One of the joys of having Nick as a friend is that his writing and his thoughts push me, myself, to think on how I view things and how I relate to things. As I am a polytheist, and being a polytheist also an animist, I think that there is a lot that we share in worldview and the consequences of our beliefs, even if we phrase them different or some of the minutae of our worldviews differ.
Still, as an animist there is definitely a spiritual component to all the work that I do. I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.
What he refers to here as ‘my spirit’ I may think of as the lich, huge, munr, and ond, along with a few other soul parts depending on the context, such as hame and hamingja.
I take a similar view; but on a much more biological scale. My body is the collective of countless numbers of individual cells, individual spiritual persons.
I find this an interesting concept, because if this is the case there is a unification of purpose and order to the internal ‘universe’ of spirits that inhabit the body. It also has implications for my worship of Mitochondrial Eve and Chromosomal Adam as Ancestors. If I recognize these two as Ancestors, then it is not much of a stretch to say that my cells are each spirits in and of themselves. I take it to mean that, in this context, that Nick is not saying that each of these cell-spirits are determinative of their own form and function on their own, but exist in a rather more restricted space than I, both in terms of their field of choices for existence, and sentience. This does not strip them of being spirits at all; rather, that they/we are collectively ‘aimed’ towards a purpose. In the case of red blood cells, circulating oxygen so the larger spirit-driven flesh-vehicle can keep on living, and fulfill its own set of needs and influences on the world at large. In the case of white blood cells, these spirit-driven little bits of me/us fight off infection for the same reason.
Together, they make something much greater than the sum of the parts. (We will come back to this later in this piece.) Yet there is something in there, a sum collective of all my energies and processes that is distinctly me. My body and my spirit are so deeply integrated and networked, that it’s not always clear where one ends and the other begins.
Yet, we have differentiation from Sarenth’s cells and Sarenth the person, and I think this is something to take note of. I don’t necessarily think that Nick loses that point here, mind, I just want to be sure we do not mistake trees for forest. My cells are prerequisites for the functions of my body, as are the networks of relationship between various cells, organs, etc. Yet, in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, I am not my heart metaphysically or physically. My heart is a part of me. I think that, though Sarenth’s cells and Sarenth the person overlap in the Venn diagram here, there is clear demarkation that I am not my cells, but rather, that my cells are my own and distinct from Nick’s cells and Nick’s person.
Part of the reason I spent Part 1 of these posts exploring and taking apart Gleiser’s post, ‘Is Neuroscience Rediscovering the Soul?‘, is because I disagree with science communities or scientific writing taking over theological definitions when there is little-to-no reason to. If we are describing the soul, let us describe the soul. If we are describing the mind, let us describe the mind. Let us differentiate our language clearly, not because these realms never overlap, but so that we can be clear when they do, without muddying the specialized language and understanding of both.
Reading that made my skin crawl in a rather wonderful way. I especially love the bit where he says “For the mind is embodied, the self not an isolated property of what’s inside your cranium, but an emergent property of your whole mind-body integration…”
Meanwhile reading it made my skin crawl in a rather uncomfortable way, for reasons I described previous. Now, the idea of the mind being embodied and the self not being an isolated property but an emergent one of the mind-body integration is essentially taken as a given in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry. Of course identity comes out of one’s selfhood as in the godhi/gydhja, Ancestry, one’s spiritual communities, one’s actions within one’s community. The NT and Heathen religions assume an interconnectedness as part and parcel of existence, whether it is how our huge and munr develop. Our sense of self develops out of our various Soul Matrix parts into who we are in this incarnation. The lich lends itself to the mind-body connection as firmly as the more ephemeral Soul Matrix parts do.
The thing I refer to as my “self” is really more of a collective of individuals than a single being. All the trillions of cells in my brain and body working in conjunction across masses of networks. That is my body as well as my soul. The Norse concept of hugr, a form of the spiritual “self” is a rather nice fit here. The hugr is considered to be the sum total of the mental life of an individual, and that is exactly what I think Gleiser is talking about.
Our stories, our environment, and our own makeup interacting and coming up with this thing we might call the spirit. That is just wonderful in so many ways.
Absolutely, this is wonderful. As with our bodies, minds, cultures, and so on are the results of a million lives before us, and is impacted by our environment, so our spirit(s) develop from those who came before us. What is more, as with our bodies and the passing on of traits, or the passing on of how we understand the world, and/or our culture(s), we impact them and those who came before us in return. If we fail to tell the stories, they eventually fade. If we fail to pass on the culture, eventually it dies. If we pass these things on, they continue to live and become part of future generations.
Before I harp too much on that, I want to turn to the other article that I read recently. It is by David Haskell, and is titled Life is the Network, not the Self. In talking about a maple leaf, Haskell says;
“By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. “
In reading Grönbech’s The Culture of the Teutons and having read quite a bit of lore on ancient German and Scandinavian societies, one of the things that continuously comes up is that these are tribal societies, and that identification of and with the tribe is part of being alive. To be outlawed is to be dead, or something worse than dead. Within the collective society of ancient Germanic and Scandinavian tribes, it was not that the individual completely disappeared, but that all one’s decisions, all one does or is, is reflected upon because what one does affects the tribe, and likewise, the tribe affects the individuals within it. The tribe was, as in the plant example above, affected the push and pull of various decisions and needs and wants that are expressed and addressed from within the network, the network in this case being the tribe.
I told you we would come back to emergent properties and networked integration. When we consider our own bodies, we see huge networked complexes working together in both conflict and cooperation. Bacteria in our guts are working to help us digest our food, networked neurons are working to process the information from our senses, our heart muscles are working in a constant beat to keep the blood, nutrients and oxygen moving through our bodies.
I think it is important to discern, though, that networked tasks and networked things, in this cases leaves within a plant or bacteria within the gut, does not make the leaf the plant nor the bacteria the gut. They are pieces of a whole that helps the whole to function, is indeed necessary for the whole to function well in their contexts. If we agree that a leaf and the cells that make it up are each souls within souls, that the soul of the leaf is made up with the cells that make that leaf up, with each leaf itself a part of the soul of the plant, at some point the collective emerges around forms and functions. It is at this point that the ‘leaf cells’ become leaves, and that leaves become part of the plant. Necessary to the plant being alive and propogating, but not the plant as a whole. The leaves emerge from the plant, and the plant from the seed.
As Haskell points out, this kind of integration expands well beyond the individual human, but to maple trees, ecosystems, and the entire biosphere of the planet. Every collective being on this planet is networked, and from that networking new and fascinating forms emerge. Over the long course of evolution, individual cells have been experimenting with different collective networks, and that has given rise to every single living thing on this planet.
‘Collective networks’ functions well as a term if we’re just talking physical realms. There’s a word for this in the Northern Tradition and Heathenry, this tapestry of networked beings in the lattice work of all reality. It forms the ground of how we view ourselves, so that this idea is hardly alien. This is wyrd. Yet, unlike the networked beings and individuals described here, wyrd also takes into account spiritual impacts and phenomena. This is one of the places where I see the Venn diagram between science and religion crossing in terms of understanding some ways of interconnectedness.
As Haskell says;
“Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself.
Given our understanding of how life began, whether looking at this through the scientific lens of the Big Bang or through wyrd and the Creation Story, with the unfolding of Creation through the emergence of Muspelheim, Nifelheim from the Ginnungagap, I’d say that networks of interrelationship are older than life itself. That the building blocks of our reality rely on series after series of things relating between one another, whether in opposition, tension, or in concert.
The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the “self,” but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship.”
Interesting. In my exploration of ancient German and Scandinavian cultures, the fundamental unit of how we understood ourselves as people began in the plurality of tribe, clan, and/or family. The individual tribe/clan/family members were a temporary manifestation of relationship, carrying and passing on hamingja, for instance. This understanding of ‘network’ could easily be replaced with the word ‘community’, ‘tribe’, etc. The tribe is a plurality, and each person part of it. We invididually exist within it, functioning separately, yet together form a collective identity and being.
If we consider the soul to be the sum total of all these connections, in our bodies and with our environment, something rather fascinating and terrifying starts to emerge.
As a polytheist and animist with a particular worldview, I see that what Nick has laid out is quite well along my own lines of thought. Where I keep getting myself hung up is in disagreements with particulars, such as considering the sum total of a soul to be all of/in this world.
So I have some questions for Nick, and I’m curious to see how he answers given what he said earlier in his post:
“I do think I have a spirit, a life essence, a life force; if you will. But I don’t think that my spirit is at all separate from my body. In some cosmologies, the spirit is not one piece, but a whole collection of different “spirits” in one body.
and this later:
As I have explained many times before, animism is concerned with life living in relationships with each other.
So if you think you have a spirit, a life essence, a life force, what is it? What forms does it take? Where did it originate from? Does it have a finite existence? If you do not believe your spirit is at all separate from your body, does it die along with your body? In other words, how would ghosts and spirits-after-death fit, if at all, into your cosmology? How does this fit into Ancestor worship and/or veneration (i.e. if the spirit dies with the body why rever/worship the Ancestors)?
Do you believe that the spirit is one piece, or that it is a whole collection of different ‘spirits’ in one body? I’m intensely interested in your cosmology, especially because if spirit is bound to body, then if something does not have a body, then, does it not have a spirit?
If animism is concerned with life living in relationship with each other does that preclude the numinous, or less body-bound realms of things? How does animism unfold as a, or part of, a religious point of view for you? What does animism of a worldview include, for you? What does it not include?
Consider our relationships well beyond ourselves. Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?
I am deeply curious to see how Nick would answer these things as well. I will below.
In considering our relationships well beyond ourselves, I think we first need to think of what things are actually within our spheres of influence. If we think of our ability to impact the world as represented by bubbles, with the further out we go having more and more reach, my bubble would be quite limited to those in my immediate surroundings, those in my family, my religious communities, and communities otherwise. Even in how I buy and consume things, my impact as such is quite small in scale compared to a large corporation or the collective impact of the US government.
After a while I stop considering relationships well beyond myself and the bubbles I can affect. My relationships with those outside of certain circles gets so tenuous and abstract that the ties I have to others are miniscule. In others they are nonexistant. This is one of the reasons I’m not as into Big Tent Paganism as others. It’s much like my view of being a US citizen. As with Pagans and issues particular to the communities we/they are part of, I care about the rights of all US citizens, but I’ll likely never interact with most of the folks out in California. I certainly won’t develop or keep up meaningful relationships with them. While my words may carry impact out there, I have only so much capacity within myself to develop meaningful relationships with those outside of my family and friends. I only have so much time to keep the relationships I do have. Since my energy and my attention are things that I have less and less of, between work, religious obligation, family obligations, and local community obligations, there’s not much time left over to develop deeper connections with folks outside of a couple of my bubbles where my time and attention goes.
Think about the sum total of all of our technology and the natural world around us. Take a look at our cities from space and ask yourself, what is emerging from our relationships with other beings on this planet?
The sum total of all our technology and the natural world is deeply out of step with one another. Our technology allows us to do amazing things, from the interconnectedness of the Internet to the generation of power so countless people have electricity, heat, and water, to beautiful pieces of art. Yet, I see so much technology now as being obsolescense for its own sake, or to increase someone’s bottom line at the expense of great swathes of this world, Earth, animal and plant alike. I see devices intentionally built to break. I see technology taking jobs once held by great swathes of people with nothing to replace them, leaving great stretches of this country destitute. I see great and small bodies of earth, water, and air poisoned by oil and gas, the production of our computers and cell phones. I see a world we will have a harder time living on and with because of the production and industries that bring up that oil and gas to burn so our electricity flows, the lights stay on, and our economies continue to be productive contributes to the very things that are rendering our planet less habitable to us.
Looking at our cities from space I see systems that have deep need of repair, both in terms of how they function internally and how they relate to the natural world. I see great swathes of resources going to these places; we can see the light of them in space from the photo Nick has provided. As a whole our relationships with the Earth through cities have become fraught with taking increasing amounts of dwindling resources, whether that be water, oil, or gas. The growth of cities has been useful in allowing us to live on less land, but we have not fixed fundamental problems with how we, especially in America, deploy ourselves in the land. If the supply lines get cut off for 3 days LA essentially starves. Now, thankfully, there are people who are opening up places in LA and Detroit to community gardens and community agriculture. However, we have basic problems with infrastructure that must be addressed if cities are to continue to remain viable places to live. We operate our cities on incredibly complex, but very, very brittle systems of transport that are, increasingly, operating with less and less support for the infrastructure that makes them possible. I have serious doubts as to how long our cities will be viable in how we have developed them.
In my own case I am developing good working relationships with my local earth, the earthvaettir, and landvaettir, vaettir otherwise, as well as the Gods and Ancestors. I am living as a good member of my society, providing for my family and developing ways to live in better concert with the Earth. I am doing all I can to be a living example in how I live with Her. I am pushing my local governments and cities to do more to get off of fossil fuels and generate our own energy through less environmentally destructive mean. I encourage people to explore their own local options, especially where their impact can be felt keener and firmer.
This, I think, is a lot of where polytheism and animism meets our proverbial road in life. In how we live our lives. In our daily interactions with our Gods, Ancestors, vaettir, and one another. The worldviews of polytheism and animism informs how we understand ourselves in the world, how we identify within our human communities, and how we live our lives accordingly with the values we live by. The foundations of our worldviews tells us what we consider ‘alive’ and ‘ensouled’ how we live well with all that lives and souls within us, and around us.