Animism means recognizing personhood even in other-than-human presences. From the sort of perspective focused on taxonomy and classification that literacy encourages this can seem nonsensical, but oral people focus on relationship rather than classification. From that perspective, personhood has more to do with the network of relationships around someone than describing an individual as a discrete being. “Person,” in this context, comes down to ‘’someone you can have a relationship with’’, rather than ascribing any particular characteristics to that person. Animists often classify the word for “person” as a verb rather than a noun, something you do rather than something that defines you.

Different communities may have different criteria for personhood, such as the ability to communicate (with or without language, or with a particularly broad definition of the word), the ability to participate in religious ritual, or the ability to accept and receive gifts.

#How the Fifth World became animist

We would consider the people of the Fifth World, nearly without exception, animists. Some of them call themselves Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, or Jews, but the actual beliefs they refer to by those names have shifted into animist forms that many of their ancestors would likely have considered heretical, if not blasphemous. This shift did not happen because of any great religious awakening or global conversion, but thanks to the simple, merciless forces of natural selection. The original forms of those religions served the world of agriculture and civilization well, but when you have to hunt, gather, squid and garden for a living, you must learn to pay close attention to the other-than-human beings you rely upon. Seeing them as persons helps engage the more active parts of the human brain dedicated to social relationships, giving you an advantage. Those who embraced animist beliefs flourished in the new world, while those who resisted it found themselves hard-pressed to survive the challenges of collapse and the Rusting Age.

#Animals as persons

Every hunter must learn the calls that animals make, both how to recognize them and how to mimic them. Thus, most people in the Fifth World have had the experience of speaking with animals: making a call, hearing the animal make a sensible response, and even repeating the cycle, just as they would in a conversation with another human being. Many animals speak even more eloquently in body language to those who know how to understand it.

#Plants as persons

Plants can often communicate as well, though it takes more skill, patience, and discipline to understand them. Nonetheless, people often form relationships with plants, especially trees. They offer them gifts and accept gifts from them in return.

#Rocks as persons

Rocks and similar materials like glass can display personhood, too. If an artisan making a glass or flint blade tries to simply impose a shape upon it, she will usually shatter the material, leaving her with nothing. To create a blade, she must learn to listen to the stone. Each strike sends percussive waves, just like sound, through the material. She must listen to the material and understand its composition, reflected through these exploratory, percussive waves. In the end, a well-crafted blade takes its shape as the relic of a sort of skillful conversation — just like a human being.

#Places as persons

People in the Fifth World recognize the unique “spirit,” or personality, of different places. Its particular shape, geology, and position favor the growth of different plants, which attract different animals, and so the entire ecosystem found in a particular place arises from the unique nature of that place playing itself out. This changes what one sees and hears and smells there, and that will shape the way she feels there and even the thoughts that occur to her there. With their emphasis on relationship and unfolding processes, people in the Fifth World do not consider intelligence something that occurs within themselves as individual persons, but as a process more correctly located in a particular place, which a human being can partake in there.

The singular magic of a place is evident from what happens there, from what befalls oneself or others when in its vicinity. The songs proper to a specific site will share a common style, a rhythm that matches the pulse of the place, attuned to the way things happen there — to the sharpness of the shadows or the rippling speech of water bubbling up from the ground. In traditional Ireland, a country person might journey to one distant spring in order to cure her insomnia, to another for strengthening her ailing eyesight, and to yet another to receive insight and protection from thieves. For each spring has its own powers, its own blessings, and its own curses. Different gods dwell in different places, and different demons. Each place has its own dynamism, its own patterns of movement, and these patterns engage the senses and relate them in particular ways, instilling particular moods and modes of awareness, so that unlettered, oral people will rightly say that each place has its own mind, its own personality, its own intelligence.

David Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous

#Fractal personhood

If relationship defines personhood, then animists can even deal with fractal persons, or persons within persons. For example, a person might struggle with depression, or her temper, or other inner demons. We say that these things speak to us, acknowledging the felt reality of how they communicate with us. We have relationships with them. We have relationships with our virtues, too. We speak of these things getting the better of us, or forcing us to do something, still referring to them as independent persons because this matches our experience with them even when it contradicts our model of how the world works.

#Abstract concepts

Stories and ideas often speak to us. For an ideologue, no relationship might matter more than her relationship to her ideology. For the rest of us, abstract concepts may not matter quite so much but we still have relationships to certain ideals, ideas, stories, and philosophies.


The negative space left behind by someone — the presence of absence — can become something that one can relate to in and of itself.

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