The English word ‘spirit’ has its root in the word for “breath” (latin: spiritus) and translates many similar words in the Western tradition such as the Hebrew “ruah” and Greek “pneuma”. This connects an animal’s breath with its life and becomes a synonym for the active, vivifying essence of a substance. When we speak of a person being spirited we mean they are full of that life energy, an alcoholic spirit was seen as the active vivifying essence of a beverage. When applied to people their spirit became synonymous with their life essence which may live beyond the death of the body – hence the naming of ghosts as “spirit”.
When exploring the history of religions many scholars have observed that the primal human experience of the sacred is an experience of spirit within the world (animism). Spirit is seen not only in living things but also in the water, the mountains, the thunder and the stars. This gave our ancestors (and those who still follow this path) a sense of being immersed in the sacred. It also fosters a deep connection – people were seen as being able to communicate and influence the world around them as one spirited being to another. As all things had spirit and we were joined to their world through our own spirits they could be reached through ritual, through prayer, divination and through the holy ones – the shamans. Spiritual life flowed from the outer world to us and back again. The spirits in all things, the nyads and dryads of the Greeks, like all spirits had intention and consciousness even if it was wild and alien to our own and therefore could be appealed to act on our behalf.
This identification of spirit with life force is also central to Chinese religions from traditional religion to Taoism through the concept of “Chi”. The earliest way of writing “Chi” consisted of three wavy lines, used to represent one’s breath seen on a cold day and it is translated most often as life force. They also believed chi permeated everything and linked their surroundings together and likened it as well to the flow of energy around and through the body. Like the spirit in animism Chi connects all things – the classic Chines text of antiquity, the I Ching, concerned itself with how the individual can maintain an energetic interconnectedness through the smooth flow of Chi within yourself, your life and the world around you.
Of course spirit can do more than connect us to the rest of the world it also facilitates for us a connection with God. Spirit can be both a force of the divine or become part of the divine. In Christianity spirit becomes part of the trinity. When applied to God in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Holy Spirit becomes the active life giving force of the divine that creates, causes people to speak etc. So in the creation story in the book of Genesis God breathes his spirit, his life-giving essence, into humanity when he creates us. In turn the human spirit is often describes as that which is our own life giving essence. The Spirit of God then can be described as the aspect of God which is active in the world, giving life and energy
This can also be seen in Hinduism spirit is expressed both as prana (which like ch’i is a form of life energy) but also becomes expressed as skakti, the feminine creative life energy that is an expression of the goddess or is personified in regions as such as South India as Amma (mother). Spirit is more sometimes more closely associated with the feminine.
A similar dynamic is also found in American native religion. For the American Sioux “wakan” is understood as the power or the sacredness that resides in everything, every creature and object has aspects that are of “wakan”. The “Great Spirit” (Wakan Tanka) is the name they therefore give to God, who is the focus of that spirit present in all things. A participation in the spiritness of all things is for them a participation in the Great Spirit.
All of these are expressions of the spirit – they have differences yet much in common just as the archetype of tree covers a wide range of plants. A reminder of the rich diversity of expressions the archetypes gift us.