Skip to main content

to anthropomorphize or not

Michael is interested how mythology, religion, culture, and language impact both individual and collective perceptions and decisions.

Primavera, by Botticelli

Primavera, by Botticelli

To anthropomorphize or not -- that is the question

to anthropomorphize or not to anthropomorphize

what do we see when we look into the natural, non-human world?

My friend Steaphanaidh wrote:

Here are two paragraphs from Paul Kavanaugh’s blog which relate to the book “The Lost Words”:

Words are powerful things. They can protect and defend against charlatans and liars, but they can also cast spells that bewitch and betray. Boris Johnson’s greatest sin is is his sin against language. He uses words not to illuminate, but to distort and deflect. He didn’t tell us about his bus making hobby in order to inform us, but so that whenever someone Googles Boris and buses they’ll be confronted with articles about his confection of models from cardboard and not pieces about the lie about £350 million for the NHS that he had painted on the side of the leave campaign’s tour bus. As if by magic, the bus that’s a danger to his ambition vanishes.

Words are living things, they are creations of the soul of humanity. The druids, the priesthood of the ancient pagan Celts, believed that words were sacred. The Gaelic word for soul, anam, is descended from an ancient Celtic word that originally meant breath. So our pagan distant ancestors believed that it was sinful to write words down, because by writing a word down you deprived it of the breath that gave birth to it, and in doing so you risked destroying its soul. A word that was written without respect for truth was a murdered word, and murdered words contain the potential to become a lie that lasts forever, a dark magic incantation that builds a world of untruths.

Following this quote, she then she went on:

“I continue to be interested in my theory that most non-indigenous people see animals and plants as objects. Little difference between an artificial plant and a living pant, for example. That generalizes to about everything, including other humans, as objects to be used. Indigenous folk are “accused” of anthropomorphizing a tree, for example, as having thoughts and feelings. The Song “Heartwood” (in the Spell Songs) recounts the thoughts of a great tree as it is cut into lumber. The tree is not experiencing its death as an insensate object of our desire for a chair. So, I thought I would ask is there is a word or concept in Gaelic for anthropomorphize?”

Not to make too big a point of my contribution to this exchange, I responded,

Stephenaidh a choir (Dear Steph)

Jean Sorensen writes in her Grammar of the Empire that the original authoritative “Dictionary [ by Samuel Johnson in the 18th century] along with the steadily increasing number of grammar books, alienated English from its contemporary speakers in ways not dissimilar to colonial linguistic practices” (63). Which is to say that writing and the fixing of language in print was part of a process by which language was stripped of its living soul — its ability to live, breathe, grow, mutate, change, and express — into a thing that had a single, uniform, enforceable form. The codification of English also at this time led to an alienation of English speakers from their own language in another way — some ways of speaking became acceptable, while others marked the speaker as somehow inferior; which point of view led to the English-language hostility towards not only other forms of speaking English, but all other forms of speaking.

Perhaps, too, this is the source of some cognitive dissonance when English-speakers look at Gaelic and insist on a one-to-one correspondence in meaning between English and Gaelic, or on a single meaning for a Gaelic word, because Gaelic is still more a spoken language more than a written, whereas English has been ‘nailed down’ and dissected through centuries of dictionary and grammar-writers (and readers), who refer to the canonical “truth” of the language on the printed page.

As William Wordsworth wrote, in his poem “The Tables Turned”:

Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books;

Or surely you’ll grow double:

Up! up! my Friend, and clear your looks;

Why all this toil and trouble?

The sun above the mountain’s head,

A freshening lustre mellow

Through all the long green fields has spread,

His first sweet evening yellow.

One impulse from a vernal wood

May teach you more of man,

Of moral evil and of good,

Than all the sages can.

Sweet is the lore which Nature brings;

Our meddling intellect

Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things: — 

We murder to dissect*.

Enough of Science and of Art;

Close up those barren leaves;

Come forth, and bring with you a heart

That watches and receives.

*The ‘murder to dissect’ refers to the process by which science at least in Wordsworth’s day led insisted on killing something, lay it out dead in a lab, and dissect it in order to discover its ‘truth. So, I wonder if there’s some truth in regards to language in this, as was recognized by the ancient Celts who forbade the writing down of the most scared “texts” (which weren’t ‘texts’ at all, actually).

In his book, The Alphabet vs. the Goddess, Leonard Shlain discusses how perceiving the world through the prism of a written text differs substantially from perceiving it and communicating about it through the living word, the spoken word. I suppose it is somewhat ironic for me to be discussing this — as I write, I read, you are reading this now — but think of the difference as that between a sung song, and a written list.

Writing tests to list and categorize; spoken language is holistic. It’s from writing that we get the Ten Commandments — all the ‘thou shalt nots,’ that is, the lists of ever more finely demarcated prescriptions for behavior and belief; spoken language gives us fables, myths, the discussions of Socrates, even the parables of Jesus. Written language tends to “dissect” in Wordsworth’s term; spoken (or sung) language, in contrast, enlivens.

It’s from the written word that we get disputations over minutiae: Is the Trinity three in one or one in three? In Gen 1, God creates plants, then animals, and then simultaneously creates man and woman. In Gen 2, God creates a human, plants, then animals, and later he divides the human into female and male. People have died over which is more important — faith or good works; one might say, gone to their graves pounding their Bibles to prove their point.

On the other hand, somebody like Jesus tells a story. Or the ancient Gaels sang a song that blessed the morning. Or, we can sing a song that laments a lost love, or celebrates a new found one. Nobody in a spoken culture argues them it was wrong to do this.

Certainly, we can do these things in writing, and many more, other valuable things (write down instructions, study science, research reality in a systematic way), but writing has that other function as well, and might well impress itself upon as a being in some way permanent, unalterable, an expression of eternal truth, rather than being as spoken words are, breaths of wind.

I tend to agree with you (though I’m not quite comfortable with the term “indigenous,” as I believe the word ‘otherizes’ some groups as being in some ways inferior, less dominant … and after all, everybody is ‘indigenous’ except maybe Anglo-anybody … Anglo-Americans, Anglo-Australians, Anglo-South Africans — it just depends where that group is indigenous to, for even the English are ‘indigenous’ to some place … ).

That said, there are different cultural worldviews regarding the relationship between humanity and nature: One most prevalent in the dominant Western/corporate society is that nature is composed of ‘things’ — indeed that nature itself is a ‘thing’ made up of other ‘things’ — a worldview within which neither earth nor creatures are seen as having a living spirit. (Some contemporary Christians adamantly deny that animals have souls, for instance — though some, most famously Pope Francis, affirm that they do, or at least dogs do, as they can go to heaven.)

But on your question of anthropomorphizing — you’re right that very often in the West — this is seen as a “pathetic fallacy” (‘pathetic’ in the sense of being emotional/sentimental, linked to ‘pathos’, or emotion). And as you say, the ‘enlightened’ ‘advanced’ West sees it as something that is something to be ‘accused’ of — because one is accused only of bad behavior.

The frame of mind of seeing the natural world as a mechanism, as a thing different from and alien to humanity, has long roots — I’ve long thought of them as going back as far as the biblical assignment of ‘dominion’ over the natural world to human beings. I’ve known Christians to pound the table (figuratively, if not literally), angrily denouncing the idea that the world is holy, that the world contains spirit — for what is anthropomorphizing than conceptualizing the spirit in something else in terms we can grasp?

Of course, one cannot blanket-generalize about all Christian thought. The Franciscans, after St. Francis of Assisi, warn against seeing these distinctions and teach that we are one with “creation,” as they put it (though I would still have issue with the “creation” part, but that’s another issue, perhaps). And there are amongst us today Christian environmentalists … though even in this, they believe that we should conserve the natural environment, but even then, they see the world as a thing apart, a thing we are charged to care for diligently.

This is a different way of looking at the relationship between humanity and the natural world than many other cultures, traditional cultures, which view that relationship as one of harmony, rather than domination, rule, sovereignty.

Everything depends upon mythology — the construction we make of the world. If we see the world as a flowering of the mother, as imbued with spirit — every rock, every tree, every lowly scrub to high-flying eagle as being possessed of a spirit — then we will treat that world differently than if we see the world as a mechanism, or as the 18th century Enlightenment philosophers put it, as a clock, designed by a great clock-maker, which however ingeniously designed and artfully crafted, was nevertheless just a cleverly fabricated machine.

The world as mechanism: the early modern-era scientist Descartes is said to have advised, upon a guest’s discomfiture at the howls of pain from a dog which Descartes was just then vivisecting, “Pay no attention to the noise. It’s just the squeaking of the machine.” So, all nature, all the natural world, is simply a machine, composed of cogs and wheels, devoid of spirit; even us: It follows from that, that people are just extremely complicated machines. It’s in this world view that to “anthropomorphize” is to see the world incorrectly, but not all languages have a word for ‘anthropomorphize’ — because the word can only exist in a language-culture which sees the practice of attributing spirit to the natural world as unnatural.

In a language-culture which does not draw stark distinctions between humanity and the natural world, there is no need for a word that stigmatizes doing so, because seeing the natural world as a seamless web is just seeing it the way it is. Some groups of Native Americans, for instance, regarded animals as “four legged people.” Their traditional myths center around characters such as Raven and Coyote. Traditional Gaelic culture saw the world as infused with spirit; looking at the Carmina Gaedelica, Carmichael’s collection of Gaelic prayers and hymns, one could not step out on a morning without being reminded of the spirit that infused and pervaded everything. Cat Stevens’ “Morning has broken” is derived from this tradition:

Morning has broken like the first morning

Blackbird has spoken like the first bird

Praise for the singing

Praise for the morning

Every story a culture frames tells as much about that culture — or more — as about the purported topic. Consider the fable of Beauty and the Beast. In the standard European version, the “beast” is ravenous, dangerous, hostile to humanity, whose curse is to exist as an animal. As the stories go, the “beast” is intrinsically different from the human whose shape has been transfigured. The beast’s salvation is to be returned to human form, upon which it is no longer hostile, dangerous, vicious … beastly.

But to answer your question, there is no word in Gaelic such as “anthropomorphize.” To illustrate this, I would refer to a cycle of stories that for me typifies at least some aspects of the Gaelic response to nature: the Selkie stories. These creatures, the Selkies, exist as both human and animal — that is, as seals. Their trial is that they are made to live as human for a while, and while they love and are loved, they long to return to their natural habitat, which while different, is not by nature inferior or “bad.” Very often the humans who treated the Selkie kindly is rewarded with bounty from the natural environment (better fishing, etc.). The resolution of the story has more to do with living in harmony with nature, than lording dominion over nature. You might say the Gaels in this anthropomorphized the seals, and by extension all of nature, to which I would respond: No, it’s not that we humanize nature when we anthropomorphize, but that we naturalize ourselves.

Selkie on the Rocks, Herbert James Draper

Selkie on the Rocks, Herbert James Draper

Related Articles