Animism, Spirits, and Gods

Teo Bishop wrote a post on the Wild Hunt calling for pagans to explain their personal theologies. I don’t know if this really counts, but it is probably the closest I will ever get to expressing such a thing.


A while back an atheist friend of mine expressed frustration with my paganism. As an atheist, he had plenty of experience dealing with, arguing with, and debating Christians, but had no context for my paganism and wasn’t sure how to ask about it without offending me. (He specifically asked about how I could explain or justify my religion’s “there’s a god for that” approach for the world — I told him something along the lines of the Universe running on a cosmic smartphone.)

This is my attempt to answer that question, with consideration to the way the Romans interacted with and conceived of their gods, and the way I interact with and conceive of those same gods.

The ancient Romans were animists. The myths they read and celebrated were taken from the Greeks and adapted to their own pantheon. They had no such stories because their gods were more associated with natural phenomena than actual personalities and events. They placated the local spirits to avoid their wrath, and placated the greater gods to provide for their country and people.

This is how I see it.

Water is a thing. It has certain properties and qualities. It interacts with other things and with itself in certain ways. But at its core it is still dihydrogen monoxide.

So you might have a spirit of water. A god, perhaps.

Most of the water on Earth is in the Ocean. The ocean has certain qualities to it. Some of those qualities are different from other kinds of water. So even though it is water, is has its own personality, one might say. So it has its own spirit. Or god, perhaps.

Water is also found in lakes and rivers. The water in lakes and rivers is different from water in the ocean. And they differ from each other: the water in rivers moves. Different things live in them. So even though they are the same water, they are different, and have their own qualities. Their own spirits, or gods.

All rivers have similar traits and characteristics. So there might be a “god” of rivers, that rules over them all. But one individual river is unique. It has its own flavor of water, its own flora and fauna, its own shape and speed. So that river has its own characteristics, its own qualities, its own spirit. And a particular stretch of that river might have its own unique qualities, and hence its own spirit. And one bend might have its own character, and hence its own spirit.

But you have many rivers, and many bends in those rivers. So even though each bend is different, it has some similarities. So those spirits form a class of water spirits ruling river bends. So you have a group of nymphs that are all unique and individual, and yet share similarities. Perhaps they favor similar offerings?

But there is more water! There is rain! Snow! Ice! Steam! All the same, yet different. And each different phase has its own qualities. Its own spirit.

But it’s all still water.

So all of those spirits are seen in the world. And the real issue is how they are perceived and interacted with. And they are all individual and unique, with their own qualities, personalities, and quirks. Even though they really describe the same thing.

That’s how I understand animism. That’s how I understand the gods.


2 responses to “Animism, Spirits, and Gods

  1. Pingback: The Best of Chirotus: HPF, the Return | Blacklight Metaphysics

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