Animism in prehistory: Primitive Belief Systems in a Man-made World

“There’s religion on the one hand and good luck on the other. Religion makes you ‘good’, folklore brings you luck.” – Chilly (Charles) Lee, Romani gypsy of the Purrum clan.

Chilly Lee is a wildly passionate and forthright Romani man who I met through his cousin Jasper Lee. As an anthropologist, my interest in this unusual Romani family is from a modern tribal perspective as they have retained so much of their ancient folklore and clannish tradition. I have been lucky enough to study them, particularly Jasper due to his remarkable clan role of Chovihano (medicine man/holy man), on and off for about 4 years. Their traditions are exceptionally private and only on offer to the world under stringent conditions. I have had to prove myself worthy and sincere (‘good and true’ to use Chilly’s words) to the elders of the council (kris) in order that I may be trusted with some of their customary laws and rare myths which have been passed down the generations.


Folklore and animism

Folklore is the beliefs, stories and traditions of ancient or primitive people which interpret their everyday world, environment and their existence in a natural way. Folklore can cover a great many ideas, stories, myths and superstitions throughout time and across the globe but generally are regarded as quaint or naïve tales from a far simpler way of life than that of sophisticated modern culture.

Included in the great realms of folklore is the world of animism. Very basically animism is the belief that all things animate and inanimate have a spirit of their own and that there is no boundary between the physical world and the spiritual world. Within a culture today, animism in its purest form is a sign of a profound primitiveness, which we find only in remote tribes in the Amazon, Africa and a few other isolated pockets of the world. For primitive tribal people the world of animism and spirits is not a belief system, it is an experiential understanding of life itself and predates any religion which may exist in any culture today.

The evolution of animism

Tens of thousands of years ago, ancient people in Britain were also immersed in a dream-like world steeped in spirits and otherworldliness and where solemnity and ceremony was merely a glint in the eye of their Neolithic descendants. Primitive minds do not have the capacity for somber and formal ritual and we know that from observing primitive extant tribes today. Our ancient ancestors would probably laugh at some of our depictions of ancient people, earnestly making ceremonial offerings to their ancestors or important spirits. While offerings were made, the solemnity and gravity we seem to attach to these people’s beliefs are heavily religious attributes associated with more modern conceptual ideas of spirituality and should not be associated with ancient nomadic people who were very light-hearted and cheerful.

Although on the lead up to the Neolithic revolution from about 50,000 years ago there are numerous signs of the development of human consciousness and steps towards conceptualizing life (and death) such as the development of art, personal adornment and formal burials, the shift into agriculture and settlement is what truly revolutionized the human existence from a natural state to an artificial one. As we see in the Middle East during this time (the cradle of civilization and the global initiators of full scale sedentary agriculture), by introducing priests as ‘interpreters’ of the natural gods and spirits, this new powerful elite successfully managed to remove the ordinary people from their own ancient connection with all the natural deities through the use of power, intimidation and scare-mongering. The vast religious monuments such as the ziggurats and step pyramids were pronounced visual accessories in this social and economic revolution. We also see this happening all over Europe and in Britain with the Neolithic and Bronze Age glitterati imposing the same cultural intimidation at sites such as Stonehenge in Wiltshire and the Seahenge in Norfolk. This time throughout the world saw the rapid decline of a truly animistic lifestyle which can only exist within primitive, egalitarian social organization and which had previously existed unchanged for millions of years.

Moving on from there to the early Iron Age, Greek philosophers appeared to be the first to introduce the concept of spirit and matter being separate and by the 17th Century, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton had everyone believing that all physical matter is in fact ‘dead’. This evolution of scientific thought has followed our complex social development and so has in turn fuelled our spiritual development, but not because the monotheistic god of your choice evolved from an animistic view of the world. Rather, by separating spirit and matter, we then had to account for ‘spirituality’ in the likeness of the artificial social structure we had created, i.e. within the human realms of social inequality and complexity. Religion is a concept which cannot exist as a moral code for life within a community which is primitive and interprets life within the natural order and natural laws. It can only exist around the outside or as something altogether separate. This was Chilly’s beautifully succinct point, I think.

Modern tribal folklore

Chilly himself, being a Romani, has grown up around Christianity and religious attitudes generally which is not uncommon within Romani clans and families. Interestingly and most unusually (although not for Romanies) he also grew up in a world heavy with folklore and superstition (including animism) and according to him never did the two overlap. The folklore of his family is contained in thousands of years of tradition that has hardly changed as it passed down from generation to generation with great pride and secrecy. To go against the traditions of his family is deemed dangerous and socially irresponsible; you will attract bad luck not just for you personally but for everyone around you so you simply don’t do it. Christianity however is seen as an accepted wider social behavior that makes you into a ‘good’ person and accepted by the rest of the ‘gaujo’ (non-gypsy) community. It puts God as the giver of life and ethical dictator instead of nature.

Chilly remembers his great grandmother, an apparently formidable woman who was alive at the end of the 19th century talking about gypsies not as being social outcasts but being welcomed back to their regular stopping places as they had many skills to offer the community. He recalls her saying that the townspeople would regularly employ the gypsies to exorcise ghosts or unwanted spirits from houses or nearby land. They were renowned and accepted as being ‘lucky’ people and therefore had the power to rid the town of any unwanted supernatural activity, such as someone dying and not passing on properly. This was widely socially accepted behavior, mainly within the lower classes, even as recent as late Victorian. People believed in ghosts, in good and bad luck – superstition was normal and every day.

Patrick Jasper Lee, Chilly’s cousin and author of ‘We Borrow the Earth’, says that luck and destiny (bok) are the same thing. He says that good luck is so important to Romanies and primitive people alike because it puts you in touch with destiny, one of the most important and revered of all the natural spirits or Greater Ancestors as he refers to them. Jasper says Romanies, like ancient people, see life very simply; you are either with destiny or without it and if you are without it then you are ‘mokkado’ (impure or unclean) and will attract bad luck, shadow or ghost activity and hard times for everyone around you. This is where we get the word ‘mockers’ as in putting the mockers on something, i.e. bringing bad luck or jinxing. Good luck is not just about wanting things to go well for you, it is about keeping in with and honoring destiny which has the whole of existence in the palm of its hand. Traditional Romani clans like the Purrum clan refer to ‘the code’ (mokeriben) which is the hard and fast law of natural life which everyone and everything should adhere to otherwise luck and destiny will desert you. Mokeriben connects you with all other living things (not just other humans) but every natural thing, such as rock, water, earth, thunder, moonlight and sky – animism, therefore, is at the very heart of it.

Many primitive, animistic tribal people, such as the Nayaka tribe of Southern India and the Navajo in North America, perceive everything around them as the same as them, as their kin – a tree, the wind, a stone – everything in their natural environment which they interact with becomes a close and important relation, a member of their family and therefore something that requires respect. This way of blending with everything around you ties in with the very essence of primitive tribal existence which does not encounter individuality like we do. In a tribe everyone’s motivation is sourced externally from the same place rather than from an inward and intensely personal realm. Primitive people have no ‘inner’ realms; thoughts, emotions and ideas are all expressed and on view for the tribe to see. Hidden thoughts or behavior that does not blend with the tribe and the natural laws would be a matter for the medicine man or shaman, as it still is in Jasper’s clan!

The New Age

In contrast, the heavily civilized realms of the new age movement and neo-pagans also attempt to bring animism into their religious belief systems. Druidism, an abstract ideology, a modern cult derived from 18th century Masonic writings, combines priestly activities with a ‘religious’ animism into a singular, conceptual belief system. Many druidic groups claim druidism as Britain’s proto-religion which would place them in Britain in the early Iron Age at least. However, the conformity and organization of these heavily ceremonial and formal groups vastly contradict the primitive animistic tribe which is light-hearted and extremely modest. Druids, if they were here in 500BC would have certainly been at war with the wild nomadic tribal clans who were fighting (since the Neolithic revolution) to retain their traditional, nomadic and purely animistic way of life. I would suggest that prehistoric Britain has more in common with traditional indigenous Romani folklore than with religious druid cults.

The reason for stories

Those who experience a primitive animistic existence clearly have their hierarchy in the natural world around them and in the invisible otherworld rather than in their own complicated physical and social organization. This results in a clear, demonstrative humility towards the natural world which does not otherwise exist in human spirituality or religion. Many primitive tribes such as the Native American Ojibwa in Canada have no word for the abstract concept of ‘nature’ and interestingly neither does the Romani language. Nature is only a concept to those who are remote from it and look upon it from somewhere else.

Primitive people continue to act out their stories, just as ancient people would have done, so they end up not even being stories any more but their simple, everyday actions. This is where Jasper’s ‘destiny’ spirit resides. The ancient stories allow an interpretation of life which is natural and where destiny can take part and keep you on the straight and narrow as a part of the whole picture. Without the stories you are able to veer away into something else which is unnatural and therefore removed from the hand of luck and destiny and therefore life itself. To Romanies this is a very dangerous place to be as you are then on your own to make of your life what you will and in grave danger of becoming a ghost (mulo). You are ostracized from nature and from the otherworld and if you are in a clan you would be ostracized from that too, a heavy penalty. To primitive or ancient people this is the worst kind of death, this is soul death and many tribes that exist today think that modern civilized humans, particularly white people, have veered so far away from nature that we have entered the realms of non-existence, never to be reunited with our souls or with nature. The Purrum clan myths also state we are currently living in the 6th age of man; the age of ghosts (muloskana).

The idea or belief in ghosts exists in almost all primitive tribes. The !Kung bushmen in Africa are hunter gatherers who demonstrate very little formal ritual and they bury their dead rather casually in a shallow (ish) grave and mark it with a stick or a rock, not so you know where your loved one remains but so you can avoid it! Certainly no-one would visit the person there as it is thought that the dead person could get aggravated and come and hound the tribe and bring sickness and bad luck. The Amazonian Pirahas believe that all white people are ghosts as they have no blood in them. An old Romani custom is to plant a thorn bush on a person’s grave to ensure their spirit doesn’t rise up and come home looking for their dinner. The name of a person after they have died must never be used (it would often be changed temporarily) for a period up to a year and their favorite food would not be cooked. All these things are done out of respect, in order to help them pass on smoothly to where they need to go next. I asked Jasper what he thought of the 9/11 memorial where annually every single name of the 3,000 victims is read out. He said that by doing that, the spirits of those people are being held there in that place and not being allowed or helped to move on; letting someone you love go when they die helps them to let go themselves. It is also traditional for Romanies to burn the belongings of someone who has died and many a burning caravan has been reported to the fire brigade which has rushed to put them out not realizing that they’ve been set on fire intentionally.

The Amazonian Pirahas are one of the most wholly primitive hunter gatherer tribes in the world today. Their interpretation of life is completely animistic and their existence has a beautifully dream-like quality due to their physical existence being very light and their ability to conceptualize non-existent. They believed that one of their children who caught malaria got it because they stepped on a leaf and a spirit from the lower-world got in and made them sick. To us, this is a typical, primitive folkloric story, a version of which many hunter gatherer tribes across the world share, but to them it is harsh reality. Their natural interpretation of life means they don’t have man-made medicines and therefore their child is very likely to die. However, it also means they retain their primitive cultural originality so they can’t encounter or even imagine the infinite problems of our complex conceptual living, that which is unnatural and cannot sustain itself.


So, is it possible to experience an animistic world without having a primitive or prehistoric mind? I would say no if it wasn’t for Jasper and Chilly and their extraordinary clan. How can a modern self-conscious mind which has been brought up with classical Newtonian physics and a religious attitude manage to experience the world as alive and full of spirits which we can’t see? Tim Ingold of Manchester University and author of ‘The Appropriation of Nature’ states, “For the Ojibwa, the self or person exists as a function of one’s actions, not as an internal, mental unit……. No physical barrier separates mind from world;”. Surely this is an impossible experience for individuals in complex societies to get back to considering the remoteness from the natural world, tribal life and the natural laws which abound that existence.

Jasper says that we have long been conditioned not to see the spirits and it is our complicated modern psychology that gets in the way of seeing and experiencing things as they really are. Chilly blames industrialization, technology and the fact that people don’t want to be in the care of destiny any more, they want more and more of everything they don’t need.

Perhaps it is also the case that these spirits have been hidden from us. Could it be that they have been removed from our perception so that we are sealed off in a purely material dimension for their own protection as we have lost the right to share a world with them considering the limitless dominance we impose upon the natural world? Considering nature gives us the gift of life itself, as a species, what is our contribution, or exchange, to her in return?

Further reading

The Human Past, Chris Scarre (2005)

We Borrow the Earth, Patrick Jasper Lee (2000)

The Appropriation of Nature, Tim Ingold (1987)

Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes, Daniel Everett (2008)

Okibwa Beliefs, Irving Hallowell (1960)

The !Kung Rites and Beliefs, Lorna Marshall (2000)

Primitive Culture, Edward Tylor (1871)

Ancient Mesopotamia, Susan Pollock (1999)

Hierarchy in the Forest, Chris Boehm (2001)


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