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Laughing at the Spirits in North Siberia: Is Animism Being Taken too Seriously?


In social anthropology, we have seen a development away from studies of the so-called old animism, in the traditional sense of E. B. Tylor, toward what Graham Harvey has referred to as “the new animism.” Central to the approaches of new animism researchers is a rejection of previous scholarly attempts to identify animism as either metaphoric—a projection of human society onto nature as in the sociological tradition of Emile Durkheim—or as some sort of imaginary delusion, a manifestation of “primitive” man’s inability to distinguish dreams from reality, as in the evolutionary tradition of Tylor. Instead, the scholars concerned—including Philippe Descola, Nurit Bird-David, Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Tim Ingold, Morten A. Pedersen Aparecida Vilaça, and Carlos Fausto—each in their own way seek to take animism seriously by upending the primacy of Western metaphysics over indigenous understandings and following the lead of the animists themselves in what they say about spirits, souls, and the like. By “taking seriously,” I simply mean taking seriously what the indigenous people themselves take seriously, which the old studies of animism certainly did not.

In my book Soul Hunters, I pushed in the same direction, arguing along phenomenological lines that animist cosmology is essentially practical, intimately bound up with indigenous peoples’ ongoing engagement with their environment. Accordingly, animism is nothing like a formally abstracted philosophy about the workings of the world or a symbolic representation of human society. Instead, it is largely pragmatic and down-to-earth, restricted to particular contexts of relational activity, such as the mimetic encounter between hunter and prey.

This take on animism certainly has its advantages. First, it reverses the ontological priorities of anthropological analysis by holding that everyday practical life is the crucial foundation upon which so-called higher activities of thinking or cosmological abstraction are firmly premised. In addition, it allows us to analyze animist beliefs in a way that is compatible with the indigenous peoples’ own accounts, which tend to be based on hands-on experiences with animals and things rather than on abstract theoretical contemplation. In other words, by going down this phenomenological path we would, for the first time, be able to take seriously the attitudes and beliefs that indigenous peoples have about the nature of such beings as spirits, souls, and animal persons and their relationships with them.

However, while it may at first appear to require no further comment, I want to question the empirical grounds on which anthropologists claim that the indigenous peoples take their own animist beliefs seriously. We may ask whether the new animist studies are overstating the seriousness of the indigenous peoples’ own attitudes toward their spirited worlds. It is exactly here that we begin to glimpse the problem that motivates my writing this article. I am no longer convinced that seriousness as such lies at the heart of animism. Quite the contrary, it seems to me that underlying animistic cosmologies is a force of laughter, an ironic distance, a making fun of the spirits which suggests that indigenous animism is not to be taken very seriously at all. I think that we are facing a fundamental yet quite neglected problem here, and I will begin to explore it by drawing attention to a somewhat puzzling episode from my own fieldwork among the Yukaghirs, who are a small group of indigenous hunters living in northeastern Siberia.

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