Selling God: An Animist View of Idolatry
While browsing eBay, I came across a listing for a god. A god! How do you sell a god?
I am sure that the seller thought it was a quaint, backwoods, third world souvenir, but to the household that has a relationship with that god, it’s life. It’s sacred. It’s not something that can be sold for decoration. If you want to understand this, you have to step out of the western world view.
In the Judeo-Christian world, idols are a no-no. The third commandment in the Bible says, “You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in the heavens above, the earth below, or the water beneath. You shall now bow down to them or worship them.”
We also see this in the practice of this in Muslim mosques which are adorned with calligraphy and geometric shapes. They are completely devoid of plant, animal, and human depictions. Anything that can be construed as idol worship is absent in Islamic culture.
In contrast, the animist world has gods in the form of animals, animals who are guardians of the heavens and lower worlds, spirit animals, and totem animals. We also have animal-like hybrids gods like Horus, Pan, and Melek Taus. We make statues of our gods in humanoid form (examples Greek, Celtic, and Viking pantheons) and in animal form (Ganesha, Anansi). If the depiction is enlivened with the god’s spirit, it’s a god. So, if you want to have an understanding of an animist view of idolatry, it’s probably not a great idea to ask someone who sees it through a Judeo-Christian lens.
The Western View of Idolatry
Researchers, archeologists, anthropologists, and other learned outsiders call these manmade representations of the gods idols, fetishes, power objects, and charms. The descriptions of the associated practices are often demeaning and use language that shows a lack of understanding of what they are and how they are used. For example, in Lectures on the Philosophy of History, G.W.F Hegel says that Africans are incapable of abstract thought and their fetish objects are imbued with imaginary powers.
In animism, everything is relational. If you have no relationship to the spirit world, gods, the land, or the values of a community, I can see how you would have a different viewpoint. It doesn’t invalidate the way we animists see life.
Another misconception is that these statues are worshipped. While they are honored and respected, the hierarchy in the animist world isn’t the same as it is in the western world. Elders are respected for their wisdom. We honor veterans for their sacrifice. We protect children because they are vulnerable. Gods are honored for their contributions, too, but it’s not out of fear or because they are more important. Everything is special in its own way.
An Animist View of Idolatry
To understand an animist view of idolatry (I say “an” animist view because I don’t pretend to speak for all animist cultures), you have to start from the belief that everything is sacred, alive, and connected. So everything has power whether it’s an object, person, or god. This power can be used for good or ill.
The gods and the people have a relationship also. They serve each other. When people don’t give tribute, the gods withdraw their favor. When the gods withdraw their favor, the people lose their connection to the divine. When people evolve and take on new values, new gods emerge. All life relies on reciprocity.
We also have to understand that there isn’t much separation between the Otherworld and the apparent world. They intermingle all the time. One is just as real as the other. What happens in one realm can impact the other, and communication between the realms is possible through thought and prayer.
So the god figures or statues are representations of that relationship between the Heaven (the realm of Spirit) and the Earth (the realm of Humans). When someone has a relationship with a god or gods, it’s a doorway to the divine. It may just be their own personal doorway, a gateway for the family, or the whole community. This engagement doesn’t require the use of statues or physical representations of the god, but it may facilitate it.
When we do ritual work, it starts in the imaginal (Air) realm with an idea or intention. It ends when we bring it into the physical (Earth) realm. So we are bringing the energetic or spiritual idea into the apparent world where we can sense it. That’s why we use idols – to make the gods part of our physical landscape. The more energy we give to them, the better able they are to manifest in this realm and be of use to us. What we do to them here impacts them there. When we treat our gods (idols) with respect and involve them in our rituals, we strengthen our relationship.
If a god reveals himself in the form of an animal, hybrid, or mythological beast, it doesn’t make him any less real. Everything has a nature and an energy. The physical form represents that nature and energy. Foxes have different energy than eagles. Gods take the form that best represents their energy.
Bringing Idols Into Your Animist Practice
If you want to bring the gods into your animist practice while using statues or images, you may wish to craft your own. In my culture, each family creates their own statues (or whatever they are. They can be any sort of object). Those statues stay with the family to guard and bless that house. When the children leave, they make new ones to take to the new house. If the family moves, the statues go with them. Or if someone dies, they can be passed to someone in the family who doesn’t yet have a pair.
They are never bought or sold because you can’t transfer the relationship with a god to someone else. You have to cultivate your own.
When you craft your own, you put your own love into the thing you are creating. It makes it stronger and more personal. You begin your relationship with the god as you bring the object to life.
Once your object is enlivened with your energy and the deities’ spirit, it is the god(dess) and shall be treated as such. You can figure out what your relationship looks like as that will be personal to you, but you cannot neglect it. You can’t dabble in meaningful relationships. They must be nurtured as you would your relationship with your child or your parents.
With the explosion of interest in animism, there are many examples of selling god by people who just don’t know better. Some people are mass manufacturing replicas. Animism is experiential and relational. It can’t be bought or sold. If you are sincere about exploring animism, put your ATM card away and just be. Ask questions. Listen. That will take you farther than your wallet.