Ancient Cultures and the Natural World - Elements and the Living Universe

Wicca Natural Magic Kit: The Sun, The Moon, and The Elements, Elemental Magic, Moon Magic, and Wheel of the Year Magic - Lisa Chamberlain 2018

Ancient Cultures and the Natural World
Elements and the Living Universe

While Wicca as a religion has quite modern origins, its beliefs and practices borrow from many older sources, including deities from ancient Egypt, India, Greece and Rome; holidays from old European pagan traditions; and magical lore from the Celtic world.

A key element of many of these older traditions is what anthropologists call animism. This term refers to a worldview that is very different from the mainstream worldview of most modern Western cultures.

Over the past few centuries, conventional science has shaped the modern perspective that the material world is only material, with no connection to the spiritual world (if, in fact, the spiritual world is even recognized at all). For those who don’t believe in a spiritual world, the separation is seen as between mind and matter, an idea made popular by the philosopher Descartes in the 17th century.

The animistic perspective, by contrast, is that there is no separation at all between the material and spiritual worlds, and this belief underlies much of the work of Witchcraft.

The word “animism” is derived from the Latin animus, which means “soul” or “mind.” In this orientation to the world, the quality of soul, or spirit, is not limited to humans or even all living creatures, but is found in all things.

Many animistic cultures view certain objects in the natural world—such as trees and other plants, springs and other bodies of water, and various geological formations—as having individual souls, or holding particularly strong spirit energy. These objects may be considered sacred to particular deities, or physical manifestations of unnamed spirits.

For example, in Greek mythology, humans were often transformed into trees and other plant life, where their spirits remained. Greek and Latin mythologies abound with various types of nymphs—female spirits who inhabit particular land forms, including trees and mountains, as well as bodies of water, the sky, and the Underworld. The Mayans are known to have prayed to the spirits of weather phenomena, such as clouds and lightning. And ancient goddesses and gods of Egypt were invoked into amulets and talismans worn for help with fertility, hunting, and other aspects of successful living.

In other words, the majority of ancient religions embraced animism, at least to some extent. As a result, animism is often said to be the fundamental basis from which later religions grew.

Now, for our hunter-gatherer ancestors, the relationship with nature was much more direct and intimate than it is for us today. While many of us may seek experience with the natural world through camping trips or long hikes, our ancestors lived their entire lives in “the great outdoors,” where there really was no “material world” to stand in the way of communing with the spiritual—there was none of the noise of our modern world to drown out nature’s messages. Instead, being in tune with the life force in all things was simply part of the human experience.

It is said that as hunter-gatherer societies gradually gave over to agriculturally based societies, animism became more elaborate, giving rise to deities who became responsible for particular aspects of the physical world. There are gods who rule over types of weather, as well as gods associated with human activity such as war, hunting, and the harvest. Some deities were assigned to the spiritual world, as well—such as Hades, who rules the Greek Underworld, and Arawn, the king of the Welsh Otherworld.

Although the rise of Christianity and Islam all but stamped out ancient religions in many parts of the world, animism has survived into modern times in various places.

In parts of Indonesia, where traditional indigenous cultural practices have been officially “outlawed,” people still believe in the spirits of natural phenomena like trees and rocks, as well as rice, which is considered to have a soul similar to that of humans, and is grown and tended to with ceremonial rituals to ensure abundance.

In many Native American traditions, animals are an integral part of spiritual growth for those who walk the animist path. Alternately called animal totems or power animals, they serve as teachers, guides, and messengers for people on their journey through life.

Native American medicine also incorporates animism, as the sacred herbs involved in traditional healing are considered to have spirits themselves. These plants are treated with the utmost respect and are prayed to and thanked before they are picked for use in ritual. Some healers even have the ability to “hear” the plant spirits and thus learn their potential uses directly from the plant. This is how many indigenous peoples learned to use herbal medicine in the first place.

In Ireland, people still tie ribbons or strips of cloth to hawthorn trees, known as “wishing trees,” as a form of prayer. Ancient springs and wells, whose waters are believed to contain the powers of the Otherworld, are found all across the Celtic Isles. These places were later renamed “holy wells” as Christianity merged with the indigenous Celtic religion.

The Irish landscape is also dotted with several enchanted places, which are often hills or ancient religious sites, where an invisible population of spirits, or “sidhe” (pronounced “shee”) are said to live. The sidhe were the people who inhabited Ireland before the coming of the Celts, who “walked into the Earth” rather than surrender to their conquerors. Their dwellings are often called fairy forts or fairy mounds, and there are even places known as “fairy paths,” where it’s considered unwise to build homes or undertake any other construction.

Animism is a very general term—not a religion in and of itself, but a way of classifying religions and belief systems that are not monotheistic like most of today’s major world religions. Each animistic tradition is unique to its own culture, and people in these cultures would not call themselves “animistic,” since this is a Western term used to describe them from the outside.

From the inside, there is no need to have a term. It is taken for granted that the world is alive and full of spirits who are as connected with human life as the air itself, and that the energies of these spirits can be called on to help with the practical realities of daily life.

Witchcraft makes particular use of this last idea: that we can consciously communicate with the spiritual world and manifest positive changes in our circumstances, both on a personal level and for others.

Witches may do this largely through working with their own chosen deities, whether these deities have specific identities (such as Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, or Cernunnos, the Irish god of wild animals) or are simply recognized as the Goddess and the God: the female and male creative energies that power the life cycles we witness on Earth year after year.

Some Witches may not actually believe in any deities per se, but instead commune with the spirits of the natural world as they understand them on an individual level. Some may even focus their spiritual and magical work simply through communing with the one force believed to be inherent throughout the Universe. They may call this force “the Universe,” “the Spirit,” “All That Is,” or any other term that best describes their experience of these energies.

Most Wiccans and Witches, however, devote some degree of specific attention to the Elements in their practice, with a definite awareness of the spiritual presence inherent in each of these forces of nature.