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Evy Johanne Håland - Review of Nicola Laneri and Anna Perdibon, editors, Sacred Nature: Animism and Materiality in Ancient Religions

Evy Johanne Håland - Review of Nicola Laneri and Anna Perdibon, editors, Sacred Nature: Animism and Materiality in Ancient Religions

Ancient architecture, symbols, and mythic creatures

The archaeologist Nicola Laneri, and teacher of religion and anthropology, Anna Perdibon, both working at the School of Religious Studies (Camnes, Florence), as Director and Assistant Director, respectively, have edited this book, which is the second volume in a series on Material Religion in Antiquity. The book under review originated from a workshop held in Florence in 2021. It contains an introduction, followed by seven chapters dealing with the topic of sacred nature in various ancient and modern societies.  

The introduction by the editors deals with “sacred nature: animism and materiality in ancient religions,” starting with a quote from Tim Ingold’s 2000 study stating that “both humans and the animals and plants on which they depend for a livelihood must be regarded as fellow participants in the same world” (87), which “is at once social and natural” [1], an appropriate statement in an era which steadily sees the importance of environmental studies.  

The editors begin by asking what sacred nature is today, and what it was for ancient people, arguing that approaches combining religious studies, anthropology, and ethnography are valuable tools to investigate the multiple relationships ancient human communities in the Old and New World had with their local environments (viii). To do this we learn that animism is a central topic, and the editors next provide a reassessment of old and new animism, from Edward Tylor to Graham Harvey, who also is a contributor to the present volume, arguing for the acknowledgement of personhood in all parts of what we generally see as the nonhuman natural world, such as mountains and trees and human artefacts.

Inspired by Harvey, the new animism the enthusiastic editors argue for, thrives especially when researching material religion (ix). Nature is here seen as a relational community of other-than-human beings (an expression borrowed from Harvey), and “sacred nature” is seen “as a relational model in which the other-than-human beings are inextricably involved with humans in constructing modern and ancient cosmologies” (xiv). The contributors to the volume employ this approach in their own material encompassing several places of the world, from North America, via Asia, to the Middle East and the Mediterranean.

The first contribution, Graham Harvey’s “Before Nature: Perspectives from New Animist World-Making,” employs this definition of animism to show how the discussions about modern and animist ways of making and relating to the world may clarify ancient worlds. Harvey is concerned with showing that modernists and animists do not see mountains, rivers, and other entities differently, but the first see them as nature while the animists see them as communities of kin, arguing that the term nature is dissonant and distracting in an other-than-modern world-making. The key term in his research on animist world-making is “relationality.” This is interesting, but to abandon the term nature may perhaps be a bit problematic when dealing with ancient Greek sources, such as Plutarch and Strabo, who see nature as a female entity. According to Plutarch, for instance, the goddess Isis is the female principle of nature. He also deals with the dark female nature (physis), which controls everything, and explains how nature affects women.

The second chapter, “Watercraft as Assemblage in the Western Arctic,” is written by Erica Hall, who explores actual watercrafts through ethnohistorical and ethnographic sources. Reading her article recalls an excellent article written by Tok Thompson [2], and there is no doubt that animism is a useful tool when dealing with Native Americans’ understanding and approaching animals as persons and their boats or watercrafts as object-beings, the latter being critical components of the maritime North American toolkit, comprising driftwood and animal skins and constructed by men and women. Hall shows how their watercraft, the umiaq, is provided with agency, mediating and connecting humans and whales within the world of water, ice, and land.

Chapter 3, “Between Realms of Being: Signs of Liminality in Ancient Altai Stone Monuments,” by Esther Jacobsen-Tepfer, brings us to the Mongolian Altai Mountains. She researches the pictorial texts of rock art and surface structures, arguing for a continuing belief in the spirits of mountains, springs, and rocks in the region. Focusing on late Bronze Age motifs of birthing women and hunting scenes, she presents a world engaged with life and death, which is, of course, not a new focus [3]. The two scenes indicate that when life is taken through the hunt, it must be replenished, illustrated by female figures who also guard the roads leading to the land of the dead. In addition to the material sources, she uses some ethnographic comparanda (44-5, which this reviewer would have liked to know more about), that reveal an understanding of the essential liminality between the natural world and human mythic space. Her view of mythic versus real works (47), though it might gain much by employing modern research on the topic, such as the Barbers’. [4]

In chapter 4, Seth Richardson takes us to the Middle East, exploring “In Mantic and Hostile Lands: Surveillance and Mimesis by Divination in the Late Old Babylonian Period.” Administrative texts show that sheep liver divination was practised to predict and inquire about human, especially soldiers’, movements through non-urban spaces from fortresses and camps to cities, since the outer territory was perceived as hostile and dangerous. The liver is seen as a map of the unpredictable landscape, composing a cartographic system inspecting a living landscape crowded with allies and enemies. He argues for a “particular homology between divination and landscape as a form of ‘sacred nature’: a relational cosmos in which human, animals and the land were” communicating “in a single analogistic system of meaning” (63).

Chapter 5, “Nymphs or Trees? Some Remarks on the ‘Animistic’ Interpretation of the Homeric Hymn to Aphrodite, vv. 256-272,” is written by Doralice Fabiano, who challenges the general interpretation of nymphs as “tree spirits” (72-3), since the life of the nymphs obscures the borders of life and death, and is closely interwoven with that of the tree. We learn that the nymphs are mortal goddesses, since they are born and die as the trees sprout and dry out. Comparing the hymn with later inscriptions from two caves dedicated to nymphs, she argues that vegetation is important in engaging with and representing the goddesses. She considers trees as “a sensible ‘double’ of the nymphs…a material object making” the deities “visible for mortals” (73). The association between trees and nymphs demonstrated in gardening is a way of cultivating relationships with the deities, since taking care of plants corresponds to the “care” people owe deities. The act of planting reflects the fact that nymphs as local deities are grounded in a specific territory as are the natural elements and they are therefore thought to “root” individuals in the distinct territory (78-80). They were kourotrophoi (“youth rearing”), thus indicating the parallel between children and plants.

As a scholar also working on ancient Greece, I welcome her concluding remark that animism shows the tendency to “humanize” the non-human world (79), and started thinking on a conference at the École Pratique des Hautes Études/UNESCO in 2006, where this topic was discussed. Animism was non-problematic for the Asian participants, but the Europeans were not so enthusiastic about the term, so we discussed the possibility to substitute it with a “biocentric” analysis. On the other hand, one cannot reject the fact that the ancient Greeks created their goddesses and gods in their own image, although they also appeared as animals, birds, water, and, for instance, trees and other plants [5]. Nonetheless with the anthropomorphism or assignment of human shape and attributes to the deities, everything in the extra-human natural world was associated with human beings, something we can observe in the Greek context since we have more sources than usual, and, of course, this view is “homocentric” or “anthropocentric,” although perhaps to a lesser degree than the term “other-than-human-person,” which is used by most participants in the present volume. Overall, the conclusion of Fabiano’s article is good, and I can only regret that she does not use a gyno-inclusive approach to the material, which indeed begs for it. Furthermore, regarding her assertion that trees were the double of the nymphs, paralleling statues of deities in cultic contexts (77), one may, however, mention that we have several sources demonstrating ancient people conceiving the deities as being synonymous with their statues and even talking with them, much like modern people in the region consider saints to reside in their icons and statues.

Chapter 6, “The Dawn of the Potnia. Reception and Re-presentation of an Archetypal Model in Protohistoric Peninsular Italy,” by Valentino Nizzo, discusses the social life of images and objects. Drawing on the idea of objects as agents with their own history and changes in meanings and roles, and ability to interact in different contexts, he analyses the indigenous Italian bird and solar boat motifs along with the iconographic record of the Near Eastern and Greek Potnia (Lady of the animals) and the Despotes hippon (lord of the horses). By examining this material, the article seeks to understand the cultural and religious dynamics of interaction among the protohistoric population of the Italian peninsula, central Europe and the Mediterranean world in the eighth century BCE, arguing that through the assimilation with the eastern repertoire the Italian motifs lost their original meaning and function.

In chapter 7, Mari Joerstad examines “Responsibilities, Obedience and Righteousness: Other-Than-Human Creatures in the Hebrew Bible” by analysing texts such as Genesis 1 and Leviticus 18-26. She argues that nonhuman life forms, including plants, trees, water, animals, and the land, actively participated in the divine cosmos, and the authors of the relevant texts saw no sharp distinction between human and nonhuman responsibilities. “Divine responsibilities are understood in a relational fashion, and responsibility is never individual” (117): “Every creature depends on every other creature to fulfil their obligations. When one creature fails, everyone suffers" (111). As the editors maintain, her contribution presents the Biblical worldview as ecological and ends by questioning “what this interpretation of the Bible might mean in restoring environmental justice in” our time (xiv).  

As mentioned, the book is the second in a series on Material Religion in Antiquity, although all the articles do not deal with ancient material. This is not a drawback. After all, ancient sources only give us the possibility of interpreting ancient society, not of entering it: ancient society exists only in our minds, because the sources are signs from another cultural context and not identical to it. Therefore, most scholars agree that it is difficult to use an emic perspective on ancient sources, as Fabiano maintains she does (79). Nonetheless, comparative approaches are highly important and especially by using material from other cultures than the modern Western one. In short, the book is an interesting read in our global era.

Unfortunately, there are some editorial shortcomings: I would urge both the editors and especially the publisher to invest in proofreading, especially the articles written by scholars who are not native English speakers. This especially concerns the introduction to this book series. An index to the work is also missing.  


[1] Tim Ingold, The Perception of the Environment. Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling and Skill. London/New York: Routledge, 2000.

[2] Tok Thompson, “Listening to the Elder Brothers: Animals, Agents, and Posthumanism in Native versus Non-Native American Myths and Worldviews.” Folklore: Electronic Journal of Folklore 77 (2019): 159-198.

[3] Compare inter alia Chris Knight, Blood Relations: Menstruation and the Origin of Culture. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1995 (1991).

[4] Elizabeth J. Wayland Barber and Paul T. Barber, Then They Severed Earth from Sky: How the Human Mind Shapes Myth. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004.

[5] Evy Johanne Håland, Greek Festivals, Modern and Ancient: A Comparison of Female and Male Values, 2 vols. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2017, see, inter alia, Vol. 2: 46, 93 and 213.


[Review length: 1972 words • Review posted on November 19, 2023]