the table, diminishing the sense of moderation associated with animism. If we assume that all we need to do to find harmony is take enough psychedelics, we’re in for a rude awakening.

We can certainly manage this risk by making sure we take psychedelics in contexts that can support the protection of the environment, and apply critical thinking before we empower capitalistic (read: “corporadelic”) interests in the space. In other words, if the burgeoning psychedelic industry were to reflect animist ethos, rather than exploitive or excessive values inherent in Western industry, we may start to see some progress. 

On a more basic level, it’s important to pay attention to the mindset in which we’re taking psychedelics. “There is obviously a massive difference in how psychedelics are taken, whether ritually or recreationally,” says Parry. “The plant medicine ritual, when done right, quite possibly holds the greatest potential for healing and transition in our global society today. It’s no miracle cure, and there will be problems for sure—but in many ways, it may well be our best hope.”

So while psychedelics are not a miracle cure, to many of us, in a world where catastrophe after catastrophe is not enough to slap us out of exploitative mindsets, psychedelics present one last opportunity to rekindle our animistic beginnings. 

Helene also sees no choice but to settle on a message of hope: “With sacred psychedelic medicines we have a chance. Sometimes it feels like we’re grasping at straws, but without hope there is only despair. I choose to live as if we can and will heal and evolve before we destroy ourselves, and everything with us—and I know I’m not alone.”

Patrick Smith (PhD) is a former neuroscience researcher who currently writes about psychedelic science and culture. You can find his writing at thepsychedelicscientist.com.

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