animism & ancestor reverence

In traditional animistic societies, human beings lived in deep connection with their fellow relations, human and other-than-human. There was no question of the sacredness and intelligence of all life. Over some 300,000 years, human beings have evolved on the planet in deep relationship with the natural world, and in communication with our oldest teachers, the plants and animals. Through these relationships, balance was maintained and human beings knew their part in the web of life. Relationship maintenance included attendance to and reverence for those who came before, through ceremony and ritual offerings that honored cycles of life and death. In traditional cultures, ancestor veneration has existed in some form throughout human history worldwide. Rich cultural cosmologies were woven around relationship with the ancestors and with the entirety of the natural world.

Many of these old ways have been lost in contemporary Western society. For many of us, our sense of who we are, where we come from, and our identity as members of the natural world has been ruptured. The collective dream of life shared by the dominant culture has resulted in disconnection. Today, the concept of animism is laughable to the scientific mind. Yet, the scientific lens is uncovering findings that corroborate the traditional ways. Robin Wall Kimmerer, botanist and member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation, remarked in an interview with Krista Tippett for On Being that scientific findings are not demonstrating that plants and animals have less intelligence than we thought, but quite the opposite. Science is uncovering evidence that animals and even plants operate with an agency and intelligence that challenges the assumption that only humans act with intention.

In his book The Spell of the Sensuous, cultural ecologist David Abram writes about his experience as a researcher living in Indonesia and observing Balinese ancestor reverence practices. His initial reaction was amused curiosity when he saw women leaving food in certain areas of the village for the ancestors. Yet after continued observation, he realized that these offerings were indeed being taken up - by rodents and pests that would otherwise be bothersome to the community. He understood that the reciprocity taking place was indeed maintaining the natural balance of humankind living in harmony with the natural world. The offerings were left for the ‘ancestors’ - but who is to say what shape or form the ancestors take when they receive these gifts? As Abram writes, “‘Ancestor worship’ in its myriad forms, then, is ultimately another mode of attentiveness to nonhuman nature; it signifies not so much an awe or reverence of human powers, but rather a reverence for those forms that awareness takes when it is not in human form, when the familiar human embodiment dies and decays to become part of the encompassing cosmos.”

Resources:

robin wall kimmerer ‘the intelligence in all kinds of life,’ on Being interview

david abram ‘creaturely migrations on a breathing planet,’ emergence magazine