Animism has had a long and important history in anthropology and outside it, as an intellectual concept with important implications not only for the study of religion, but also for the political struggles of indigenous peoples around the world. The anthropological study of animism has been a two-edged sword for indigenous people. It has brought their religious concepts, and thus their rich intellectual and spiritual lives, to the attention of the world, demonstrating the intrinsic value of their cultures. But to the extent that the apparent contrast between monotheistic and animistic religions has been exaggerated and used to create an artificial hierarchy of religious thought, it has also been used against them, to denigrate their beliefs and their intellectual capacities, and thus to deny them full equality with their colonizers.
The concept of animism first appeared explicitly in Victorian British anthropology in Primitive Culture (1871), by Sir Edward Burnett Tylor (later published as Religion in Primitive Culture, 1958). His writings are preceded historically by those of the Greek Lucretius (c. 96–c. 55 b.c.e.) and the Roman Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 b.c.e.), among many others. "The doctrine of human and other souls" or "the doctrine of spiritual beings" constitutes the essence of Tylor's theory. The doctrine of souls is based on the foundational doctrine of "psychic unity," which affirms that all people, everywhere, for all time (or at least the past fifty thousand years or so), have the same capacity to comprehend all phenomena in the known, observed, and imagined universe by use of their own cultural symbols and languages. Tylor regards Spiritualism as a modern cult that lacks panhuman motivations of animism.
The idea of animism is that in all cultural systems people experience phenomena—such as dreams, visions, sudden insights, out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences, and trances—that simultaneously conjoin perceptions of being "elsewhere" with the knowledge of being "here." Some thinkers explain this experience through a belief in the human soul, which they envision as distinct from but inextricably attached to the body until death do they part, so that animistic belief in the soul becomes part of every cultural system.
Robert Ranulph Marett (1866–1943), Tylor's successor at Oxford, introduced the concept of animatism to that of animism, extending the idea of an animating spirit similar to the soul to include many different forces in nature and culture (The Threshold of Religion, 1909). Such force is what makes a tree grow from a seed, the rain fall, or the sun shine—that which brings fertility and fecundity to the earth. Loss of such force results in death. People are in awe of such forces as manifest in volcanoes and earthquakes and especially in inert corpses. Out of the observations and awe of force in nature comes the universality of the sacral basis for religious experience, which Marett argued was prior to animism. Animism and animatism are often not clearly distinguished, as many of Marett's ideas have been blended through time in philosophical and religious literature with those of Tylor and many others.
The Canelos Quichua native people of Amazonian Ecuador illustrate concepts of animism and animatism. Souls and spirits are ubiquitous and even spirits have souls. Those who interact intensively with the souls are the male shamans and the female potters, both of whom influence the conceptual system of one another through mutual symbol revelation. For example, when a shaman in trance dimly "sees" an approaching colorful, noisy spirit, a woman quietly, from the darkened recesses of the room, clarifies his emerging vision and names the actual spirit.
Human souls are acquired through both mother and father. Spirit essences are hierarchized into four essential tiers, easily represented as spheres encompassing one another. Sungui, the master spirit of the rain forest and hydrosphere, is the apotheosis of androgynous power. This male and female spirit takes many corporeal forms, the most prominent being the giant anaconda. This spiritual superpower must be controlled or it will overwhelm and inundate the world; Amasanga, master spirit of the rain forest, controls the power of Sungui. The corporeal representative of this androgynous being is the great black jaguar. In turn, rainforest dynamics are controlled by Nungüi, a strictly feminine spirit, master of garden soil and pottery clay, whose corporeality is manifest in the deadly black coral snake with a mouth too small to bite humans. The inner sphere is the human household, wherein the souls and spirits come together in a special system of human knowledge, vision, and imagery. Power flows downward through the spheres, and control of power is exercised upward from inner to outer spheres.
In Tylor's original formulation, animism was an argument for the universality of human intellectual and spiritual worlds. The universality of concepts of souls, and hence the universality of religion, is a major contribution of Tylor, one that endures into the twenty-first century. Like the Canelos Quichua, humans everywhere, in one way or another, and with very great differences, conceptualize into cultural systems the spiritual dimensions of life, as well as the corporeal aspects of quotidian existence. With this concept of universalism of fundamental religious thought, Victorian England and the rest of the English-lettered world was exposed to cultural relativism.
What constitutes human difference in economy, society, psychology, and religion, then, is cultural, not biological. Although people are very "different" from one another, across space and through time, their mental capacities—cognitive, emotional, and imaginative—are not. As Clifford Geertz puts it: "The doctrine of the psychic unity of mankind, which so far as I am aware, is not seriously questioned by any reputable anthropologist, is but the direct contradictory of the primitive mentality argument" (p. 62).
Tylor, however, very much the Victorian gentleman, began his quest for the bases of animism with what he called the "lower races," whom he also labeled "savages," "rude, non-religious tribes," and "tribes very low in the scale of humanity," among other such figures of speech that link evolutionary biology and culture, thereby enforcing the "primitive mentality argument" later expanded by Lucien Lévi-Bruhl in Les fonctions mentales dans les sociétés inférieures (1910; translated in 1996 as How Natives Think ). The Victorian contradiction of enlightened cultural relativity, attached to a scalar view of humans as evolving from the "lower races" to the "civilized nations," leads to the racist paradox that a few civilizations evolved while the rest of the world's people "remained" animist. Animism, by this reasoning, is evidence of low-level "relics." This contradiction became canonized by the sixteenth century through the emergence of Western modernity and mercantilist capitalism and remains strong in twenty-first-century Western cosmology.
It is, however, a fallacy. Every religious system, including the monotheistic religions such as Christianity and Islam, include representations of the supernatural with strong animistic dimensions. Despite religious scholars' assertions to the contrary, members of monotheistic religions nonetheless act at times as though there are spiritual beings detached from corporeal beings, manifest concern over the fate of their immortal souls, and make these beliefs part of their traditions, such as the jinn of Middle Eastern folklore, or of the dominant religion itself.
Nonetheless, the enduring Victorian contradiction between cultural relativity and social evolution continues to cast a shadow over the religious beliefs of indigenous peoples, leading many of the world's people with rich beliefs in spirits and noncorporeal essences of animate and inanimate things—but without a "high god" organizer—to resent the concept animist because of its connotation of savagery. Among the Canelos Quichua, for example, spokespeople to the outside world often express considerable resentment at the use of the word.
By the same token, animist symbolism does more than establish a template for understanding quotidian life and the universe. It also undergirds the ideological struggles of indigenous people to establish a place and space in nation-state life. In Amazonian Ecuador, for example, animistic concepts were utilized during political uprisings in 1990 and 1992, and again in 2000, when indigenous people rose up as one mighty body to claim—in part successfully—their territory and their rights. Animism as a concept is very powerful in its relativistic dimensions, but is destructive when used to place people in a universal or particular evolutionary scheme that ranges from primitive to civilized.
Geertz, Clifford. The Interpretation of Culture. New York: Basic Books, 1973.
Honigmann, John J. The Development of Anthropological Ideas. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey, 1976.
Stocking, George W., Jr. After Tylor: British Social Anthropology, 1888–1951. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1995.
——. Victorian Anthropology. New York: Free Press, 1987.
Norman E. Whitten Jr.
According to animism, all phenomena—everything that is seen, heard, touched, or felt; every animal, plant, rock, mountain, cloud, or star, and even tools and implements—are believed to possess a soul, which is understood to be conscious and endowed with an ability to communicate. Considered the original or first human religion, animism originates from the Latin anima, meaning “soul,” which comes from the earlier Greek word animus, meaning “wind” or “breath.” It is defined as belief in spiritual beings or entities that are thought to give all things, both animate and inanimate, a certain kind of potency or life force.
Animism is a primal belief system dating back to the Paleolithic era, yet it is estimated that 40 percent of the world’s population still practices some form of animism, often in syncretism with Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism. Contemporary people find animism a belief system that infuses their real-life situation with the sacred and provides guidance in addressing everyday problems, concerns, and needs, such as healing sickness, bringing success, or receiving guidance. Animism can be practiced by anyone who acknowledges the existence of spirits, but it does not require any affiliation with an organized religion.
As the first human thought system to interface with the nonhuman or spirit realms, animism recognizes an ontological connection between material things and their spiritual source. The artifacts and remains that document the symbolic nature of animism are unimaginably old, created long before human culture gave birth to language and recorded history. For millions of years humans have deified ancestors, animals, plants, stones, rivers, and stars, each of which was thought to be enlivened by a particular “anima” or soul, having the capacity to leave the body both during life and after death.
Animism was not discovered, created, or developed by any one individual or group; instead, it was a way of living in reciprocity with the larger natural environment and not separate from it. Indigenous people followed a kind of rudimentary animism that served many functions. Not only did animism provide answers to pressing philosophical questions—how the universe came into being, the nature of the forces operating within it, the origins of the ancestors—but also it addressed more immediate issues concerning how to live, how to die, and what happens in the afterlife.
Shaman was the name given to the holy men and women who were considered sacred leaders called on to sustain the tribe’s connection to the spirit realm and the land of the dead. Shamans were able to navigate through various cosmic levels so as to ensure that all things in nature were kept interdependent and integral to the whole universe. The basis of animism is an acknowledgement of a spiritual realm, within the physical world, that humans share with the cosmos. To become a shaman required that one have special proximity to the spirit world. Using preternatural powers, trance, ritual, dance, and shamanic “journeys,” the shaman ensured that the relation between the human community and the natural ecosystem it cohabited was reciprocal and mutual.
Western philosophical schools have employed the term animism to describe an awareness of a living presence within all matter. Aristotle’s idea supporting the relation of body and soul was animistic, as was Plato’s belief in an immaterial force behind the universe. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) and Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) expanded the notion of animism with the assertion that all substances are essentially force, tendency, and dynamism. The modern concept of vitalism challenges the idea that all phenomena can be traced back to chemical and mechanical processes and offers a perspective that presupposes an animistic understanding of human nature and the natural world. In his work Primitive Culture (1871), Edward. B. Tyler coined the term animism to refer to the original form of human spirituality and the first primitive religion. In this book, he described primitive religion as operating at a lower level of cognitive and social development than more evolved religions with coherent, systematic theologies. Primitive religion is now understood in a less ethnocentric way and is valued for its direct link to the primal mind. Today those practicing animism see themselves as part of the natural world rather than the masters and rulers of it.
Animism is emerging as a critical voice in response to the ecological crisis and is a serious topic that science, technology, and the social sciences must consider. Many in search of a new spirituality are discovering animism to offer a world view that is naturally connected to the earth, nature, and broader ecosphere. Animism fosters an attitude that reinforces living respectfully with all things.
SEE ALSO Buddhism; Christianity; Hinduism; Indigenous Rights; Islam, Shia and Sunni; Judaism; Philosophy; Primitivism; Religion; Rituals; Shamans; Spirituality
Abram, David. 1996. The Spell of the Sensuous. New York: Vintage.
Eliade, Mircea. 1959. Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal Return. Trans. Willard. R. Trask. New York: Harper & Row.
Halpern, Daniel, ed. 1987. On Nature: Nature, Landscape, and Natural History. San Francisco: North Point Press.
Lehmann, Arthur C., and James E. Myers, eds. 1993. Magic, Witchcraft, and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, 3rd ed. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield.
Lovelock, James. 1986. Gaia: The World as Living Organism. New Scientist 18 (December): 25-28.
Ingrid F. Smyer
"Animism" is the name given to a complex of primitive beliefs that imputes a soul or spirit (Latin: anima ) to all things both animate and inanimate. The idea was important in one of the earliest anthropological accounts of the origin of religion.
Tylor's Theory. This theory, as formulated by Edward B. Tylor (1832–1917) in his book Primitive Culture (1871), states that the first really religious thought that primitive humans ever had came from their experience of dreams. A person dreams that he or she goes to a distant place and meets other people, and upon waking, concludes that in some sense such a meeting actually happened. Not distinguishing between the world seen while waking and that seen in dreams, the dream-meeting seems as "objectively real" as any that might happen in the daytime. In addition, people sometimes dream of departed relatives or friends, and this meeting too is considered to have really taken place.
The "savage" (Tylor's word) thus reasons that there is within himself or herself some part that is conscious and physical, but which can travel long distances instantaneously and even survives after death. They then impute the existence of such a soul or spirit to all people. Furthermore, since their mental abilities are like children's, they do not clearly distinguish animals from humans, or even animate from inanimate objects; all are alike in their minds. Thus, from a primitive cult of the dead, savages eventually come to recognize souls or spirits in everything. They develop rituals to propitiate them or induce their cooperation, and taboos to keep from unintentionally offending them. Thus, from the simple experience of traveling and seeing others in dreams, the rudimentary forms of primal religion take shape.
Having thus identified the earliest form of religion, Tylor then elaborated an evolutionary view of religious history. Using as his model an understanding of Darwin's theory prevalent in his day, which saw a necessary progression over time from simpler (or "lower") forms of life to more complex (or "higher"), Tylor saw the religious landscape of his day as the latest development in an evolutionary progression from crude animism to higher contemporary religions. However, in putting this theory forth he did not mean to ascribe any value to religion. In fact, he asserted that all religion must eventually be superseded by science.
Frazer's Elaboration. This theory was accepted and extended by others, notably Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and James G. Frazer (1854–1941). The latter, whose massive work The Golden Bough was highly influential in the first half of the twentieth century, extended Tylor's work, showing, for instance, that in many myths and rituals it was apparent that certain people or animals could keep their souls somewhere other than their own body, and providing much more ethnographic evidence for shamanistic and medicinal practices that aimed at bringing a sick patient's soul back to them to restore vitality.
Not all scholars accepted this theory as explaining the origin of religion. Among the most influential of its detractors was Emile Durkheim (1858–1917). In his Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, he critiqued this theory for its thin ethnographic base and analytical deficiency. He asserted that, for any conclusion about the religious life of any primitive tribe to be valid, it must be very carefully documented and contextualized in the overall life of the tribe. Tylor, Frazer, and company had merely pieced together a patchwork of ethnographies, traveler's tales, and missionaries' accounts, taking elements from each to prove a point about humanity as a whole without bothering to understand any particular people in detail.
The analytical defects were even more serious. Why should one assume that religion, which has endured through all of recorded history, is based on a blatant, easily detected error? (One need only ask the person with whom one conversed in a dream whether they recall the conversation to find that it never actually happened.) Also, why should we assume that primitive peoples took dreaming as the primary datum for their religious reflections? Based on these and other criticisms, Durkheim suggested that other avenues of enquiry, namely the sociological, would prove more fruitful in explaining the genesis of religion.
Useful as a Descriptor. Even if animism no longer serves as a general explanation for the origins of human religion, it is useful as a descriptor of certain religious modes of thought and conduct within anthropology. For example, traditional Japanese scholars of Shintō such as Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) understood the spiritual beings known as kami to be reifications of natural phenomena based on the sense of awe they evoked in human beings. The feeling of numinous presence led people to venerate mountains, waterfalls, boulders, and other impressive natural formations, set apart sacred precincts around them, and conduct rituals before them. In addition, there were rituals directed at the kami of agriculture, fishing, and hunting that guaranteed a community's economic well-being.
A more contemporary account by a western anthropologist, Richard K. Nelson, working among the Koyukon Athapaskans of northern Alaska, sets forth the animist viewpoint this way (though without labeling it as such):
- Traditional Koyukon people live in a world that watches, in a forest of eyes. A person moving through nature—however wild, remote, even desolate the place may be—is never truly alone. The surroundings are aware, sensate, personified. They feel. They can be offended. And they must, at every moment, be treated with proper respect. All things in nature have a special kind of life, something unknown to contemporary Euro-Americans, something powerful. (Make Prayers to the Raven, University of Chicago Press, 1983, p. 14.)
In their broad outlines, the beliefs and practices described above with respect to Japanese and Koyukon societies holds true for other cultures as well, and we can see that animism serves to situate human beings and their activities within the natural world in such a way that they are required to attend to nature, deal with it respectfully, and maintain a level of humility at their own accomplishments and abilities. It encourages an attitude of cooperation with nature, rather than domination and exploitation.
Bibliography: e. durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (trans. j. w. swain; London 1915); j. g. frazer, The Golden Bough (3rd ed., London 1911–1915; r. k. nelson, Make Prayers to the Raven (Chicago 1983); d. l. pals, Seven Theories of Religion (Oxford, 1996); j. s. preus, Explaining Religion (New Haven 1987); e. b. tylor, Primitive Culture (New York 1958).
[c. b. jones]
animism, belief in personalized, supernatural beings (or souls) that often inhabit ordinary animals and objects, governing their existence. British anthropologist Sir Edward Burnett Tylor argued in Primitive Culture (1871) that this belief was the most primitive and essential form of religion, and that it derived from people's self-conscious experience of the intangible, such as one's reflected image or dreams. He has been criticized for deducing that the chief function of religion is to explain various phenomena. Robert Marett studied among the Melanesians of the South Seas, noting the concept of mana, or supernatural power independent of any soul. He described the belief in such a force as animatism. People may also use mana; for example, a weapon that has killed many animals may be thought to have mana, and charms believed to have mana may be placed to protect gardens. French sociologist Emile Durkheim, in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912, tr. 1965), argued that the roots of religion lay in totemism (see totem), where certain objects or animals are treated as sacred objects. Although these early conceptions of animism, animitism, and totemism have been contested and revised, the terms are still used by some anthropologists to describe certain religious beliefs and rituals. See fetish; taboo; amulet; idol; shaman; ancestor worship.
an·i·mism / ˈanəˌmizəm/ • n. 1. the attribution of a soul to plants, inanimate objects, and natural phenomena. 2. the belief in a supernatural power that organizes and animates the material universe. DERIVATIVES: an·i·mist n. an·i·mis·tic / ˌanəˈmistik/ adj.
An obsolete term used by anthropologists and scholars of comparative religions to designate a doctrine of spiritual being, or the concept that a great part, if not the whole, of inanimate nature, as well as of animate beings, is endowed with reason and volition similar to that of man. The idea, originally proposed by E. B. Taylor in his influential text, Primitive Cultures, was soon accepted by his colleagues and remained popular into the mid-nineteenth century.
Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. New York: Collier, 1961.