While the term “animism” refers to a broad range of spiritual beliefs (many of which are still extant within human cultures today), it does not denote any particular religious creed or doctrine.
Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Animism (from the Latin: animus or anima, meaning mind or soul) refers to a belief in numerous personalized, supernatural beings endowed with reason, intelligence and/or volition, that inhabit both objects and living beings and govern their existences. More simply, it is the belief that “everything is conscious” or that “everything has a soul.” The term has been further extended to refer to a belief that the natural world is a community of living personas, only some of whom are human. As a term, “animism” has also been used in academic circles (such as research provided by essayservice.com) to refer to the types of cultures in which these animists live.
While the term “animism” refers to a broad range of spiritual beliefs (many of which are still extant within human cultures today), it does not denote any particular religious creed or doctrine. The most common feature of animist religions is their attention to particulars, as evidenced by the number and variety of spirits they recognize. This can be strongly contrasted with the all-inclusive universalism of monotheistic, pantheistic and panentheistic traditions. Furthermore, animist spirituality is more focused on addressing practical exigencies (such as health, nourishment and safety needs) than on solving abstract metaphysical quandaries. Animism recognizes that the universe is alive with spirits and that humans are interrelated with them.
Animism as a Category of Religion
The term “animism” first entered academic discourse through anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor’s 1871 book, Primitive Culture. In it, Tylor used the term to refer to any belief in mystical, supernatural, or non-empirical spirit beings. Animist thought, Tylor proposed, was religion in its most inchoate form, serving as a starting point for human religious development. Thus, so-called “primitive” cultures (such as hunter-gatherers upholding these beliefs) were merely expressing a reduced form of religiosity compatible with their supposedly low level of technological and spiritual development. In this evolutionary model, these societies relied on animism to explain the occurrence of certain events and processes. However, he argued that as a people’s technological thought progressed, so too did their explanations for events in the physical world. As societies advanced from “savagery” to stages of “barbarism” and eventually to modern civilization, Tylor believed that they subsequently inherited (or developed) more complex beliefs, such as polytheism, eventually culminating in the supposed pinnacle of religious thought, monotheism.
At the time that Tylor wrote, his theory was politically radical because it made the claim that non-Western peoples (that is, non-Christian “heathens”) do in fact have religion. Despite this progressive conclusion, Tylor’s use of the term “animism” was indubitably pejorative, as it referred to what he conceived to be an inferior form of religion. As a result, his usage of the term has since been widely rejected. Today, the term animism is used with more respect and sensitivity to the obvious viability of tribal peoples and their spiritual beliefs. It is now commonly accepted that religious beliefs function emotionally and socially, rather than purely for the purpose of intellectual explanation—an assumption that is far more illustrative of Tylor’s Western biases than of any truths concerning the tribal peoples he studied.
Still, many thinkers do not categorize animism as a form of religion at all. They argue that animism is, in the first instance, an explanation of phenomena rather than an attitude of mind toward the cause of those phenomena. Thus, animistic thought is more philosophical than strictly religious. For these thinkers, the term is most conveniently used to describe a quasi-religious practice in which people endeavor to set up relations between themselves and the unseen powers, conceived as spirits, but differing in many particulars from the gods of polytheism. While “full-fledged” religion implies a sense of humility within humans before the gods, anthropologist Sir James G. Frazer claimed that animism involved an attempt to gain temporary ascendancy over spiritual forces through the use of magic. Animism could hardly be categorized as religion, then, since it was primarily a utilitarian act for personal and societal gain. Further, unlike the polytheistic gods, animistic spiritual entities were seen to be more general and functional in their character, as they generally lack a deeply developed mythology. Thinkers holding that animism is not a religion claim that with the belief in more “departmental” gods comes the development of polytheism, and henceforth what is considered to be full-fledged religious thought. For these theorists, polytheist beliefs supercede the elemental spirits of the animist worldview.
In contrast, those who argue that animism is a religion focus upon the fact that, even in magical rites, a form of worship is directed toward the spirits identified by the animist. Even after the acceptance of polytheist religious beliefs, the elemental spirits that were the focus of magic rites are often reinterpreted as “lesser gods.” Their help and intervention is sought, sacrifices are made, and their instructions (often received through divination) are obeyed. Thus, these thinkers proceed to claim that animism embodies the ritualistic features of religion, and so should be considered as such. Also, many argue that utilitarian and ritualistic elements are present in most forms of religion (especially in prayers or supplications), a fact that does much to negate the argument posited above.
Common Features of Animism
Existence of Souls or Spirits
The cornerstone of animistic thought is the affirmation of the existence of some kind of metaphysical entities (such as souls or spirits) that are seen as the life-source (or life-force) of human beings, animals, plants and even non-living objects and phenomena. For animistic cultures, the existence of these entities (with their respective operational and volitional qualities) provides explanations for the innumerable changes witnessed in both the natural world and the human world.
In animistic thought, the human spirit or soul is often identified with the shadow or the breath. This identification between the soul and the shadow can be seen in Tasmania, North and South America, as well as classical Europe. Similarly, the Basutus of Lesotho hold that a man walking by the brink of a river may lose his life if his shadow falls on the water, since a crocodile may seize his soul and draw him into the current.
More familiar to Europeans is the connection between the soul and the breath. This identification is found both in Indo-European and within the linguistic roots of the words in Semitic languages: In Latin, breath is spiritus, in Greek pneuma, in Hebrew ruach, and in Sanskrit prana, all words which also have spiritual connotations. This idea extends to many other cultures in Australia, America and Asia. Other common conceptions identify the soul with the liver, the heart, the blood or even with the reflected figure outwardly visible in the pupil of the eye.
As the soul is often understood as a metaphysical, indwelling presence, it is not surprising that, for many animist cultures, unconsciousness is explained as being due to the absence of the soul. In South Australia, wilyamarraba, a term that refers to the state of being without a soul, is also the term used for that which cannot be perceived with the senses. Similarly, the auto-hypnotic trance of the magician or shaman is causally attributed to their visit to distant regions of the netherworld: they are in a senseless trance because their souls are literally elsewhere. Similarly, sickness is often explained as occurring due to the absence of the soul, requiring a healer to take measures to lure back this vagrant spirit. In Chinese tradition, when a person is at the point of death, their soul is believed to have left their body. Typically, the dying individual’s coat is held up on a long bamboo pole while a priest endeavors to bring the departed spirit back into the coat by means of incantations. If the bamboo begins to turn round in the hands of the relative who is responsible for holding it, it is regarded as a sign that the soul of the patient has returned.
More common than these aforementioned phenomena is the importance placed upon the daily period of sleep in animistic traditions. The frequent images included within dreams are interpreted in many cultures to illustrate the fact that the soul journeys while the body rests. Dreams and hallucinations were likely central to the development of animistic theory in general. Seeing the phantasmic figures of friends and other chimaeric, night-time apparitions may have led people to the dualistic separation of soul and body that is common within animistic traditions. Of course, hallucinatory figures, both in dreams and waking life, are not necessarily those of the living. From the reappearance of friends or enemies, dead or living alike, primitive man was likely led to the belief that there existed an incorporeal part of man, which existed apart from the body. Furthermore, if the phenomena of dreams were of such great importance for the development of a theory of human souls, this belief was also expanded into an overall philosophy of nature. Not only human beings but animals and objects are seen in dreams, and therefore it is possible that animists concluded that these entities also had souls.
Souls or Spirits in the Natural Realm
In many animistic cultures, peoples respect and even worship animals, often regarding them as relatives. In some cases, animals were seen as the spiritual abodes of dead ancestors. It is probable that animals were regarded as possessing souls early in the history of animistic beliefs. The animist may attribute to animals the same sorts of ideas and the same mental processes as himself or they may also be associated with even greater power, cunning, or magical abilities. Dead animals are sometimes credited with knowledge of how their remains are treated, and potentially with the power to take vengeance on the hunter if he is disrespectful. Among the Inuit people of Northern Canada, for example, various precautions are taken in all stages of a hunt so as not to offend the hunted animal. Such an offense could lead to bad luck in the future of the hunter who carried out the improprietous kill, furthering the notion that—at least in some animistic cultures—animals may possess spirits independent of their bodies, comparable to those attributed to humans.
Just as souls are assigned to animals, so too are trees and plants often credited with souls, both human and animal in form. All over the world, agricultural peoples practice elaborate ceremonies explicable within the framework of animistic principles. In medieval Europe, for example, the corn spirit was sometimes viewed as immanent within a crop, while other times seen as a presiding deity whose life did not depend on that of the growing corn. Further, this spirit was often conceived in some districts as taking the form of an ox, hare or cock, while in others taking that of an old man or woman. In the East Indies and Americas, the rice or maize mother is a corresponding figure; in classical Europe and the East we have in Ceres and Demeter, Adonis and Dionysus, and other deities linked to vegetation whose origin is most likely similar to that of the corn spirit. Forest trees, no less than cereals, were also seen, by some cultures, as having their own indwelling spirits. In Bengal and the East Indies woodcutters endeavor to propitiate the spirit of any tree which they have cut down. As well, in many parts of the world trees are regarded as the abode of the spirits of the dead. Just as a process of syncretism has given rise to cults of animal gods, tree spirits tend to become detached from the trees, which are thenceforth only considered to be their abodes. Here again it is evident that animism has begun to pass into forms of polytheism.
Some cultures do not make a distinction between animate and inanimate objects. Natural phenomenon, geographic features, everyday objects, and manufactured articles may also be seen as possessing souls. In the north of Europe, in ancient Greece, and in China, the water or river spirit is horse or bull-shaped. The water monster in serpent shape is an even more pervasive image of the spirit of the water. The spirit of syncretism manifests itself in this department of animism too, turning the spirit immanent within natural forces into the presiding djinn or local gods which arose at later times.
The Spirit World
Beside the doctrine of separable souls with which we have so far been concerned, there also exists the animist belief in a great host of unattached spirits. These are not transient souls that have become detached from their abodes; they are, instead, concrete realities with their own independent existences. These spirits are often considered malevolent, and, in this fashion, take on monstrous or animalistic forms. For example, among the Ojibwa people of Minnesota and Ontario, the spirit world was populated with a great number of evil spirits that existed among the esteemed ones: monsters, ghosts, and most notably the Wendigo, an ogre which consumed human flesh and was said to cause psychosis. Typically, spirits of these types manifested themselves in the phenomena of possession, disease, and so forth. Along with such conceptions of spiritual evil we also find the idea that spirits of the deceased can also be hostile beings, at least at first. After extended durations of time, the spirits of dead kinsmen are no longer seen as unfriendly. As fetishes, naguals, familiar spirits, gods or demi-gods, they may even come to enter into relations with man. The fear of evil spirits has given rise to ceremonies of expulsion of evils, designed to banish these entities from the community.
Because of the often-malevolent nature of such spirits, as well as the various ills that can befall the individual soul or the community at large, the animist community almost always develops a system of spiritual technology—Shamanism. Shamanism refers to a range of traditional beliefs and practices that are united around a common method: the use and control of spirits. While shamanism is often seen as a healing tradition, in some societies, shamanic teachings also include the ability to inflict suffering on others. Shamans have been credited with the ability to heal illnesses, control the weather, curse enemies, divine the future, interpret dreams, and project themselves astrally (including the ability to travel to upper and lower spiritual worlds). Regardless, shamanism and animism are intimately inter-related: animism provides the religio-philosophical framework and shamanism provides the techniques and technology for controlling (or at least harnessing) these forces.
Survival of the Dead
Most animistic belief systems hold that this spirit survives physical death. In some instances, the spirit is believed to pass into a more leisurely world of abundant game and ever-ripe crops, while in other systems, such as that of the Navajo religion, the spirit remains on earth as a ghost, often becoming malignant in the process. Still other systems combine these two beliefs, holding that the afterlife involves a journey to the spirit world upon which the soul must not become lost. This journey entails much wandering as a ghost. The correct performance of funerary rites, mourning rituals, and ancestor worship were often considered necessary for expediting the deceased soul’s completion of this journey.
Further, in many parts of the world it is held that the human body is the seat of more than one soul, some of which allow a person to survive after death. Among the peoples of the island of Nias, for example, four are distinguished: 1) the shadow and 2) the intelligence, (each of which die with the body), as well as 3) a tutelary spirit, termed begoe, and 4) a spirit which is carried on the head. These latter spirits survive even after death. Similar ideas are found among the Euahlayi of southeast Australia, the Dakotas of North America, as well as many other tribes. Just as in Europe the ghost of a dead person is held to haunt the churchyard or the place of death, other cultures also assign different abodes to some of the multiple souls. Of the four souls of a Dakota, one is held to stay with the corpse after death and another in the village, while a third goes into the air and the fourth goes to the land of souls. In the land of souls, the fourth spirit’s subsistence may depend on its social rank in its worldly life, its sex, or its mode of death or sepulture. Numerous other factors from its worldly life, such as whether or not its funerary rite was properly observed, also affect its status in the spirit realm.
From the belief in the survival of the dead arose the practice of graveside rituals such as the offering of food or lighting of fires in honor of the dead. While this may have occurred at first as an act of friendship or filial piety, it later became an act of full-fledged ancestor worship. Even where ancestor worship is not found, the desire to provide the dead with comforts in the future life may have lead to the sacrifice of wives, slaves, animals, or other living beings, as well as the breaking or burning of objects at the grave or even to such provisions as the ferryman’s toll, where a coin or coins are put in the mouth or eyes of a corpse to pay the traveling expenses of the soul. In animist societies, the reverence for the dead is not finished with the successful passage of the soul to the land of the dead. On the contrary, the soul may return to avenge its death by helping to uncover injustices or identify murderers, or simply to wreak vengeance for itself. There is a widespread belief that those who died a violent death become malignant spirits and endanger the lives of those who come near the spot where they died. For example, in the Malaysian culture, the stillborn child or the woman who dies in childbirth becomes a pontianak, a spirit who threatens the life of human beings. As a result of such spiritual threats, people resort to magical or religious precautions in order to repel their spiritual dangers. In the case of the pontianak, Malaysians put glass beads in corpse’s mouths, precluding the baneful cries of their spirit.
Contemporary Examples of Animism in Human Culture
The number of cultures that have upheld animist beliefs is almost impossible to report accurately, as the belief system has been held in its various iterations by innumerable cultures throughout history. Despite Tylor’s description of animism as a mere “stage” that all religious belief must pass through, numerous cultures have held on to animist beliefs and practices, often for many thousands of years and despite considerable technological advances. Numerous tribal and hunter-gatherer cultures maintaining ancient lifestyles have also maintained animistic beliefs, and many still exist in the contemporary world. Today, animists still live in significant numbers among tribal peoples in countries such as Zambia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gabon, the Republic of Guinea Bissau, Indonesia, Laos, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Russia, Sweden, and Thailand, as well as the United States and Canada. Although the religious beliefs vary immensely between each of these cultures, they all hold to the basic tenet of animism—that there is a plurality of souls, spirits or consciousnesses.
Modern Neopagans, especially Eco-Pagans, sometimes describe themselves as animists, meaning that they respect the diverse community of living beings with whom humans share the cosmos. Modern Neopagans are commonly concerned with the relationship between human beings and the environment, as is typical in animistic cultures. Not only is the relationship with nature a part of their spiritual awareness, but Neopagan activist groups often also take action in the political sphere in order to uphold environmentalism. Many Neopagans combine this social activism with their ritual magic in an attempt to put their environmental goals into action. There are currently many Neopgagan activist groups around the world, dedicated to various causes.
More generally, Neopagan ritual shares many features with the shamanistic rites of the classic animist cultures. For example, rites of passage, like most forms of Neopagan ritual, take place within a sacred circle. While different variations on circle casting exist, most circles are oriented with the cardinal directions that are commonly associated with forces of nature: fire, water, air, and earth. Some Neopagans address the specific spiritual powers of a particular direction, while others address animistic forces such as the “winds.” Much like the contacts made between the shaman and the many spirits, Neopagans commonly invoke specific gods and goddesses, who are invited to be present in the circle or else embodied within participants. During the ritual, participants are often led on an “astral journey,” during which they visualize another realm of existence, not unlike the spirit realm discussed within numerous animist cultures. The presence of deities, journeys through other worlds, and the resulting shifts in consciousness all contribute to participants’ experience of the rite.
The New Animism
Animist thought has also been philosophically developed in modern times by animistic thinkers in order to promote its continued survival. In an article entitled “Animism Revisited,” Nurit Bird-David builds on the work of Irving Hallowell by discussing the animist worldview and lifeways of the Nayaka people of India. Hallowell had learnt from the Ojibwa of southern central Canada that the humans are only one kind of ‘person’ among many, as there are also ‘rock persons,’ ‘eagle persons’ and so forth. Hallowell and Bird-David discuss the ways in which particular indigenous cultures know how to relate to particular persons in nature. There is no need to talk of metaphysics or to impute non-empirical ‘beliefs’ in discussing animism, they claim. Rather, what is required is an openness to consider that humans are neither separate from the world nor distinct from other kinds of being in most significant ways. The new animism also makes considerably more sense of attempts to comprehend totemism as an understanding that humans are not only closely related to other humans but also to particular animals, plants, and inanimate objects. It also helps by providing a term for the communities among whom shamans work. That is, they are now considered to be animists rather than shamanists. Shamans are employed among animist communities to engage or mediate with other-than-human persons in situations which could potentially prove dangerous for un-initiated or untrained people. The highly academic classification of “animism” should not suggest an overly systematic approach. Rather, it is preferable to the term shamanism which has led many commentators to hastily construct an elaborate system out of the everyday practices employed by animists to engage with other-than-human persons.
Significance of Animism
Animism is an important category of religious classification. Not only has the term helped in the understanding of human cultures, but also provides insights into the current world. While animism is present in tribal cultures of Africa, Asia, Australia and the Americas, it is also subtly a part of the greater span of human consciousness. Although the belief that invisible spirits—such as demons, fairies and fates—animate nature has largely subsided in modernity, religious and philosophical systems that attribute powers of responsiveness to the surrounding world have not disappeared. In fact, the core beliefs of animism outlined above persist in decidedly non-animistic religions today. Even monotheist religions such as Christianity and Islam, among others, proclaim the existence of human souls as well as spirits (in the case of angels). Virtually all religions believe in some sort of survival of the dead beyond earthly life, whether it be the judgment so important in the doctrines of the Abrahamic religions, or the doctrine of reincarnation so popular in the east. That said, the honor provided for the dead found in all faiths no doubt also arose out of animism. Finally, the sense of human relatedness with nature is becoming increasingly popular in contemporary religion as the importance of ecology becomes more and more of a political and spiritual issue. Thus, the tenets of animism can be said to have, at least in part, formed the bedrock of religion as we know it today.
- Bird-David, Nurit. 1991. “Animism Revisited: Personhood, environment, and relational epistemology”, Current Anthropology 40, pp. 67-91. Reprinted in Harvey Graham (ed.). 2002. Readings in Indigenous Religions (London and New York: Continuum) pp. 72-105.
- Hallowell, A. Irving. “Ojibwa ontology, behavior, and world view” in Stanley Diamond (ed.). 1960. Culture in History (New York: Columbia University Press). Reprinted in Harvey Graham (ed.) 2002. Readings in Indigenous Religions. London and New York: Continuum. pp. 17-49.
- Harvey, Graham. 2005. Animism: Respecting the Living World London: Hurst and co.; New York: Columbia University Press; Adelaide: Wakefield Press.
- “Systems of Religious and Spiritual Belief.” The New Encyclopedia Britannica: Volume 26 Macropaedia. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica Inc., 2002. 530-577.
Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 11.18.2016, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.