Non-Agentive “Power”

Not long ago I was having an enriching dinner conversation with Stewart Guthrie, former Chair of the Fordham University Anthropology Department and author of Faces in the Clouds: A New Theory of Religion (1993), a seminal book in modern evolutionary religious studies. Naturally, we were discussing his theory that religion arises from our strong cognitive tendency to anthropomorphize. Because human agents, both real and imagined, are central to this theory, I observed that anthropomorphic agents and agency are not always foundational to thought-action systems that are often characterized as “religious.”

As examples, I pointed to Native American hunter-gatherers whose cosmological conceptions are oriented around the idea that the world is suffused with inchoate “power” and that such power is non-human, incorporeal, and non-intentional. This power, often glossed as a “great mystery,” is never fully understood, grasped, manifest, or controlled. It is a force or energy that flows, permeates all that is, and which constitutes all things. The Lakota know it as wakan, the Crow as maxpe, the Shoshoni as puha, and many Algonkian tribes as manitou. In this post on the kinetic nature of animist worldviews, I discussed it in more detail.

Most of my examples were drawn from nomadic hunter-gatherers, although many Algonkian tribes (especially those east of the Mississippi) were village horticulturalists first and hunters second. While recently reading Preston Holder’s classic, The Hoe and the Horse on the Plains: A Study of Cultural Development among North American Indians (Landmark Edition) (1970), I came across these passages which bear on the discussion:

The Pawnee and Arikara village bundles were the basis for the control and production and social relations within villages. The bundle itself was a skin envelope enclosing physical symbols which were used as devices for the recall of complex elements of religious ideology and ritual (42).

The continuing life of the village was guaranteed by powers within the bundle, forces derived from a pervasive ocean-of-power investing the universe. The idea is exemplified by the Pawnee term tirawahut, so often translated as “God” or “Heaven.” A close etymological analysis indicates a meaning nearer to “this which expands” or “this expanse.” In this light we can more easily understand the comment offered by the Skiri White Man Chief on being shown the endless expanse of the Atlantic ocean: “It was like God” (43).

Regardless of these interpretations, the idea of an incorporeal power surcharging the universe was present…especially in connection with bundle renewals, where it is often mentioned also as “Luck.” There is abundant reference to the same idea among the Arikaras (43, n.16).

It is often said, in the ethnographic literature, that “primitive” societies had no notion of luck or randomness and that everything was assigned an agentive or “superstitious” cause. Indigenes supposedly had no idea, akin to our own statistical ideas, that things can happen for no particular reason, or for probabilistic reasons that we do not really understand. We call this “good or bad luck” and “chance” — matters of being in the right or wrong place at the right or wrong time. As is apparent, these older ethnographic ideas (or prejudices) are incorrect: the Caddoan Pawnee and Arikara had similar ideas.

And speaking of the Pawnee and bundles, this past summer I visited the Pawnee Indian Museum and Historic Village Site in northern Kansas near the Nebraska border. It’s an impressive place, located in the lush Republican River valley, surrounded by gorgeous grasslands and rolling plains. The village site can clearly be seen and portions have been excavated. The large ceremonial structure was so archaeologically impressive that they built a museum right over the excavated floor. It’s one of the more beautiful settings and museums I’ve seen, made even more so by the presence of a sacred Pawnee Village bundle which has never been opened and cannot be photographed. With Pawnee songs being piped in the background, one feels the presence of mystery.


Interior of Pawnee Village Museum — Excavated Floor of Structure surrounded by Exhibits


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10 thoughts on “Non-Agentive “Power”

  1. Steve Lawrence

    Here’s another statement of what Iroquois religion held: “According to Lewis H. Morgan, their religion is characterized by a monotheistic belief in an all-powerful creator known as the “Great Spirit”, or “Ha-wen-ne-yu.” “The Iroquois believed in the constant superintending care of the Great Spirit. He ruled and administered the world, and the affairs of the red race.” (1954,146). The Iroquois failed to see the need in developing a detailed conception of their creator. This knowledge was thought to be above and beyond their capabilities to understand. His power was administered to the material world through “a class of inferior spiritual existences, by whom he was surrounded.” (1954,147). While divine attributes concerning the Great Spirit remained undeveloped, the Iroquois gave detailed descriptions of this lower class of spirits that interacted with the material world. The were known as “Invisible Agents….” The Apache, on the other hand, seemed to believe more in a power; a shaman was able to tap that power for healing purposes, but one does not get the idea that the power is a being or god or God who performs miracles or not upon request. My guess: there were many religious conceptions; no one describes all, or possibly even most.

  2. Cris Post author

    The Iroquois are an interesting and probably unusual case given their early and sustained contact with the Jesuits and New York colonists. When talking about the Iroquois, it’s probably always best to specify a time frame because there was a great deal of culture change beginning in the mid 1600s and thereafter. The appearance of the Seneca religious leader, Handsome Lake (1735-1850), is certainly testament to this complex history. Generalizing about that history is problematic, and Morgan (as an originator of anthropology) probably had only a very partial view of these matters. The use of pronouns like “he” and “monotheism” certainly strike me as western interpretations or impositions.

  3. Bob Wells

    As someone who is trying to develop an animistic mind (an extremely difficult thing to do for a Westerner) the problem is trying to use the intellect to comprehend that which can only be intuited. The question of the intrusion of “deity’ into your daily life is central to the effort. Of course at the core is adopting a non-personal and yet personal deity.

    To the Western mind that sounds ridiculous! The clearest intellectual understanding is the Taoist concept of Yin and Yang. Deity is both impersonal and personal in an infinite co-creation of reality. You can speak of intention and design without an individual intender or designer behind it. The Tao that flows through all, energizes all, designs all, and yet is NOT an individual and cannot be comprehended.

    Luck and intentional design are not opposites and not contradictory any more than male and female are contradictory, they are a continual blending and movement of one thing

    Everything occurs just as it should, but sh*t happens. If there is design, there must be its opposite, chaos. And yet even in the chaos, there is always design and in the design there is always chaos.

    That’s unacceptable to the Western mind, but its intuited by the natural mind.

  4. Cris Post author

    Bob, apropos to your observation that “luck and intentional design are not opposites,” Darwin himself struggled with this issue and opined that randomness and purpose are not necessarily at odds, and perhaps even compatible, depending on the perspective one adopts. He also noted that such perspectives are always contingent and dependent upon one’s particular inquiry. It sounds suspiciously post-modern but it’s classical Darwin!

  5. GregJS

    Joseph Chilton Pearce, in some of his books on the evolution of intelligence, uses the Greek term stochasm – “randomness with purpose” – to talk about how nature seems to fulfill certain innate tendencies (like a tendency to push beyond limits or boundaries) through apparently random means.

  6. GregJS

    Maybe you can save me doing the research by answering a question or two. I’m somewhat surprised at the idea of hunter-gatherers conceiving of themselves living in a universe that is primarily or fundamentally impersonal. Is that what you are suggesting is the case with some of the Native American groups you mention? Or is it only that, in addition to whatever personalist cosmological views they may have, they also have a conception of an impersonal animating power?

    I can best put it in terms of Hinduism. Even personalist forms of it have conceptions of impersonal fundamental forces and phenomena, like Brahman, shakti, karma, dharma, rita (although even some of these have some qualities of personhood attributed to them – like Brahaman, conceived of as “Being-Consciousness-Bliss (Sat-Chit-Ananda); shakti conceived of as the “consort” of male principles).

    Do the Native Americans you are referring conceive of the animating power – waken, manitou, etc. – as having any qualities that might be seen as personal? Or do they in other ways view reality in personal terms? Like, are their creation stories at all personal in nature? Or, you talked about how village bundles “were used as devices for the recall of complex elements of religious ideology and ritual.” Did those religious ideologies have any personalist elements (and I mean at the level of fundamental principles)?

    The idea of impersonalist hunter-gatherers is throwing my whole conception of things into turmoil!


  7. Cris Post author

    Sorry about the delay Greg. You anticipated my affirmative answer to the first question when you said: “Or is it only that, in addition to whatever personalist cosmological views they may have, they also have a conception of an impersonal animating power?” These concepts run parallel or alongside one another.

    But the fact remains, and it is often overlooked, that these cosmologies usually contain a significant (perhaps even foundational) component that is non-agentive, non-anthropomorphic, and non-intentional. This power or force can, at times, manifest in ways that are personal and can be influenced by way of personal actions, but absent those ways the force/power is always at work or present. It’s like a flowing river that can be tapped for personal purposes or reasons, but when not being so tapped it still flows. This latter flowing is impersonal.

    I think the bottom line is that these cosmologies have personal aspects and impersonal aspects. At times, those may be intermixed or intertwined, but at other times they may be conceived separately and as working independently of one another.

  8. GregJS

    Thanks, Cris – although I can’t say you’ve restored order to my tidy little categories (which is fine – any sort of order usually only lasts a few days-weeks anyways). If some Native Americans view non-agentive, impersonal forces as foundational, then maybe that makes them more akin the impersonalist Hindus for whom impersonal Brahaman is at the foundation of their cosmologies – even though they recognize that Brahaman can display personal qualities and can be interacted with in a personal way. I’ve tended to assume that this impersonalist conception was a later development to the original indigenous tribal cosmologies which were animist-personalist (i.e., “everything is a person”) and which eventually coalesced into early, personalist forms of Hinduism. But maybe this whole scheme isn’t right and impersonalism has deeper, older roots than I had thought.

  9. Bob Wells

    I hope you’ll forgive me for throwing in some thoughts. I think pure Taoism is a great example of applying reason to intuitive animism. It concludes that “The Tao that can be named, is not the Tao.”

    The Western mind wants to name, parse and classify while the animistic mind simply doesn’t care and knows that whatever the force is that drives the universe and our lives cannot be identified. And if it is identified as “personal” or “non-personal” or male or female, that certainly is not what it is. Whatever name you apply to it, it is NOT that thing.

    It is accepted and embraced, never identified. It is Wakan, the Great Mystery. It is the opposite of a religion.

  10. GregJS

    That’s good, Bob. Really good. And the thing is, I must’ve heard that line from Lao-tse and other truths similar to it – and nodded my head in agreement with them – countless times. And yet, there goes my Western mind hanging on for dear life to its categories. Between what you and Cris are saying, a less rigid picture is forming for me: why not allow that hunter-gatherers/animists (and others as well) simply allowed reality/the world/the cosmos to be whatever it is; and why not allow that they equally simply resounded to it in a fluid, natural way, without trying to pin it down as this or that. (I say “simply” knowing that I can’t seem to do it myself – at least not for more than about 10 seconds.)

    Sure, there are times when our mental categories are helpful, and there are times when it’s helpful to tease out personalist or impersonalist or any other strains of thought/ideology; but I was definitely getting stuck in a rut. So thanks for that bit of breathing room from my mind, however long it lasts before it goes and latches onto something else.

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