The natural animism of children

The last few years have brought great changes in my life. Nearly six years ago now, my wife and I had our first child, a boy, and three years later, we had a girl. It has totally turned my life upside down, and made things far more complex in some ways, but far simpler in others ; I have found that my previous concerns and priorities have often vanished, or been demoted in importance. My ideas of fulfilment and pleasure, of love, have been overhauled. It may seem a coincidence that the very same period has seen my worldview evolve significantly, but in fact they go hand in hand; as a young man, I was what you might call a materialist existentialist atheist. I believed that the material was all that existed, that there was no God or higher power, that there was nothing beyond the visible, that brain-chemistry dictated the functioning of mind, that death was the definitive end of existence, and that science would eventually explain everything. This was not a deadening and over-rational creed ; the great fact of mortality informed my existentialism. I was all about embracing the briefness and transience of life, of living life to the full because there was nothing else beyond it, of marvelling at the complexity of nature and the galaxy. 

But things gradually shifted. My ongoing fascination for the occult and the weird became more and more important ; strange and inexplicable events began to follow each other, and shifted my perspective ; eventually, I began to explore magical knowledge and to practice magical arts. But what has finally accomplished my complete shift in beliefs and way-of-being has been having children, and learning about the world from their perspective. 

I think it perhaps no surprise that my discovery and embrace of animism has come about through the experience of becoming a parent. Of course, there as many ways to find this path as there are journeying people along it, and I don’t mean to say for a second that you need to have children to “get it”; not in the slightest. It’s just that this was what changed me. I was a particularly solipsistic, self-involved young man: stuck in my own head, over intellectualising things, deeply committed to my own being, and perhaps sometimes a little unaware of others, unwilling to recognise them and fully see them. Though I had often experienced a great feeling of numinous well-being in Nature, I did not seek it out very much ; I was a committed city-dweller, dedicated to culture, to art, to learning : to the products of the human mind and spirit. I did not much consider other spirits, or the living world around me. But when our son was born, suddenly the focus of my attention was decentred. Suddenly, I was not the most important thing in my life, and nor were books or cultural achievements, professional or intellectual success. Suddenly, there was a tiny creature who depended utterly on my wife and me, who was apprehending the world completely new, who had to learn everything, and experience everything for the first time. It was in those early months with him that I seemed to realise that my Self was permeable, that I was a creature of Nature, that nothing mattered but protecting and nurturing this tiny being ; that Relationship was about so much more than talking (which has always been my favourite thing). That communication did not have to be verbal. Suddenly, my existential crises about work and career vanished : it was just a job. Just go and do it, then come home and take care of your son. There were moments, in that time, when I held him close to me as he drifted off to sleep with comfortable little sighs, where I would begin to drift between waking and sleeping myself, and a warm glow of the most profound and simple happiness would envelope me, and I would realise that I had never experienced this kind of uncomplicated happiness and love. Of course, as he grew, things became more complicated. With the arrival of his sister even more : one child focuses all your attention, two is a whole dynamic of displacement and making space. For those who say they love their children all the same : it can’t be true. They are so different from each other, and the love you have for them cannot even be compared, from one to the other. But as they’ve grown, they have been a source of joy, frustration, anxiety, laughter, hope, desolation … And I’m sure they will continue to be that, for all my life. 

But the thing that I’ve perhaps learned the most from them, the thing that I’ve suspected and wondered about, and doubted, is that as very young children, it seems our natural state is that of living in a fully enspirited world. There’s a sense in which we both think this automatically, in Western culture, and perhaps, for those of us who embrace animism as a philosophy, we also shy away from it. For of course, since the nineteenth century and the founding of ethnology and anthropology, particularly influenced by Edward B. Tylor’s schema whereby humanity evolves through stages, from Primitive, to Barbarian, to Civilized, there has been a tendency to associate animism with the Primitive stage of development, and to transpose this evolutionary model onto human maturation, and thus link Savagery with Childhood, innocence, purity, ignorance, lack of sophistication, crudeness. These ideas are now outdated, and indeed are revealed as fundamentally racist, imperialist, and imposing a teleological notion of progress on other cultures, with White European civilization as the pinnacle towards which the arc of history bends. When these ideas first gained currency, monotheistic Christianity was assumed to be the height of civilization; of course rational materialism ended up getting rid of that god too, and for a certain section of educated Western people, atheism became the logical endpoint of humanity’s philosophical progress. I was a product of this worldview myself, and find it no surprise that a young White European at the end of the twentieth century should come into adulthood believing that there is nothing beyond the material, that there are no higher powers, no spirit world, no life after death, and living in the hope that science would solve all problems, explain all things, eventually. But in the new century, there has been an assault on rationality from all sides, both from philistine suspicion of science and experts, and from sophisticated philosophical and scientific exploration of the furthest reaches of the possibilities of consciousness and reality. So perhaps we are able, now, to come to a point where our kneejerk reaction to animist belief, conditioned by Western society, is no longer to consider it primitive and childlike in a derogatory fashion, but rather to have a more nuanced view as to the surviving examples of very ancient tribal cultures, lifeways, and cosmologies : they are emphatically not less sophisticated, nor are they “less developed”. The pejorative use of the word “primitive” implies that it is necessary and desirable, and indeed the only option, for a culture to “progress” along the road that we in the West have taken, that is to say, towards the materialist, capitalist, urban, atheist, consumerist, resource-guzzling, planet-destroying orgy that our lives have become. Obviously, there is much pushback to this now. And equally, perhaps we might look at the ways of apprehending the world displayed by children, and ask ourselves what we might learn from them. Just because a mature adult’s ways of dealing with the world are more “developed”, more “progressed”, does not in fact necessarily make them superior. And indeed, our process of maturation is often one of indoctrination by the dominant culture of rationalist materialism, one of disenchantment, one of loss and impoverishment. Of course, ever since the Victorians “invented” childhood, and made a cult of worshipping its purity and innocence, people have wondered about the lessons we might learn from children; but they are not by any means all sweetness and light and purity – indeed, the very idea that sweetness and light and purity, unadulterated, are desirable in themselves is also one we must be rid of. 

My son learned to talk slowly, falteringly. This is quite common in bilingual children, and of course we didn’t worry about it, but it gave me pause. I was a very early bloomer, speaking fluently before I was two years old ; I’ve never shut up since, people tell me. My precocious speech and highly sociable, fast-learning aspects were fundamental to who I was ; I expected any child of mine to be the same. It was strange to have a child who did not resemble me in this, who spoke very little, who was shy and hesitant, who was not ahead of the curve in development. It was even more strange to have a child whose first language is not my own. He learned his mother’s tongue first, as it was the one spoken all around us outside the home, and only later did he begin to speak fluently in English. But language was what I had, and language and story was what I shared. Ever since he was a little tiny baby, I have told him fairy tales and long involved invented stories. When his sister came along, and they shared a room, I would lie beside him and whisper him stories in the dark, so’s not to wake her. “Stories in the Dark” became a large part of what we shared. That, and the unspoken language of touch, and tenderness. And in our sharing of the space of story and imagination, we learned to share our world, and his world and mine got closer to each other. 

Ever since he could say words, my little boy has been fascinated with the Wolf. He showed up in the fairy tales, and in his children’s books under a variety of guises. In the crèche, they would all run screaming into a corner, shouting that the Wolf was coming. The Wolf would hide, beneath the bed, and in the dark corner of the room, in the utility closet at the bottom of the stairs in our apartment building. He would roam in far off woods, always ready to come get us. Blanket forts would keep him out ; Papa has a stick that he can hit the Wolf with, should he attack. Don’t worry, I’ll protect you. I’m here. You have nothing to be scared of. But of course he does. The Wolf was his first encounter with the mysterious, the strange, the unexplained : in this case, Loss, Entropy, Death. The Wolf was what you were scared of. The Wolf was what lurked in shadows. The Wolf was what would eat you up. And the Wolf-Spirit was perhaps what was in Papa, when he roared, and was frightening ; the Wolf-Spirit was in you yourself, when you were possessed by anger. My son would fear the Wolf, be fascinated by the Wolf, would play at fleeing and hiding from the Wolf, and would be the Wolf himself. The Wolf-Spirit is a Totem, of the Dark Side of things. He is not a Devil. For he is also ourselves. He is nearly six now. He still speaks about the Wolf. But now he knows the Wolf is our friend, even if he scares us. 

It went much further than that though; I’m sure it’s common to be afraid of the Big Bad Wolf, and I’m sure it is both natural and fed to our children in their diet of fairy tales ; Bruno Bettelheim, in The Uses of Enchantment argues for a need to tell these stories, especially those that deal with loss and fear, as ways of giving children symbolic means of dealing with these formless, terrifying things. I’m told by those who know that Bettelheim is looking a bit outdated now, and indeed I’ve read more up-to-date and historically documented work on fairy tales (Marina Warner, for example), but I think his core insight is valid : these stories are good for something. And the world in which they place the child, the one of talking animals and archetypal figures, of fairies, witches, and quests, is one in which the spirits of the world are present and conscious. Of course, we insist very much on the childishness of fantastic and mythical fiction, and we encourage young people, as they grow up, to “put away childish things”, and to stop dallying with the Primitive ways of thinking and being. But what if we don’t insist too hard on their divesting themselves of fantasy? What if we nurture their instinct to treat the world as peopled by invisible presences, and to treat all Nature as full of non-human persons?

My daughter, by contrast, learned to speak very quickly, typically for a second child, who can emulate the older one, and must compete to make their place. Early on, when she was in the stage of asking for the names of things, she did not learn how to say “what is that?” first, but rather “who is that?” ; everything was a who, everything was a person. I did not correct her, and I brought her to visit certain trees, and place our hands lovingly on them, to sit with the Menhir in the woods and commune with it, to speak to it with respect and affection. We place gifts for the Hidden Folk among the flowers outside our door. 

Both of my children come with me for walks in the woods, and we speak of the characters that loom large in their imaginations, that have half come from stories they’ve heard, films they’ve seen, and half from their own inner worlds. My son seems to have created a whole cosmology of powerful gods and spirits around him : he speaks of going to visit the powerful, frightening King of the Dragons, in his rocky fastness ; we have discovered the Hill of the Horned King of the Forest, and lain down in his bed, we see the tracks of giants across the landscape, and he gathers offerings to give to the Witch in her Pool. We had no religious ceremonies at their births, and we have never really spoken to them about the common elements of monotheism that we were both raised with : God, Heaven, Angels, Saints, Sin, the Devil. But we have not overtly replaced them with anything else. However, as my own journey has gone on, I have begun to speak to them, in simple words, about the Land and the Spirits that inhabit it. And I have participated wholeheartedly in their imaginary games. For it seems to me that they have access to an in-between, a place of belief and not-belief that resides in the zone between imagination and reality; when they speak of the personages and creatures that inhabit their dreaming world, they are not making a clear delineation between the real, the concrete, and the fantastical. They are able to live with that doubleness, that inexplicable, unproveable experience of the world. When my daughter finds a snail and carries on a conversation with it, or my son explains to me his complex cosmology, in which there is a Sky Father that engendered him, and who has lost him, and been imprisoned somewhere (has he discovered Gnositicism?) ; when he tells me of his many brothers who have died, or of people he used to be “before”, I do not dismiss these as the babbling of a child with what used to be called an “overactive imagination” ; rather, I think of what Jung called “active imagination”, in which we travel into vision and experience things and entities independent of ourselves. I think of Henry Corbin’s concept of the Imaginal, the realm of that which is both accessible to the imagination and also true. When my son tells me one of his long, involved stories about adventures that he’s had, or shows me in tender touch what lies beyond the power of words to express, or my daughter shows me the immediate and embodied reality of eating a hailstone, when she speaks with a power of intuition and strange knowledge far beyond her years, I realise that to have these children is a series of lessons in how to apprehend the world – a world in which everything is enspirited, and we are fully embodied in a world of senses, and we live in the twilight realm between imagination and the sensible. 

To read more from Malachas Ivernus and his band of malcontents, see

Ivernus has been studying the occult and the weird all his life, and inscribing spells and stories in leatherbound books since he was very young. A devotee of wild, ancient, and lonely places, a speaker to spirits and practitioner of magic, he has recently felt the call to minister and mediate between this world and the Otherworld, and has found himself on the Path of Druidry … only to discover that he had been walking it all along, and only now looked back and seen where he was coming from.

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