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ISSRNC/REDO - When Rocks and Plants are Persons: Ritual Innovation and a Reassessment of “Animism”

Panel Chair: Sarah Pike | Monday, August 24, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

This panel is a collaboration between the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature and Culture and “Reassembling Democracy: Ritual As Cultural Resource,” an international research project. The panel will build on sessions about animism and ritual that Harvey, Seamone, Salomonsen and Pike participated in at the AAR Meeting in 2014 and will include ethnographic research in the United States, Canada, India and Norway. Our cases explore the dynamics of animistic practices in both innovative and traditional contexts while critically evaluating the meaning of “animism,” a central category in the history of religions. Do Pagan environmentalists, for instance, practice animism in different ways than Hindu pilgrims in India? Re-theorisation of “animism” has encouraged scholars from many disciplines to reconsider ontological and epistemological issues. The panel will foreground questions of intersubjectivity, relationality and ritualization in the “new animism” debates and will explore their relation to issues of innovation and tradition.

Graham Harvey

Indigenous cultural events in an animate world

Riddu Riddu is an annual indigenous cultural festival organized by a Sami community in arctic Norway, attracting international performers and audiences. It could be conceived of as an aspect of efforts to reassert indigenous sovereignty and pride. Entertainment is an attraction of the festival but education and exploration of alternatives are also evident. The “new animism” provides one lens through which to reflect on aspects of the cultural curriculum of the festival. Based on ongoing fieldwork, this presentation considers expressions of indigenous knowledges that might be labeled “environmental” or “shamanic” but may be better understood as relational interactions between human and other-than-human persons. Examples might include greetings mediated by headline Maori performers between Oceanic mountains and rivers and those of the festival venue; workshops and seminars offered by “shamans” and other ritualists; and responses to wider regional acts (including the violence perpetrated in southern Norway in July 2011).

David Haberman

Ritualized Means of Negotiating the Human-Nonhuman Boundary

I have been researching Hindu worshipful interaction with natural phenomena in India that are considered to be essential forms of divinity: sacred rivers, specifically the Yamuna; trees, specifically the pipal, neem and banyan; and mountains, specifically Mount Govardhan. Although there are distinctive features in the worship of these three phenomena, they also share the following: they employ strategies of personification in negotiating the boundary between these nonhuman phenomenon and human worshipers. I am particularly interested in the devotional tendency to intentionally anthropomorphize the nonhuman as a way to cross this boundary to more powerfully honor and establish deeper connections with the nonhuman world. I will focus primarily on the ritual practices of worshipers of Mount Govardhan, who decorate stones from this sacred mountain considered to be living forms of divinity with eyes and other facial features, dress them, and sometimes add arms and legs, thereby creating a humanlike divine appearance.

Sarah Pike

Animism and Biophilia in the Rituals of Radical Environmentalists

The emotions that motivate radical environmentalists often develop through powerful, embodied experiences with non-human beings during childhood. These experiences involve the blurring of boundaries between human and tree bodies and the projection of human emotions onto forests. Various factors shape activists’ rituals, such as embodied memories of childhood, including speaking with and climbing in trees, and contemporary Pagan beliefs in nature as sacred and animate, which borrow from traditional indigenous knowledges in the context of a new religious movement. Ritualized actions such as creating sacred space at forest action camps and sitting in trees with nooses around their necks both construct and reinforce earlier emotional and physical relationships with trees as sentient beings. This paper analyzes activists’ constructions of nature as animate and sacred in order to understand the ways in which bodily and emotional experiences of childhood shape adult ritual performances in the spiritually charged context of radical environmentalism.

Donna Seamone

Eco-Agri-Pilgrimage to the Corn Maze Performance: An Exercise of Cross-Species Sociality?

This investigation engages the” New Animism,” a performance approach to ritual—especially efforts to account for active, agentic subjects—and eco-ethnography by focusing on a particular ritualized performance read here as a ritual assembly amongst humans and other-than-human persons. Ethnographic focus is on annual corn maze festivities on a family farm and farm market in Nova Scotia. Emerging as a small-scale effort five years ago, this corn-as-maze, now draws hundreds of visitors per day. Farmers invent and perform acts of engagement and self-display. Urban dwellers act as pilgrims/tourists, seeking out rural experience of life-ways and food-ways. Corn, usually regarded as food, for either persons or animals, becomes agent and host to “eco-agri-pilgrims” who make the journey meet, discover, visit the plants. How do these meetings create new cultural conditions for identity, habitation and community building? Or, what possibilities does this ritualized intersection/assemblage create amongst human and more-than-human persons?

Paul-François Tremlett


Paul-François Tremlett will respond to the issues raised in this panel.


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Open Sessions

Thematic Outline

University Map (pdf, 192 KB)